Thursday, May 2, 2013

Gold Rush Buildings of Stone and Bricks

By Paisley Kirkpatrick
During the 1849 gold rush, mining camps started as a cluster of tents and other makeshift shelters. If the mine became productive, wooden buildings were erected and a town was born.
Fires were a recurring curse. Often entire towns were repeatedly destroyed by fire. Stonemasons, especially Italian immigrants from Liguria, began building "fire proof" banks and stores of stone or brick with iron doors and iron window shutters to protect the contents from fire. Many of these stone buildings still survive. The Cary House in downtown Placerville, California is one of those buildings with the huge iron doors that were closed and saved the building more than once from burning.
The Placerville Soda Works, also referred to as the Pearson Soda Works Building, is another classic Gold Rush structure and perhaps the most interesting building in town. It was built in stages, a mixture of fieldstone, rectangular blocks, bricks, and assorted rubble. John McFarland Pearson, a Scotsman, arrived in Placerville during the early 1850’s and built the lower portion of this building in 1859, with walls twenty-two inches thick.
Pearson was an ice merchant. He would cut ice from mountain lakes, haul them into town by horse and wagon, and then sell the blocks to the various places that had need of ice. He then branched out into the soda business, producing soda water, cream soda, and syrups which he sold to the townsfolk. Spring water was carbonated, bottled and sold to the miners. The soda water was an important product as the river and creeks were polluted from mining activities which made that source of water unsafe to drink. Pearson’s sons added the brick second story in 1897 for use as a bottling room.
Several interesting features are incorporated into this unique structure. Underground rooms, mine tunnels used to store ice and soda, iron doors which help support part of the upper floor, and a water driven elevator which once transported the heavy cases of soda from the bottling room to the storage areas all combine to create one of the most unusual buildings of the Gold Rush. This property is a significant reminder of one of the city's important 19th century economic activities. The building of Victorian architecture is a notable local example of its type and method of construction, with an 1859 lower story of cut stone and an 1897 upper story of stone and brick; it remains as one of the city's oldest commercial buildings without major alterations.


  1. Paisley, you live in the most interesting area! I would love to tour that part of the US. Thanks for sharing. I had no idea bottled water was available in that form so long ago.

  2. Hi Caroline. It is interesting and the place is awesome. When I was writing Night Angel I went into the soda works and got to walk through the part of the tunnel that is still safe. I was amazed at how small it was and thought it would definitely give a person a backache if they had any height at all.

  3. Paisley, I love those pics, especially the building built in stages. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks Lyn. We have so many of those old buildings in town, but this one seems to be one of the sturdier ones. It was so awesome talking in that tunnel, too.

  5. Fascinating post, Paisley. You really gave us a glimpse of what life was really like for miners, especially about the drinking water and how they bottled and carbonated water. I am also intrigued by the immigrants from Liguria and if they went there as miners, too. I would really love to visit Placerville, especially all those secret rooms and tunnels. :)

  6. We should have a big party and have everyone come to Placerville some day - it is a gorgeous place and only an hour or so from Lake Tahoe. Thanks for stopping by today, Ashley.


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