Colonel Russ of Russville
Hi, thank you for checking out our new blog, Folsom Unveiled. My name is Kaitlyn Scott and I’m Folsom Historical Society’s historian. Each week I will be highlighting a different topic related to Folsom’s history that not everyone knows about by diving deeper into a place, event, person or piece in our collection.
When I sat down this week to start researching this blog, it was with the intent to introduce you to the small town of Ashland (not to be confused with modern day Ashland in Alameda County), which has since been absorbed by Folsom. I pictured something similar to my blogs on Salmon Falls and Natoma but instead I discovered more about a very interesting man who lived at Ashland before it was even called Ashland and I knew I had to tweak the focus from being mostly about the town to mostly about Colonel Russ. Before I go into more details about this enigmatic man, I want to give you some background on Ashland to set the scene.
You might already be familiar with Ashland if you have ever been to our outdoor museum Pioneer Village. Ashland’s railroad depot is at Pioneer Village and can be explored during our regular business hours once we reopen. Believe me, you will not want to miss it!
The area of Ashland belonged to the Mississippi Township which was part of the Rancho San Juan land grant deeded to Joel P. Dedmond in 1844 by Governor Manuel Micheltorena. Rancho San Juan was across the river from Rancho Rio de los Americanos (Folsom and Rancho Cordova) and included what is modern day Orangevale, Fair Oaks and part of Carmichael. Ashland itself was located where Greenback and Folsom-Auburn road is today.
Three years later, Dedmond sold his land to Hiram Grimes and after gold was discovered, Ashland was known as Big Gulch and became a mining camp in 1849. The promise of gold brought many new people to the area, one of which was a man known as Colonel Russ who arrived in 1855 or 1856.
Horace Phipps Russ was not actually a Colonel, but since he liked to be called by this title, I will continue to call him by it. He was born in 1820 on the Isle of Wight, Great Britain and moved to New York at the age of 26 in 1846. He married Louisa Blancard and together they had four children. By 29, he had invented Russ Pavement, an invention that made granite into large blocks for construction or paving. In 1849, Colonel Russ’ pavement was laid out on Broadway and was the earliest example of dressed stone-block pavement in the country. Again in 1853, a San Francisco newspaper mentions that Russ had made a sidewalk in Sacramento and a later paper states that the city of Sacramento denied his request to pave more streets, most likely because of the heavy construction it required or the cost.
Shortly after his arrival in Big Gulch, residents were so taken with him they renamed the town to Russville (although one article alludes to the fact that Russ himself had a major hand in this decision) and a place called the Russville Hotel was opened.
Russ along with partner George Bromley created Russ Bluffs Gold Mining Concern, promising investors in San Francisco that Russ’ machine could be used to mine the granite and quartz on the bluffs above the American River for gold. Shares were quickly purchased, and the venture began and failed just as quickly. Bromley inspected the bluffs after a couple weeks of work and determined there was no gold and crushing the granite ceased. Colonel Russ and Bromley called for a meeting at the Patterson Hotel in Folsom with their investors, who no doubt thought they had struck it rich. It was there that the two announced that there was no gold to be had and used what was left of their money to have a party at the hotel and pay off the remainder of their bills before closing the company.
Despite the failure, residents of Russville elected Colonel Russ as Justice of the Peace of Mississippi Township. He held court on a platform on the highest hill in Russville beside his cabin with a flagpole and raised the American flag whenever there was a trial. He soon fell out of popularity because he was accused of not following the law in his judgements and would not allow appeals. Anyone who asked for an appeal was fined for contempt of court. When his term expired, Colonel Russ left town and the name changed from Russville to Bowlesville for a short time before being changed to Ashland in 1860. However, newspapers still referred to Ashland as Russville shortly after the change.
After his departure, Colonel Russ returned to New York with his family and then went to Canada to develop silver mines that had been recently discovered in Nova Scotia. It was there that he died at the age of 42 in 1863.
While Colonel Russ certainly had a flair for theatrics with his title and his platform of justice, he does not deserve to be dismissed as just some strange character from the past who had to be run out of town as Folsom Telegraph articles from the 1960s-80s make him out to be. I am personally extremely impressed by what he was able to accomplish before his death and a little jealous that he invented a new way to pave sidewalks by the age of 29. I am 29 and certainly have not invented anything of note. Stumbling across people like Colonel Russ by accident make my job fun and I am very pleased that I was able to write a blog about him instead of just Ashland’s history and I hope you are too!