Shingle Springs, CA

A brief history of gold-mining town Shingle Springs

Built in the Bay
(Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

(SHINGLE SPRINGS, Calif.) Growing up in the Golden State, much of the state's early history is taught and retold with a certain romanticism. As schoolkids, Californians are taught about the excitement of the settlers finding gold in Sierra Nevadas, the ensuing settling boom, and of course the horrors, of the Donor Party. That teaching obviously glosses over the lengthy and violent history of California, but more than that it obfuscates the way in which the Industrial Revolution helped build the legacy of California.

As one might imagine, scores of towns along the foothills are filled with a rich history that often gets overlooked. Shingle Springs is one such town. The census-designated area in El Dorado County is tiny by metropolitan population standards, with 4,432 people according to 2010 census data, but provides lovers of California history a lens to view how the state's early economy changed both the physical and social landscape of the area.

The first anglo settlers, a group of men from Michigan calling themselves the Boston-Newton Party, camped at the site that would eventually become Shingle Springs in 1849. However, these men were not the first people to live or even set roots down in the area.

The Sierra Miwok were among the largest group of Indigenous people in the state prior to European contact. Their homes were often subterranean or earth-covered and their main food staple was acorns.
(Courtesy of Alamy)

Large swathes of Miwok were initially moved out in the early 1850s as anglo settlers flocked to the area in search of gold. As was often the case in that era, successful industrialists and businessmen were not panning for gold, they were selling the supplies needed to pan for gold, or in the case of Shingle Springs, they were selling, you guessed it, shingles.

Edward and Henry Bartlett, two brothers from the East Coast, built and operated the first public house in the area. The brothers also had a horse-drawn shingle machine that produced an astounding 16,000 shingles a day. Located at the western edge of the camp near the spring lined with sugar pine and oak trees, the machine's heavy production eventually lead to the Shingle Springs House, run by the brothers. The Shingle Springs House was renamed the Locust Inn and stood in western edge of town until 1969.

In 1850, placer deposits were found in the wooded canyons and gulches and soon that natural beauty gave way to hoards of settlers and rudimentary resource extraction. Grizzly Gulch, now called French Creek, held tons of minerals and was the richest paying canyon in El Dorado County for the time. At the time it reportedly paid roughly $200 per rocker per day.

Compared to other gold-mining towns, Shingle Springs grew slowly and steadily.

The Missouri House, a large log cabin just east of the Bartletts' house, was built in 1851. That house was short-lived as it burned the next year and was replaced with the Planter's House, an impressive two-story building with matching balconies wrapping around the first and second floors, located at the corner of Mother Lode Drive and French Creek Road.

The Planter's House — furnished with a large fireplace, dancefloor and bar — became the center of social activity as the small mining town steadily grew.

By this point in early 1852, the area's inconsistent but bountiful canyons had brought a number of settlers and the Miwoks were already being steadily pushed out.

Industrialists flocked to the area and by the middle of that year, Shingle Springs had two blacksmith shops and the county's oldest steam-powered sawmill owned and operated by A. P. Catlin of Sacramento and S.C. Cutler of Sly Park. That mill made both Cutler and Catlin very rich following the 1852 Sacramento fire. Its heavy lumber production was critical to the rebuild of the city.

Catlin, a former lawyer in New York, moved to California in early 1849. He practiced law briefly in California before focusing exclusively on mining claims he had acquired when he moved to the Golden State. He would eventually become instrumental in shaping Sacramento's role as the state's capital.

The first post office, located within the Bartlett Shingle Springs house, opened in 1853.

At the time, Shingle Springs remained quiet compared to neighboring Buckeye Flats, where miners would often come to buy supplies, alcohol or find a female companion. In 1856, the first store opened in Planter's House, drawing some miners away from the nearby Buckeye Flats.

Throughout the late 1850's Shingle Springs remained comparatively quiet, serving mostly travelers headed towards Nevada for the Comstock Load boom.

That all changed, rather suddenly, in June of 1865 when the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad finished its line to the quiet mining town.

This change coincides with the federal treaty commission sent to western territories in an attempt to clear Indigenous people from the land in order to develop the cross-country railroad. In the early 1860s that federal commission met with more than 500 Indigenous leaders to negotiate a number of treaties. Those treaties were sent to the U.S. Senate but were never ratified. Four decades later, in the early 1900s, California's Rancheria tribal system was born in an attempt to help the state's struggling Indigenous population.

While the historical record for the Miwok's in the area is limited, there are some reports as early as the 1860s of the settlers killing Miwoks they perceived as trespassing on their land.

With the addition of the railroad, Shingle Springs became, albeit briefly, a bustling industrial hub. It served as the transportation and freighting hub for the Sierra Nevadas. Lumber, minerals and other goods would come into town on the railroad before being loaded onto wagons and hauled over the Sierras. The 800-foot long depot saw one freight and two passenger cars come into town daily. Stagecoaches, loaded with passengers, creaked and rumbled across the foothills east twice a day. At this point, all shipping to the Comstock mines came through Shingle Springs.

This boom was short-lived, however, and by the 1880s, only one resident lived in the town proper. The completion of the Central Pacific Railroad line through Auburn crippled the small town's shipping and freighting boom.

Similarly, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 circumvented Shingle Springs entirely and the town transitioned to a small supply outpost for neighboring farms.

Immigrant Road, the path by which a number of miners traveled to the area, eventually became Highway 50.

Today, the roughly 52 Miwok families live on the 160-acre Shingle Springs Rancheria.

California's Gold Country served as the last frontier in America's early industrial development and much of the early history of the state is birthed from the pain, anguish and violence of that development. Those white east coast protestants came West in search of something that wasn't there: uninhabited land. When they found people there they deemed primitive, they took what they could and killed those that stood in their way. In this way, California's history mirrors much of the Mountain West.

Much of California's mythos stems from this romanticized retelling of the Golden State's history. Shingle Springs, however, is a helpful lens to view industrialization in American life. Once that steam engine rolled into town, there was no going back to the quiet mining depot the Bartlett's helped establish. There was no returning Miwok land and certainly not any financial restitution for the resources pulled and sold from the land they lived on.

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