It was 1863 when a lone highwayman stepped out to stop the stage near Double Springs, Nevada. Whether it was sheer luck or courtesy of an inside scoop, the robber hit payday: the heavily-laden coach was carrying some $17,000 in gold coin on its route between Aurora and Carson.
Naturally, the robber couldn’t get too far hauling all that gold! But like all good criminals, he’d thought ahead: he brought along a shovel.
And somewhere in the flats not far from Double Spring, the robber dug a hole and buried his loot.
The authorities, of course, were hard on the robber’s heels. Before long, he found himself cooling those heels in Nevada’s state prison. There the bandit finally died. And although he kept his secret almost to the end, on his death-bed he finally described the spot where he’d buried all that loot he couldn’t take with him into the next life.
According to the robber, the spot where his loot was buried was near a small cabin south of Double Spring, roughly a mile and a half north of another old way station called Mountain House. Many looked for the treasure through the years, but none have yet found it — and not for lack of trying! “The ground in the vicinity looks like an artichoke patch deserted by a drove of swine,” the Genoa Weekly Courier observed in 1891.
In 1891, Genoa resident Henry Rice “saw” the spot where the treasure was hiding in a dream. Dragging along friend William Parsons and several young ladies for company, he eagerly rushed out to identify the spot. The prospectors’ hopes were soon dashed when they discovered that there were, sadly, “a hundred places that looked just like the one revealed in [Rice’s] dream.” By way of consolation they continued on to Walker River, where they settled for the ‘treasure’ of a grand picnic lunch.
Others, too, would try their hand at finding the robber’s loot through the years. One local named George Dale was said to have “dug up a good-sized ranch in the vain effort.” Charley Holbrook was so convinced his divining rod had pinpointed the loot that he dug a 28-foot deep shaft before finally concluding that he must be in the wrong spot.
All of which is, presumably, good news for modern-day treasure-seekers! That is, if you believe the old legend, the lost stagecoach gold must still be there somewhere not far from Double Springs.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Reminder: It’s not 1891 anymore! Please don’t trespass or go digging unless you get permission from the property owner first!
(In case you happened to miss Part 1 and Part 2 of this story about Double Springs,just click these links to read them!)
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No, not that James Dean. We’re talking 1864. As we saw in Part 1, the person who murdered Fannie Dean at Double Springs Ranch that year wasn’t much of a mystery — at least as far as the neighbors were concerned. Fannie’s husband, station-keeper James C. Dean, was quickly whisked into custody by the authorities. But proof was another matter.
As the suspect pointed out, the Station was on a well-traveled road; riff-raff came and went. It could have been anyone who stuffed poor Fannie Dean’s head into a bucket of water!
With no definitive evidence to tie him to the murder, Dean was eventually released. Might there have been other reasons for Dean’s get-out-of-jail-free card, as well? It’s hard to know, 150 years later. But our guess is that Fannie’s demise occurred after her husband had become Mammoth district Justice of the Peace — if only because a murder suspect wouldn’t normally be anyone’s top pick for an open judicial post. As a local notable, was Dean able to perhaps pull a string or two?
However it happened, Dean was once again a free man. But local minds hung onto their suspicions. It was an opportune time for Dean to (as they say in the Westerns) get out of Dodge. And get out he did.
Not long after Fannie’s death, Dean ran for Justice of the Peace in the nearby Walker River precinct, winning the election in November 1865. That same October and November Dean was advertising his Double Spring Station for sale in the Douglas Banner, and he soon found a buyer: rancher P.L. Sprague (Sprague, in turn, would sell the Double Spring ranch to T.B. Rickey in 1883 and move to Sheridan).
So, whatever became of the James C. Dean once he left Double Springs? Traces of his trail are few and far between, but we did manage to pick up a few breadcrumbs.
Dean turns up in Hamilton, White Pine County, Nevada, in April, 1869, marrying a second wife, Theresa Dirks. Theresa was a savvy divorcee with a mind of her own — and, perhaps more appealing to Dean, property of her own. Theresa owned real estate in San Francisco and Hamilton City, Nevada, plus a boardinghouse and home in Virginia City (at 90 South D Street and 91 South C Street respectively).
Theresa may have had her doubts about Dean from the get-go: she took the precaution of recording a formal marriage contract. In it, Dean officially consented to Theresa maintaining control of her property, acknowledging it had been “acquired by her own unaided industry.” (In case you’re wondering about her earlier history, Theresa was married initially to Leonard Dirks in San Francisco. She was an early arrival at Virginia City, showing up in 1860 among the throngs at the first Christmas Ball in Storey County, along with her daughter, Leonora.)
But her second husband, Dean, wasn’t cut out to be marriage material it seems. He and Theresa were divorced in February, 1872, just three quick years after their wedding. Theresa may not have been the steadiest marriage partner either; she remarried yet again on June 3, 1872, just a few months after divorcing Dean — her third marriage.
Was Dean something of a smooth-talker, blessed with the gift of gab? We may never know for sure. But in his early life, he was a lawyer, if that tells you anything. Yet another suggestion that his tongue may have been well-oiled comes from Dean’s later profession: by 1873, he was operating an auction business in Pioche.
In 1880, Dean shows up in Eureka, Nevada, again working as an auctioneer. He’s listed as single, and is sharing a house with E.H. Dean, the same ne’er-do-well relative whose accountings were found somewhat less than satisfactory when he served as Lyon County’s treasurer.
Dean’s ex-wife, Theresa, and her third husband Robert Charles (a banker) were back in Virginia City by this time, residing in her house at 91 South C Street. Theresa died that same year (1880) and is buried under her first husband’s name (Dirks) at the Silver Terrace Cemetery, along with her daughter, Leonora.
As for Dean — unfortunately, it’s a common enough last name that it hasn’t been easy to track his remaining years. Nevertheless we did turn up a “James Calhoun Dean” who moved from the west coast back to Michigan about 1908. This James C. Dean died March 10, 1910 in Plymouth, Michigan from cancer of the head and “general senility.”
If “our” J.C. Dean is the same man, this would be a picture of the infamous Double Springs proprietor himself!
There are definite similarities besides the common middle initial: both men were born in New York; their birth years roughly match; and James Calhoun Dean had been out west before returning to Michigan. For now, at least, we’ll leave the possibility that this is our Double Springs Dean in the “good guess” category.
But the best part of the Double Springs story is yet to come in Part 3 — a stagecoach robbery . . . and a buried treasure!
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Today there’s little to mark the site of Double Springs, Nevada, roughly a dozen miles south of Gardnerville on Highway 395. All that’s left is just a historical plaque plus remnants of an old fence line and cattle trough. But a century-and-a-half ago, Double Springs was not only well-known — it was notorious!
An early hotel here beside the toll road to Aurora and Bodie offered travelers meals, beds, and pasture. A fluke of climate or simple bad luck, Double Springs was also the site of several early murders. And, because all good tales include a treasure story, there’s also a hidden treasure legend involving Double Springs!
The pair of springs for which Double Springs was named made this a valued spot for Native Americans back in the early-early days. Round dances were held here in both spring and fall, with prayers for the health of the pinenut trees and celebrations for abundant harvests. These huge events sometimes included up to 500 Native Americans, and pinenut harvests could last as long as six weeks. The site’s earliest recorded name, “Round Tent Ranch,” may have reflected these Native American celebrations.
In 1861, rancher S.D. Fairchild claimed 320 acres here, erecting a hotel, stable, and barn. H.W. Bagley owned the property briefly, then sold it to James C. Dean about 1863. And here our tale takes a turn for the murderous!
Dean was a colorful if slightly shady character who popped up in various incarnations in early Douglas County history. He and a partner bought a house and town lot in Genoa as early as August, 1860. A year later, in 1861, Dean was appointed Justice of the Peace for Genoa by Governor Nye. Although ostensibly a lawyer, Dean swiftly made waves for failing to carry out the duties of his new post. Just one month after Dean’s appointment, an appeals court was forced to order Dean to do his duty; he reportedly stubbornly refused to file in papers appealing one of his decisions, and had similarly refused to send up a transcript for the higher court to consider. (The higher court was not amused.)
Despite this brouhaha, Dean’s Genoa home became the site where the very first meeting of the Douglas County Commissioners was convened just after Christmas, December 28, 1861. Dean also was honored by being elected to serve in the Nevada Territorial Legislature’s House of Representatives in September, 1863, as a proud member of the Union Party.
By late 1863 Dean had moved south to Double Springs in Nevada Territory’s Mammoth Precinct, a district that stretched from Teasdale bridge on the East Carson to the southernmost edge of the county. Here he was operating his own “1st Class” Hotel and serving as a retail dealer in liquor. But Dean continued to keep an eye out for political plums. In early 1864 he penned a pleading letter to Gov. James Nye, confessing a desire to become a military man and offering to assemble a cavalry company of “burly mountain boys” if the governor would accommodate him with a commission to do so. (The governor apparently didn’t take him up on this kind offer.)
Edwin Dean (possibly a cousin or younger brother of James) also briefly held elected office in early Nevada. Ed Dean became Lyon County Treasurer in September, 1864, only to resign in disgrace a little over a year later when his books disclosed a $2,484 shortfall.
Dean’s Hotel was conveniently located at the junction of the cross-valley Olds Toll Road and the north/south Bryon’s Toll Road. Travelers to Bodie or Aurora could feed their horses on hay grown at the ranch, grab a meal, or spend the night at the hotel. Dean was appointed to fill a vacancy for Justice of the Peace for the Mammoth Precinct on December 5, 1864, with a member of the Olds family making the motion for Dean’s appointment.
Sometime around 1864, however, Dean’s wife, Fannie, came to a tragic end at the Double Springs station. A passing teamster found the house suspiciously quiet and, upon investigating, discovered Fannie’s lifeless body. She had been severely beaten and her head then “jammed into a bucket of water.” Dean was arrested by the local sheriff, but denied the murder. Dean’s hotel was only about two miles from Slinkard’s, and transients and travelers came and went on the road by the station. As Dean pointed out, it could have been anyone who murdered Fannie Dean. Neighbors “were not satisfied with the story told,” as the Record Courier later put it. But given the lack of evidence on which to hold him, Dean was finally released. Nevertheless, the story persisted for years that Dean himself had committed the murder.
By the following year, October, 1865, Dean was advertising his Double Springs property for sale. And it wasn’t cheap: for his house, barn, blacksmith shop and 600 acres of land, Dean wanted $1,500, half down and the balance in just six months. But he clearly was ready to move on; in November, 1865, he managed to get himself elected Justice of the Peace for the Walker River Precinct to the south.
Fannie’s death, as it turned out, would not be the end of “notorious” murders at Double Springs. In November, 1881, another body was discovered in a small cabin about three miles south of the old station. E.A. Doud, about 65 years old, had once been an Alpine County rancher and member of the Board of Supervisors. He’d sold his Alpine ranch about 1873, taking up residence in a 10’ x 12’ cabin not far from Double Springs. The body was discovered by a Washoe Indian seeking work who had approached the cabin. Looking in a window beside the door, he spied Doud on the floor, covered in a bloody blanket. An ax was near the body. The Indian alerted the innkeeper at Double Springs, who in turn notified the coroner. Although a generous $150 reward was posted in early 1882, no suspects were ever identified.
Dean had already moved on by then, selling his Double Springs property to rancher P.L. Sprague about 1865 and trudging off to new adventures — and that quirky tale (including what happened to Dean’s second wife) is next week’s story!
As for the famous Double Springs Hotel itself, the building was torn down in the fall of 1887. Its lumber was hauled off to a mining settlement known as South Camp overlooking Smith Valley, where (as the Genoa Courier put it), it was used “to cover the mill and to build a mansion for the miners.”
Join us next week for Part 2 of this story — whatever became of James Dean? And in Part 3, the tale of a hidden treasure at Double Springs!
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Here are some of our very favorite books about Sierra history. Okay, we confess — we could easily add a few dozen more (perhaps that’s our next list!)
Nonetheless, we challenged ourselves to come up with just ten of our favorites. We hope this list will spur you to check out a few great Sierra history books that might be new to you!
Up and Down California in 1860 – 1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer. First published in 1930, this classic has gone through multiple publishers and editions. Brewer was part of the Whitney geological expedition sent “up and down California” to report on the state’s soils, minerals, and “botanical and zoological productions.” In vivid prose, Brewer’s journals describe his four years of adventuring, including visiting the Big Trees, stopping at Mono Lake and Aurora, traversing Carson Pass, and paying a visit to Lake Tahoe. His description of the early mining excitement when he arrived August 4, 1863 at Silver Mountain City makes you feel like you are there: “This log shanty has a sign up, ‘Variety Store’; the next, a board shanty the size of a hogpen, is ‘Wholesale & Retail Grocery’; that shanty without a window, with a canvas door, has a large sign of ‘Law Office’; and so on to the end. The best hotel has not yet got up its sign…” Whatever part of the Sierra captures your fancy, this is a book to read and re-read!
The Story of Early Mono County by Ella M. Cain. This is a book about the settlers, Indians, ghost towns and gold rushes of Early Mono County, told by a daughter of one of the earliest settler families. Ella’s mother came to Bodie in 1879, during its earliest gold rush excitement. Here she met and married M.J. Cody, a land office “receiver”, and Ella was born in Bodie in 1882. Her father went on to become Mono County Sheriff, and the family moved to Bridgeport. After her marriage to David Cain in 1904, she moved again back to Bodie. The copy on our shelf was published in 1961. As Ella notes in the Foreward, the book includes scenes that she herself observed over her very long and full life. And the stories are told with her own delightful wit and humor. Here, as Ella herself says, are the tales of “these intrepid souls, the pioneers, who settled here, and who suffered and braved the hardships of the frontier to lay the foundation of the Mono County we have today.”
Cemeteries of Carson City and Carson Valley by Cindy Southerland. A beautifully-done visual tour highlighting some fascinating graves through Carson Valley. Included are graves from (of course) big cemeteries like Genoa, and Lone Mountain; but also smaller cemeteries like Fredericksburg, CA; the cemetery at the Nevada State Prison; and relatively unknown burial sites like the Capt. George Indian Cemetery. Included are vintage portraits and photos of funerals, plus a wonderful explanation of cemetery symbolism. Our favorite, of course, are the stories of the people — many of them pioneers who shaped the history of Carson Valley.
Carson Valley: Historical Sketches of Nevada’s First Settlement by Grace Dangberg is a go-to classic. Originally published in 1972, it’s now in its fifth printing. This lavishly illustrated book gives a great overview of the history of Carson Valley, including the early wagon route; the town of Genoa; prominent landmarks like Walley’s Hot Springs and the Ferris House; the development of ranching and the railroad; plus tales of early weddings, murders and more. We bought our copy at the Carson Valley Historical Society Museum’s gift shop — such a beautiful book. Pick it up and you won’t want to put it down.
Territorial Lawmen of Nevada (Vol. 1), by Robert W. Ellison. Fascinating and comprehensive profiles of early lawmen in the period 1851-1861 (Utah Territorial days). In addition to sheriffs, constables, justices and U.S. Marshals, there are also fascination chapters on “Vigilantes” and “More Vigilantes” — in recognition of the fact that “These men were trying to keep law and order by holding the criminal element among them responsible for the crimes that they committed. . . . a difficult task for a community with no government officials to speak of, no courthouse, and no jail.” In addition to a helpful index, there is an appendix listing Sheriffs, Constables, Justices of the Peace, Watchmen, and other lawmen by period and jurisdiction. Well-documented and copiously footnoted, it’s a deep dive into history — and a fabulous resource for anyone researching a particular lawman or seeking a different perspective on the period.
Emigrant Trails: The Long Road to California by Marshall Fey. One of my favorite books about the Emigrant Trail, this beautifully illustrated book makes good use of its visual appeal using coated paper to accentuate the illustrations, and also boasts a fabulously approachable format. As the introductory pages put it, “the modern reader may drop back a century and a half and experience the great westward migration to California, and travel in the shadow of the emigrants.” This beautiful book is a visual treat, in addition to a well-researched history of the Trail. GPS coordinates and trail marker identifiers help you find the exact locations being described if you choose. And in one of my favorite touches, it includes “Emigrant Voices”: quotes from actual diaries as emigrants traipsed the Trail in the 1840s and ‘50s. (A new edition of this book is due out soon!)
The Hanging of Lucky Bill by Michael J. Makley — The wonderfully-researched (and wonderfully told) true story of Lucky Bill Thorington, whose not-so-lucky demise came at the end of a hangman’s noose. Lucky Bill’s hanging was in 1858 one of the early scandals of Carson Valley. Gambler, toll-road-keeper, hotel-operator, and good guy/bad guy, Thorington’s legendary tale has been told and retold, but never quite as well as in this fun volume. The facts are all here — you can make up your own mind about whether justice was served or not. Included are portraits of many early pioneers, plus reproductions of three fabulous early maps. A helpful chapter at the end also details the “Fates of the Principals” who took part in the hanging, to wrap up the tale.
A Lovely & Comfortable Heritage Lost: The Unique History of Early El Dorado County by Ellen Osborn. Written by a great-great granddaughter of John Calhoun Johnson — the pioneer who established the Johnson Cutoff — this fascinating book provides a fresh look at Gold Rush history including unique insights into the El Dorado Indian Wars. The result of thirty years of research, it is not only a biography of this important historic figure but also a chronicle of early El Dorado County in its formative years. Great period illustrations help bring the stories to life. One shows Johnson himself as a young man, operating a long tom as he mined for gold; another (from the 1880s) shows Placerville’s 3-story Cary House Hotel, with a caption indicating Johnson fell from one of its windows. A rare look at a historic figure most folks have never read about.
Aurora Nevada’s Silent City on the Hill by Sue Silver. A fabulously-researched compilation of the stories of those buried at the Aurora Cemetery. To say she’s “done her homework” wouldn’t do this book justice. If you’re fascinated by the ghost town of Aurora, this book is a must. Included are not only the currently-marked graves but also documented and possible suspected burials. Many of those profiled are truly forgotten pioneers — you won’t read about them anywhere else. Period photos, maps and advertisements bring the stories to life. And who could resist a chapter titled, “Died For Their Wicked Ways”?!
A Few of our Friends In the Amador County Cemeteries by Catherine A. Cissna and Madeline Church. As the subtitle indicates, the stories are of early Amador County pioneers “who have been our friends and focus of interest, through insights into their lives.” The authors began doing genealogical research on their own families, then branched out to help others with their histories. Through fifteen dedicated years of research they located a total of fifty cemeteries, including some little-known and private family cemeteries. This gem of a book reprints newspaper reports and tales of pioneers buried in over 40 of these cemeteries. Included are such amazing places as Yeomet, Drytown, Daffodil Hill, Aqueduct City, Butte City, and the Jackson Chinese Cemetery. This treasure of a book was self-published in 1994 at Sutter Creek. Although it is now officially out of print, copies still turn up occasionally on the internet. If you spot one, buy it!
Have a favorite Sierra history book of your own? Let us know! We’d love to do a Readers’ Round-Up of more great books someday!
Here are a few places where you can look for these and other great history books: