Georgetown and Its History


Georgetown Lower Main 1860

Georgetown, California often called “The Pride of the Mountains,” is located between the historic mining towns of Auburn to the north and Placerville to the south.  It was about a twenty mile trip from Georgetown to either Auburn or Placerville over rough terrain, so Georgetown became an important center of commerce and life during the Gold Rush period and was one of the most important mining towns of El Dorado gold country.  Roads were completed and stage lines brought business and people to the area.  Georgetown was the location of rich gold mining opportunities and had a population of about three thousand from 1854 to 1856 making it a large community for its time.  The area was dotted with numerous mines and gold production continued well into the 20th century.

Early in 1848, the first people searching for gold arrived in the area.  William Wood and George Brooks are on record as the first to explore the streams that fed the American River Gold Discovery Site below in Coloma.  Another man, Cuthbert Nattrass, who later became the proprietor of the Hoboken House Inn, also mined a considerable amount of gold in the area of Oregon Canyon in the summer of 1848.

The first real documented major claim on The Divide came in July of 1849 when William Hudson and five other men from Oregon established a mining operation just east of what is now Georgetown.  Hudson and his associates quickly pulled hundreds of pounds of gold out of their claim while attempting to keep the claim a secret.  Needless to say, they failed and others discovered their claim and word was out!  Hudson and his partners were very successful and acquired quite a bit of treasure which they packed up and returned to Oregon.  They attempted to return to California at a later date, but drowned when the ship they were on sunk.


Georgetown Historical Marker

Georgetown was probably named for a man named George Phipps who was from Massachusetts.  He put together a team of sailors from the east coast and came to explore and map the new territory.  His group split up and half went to what is now Garden Valley to follow Manhattan Creek.  The rest founded “George’s Town” at the headwaters of Empire Creek.  These teams were successful in pulling a lot of gold from The Divide.

Historical Georgetown Hotel

By the end of 1849 there were about 450 people living in what came to be known simply as Georgetown and the name stuck.  There was also a mobile population of up to 5000 that passed through in pursuit of gold.  The town also sported a nickname of Growlersburg.  One story claims that this name was derived from the sound the heavy gold nuggets made when they “growled” in the miner’s pans.  Another story goes that the miners from an encampment just to the west of town were so miserable with living conditions that they growled and complained all the time.  Certainly the growling gold nuggets version of the story is the most popular today!

The original Georgetown consisted mostly of canvas tent-like structures with dirt floors.  These structures were located down the hill from the present Georgetown in what is now Lower Main Street in Empire Canyon.  Beside basic supplies, the town was made up of saloons that served as bars, restaurants, and places where the miners met women of ill repute.  Gradually, as the town grew, more respectable people populated the town and improved wooden structures and buildings replaced many of the ramshackle tents.  Then, in 1852, a fire started in the Round Tent Saloon that spread to the surrounding structures and the town burnt down.

Balsar House - IOOF Hall

The town was immediately resurrected in its present location further up the hill.  A plan was developed to create the wide streets we see today so as to prevent the spread of fire.  The merchants were given first choice for lots and vastly improved structures were built to accommodate merchants, traders, hotels, and other businesses.  Georgetown continued to grow.

Many of the new buildings were made of brick and stone and also fitted with fireproof iron doors.  Georgetown became a thriving and beautiful town. It then came to be known as the “Pride of the Mountains.” Despite the fact that the town burned down four more times, the residents assembled and rebuilt the town again.


Georgetown Pioneer Schoolhouse 1853

Georgetown grew and many social and cultural institutions were established to form a vibrant community.  By 1855 there was a local school, church, town hall, a Masonic and Sons of Temperance Hall along with the saloons and gambling halls.   In addition, a theatre, three hotels, four restaurants, two meat markets, four blacksmiths, two jewelry stores, three drug stores, eight clothing stores, one tin shop, one soda factory, nine grocery stores, two banking establishments, two express companies, and one cigar store.  They all provided goods, services, and entertainment that made Georgetown a pleasant place to live during the Gold Rush.

Masonic TempleIn 1856 another fire destroyed the town leaving the Masonic Hall and the Shannon Knox House that remain today.  Many structures were rebuilt.  A number of other buildings from the Gold Rush era remain in Georgetown that visitors can see today.  The Balzar House on the corner of Main St. and highway 193 is now the Odd Fellow Hall and hosts concerts, dinner dances, meetings, and other community activities.  The armory was built during the Civil War and today houses a clothing store.  The American Hotel is now the American River Inn Bed and Breakfast.  The Georgetown Hotel has recently been renovated and now stands proudly at the center of Georgetown serving food and beverages.  The current Miner’s Club bar was built in 1862 to house a morgue and is frequented by real living patrons today!  Much of Main Street contains shops, Art On The Divide Gallery, Frog Pond Gifts, The Corner Kitchen, The Oasis, and the Georgetown Fire Department that are all housed in brick structures and can be seen or visited by tourists.

Georgetown Main Street Gathering

A pamphlet entitled “Georgetown Historical Walking Tour” is available in some of the businesses along Main Street that provides an interesting tour of Georgetown and its history.  The historical buildings and homes are illustrated and information about them is provided in the pamphlet.  Visitors are encouraged to stop at the historic buildings and experience a little piece of history.