|El Dorado County's Diamond in the Rough
By Debi Drake-Maurer
With all the hoopla in 1848 about Coloma's gold north of Placerville, it's no wonder it took a twenty-five pound gold nugget to get folks to really notice Diamond Springs. Located three miles south of Placerville, Diamond Springs was just another well watered rest stop on the Carson Emigrant Trail until a Missouri pioneer unearthed the monster nugget around 1850/1851. Combined with good water and pasture, the discovery was enough to convince two hundred Missouri natives who'd been camping in Diamond Springs to stay on and erect the town's first clapboard buildings.
In the rush to settle the area, records were lost of how Diamond Springs received its name. Some say the area's crystal clear springs (whose location varies depending upon who's telling the story) were the inspiration. Others say the ease with which quartz crystals or "diamonds" were discovered led to the name.
Long before it was known to the white settlers, Diamond Springs played a central role in the cultures of the Northern Miwok and Southern Nisenan Indians. Paolo Sioli writes in his 1883 Historical Souvenir of ElDorado County , "At the rear of Ham Hawley's and Bob Shirley's stables were the consecrated grounds on which the Indians paid their last funeral rites to the deceased. From hundreds of miles around the Indians transported their dead on litters to this spot." Sioli's representatives witnessed the 1852 funeral pyre for a chief from Georgetown. The ceremonies took ten hours. Research by scholar Hugh Littlejohn and others in 1927 indicates that Diamond Springs may have originally been the Indian Village of ON-CHO-MA. (History of El Dorado gathered by Allen DeGrange, 1995.)
In The Early Inns of California by Ralph Herbert Cross (1954) the author notes that after the discovery of gold in Diamond Springs " so many inns and hotels were established that it is impossible to do justice to any but the oldest." Cross' research indicates that Andrew Carbly Bloom operated the first hotel in Diamond Springs from 1850 to 1855. The Howard House, built in 1852 on the north side of Pleasant Valley Road, ultimately become the original Diamond Hotel, "said to have been the best stopping place between Folsom and Placerville." According to Cross' book, the hotel's history dims around 1884. By 1925, a new Diamond Hotel, managed by Antone Meyers, sprouted up on the south side of street.
"In 1854 when the star of Coloma began to go downward Diamond Springs was the rising star that promised to take the place of the former as the county center," wrote Sioli in his 1883 book. Sioli reports that even the miner's Advocate newspaper sold out at Coloma and came southward to Diamond Springs. A post office was also established in 1854.
Diamond Springs' new found muscle and civic pride were not welcomed in the general election held September 6, 1854 to determine the county seat. "If not for the jealousy of Diamond Springs, we don't know why the county seat would not have been removed from Coloma to Placerville," says Sioli's 1883 report. The final vote tally in an election fraught with accusations of ballot fraud was Coloma: 4,601; Placerville: 3,745; Diamond Springs: 2,073; Mud Springs (El Dorado): 685; Green Valley: 441. (Placerville finally wrested away the coveted title in the 1857 election.)
Just as quickly as lady luck smiled on Diamond Springs, disaster struck. During the 1856 fire, homes and an extensive commerce center were destroyed including a drug store, jeweler, livery stable, church, four saloons, various stores, bookstore,market, Howard House hotel, Crescent City Hotel, temperance hall, and law library.
From the smouldering ashes of the Crescent City Hotel sprang the Golden West Hotel. It was a one story, stone hotel until about 1897 when the upper floor was added at that time. With the year "1856" carved into a keystone over one of the hotel's window arches, the hotel was a potent reminder of Diamond Springs' early beginnings.
In his Resources of El Dorado County, W.H. Fellows describes the Diamond Springs of 1887 as "this once prosperous mining camp is now sustained almost exclusively by the farming interests of the section." The El Dorado Fruit Company alone had 20,000 trees in their orchards. Near the turn of the century, the Stockton Box Factory and the Caldor sawmill added to the town's economy.
Louis LePetit was another businesman who rebuilt in 1857 with the more fireproof 22 1/2" x 14 1/2" stone blocks that came from nearby quarries. In 1895 this building, which still stands on the north side of Pleasant Valley Road, was purchased by Louis J. Scheiber. He ran the OK Saloon and rented out part of the building as a meat market. His wife also took in boarders. Their son, Roy, was born in the home in back of the building in 1904, according to Clara (Dixon) Scheiber, Roy's widow.
Roy and his brothers, Clarence and Ernest and sister Lola, attended the school located just east of his family's business. A barbershop today, the building was one of the two original one-room schools in El Dorado County. In the late 1920's a new Diamond Springs School was built on the west end of town, where Independence High School is now located. When Louis Scheiber died in 1933, Roy took over the family business.
"After Roosevelt was elected and Prohibition was repealed, Roy bought one of the first combination onsale/offsale liquor licenses in 1933. It said he had to serve food, so he opened Roy's Place which served Italian food. We were married in 1936 and continued to run the restaurant," says Mrs. Scheiber.
1937 was a year of contrasts for the Scheibers as they welcomed their firstborn, Donna, in May and then in July, worked frantically to save their home and business from fire. "Roy, Lillian, my sister, and I had taken the baby and gone over to the Empire Theatre in Placerville. During the movie it was announced the Golden West Hotel was on fire. We left the show and hurried back. The firemen were worried our house might go if the fire jumped across Pleasant Valley Road, so they told us to evacuate. We started packing dishes and then stopped. Looking around, we realized Donna and her baby clothes were the main thing. So we just grabbed her and left!" Mrs. Scheiber chuckles at the simplicity of that decision now. "By having the men water down the roofs, they were able to save our homes even though Supervisor and Mrs. Green's house burned in addition to their hotel."
Newspaper accounts of the disaster put the losses at $15,000 (in 1937 dollars!) for Supervisor Green. Although Green carried some insurance, he wasn't able to rebuild the Golden West Hotel. A small restaurant building has occupied the site for many years.
In 1942 Scheibers bought a grocery store from Maude Meyers and moved it into their building, making the Scheiber family true grocery "kings." Roy's brother, Ernest, had a store in El Dorado and brother Clarence and his wife, Irene (Barrette) ran the Shingle Springs store. Following WWII, Roy and Clara put in a hardware and dry goods store known as Diamond Hardware and Variety Store. They ran this until their retirement in 1970. Mr. Scheiber died in 1993.
As modern day commuters are able to speed to all points on the compass via the nearby connector routes of Highway 49 and Pleasant Valley Road, Diamond Springs has settled back into its low key profile. For now. If the wealth of history that's ebbed and flowed through its streets and buildings is any indication, Diamond Springs is just waiting for its next treasure to be discovered.