Her real name was Elizabeth, but everyone still calls her “Eliza.”
She was born Eliza Kirby in New York in 1825. By the age of 20 she was residing in Michigan, marrying George Withington there in 1845.
When the gold rush began, George — like so many others — joined a company of men and set off for California in 1849. He took up residence in what would later become the town of Shingle Springs, El Dorado County, working at a shingle mill. In 1851 he moved on to Ione Valley, working on various mining ventures and peddling land from the Rancho Arroyo Seco land grant.
After nearly three years of separation from her husband, Eliza left Michigan in 1852 to join him in California, bringing their two young daughters Sarah and Eleanor along on the wagon train.
It was not entirely a pleasant journey for the adventuresome young woman. A fellow traveler’s diary recounts that as the group reached Carson Canyon, “Mrs. Withington is very sick with dysentery. It hurts her very much to ride.” Two days later, however, Mrs. W’s condition had improved, and she enjoyed a happy reunion with her husband near Volcano. The couple settled on a homestead in Dry Creek, only to lose their claim in 1855 due to a title dispute.
By 1857, however, Eliza and George had relocated to the new town of Ione and were doing well enough they were able to build a two-story brick home on what is now Welch Lane. In July, 1857, Withington opened a portrait studio on Main Street, the “first door west of the bridge,” specializing in ambrotypes. Her rented studio even featured a skylight, which helped to make the most of available light. Women photographers were still extremely rare at the time. But the new field somehow caught Withington’s interest and she is said to have traveled as far as New York to learn the trade, visiting galleries including that of celebrated photographer Matthew Brady.
In Ione George Withington abandoned his shingle-making tools for those of a farmer, and invested as well in the Ione Copper Mining Company. But in 1861, tragedy struck the family with the death of their only son Everett at the age of just five months. As if to compound their woes, the Withingtons’ wheat and barley crop withered in the drought of 1864. George was forced to file for bankruptcy in early 1865. Among other assets in peril was the couple’s brick home, which was burdened with an $800 debt against it.
In May, 1866, Eliza somehow managed to pay off the $800 obligation, becoming the sole owner of the couple’s 7-1/2-ace property. While some of these funds may have come from her portrait business, the lion’s share likely came from her management of the “commodious” Arcade Hotel in Ione, located on Main Street opposite Sacramento Street.
From about 1871 until shortly before her death in 1877, Eliza took lengthy trips into the mountains to capture landscape photographs and scenes of local mining communities. While she sometimes accompanied other travelers, at other times she continued on alone, traveling “by stage, private conveyance, or fruit-wagons.” Accompanying her was her large, heavy photographic equipment, including as many as 80 glass plates, bottles of negative, developer and other chemicals, a “pair of Morrison lenses, a Philadelphia box and tripod” and a “strong black-linen cane-handled parasol” for shade.
In August and September, 1876, Eliza spent several weeks in Silver Mountain City capturing views of local mines and taking portraits. The local newspaper reported that she was in town for both “health and recreation,” occupying a room at Ford’s Hotel. As luck would have it, her visit coincided with removal of the iron jail cells from the stone jail at Silver Mountain City, and she managed to capture a fateful image of those cells atop a wagon on their way to the new county seat at Markleeville.
Eliza was apparently experiencing health problems at the time of her visit; one article suggested she had “scarcely spoken above a whisper for four months,” but that after a trip to the mountains had returned home “speaking as well as ever.” In addition to enjoying the dry mountain air, she may possibly have sampled the healing waters of nearby Grover Hot Springs.
Within just a few months of her Silver Mountain trip, however, Eliza was dead. She passed away at the young age of 51 on March 4, 1877, and is buried in the Ione Public Cemetery. Daughter Eleanor and son Everett are buried nearby.