In the foothills of the Sierra, in a small city once known as Hangtown, I sit quietly in the corner of an abandoned mine tunnel sipping a cappuccino. It is just after 9 on a Saturday morning and the Cozmic Café has been open more than an hour. The Cozmic is the latest business to inhabit this building, constructed around an idle mine shaft in 1859. Through the steam rising from my mug, I study walls of brown and green rock bearing the chisel marks of picks and axes.
Floodlights illuminate the splintering gray beams bracing the 5-foot ceiling. I try to imagine the Cozmic 140 years ago when it wasn't the Cozmic but the Pearson Soda Works and the surrounding creeks and ravines were littered with gold.
In 10 steps, I pass through the tunnel's entrance and into the front room of the cafe, abandoning 19th century twilight for 21st century sunlight. On the Cozmic's massive wooden beams -- painted purple with gold stars -- posters advertise yoga classes, upcoming events at nearby Lake Tahoe and a concert later in the evening. I ask the tie-dye-clad, twentysomething cook about the origins of Placerville's noose-related nickname.
"They used to hang people here, that's all," he says softly. "They don't do it anymore."
Placerville sprang into existence in 1848 when James Marshall discovered gold in nearby Coloma. In the next couple of years, thousands passed through, purchasing picks and wheelbarrows, coffee and sugar. They lifted, dug, panned, scooped and otherwise extracted millions in gold from the surrounding creek beds and ravines.
Today, day-trippers stop in Placerville (population 9,400) on the way to Tahoe, 57 miles to the east, or Sacramento, 45 miles to the west. The orchards on Apple Hill draw thousands every fall, and the diverse collection of pine trees in Eddy Arboretum attracts botanists from around the world. Anyone interested in Gold Rush history would be hard-pressed to find a more intriguing weekend destination. (Placerville is reportedly the only city municipality in the U.S. with its own gold mine.)
I spend the next few hours stepping between centuries. One minute, I see a baker peddling free slices of cake from shop to shop and the next I imagine 1856 and a fire raging across town, or 1860 and a Pony Express rider galloping through. Bakeries and cafes, lodged in buildings dating to the 1800s, project Placerville's densely layered history into the present.
Many structures bear the dates of their construction on their stone and brick facades. The Masonic temple was erected in 1893, and the Cary House Hotel -- the former home of Wells Fargo Bank and a stagecoach stop -- opened in 1857. Today, coffeepots and brooms, miniature stagecoaches and sluicing pans fill the front windows of Placerville Hardware, reportedly the oldest continuously operating hardware shop west of the Mississippi.
Around the corner, a mural honors John "Snowshoe" Thompson, who twice a month carried mail and supplies 90 miles over the Sierra in winter. As I study the hills above town, pine trees dense as porcupine quills, I try to imagine strapping on a 70-pound pack and heading east without so much as a compass.
Across from the Cary House, a dummy dressed in a white shirt and black boots dangles from a noose at the Hangman's Tree saloon. I'm not clear about the incident that turned the town originally known as Dry Diggins into Hangtown, so I walk a block east to the oldest building on Main Street, a former soda water factory that now houses the El Dorado County Historical Society.
"They only hung three," says Bob Gatlin, one of the volunteers who staff the shop. "More publicity than hanging." From what I can tell, the hangings occurred when someone jumped someone else's claim or purse or poker winnings and -- there being a pronounced lack of prescribed legal process in post-Mexican, pre-statehood California -- the locals settled the matter as they saw fit.
Things have changed a bit since then. In the next two blocks I count 11 law offices. One is lodged between an insurance company and Hangtown Tattoo & Piercing ("You think it, we ink it"). Another, a criminal law practice above Olde Tyme Candy & More, offers "free consultation." It took a few such lawyers, one incorporation (1854), one disbanding (1870), and another incorporation (1900) before Hangtown transformed itself into the modern city of Placerville and the El Dorado County seat.
Gatlin shows me a photo of John Studebaker, who spent a few years in Hangtown building wheelbarrows before he headed back east to found his wagon and auto empires. Studebaker was in town when fire broke out in 1856.
"I was one of the fire laddies who tried to put it out with our hand engine," he wrote later in a letter, "but we had to abandon it as the fire was too swift. . . . " When it was over, little was left standing in Hangtown. "I gathered up my gold nuggets as the fire was not hot enough to melt them," Studebaker wrote, "and that was all I had left."
I head across town to the local museum for a quick look at its collection of Studebaker wagons. The El Dorado County Historical Museum is the antidote to blockbuster exhibitions with masses of headphone-clad art lovers crammed 10 deep and 10 wide before an oil painting the size of a notebook.
I have the place to myself. I pore over a 1902 ledger from the Cary House, where I am spending the night.
Around the corner, a Pony Express poster advertises job openings: "Riders Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Anxious for adventure and chance to see our great WEST. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."
Mounted on the wall -- beside a stagecoach, a surrey and a sheepherder's covered wagon -- hang Snowshoe Thompson's skis. Carved from an oak tree on his ranch, they measure more than 9 feet long, weigh 25 pounds and attach to the foot with a single toe strap.