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Stories from the valley

Sierra Foothills History for Afar: Bullion Bend Robbery

Contributed by Carl Gwyn

In Placerville, located near two of its most historic buildings, Confidence Hall and the Emigrant Jane Building, is a marker in memory of Joseph Staples, an El Dorado County deputy. Staples was the first county peace officer killed in the line of duty. While California became civilized quickly after the Gold Rush, this is a true tale right out of the Old West, and this marker led me on a quest to find out more. While there are variations to the story, I will try to present information agreed upon by all sources.

Late at night on June 30, 1864, a band of men stopped two stagecoaches on their way back from Virginia City carrying silver bullion from the Comstock mines. While the number of bandits is in question, it was confirmed that they supported the Confederacy. The bullion they stole was to go to the Confederate war effort.

The coach drivers surrendered the silver, and the robbers left without robbing the passengers or any gunplay. They split into two groups. One group holed up in the Somerset House, a hotel in the small town of Somerset. 

Constable George C. Ranney—acting as a special deputy—along with Deputies John Van Eaton and Joseph Staples set out early the next morning on the trail of the group that had headed to Somerset. When the deputies discovered that the bandits were in the hotel, Ranney sent Van Eaton to get reinforcements. Against Ranney’s instructions, Staples rushed into the bandits’ room and was killed in the ensuing gun battle. Ranney and one of the robbers were also wounded in the battle.

When the travel restrictions are lifted and you would like a little historic diversion on your way to Lake Tahoe, you could pay respects to Deputy Staples at the historic Union Cemetery on Bee Street in Placerville. To find his resting spot, please click here. Continue on Highway 50 to Pollock Pine and exit at Sly Park. Turn left on Sly Park Rd, and take another left on Pony Express Trail. You will soon see a kiosk at the northwest corner of the Safeway Parking lot. It has a short history and a picture of the event. For directions, please click here.

Turn right out of the parking lot, and drive to the east on Pony Express Trail until it ends, about one mile. A historical marker stands at the sight of the robbery on old Highway 50, so named Bullion Bend because of the sharp curve that caused the coaches to slow down. 

I hope you enjoyed this trip into California history. For an in-depth account of the event, please click here.