Rubicon Springs Hotel a fascinating story

By Michael Raffety

8-13-12

I was intrigued and just plain astounded when reading staff writer Wendy Schultz’ account of Sierra Nevada Phillips. What impressed me most was the fact that Sierra bought the Rubicon Springs in 1888 from George and John Hunsucker for $5,500 in gold coins. Assuming those were $20 double eagle gold pieces, the gold content alone would make that transaction worth $441,375 at last Monday’s price of gold of about $1,605 an ounce. She was 34.

Not only that, she had enough money left over to have a two-and-a-half-story hotel built, complete with curtains, white linen table clothes, china and silverware. It was a first class resort in the high country.

The story of Sierra Nevada Phillips, the Hunsuckers, Clark Potter, the Rubicon Springs, McKinney’s Lake Tahoe Resort and Moana Villa Resort, “Uncle” Tom Markham’s Cabin, Wentworth Springs and the Rubicon Trail are all told in a new book by archeologist Rick Morris.

It is the most comprehensive story of the Rubicon, complete with details such as chain of ownership and a listing of hotel guests from a surviving register. More than anything it is the best collection of historical photos of the Rubicon Mineral Springs Hotel and Resort.

It has a few typos and a wrong word — “track” of land instead of tract — and some things are repeated, but the photos are invaluable. They come from a wide variety of sources, including a private collection of the grandson of one of the later owners — Daniel Abbott. His grandson appears in a photo as a small boy in overalls and a straw hat fishing in the Rubicon in “the 1910s.” Abbott owned the resort from 1898 to 1910.

Sierra Nevada Phillips had sold the Rubicon Hotel and 40 acres back to Hunsucker for $3,800 in gold coins in 1895. He then sold it to Abbott in 1898 for $2,000 in gold coins.

She returned to Phillips Station near Echo Summit. It had been a lucrative operation serving teamsters during the Comstock silver mining boom in Virginia City, Nev. After traffic over the Johnson Pass Road diminished and her parents died, she turned it into a resort.

Morris noted that Phillips Station, at 6,800 feet elevation, hosted former Secretary of State Frank Jordan, and a 12-year-old boy named Robert McNamera, who later became secretary of defense during the Vietnam War.

Phillips Station as well as the Rubicon Hotel collapsed in the winter of 1951-52. That was the year an avalanche on Echo Summit killed a Caltrans worker and heavy snow left the Southern Pacific passenger train stuck in the mountains for three days in January 1952.

The Rubicon Trail was mainly served by a stage line, the Rubicon Flyer, and also by buckboard. The first automobile to make it on the Rubicon Trail to the hotel was a Mitchell Touring car in 1908.

The last person to operate the hotel was Ralph L. Colwell from 1909 to 1927. He brought guests from Moana Villa at Lake Tahoe to Rubicon Springs Hotel in a 1924 Dodge Brothers Standard Touring car and later a Pierce-Arrow touring car.

The final season the Rubicon Hotel operated was 1926.

The lure of the area still brought adventurers, including two Studebakers in 1926, including Clarence Collins, owner of the Forget-Me-Not Garage in Georgetown, which in recent times was known as Murchie’s Garage. Collins also owned the first Studebaker agency in Georgetown. In 1942 he stopped operating the garage when he opened a Studebaker agency in Placerville.

Collins made another auto trip, this time in a Ford, later in the summer of 1926. Joining Placerville Ford dealer J.W. Mitchel was attorney and later judge, Thomas Maul, and Mountain Democrat Publisher and writer Clarence Barker.

As quoted in Morris’ book, Barker wrote, “At present the grade down the Rubicon River is quite steep but Mr. Collins told us a much better grade is being surveyed that will eliminate the worst part, through what is known as the Big Sluice Box.”

Well, that never happened! Pictures in last Wednesday’s Mountain Democrat from Rebecca Murphy, Georgetown Gazette editor, show Jeeps going down Big Sluice. When I rode along on the Jamboree in 1979 I got out and walk edthrough the Big Sluice.

Collins’ son, Ken, came to own the Buick dealership in Placerville and in 1951 acquired the Jeep franchise as well, later joining Mark Smith on the famous 1979 trip from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, via the roadless 99-mile Darien Gap between Columbia and Panama.

The final and current owners are 16 founding families of the Jeepers Jamboree. Called the Rubicon Soda Springs Group Inc., they acquired the 120 acres in 1985, and have  preserved it as private land for public use of the Jamboree. The first Jamboree was 1953. Some of those first participants can still be found each summer at the Jamboree.

Little remains of the hotel, cabins and campsites. It has largely returned to nature except for the Jamboree’s concrete dance floor. El Dorado County has made some improvements to the Rubicon Trail, an official county road since the 19th century. The improvements have been primarily for environmental reasons and to maintain water quality. Volunteers and the Sheriff’s Department also patrol the trail in the summer.

The romance of Rubicon Springs remains and its popularity is even bigger than Sierra Nevada Phillips ever imagined.

“Rubicon Springs and the Rubicon Trail: a History by Rick Morris” is on sale at the Placerville Newstand.

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