THE HISTORY OF VALLEY SPRINGS
By Sal Manna
“This flourishing new town is growing rapidly. It is situated on the San Joaquin and Sierra Nevada Railroad, and a more beautiful, as well as favorable location for a village could not have been selected. The town has been well planned throughout…From the outset it was the intention of the management to make Valley Springs a desirable point of resort, for people who seek a healthy foot-hill climate and a desirable location accessible by rail. In point of beauty, scenery, climate, healthfulness, and hotel accommodations, the new town will rank second to none in the mountains.”
--Calaveras County Illustrated and Described (1885)
For most of its existence, Valley Springs was a way station, a place on the way to other places. Valley Springs was on the way to the foothills, to the Big Trees, to the mines, to the timber industry. Only in the later decades of the 20th century did Valley Springs become a place to go to rather than through. Today, with a trio of recreational reservoirs in the immediate area (Camanche, Pardee and Hogan) and having experienced significant residential real estate booms prompted by abundant and affordable land as well as commuter proximity to the urban centers of Stockton, Lodi and Sacramento, the rural community of Valley Springs has become for the first time in its history a major center of population and influence in Calaveras County at the dawn of the 21st century.
While no prehistoric settlement or permanent Native American village has been identified, the existence of grinding rocks in the area suggests that for what were probably hundreds of years bands of the Yokut and then Mi-Wuk tribes traveled from higher elevations to spend some portion of their winters traveling through what is now called Valley Springs. They would gather acorns for food and trade before returning home in the spring. Though relatively untouched during Spanish rule, the Mi-Wuk were pushed deeper into the hills with the massive and sudden influx of miners and others ignited by the ‘49er Gold Rush. Seasonal migration to the Valley Springs region thus largely ended.
While for many gold prompted a move to California, there was little of it in the Valley Springs area, outside of the Gwin Mine north of Paloma, which was first prospected in 1850 and remained a major operation until 1908. Yet with the Gold Rush came mule trains, ox freighters and horse stages, primarily from Stockton, on their way to the camps of the foothills. In 1849, a man named Dudley pitched a tent that housed a saloon and a store in Double Springs, thus laying claim to being the area’s first European settler. Large ranches and small farms were soon established to provide food for the nearby growing population of the Gold Country.
Also emerging were stage stops along the Stockton & Mokelumne Hill Road (today’s Hwy. 26), such as Tremont House, North America House, Spring Valley House and Pattee’s Place, which served the passersby and provided overnight lodging. The more east-west Chaparral Road (today’s Hwy. 12) linked the area with San Andreas to the east while intersecting roads led to Jenny Lind and Copperopolis to the south and Ione, Jackson and Sutter Creek to the north. The critical crossroads where the Stockton & Mokelumne Hill Road connected with the Chaparral Road would be Valley Springs.
Valley Springs sprang from Spring Valley, at least in name. West of Double Springs, Spring Valley House was operating at least by 1857, owned by D.W. Briant. A three-story wooden building, the first two floors featured bedrooms and the third was used for public meetings and dances. In 1866, Briant led the establishment of the Spring Valley School District, an area that today includes Valley Springs. After Briant sold his property in 1868, a subsequent owner deeded Spring Valley House to Robert Lee Eproson in 1870. Two years later, Eproson became the first postmaster of Valley Springs--not Spring Valley. Contrary to all previously known histories, evidence proves that the name change occurred a dozen years before the arrival of the railroad. The reason for the switch appears to be that there was another Northern California post office already called Spring Valley, in Colusa County. Yet the residents of the area continued to refer to their region as Spring Valley and not the name of the post office.
The Valley Springs Post Office was discontinued in 1879 but re-established in 1882, with Andrew Newhall, the new owner of Spring Valley House, as postmaster. For reasons unknown, the post office retained the Valley Springs name despite the fact that Colusa’s Spring Valley post office had been discontinued and the Calaveras County residents could have petitioned for a change to Spring Valley. One might speculate that it was simply out of convenience that they retained the name already in use, especially since no one but the postmaster called their home Valley Springs anyway. In October 1883 Spring Valley House burned down. Almost immediately postal duties were assumed by John Kellogg Pattee, a ‘49er who had settled in 1852 on his adjoining ranch where he raised sheep and kept a hotel where “all travelers were made welcome and were treated well.” It is likely that the Valley Springs Post Office also simultaneously moved to Pattee’s Place, marked by Castle Rock, two miles east of what is now Valley Springs. Pattee’s Place had been a post office from 1865-1871 and so it would be an easy transition for locals for the post office to return there.
Arrival Of The Railroad
At the time, all roads led to Stockton and its Central Pacific railhead--and nobody outside Stockton seemed happy about that. Farmers in Lodi complained about the high freight rates. Miners in Camanche and Campo Seco had no choice but to incur substantial costs to haul their products. James Sperry, proprietor of the hotel at the rapidly expanding world-renowned Big Trees in eastern Calaveras County, wanted to expand his tourist business by providing an easier trip for visitors than the stage lines that had been operating since the 1860s. The timber interests in that region also craved better access. Agitation grew for a narrow gauge railroad that would bypass Stockton and instead connect via steamer directly with the more lucrative market of San Francisco.
Frederick Birdsall, who made his money mining silver in the Comstock Lode in Nevada before moving to Sacramento where he was one of the organizers and directors of the Sacramento Bank, became the principal investor in the San Joaquin and Sierra Nevada Railroad, incorporated March 28, 1882. The first rail was laid at Brack’s Landing on the Mokelumne River near Woodbridge in April; by June the tracks reached Lodi and by October entered Calaveras County at Wallace before extending to Burson in September 1884. Another major promoter of the railroad was Capt. Hiram Messenger, the area’s most prominent and respected citizen, a rancher, businessman and politician, whose Paloma house Casa Blanca was a well-known landmark.
The Valley Review touted that “this new railroad will prove a great blessing to these people so long shut off from the commerce and manufacturies of the world, and as capital is introduced, the resources of the valley and mines better developed, towns will spring up, and all the advantages enjoyed by the denizens of more favored localities will be meted out to those brave pioneers who have toiled and reared their families on their foot-hill farms contented with their surroundings nor ambitious to enter the arena of fortune to struggle for wealth, honors and fame, though surely the first of these will come without the seeking.”
The next stop for the S.J. & S.N.R.R. was the land of George Late, directly west of Pattee’s Place. Late had purchased 160 acres in 1856 and developed a prosperous farm. In 1862 he built the Late House from limestone quarried from a nearby hill. Anticipating where his railroad was headed, in 1884 Birdsall purchased 45 acres from Late, for $50 per acre, as well as the right-of-way for the railroad for $1.
The first known mention of the new town’s name noted that it was Valley Spring, not Valley Springs. The newspaper later reiterated that “Valley Spring, not Valley Springs, is the correct name.” Perhaps the distinction was made to commemorate the burned Spring Valley House. Regardless, the post office remained Valley Springs and residents almost immediately referred, however incorrectly, to the town as Valley Springs. In 1950, the U.S. Postal Service discovered that the town was officially Valley Spring on various maps and insisted their office have the exact same name. The local postmaster replied that the town had familiarly become Valley Springs and suggested his office remain so too.
The townsite was surveyed and recorded in October 1884. Twenty-one blocks were situated on east-west streets named Pine, Cedar, Laurel, Chestnut, Myrtle and Rose and north-south roads named Sequoia Avenue, Daphne Street and California Street (now Hwy. 12). Within months, the few public or commercial enterprises at Pattee’s Place moved to the new town--including the Valley Springs post office, T.J. French’s general store and A. Zimmerman’s saloon. Also arriving were Plummer’s Hotel and the Paulk Bros. & Johnson Farmers’ and Miners’ Union store. Importantly for a shipping center, two blacksmith shops and two livery stables soon joined them, as did a restaurant and saloon from Lamb & Cook, who designated the top floor of their Pioneer livery stable as a town hall (the second floor of the Paulk Bros. & Johnson store also served as a hall for meetings and festivities). Nearly half of the town’s lots were quickly sold, some reportedly for as high as $250.
On April 25, 1885, the first train of the S.J. & S.N.R.R. pulled into the station--a tent erected until the depot could be finished later in the year. Optimism ran high: “We confidently predict that within ten years the foot hills of Calaveras will be among the most populous and wealthy portion of our State.” But the railroad did not continue on as originally intended to the Big Trees (one can only imagine what Calaveras County would be like today if the rails had stretched to the Big Trees in the 1880s). Instead, Valley Springs became the end of the line and therefore a major freight distribution center for the county. As the terminus of the railroad, the town connected train passengers by stage lines, and goods by freight teams, to San Andreas, Mokelumne Hill, Big Trees and other points east. Directly by train, Valley Springs could be reached from San Francisco in seven-and-a-half hours, Sacramento in three hours and Stockton in two-and-a-half hours.
In 1888, the area had developed enough that the Valley Springs School District was carved out of the Spring Valley district. (In 1955, Valley Springs became part of the Calaveras Unified School District.) But the growth of Valley Springs as well as Calaveras County that the railroad was supposed to spark never materialized. Though the S.J. & S.N.R.R. was profitable, the cost of its building and interest expense on its bonds weighed heavily on investors and the road’s success failed to meet their lofty expectations. In the late 1880s, the Northern Railway, and later its operator, the Southern Pacific (SP), gobbled up the narrow gauge.
In September 1895, a major fire in Valley Springs burned down most of the center of town, though many buildings were soon rebuilt. Far more lasting damage was caused by the unfulfilled promise of the railroad.
First Half Of The 20th Century
Between 1890 and 1910, the population of Jenny Lind Township, essentially the part of the county west of San Andreas, averaged an increase of less than one percent each year, reflecting the same for the county as a whole. Though more people moved from ranches into houses in Valley Springs, including John K. Pattee, Sr., and residential construction increased substantially, there was very little increase in commercial activity, save for the addition of a second hotel.
Not even the arrival of electricity into town in 1899 and the SP changing the narrow gauge line to standard gauge in 1904 had any significantly progressive effect. From 1910 to 1930, the population plummeted, down 37% in Jenny Lind Township and down 39% countywide, to the lowest levels since the Gold Rush.
Valley Springs could claim a population of only about 350 in 1923. For many decades thereafter it would be a one-store town as French’s became Pliler & Lillie, founded in 1918 by John Pliler and Joshua Lillie. Notably, the Lillies arrived in California from Canada in the late 1850s and opened a blacksmith shop that reportedly shod the stallion of notorious bandit Joaquin Murietta’s stallion.
But even as a worldwide depression loomed there were signs of change in the air. In 1925, the Calaveras Cement Co. began building a major plant adjacent to limestone deposits at Kentucky House near San Andreas and required rail access for materials coming in and finished product going out. The SP thus extended its line east eight miles where it reached the five miles the cement company built (in 1929 the SP would buy those five miles). A crowd estimated at 15,000--two and a half times the county’s population--was at the dedication of the plant. Two years later, the SP laid down a temporary line running north seven miles from Valley Springs to facilitate the building of Pardee Dam. Calaveras Cement was able to ship directly to the construction site. Over the years, its cement would also be used to build the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, McClellan and Travis Air Force bases, San Francisco Airport and dams in the Central Valley.
Many Valley Springs residents were employed by Calaveras Cement and many others worked on the construction of Pardee Dam, completed in 1929. Also swelling employment rolls was the construction of the original Hogan Dam, completed in 1931 to provide flood control for its owners, the City of Stockton. In addition, Valley Springs became a distributing depot for the Standard Oil Co.
Long a shipping point for lumber from sawmills in the mountains, Valley Springs now also became the location for mills further down the production line. The Mead Co. operated briefly in the mid-1930s, followed by the Pacific Box Co. (ceasing in the early 1940s). Most importantly, Blagen Lumber built a small operation at Toyon in 1940. Both it and Pacific Box were then subsumed into Calaveras Forest Products (owned by the American Box Co., which became American Forest Products in 1958). A planing mill was built in 1941, burned down, and rebuilt in 1943. A moulding plant was added in 1944. American Forest Products was one of the county’s largest employers and a major wood producer during World War II and beyond.
Clay, another natural resource, attracted the California Pottery Co. (and California Paving Brick Co.), which operated here from the late 1910s through the 1960s. At nearby Camanche, Pacific Clay Products was active from 1957 until 1963 when it was inundated by the reservoir created by the dam there. Limestone and crushed rock were other exploited resources in the area. While the gold mining industry had never been a major commercial enterprise in the Valley Springs area, small-scale dredging operations continued into the mid-1950s.
Still, for its first 100 years, the main occupation of Valley Springs residents was agriculture. But given the relatively poor soil and lack of reliable water, there was no large-scale farming other than in grains. Valley Springs land was suitable enough for grassland pasture, and for growing wheat, barley and oats. Pioneering ranchers such as the Reinkings, Gabberts, Pattees, Lillies and Lates raised sheep and/or cattle, and conducted an annual ritual of moving their herds to the mountains near West Point and Rail Road Flat during the harsh, hot summers and returning them to Valley Springs before the winter. Though there were attempts at growing oranges and mulberry trees, none took hold in any widespread way. Agriculture requiring less water, winegrapes and olives, did appear but once again only on a small-scale.
Mainly due to the rise of the automobile, the SP finally abandoned all passenger service on the line in 1932. However, Valley Spring’s strategic location on a state highway remained important. One newspaper headline encapsulated Valley Springs’ lack of major progress as well as future possibilities: “Gateway city and center of a vast agricultural and horticultural district awaits development.”
Water In Valley Springs
One consistent development theme throughout Valley Springs history has surrounded the availability of water. From the town’s very beginnings in 1885, a public water supply has been problematic. A well dug on California St. for the town was abandoned in April 1885 after workmen went 50 feet, about 15 through slate, without any indication of water. Some individuals had better luck: Storekeeper Paulk sunk a well on his lot and found a large supply at a depth of 40 feet.
Town water initially flowed via the Mokelumne Hill Canal Co. But it never seemed enough. The 1895 fire was allowed to burn itself out because the water pressure was too low to douse the flames. During dry years, the situation was especially difficult: “‘Tis the same old story in Valley Spring that we imagine should become very monotonous in time; that of hauling water; drinking water, wash water, water for cooking purposes, etc., has to be hauled to nearly every house in town. Mr. Costa has a two-horse wagon, that holds six barrels, in which he conveys water from his place.” His place was Spring Valley, where his family would later found the Valley Spring Mineral Water Co.
In 1899, the Mokelumne and Campo Seco Canal and Mining Company increased the capacity of its reservoir that supplied water to Valley Springs and laid pipe from the main canal three miles away to convey water continually to the reservoir instead of via the previous open-ditch system. But in 1925, with the mines closing, supposed theft of water by ranchers and costly repairs residents did not want to fund, the company was allowed by the Public Utilities Commission to discontinue service. John K. Pattee, Jr. then was granted the water franchise, for which he utilized three shallow wells and a concrete tank northeast of town. In the 1940s, however, the summer water shortage was so bad that his tank would be dry by early afternoon. In the late 1940s, John Snyder provided water from his ranch two miles north of town. His system was expanded in 1980 and remains in use today.
Second Half Of The 20th Century
The county’s population began to rise through the 1930s and 1940s (averaging more than six percent per year) then leveled out in the 1950s (in 1950 there were still just 9,902 residents). The Penn Mine, a largely copper and zinc operation in nearby Campo Seco, which had operated on and off since 1861, finally closed in 1959 but American Forest Products reached the height of its employment in 1958 with 125 employees.
The 1960s brought some expansion (three percent population growth per year). In 1967, several large ranches were combined by the Boise Cascade Co. to form a 6,000-acre subdivision called Rancho Calaveras. The 4,000 one- to three-acre parcels sold out within 18 months. Though American Forest Products moved its operations out of the county in the early 1960s, employment was to be had building the Camanche Reservoir near Wallace in 1963 (a project by the East Bay Municipal Utility District) and greatly expanding the Hogan Reservoir in 1964 to create New Hogan Dam, which now included public recreation.
The 1970s saw an average annual population increase of nearly six percent per year, boosted in the Valley Springs area in 1974 when, just north of Rancho Calaveras, the La Contenta Golf Course and its immediate 700 homesites attracted new residents. The county’s population reached 20,710 in 1980.
Despite the closing of every major manufacturing facility (the cement plant ceased operations in 1982) and the SP’s last trip carrying freight in the 1980s (the tracks were removed in the 1990s), Valley Springs continued to grow in size. In 1990, a population of 31,998 indicated that the near-six percent rise per year was continuing. A sign of that increase was that early in the decade the Valley Oaks Shopping Center was built, bringing a major grocery store (Mar-Val) and other modern retail to the town for the first time.
In 2000, a county population of 40,554 indicated that the 1990s halved the annual percentage rise for the previous decade yet Calaveras was the eighth fastest growing county out of 58 counties in California. For the Valley Springs area, the census counted 2,560 residents for Valley Springs and 4,182 for Rancho Calaveras, though an estimated 1,000 others resided in Valley Springs areas outside Census Designated Places.
In the late 20th century, for the first time since the days of its pioneers, the impetus for growth in Valley Springs was the availability of land not the availability of work. For the first time since the days of its first settlers, Valley Springs had become a destination.
Oh, it stands there the gateway
‘Twixt the pine dowered canyons
And the low fields of grain,
With naught to disturb it but the whir of wings
Of the magpies that flutter ‘round ol’ Valley Springs.
It sits in the low hills, a herald of delights:
One hand to the valley, one to far mountain heights.
One road that leads down to the seas and the streams,
And one winding up to the hill land of dreams.
San Andreas on its high road, Angels Camp and Murphys,
And far in dim forests the Calaveras Big Trees.
Oh, you have to pass through it, it’s the center of things,
This little hill town there of ol’ Valley Springs.
It conjures not only the city - its sights,
But it points the gray highway to mountain delights.
Like a hand that is beckoning, like a gateway that swings,
Like the doorstep to grandeur - Little ol’ Valley Springs.
--Harry T. Fee