Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Past is Present in Placerville #5: Mission Bell - Bee & Coloma Streets

On the northwest corner of Coloma Street (also Highway 49) and Bee Street in Placerville stands an old monument. It is a mission bell, with two signs, one pointing west towards Sacramento, and one pointing north towards Coloma. I have always wondered about that bell, and the history behind it.
Standing as it does so close to a busy street, I was unable to get a photo of the bell showing the sign to Coloma. If I were better on my feet (I have a bad hip) I could have parked and crossed the street and walked up the path and taken a photo from there. But that was beyond me, so I am only showing photos I was able to take from the basically level and not as busy Bee Street area.
Searching the internet, I found a very interesting book entitled "The Royal Highway" by Edwin Corle, published in 1949. On the cover and just inside is a picture of a mission bell just like the one in Placerville. This bell shown here on the title page of the "Mission Bell Edition" signed by the author, is a desk ornament which you can occasionally find sold on ebay. I am hoping to buy one of those someday.
The King's Highway, The Royal Highway, or the El Camino Real (in Spanish) is basically the California Highway U.S. 101, which stretches from San Diego to Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and then beyond. It does not go to Placerville. How then did we end up with a bell? That is still a mystery I have not solved.
This rather blurry photo from inside the book, which was published courtesy of the California Mission Trails Association, shows Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, showing its unusual outside stairway and one of the commemorative mission bells.

Below is a copy of an old postcard which also shows the San Gabriel Mission and its bell.
Page 254 of "The Royal Highway" reads: "The gold rush had brought some amazing changes. Life in California had been synonymous with life along the Royal Highway. Now the emphasis was suddenly altered, and life in California meant life in the mountain area, the High Sierra country... The population of Los Angeles was less than that of Hangtown, once called Old Dry Diggings, but later change to Hangtown, because the story got about that it was a place where criminals were hanged first and tried later. It is the pleasant community of Placerville today. "
Above is a vintage real photo postcard with a photo of Placerville's Mission Bell. The sign reads "Placerville known as Hangtown in the days of 49. To Sutter's Fort Sacramento 50 miles". The other side which I was unable to photograph points towards Coloma.
A photograph of the Placerville Mission Bell as it looks in February 2011.
From "The Royal Highway": "By 1906 - a year never to be forgotten because of the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire which killed more than 250 people, injured thousands and caused a property damage in excess of $300,000,000 - a steadily growing California-consciousness began to manifest itself. History began to be something more than dull facts in an equally dull textbook. An innate state pride was developing. Nostalgia, of a kind, became popular. One of the first examples of this having-reached-maturity-we-are-now-looking-back-at-our-glorious-past attitude was expressed by the move to mark the route of El Camino Real with a series of mission bells. This was begun in July of 1906 with the first highway bell being erected and dedicated at the church opposite the plaza in downtown Los Angeles. This church was never a mission in its own right, but was an outpost, or asistencia, of Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. Los Angeles County supervisors instigated the move to erect the commemorative bells, and the Automobile Club of Southern California carried it out."
Another "now" view of the bell. Just beyond is the busy Highway 49, which follows Coloma Street at this point in Placerville.
Quite a few years ago I purchased an old photo album on ebay which had a few photos of Placerville. This small photo of our bell was dated March 1917. Beyond the bell towards the west you can see "Bee Street" which is more like Bee path. Just out of sight on the right is the Bee-Bennett House, now the Sequoia Restaurant, and on the hill on the left is the Placerville Bee Street Cemetery where the Gold Country Girls parents are buried.
No Memory Chapel on the right just after the bell, no church just beyond. Just a small dirt road.
February 2011 view to compare to March 1917.
Just across the street from my car is a beautiful old brick church which I will feature in this blog in the future. As I was taking the shots the pastor, John Cowper, a long time acquaintance of the Gold Country Girls, was arriving at his church and walking inside. He may have wondered about the limping Grandma out taking photos on this lovely clear winter day.
If you are interested in seeing more of the commemorative mission bells, travel down Highway 101 below San Francisco and keep an eye out by the side of the road. I saw several on a trip to Ventura with a friend of mine a couple of years ago. They started me on my quest for information about the bells. I am interested in knowing if there are others placed that are not on Highway 101.
This shot is taken from the church side of Bee Street. Alas, the Memory Chapel is now closed and for sale, and so is the church that is next door to it.
One final shot, taken from my car as I drove north towards home. The bell is just out of frame on the middle right.
Come take a drive to our old town and visit a bit of the past present in Placerville.

7 comments:

Deanna said...

I loved this post. I was intrigued by the comparison photos..do you think that big pine tree in the background is the same tree?

Thanks for sharing your photos!
Deanna :D

Heidi Ann said...

Thank you for another great history lesson! I LOVE the old photos so much - and I didn't know anything at all about this before!

Jennifer D said...

Fascinating! I will have my eye out for Mission Bells now.

1950's_atomic_ranch_house said...

It's nice to see the before and after photos can be compared. Down here in southern CA, I did a report on a regional feature, and when I tried to take "after" photos, the same spots seen in the old photos were so unrecognizable, I couldn't really photograph or compare them! Things changed that much. =/

yosemite faith said...

i also had never noticed the bells or if i did - i no longer can remember. great photos and can't wait til you solve this puzzler as i know you will tina.

Tina Dawn said...

Hi Deanna, yes I believe it is the same pine tree. Thank you for noticing it. I forgot to mention it. Sometimes I get so caught up in the moment when I am posting I forget all my plans and just go for it. Tina

Kim G. said...

So cool to see an El Camino Real bell in Placerville! I like spotting the bells as we drive down the 101, and since you are interested in them as well they were featured in an episode of Huell Howser's California's Gold! You would probably like the episode as much as I did! Plus it is always fun to hear Huell say, "THAT'S AMAZING!!!!"