The Adventuresome Samuel Chapin

The sign on the tall, blue house in Virginia City caught our eye as we whizzed past one recent afternoon: “The Chapin House.” It’s an unusual last name — and one we recognized from old letters in Alpine County.

So, just who was Samuel A. Chapin? We tracked down a few pieces of his life story puzzle — and what a life he had!

Born in Northbridge, Massachusetts on September 2, 1811, Samuel Austin Chapin was the fifth (out of eight) children of Henry and Abigail Chapin. His family moved to Michigan Territory in the spring of 1830, and Samuel’s early adulthood was spent in White Pidgeon. He would later recount “startling and amusing” tales of “roughing it” there, and serving as sheriff of St. Joseph County, Michigan.

Samuel joined other Michigan volunteers during the Black Hawk War of 1832, quickly rising to the rank of Brigadier General with the Michigan State Militia. In 1840, he went on to serve as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives for one session.

Exciting as all that must have been, nothing could quite rival the excitement of finding gold! Chapin eagerly joined some of the earliest Gold Rush crowds to California, though exactly when he arrived there is unclear. He once claimed to plainly remember the day that “we of ’49” arrived at San Francisco Bay. Other accounts, however, peg the actual date of his arrival as May 20, 1850. Even so, that date still puts him among the earliest eager Argonauts.

Ads like this one lured passengers bound for the gold fields to a “first-rate clipper ship.” Vague promises included: “The voyage will probably be made in a few months.”

Chapin’s adventurous journey included a “rough passage” aboard the vessel Empire City; a “raging fever”  on the Chagres River; and an unexpected hiccup in Panama when the expected continuation vessel Sarah Sereds failed to arrive. Chapin and his companions managed to book substitute passage aboard the steamship Oregon for $500 a head — procuring a berth in steerage along with a thousand other eager travelers.

Once aboard ship again, Chapin was said to have “organized a mess” with fellow passengers William Smith, former governor of Virginia, and L.B. Benchley, of San Francisco — political connections that helped render the rest of his passage “comparatively comfortable.”

San Francisco, about the time Chapin arrived.

During his earliest days in California, Chapin operated a hardware business. He also managed to become a member of the San Francisco Board of Education, helping select property upon which to build future schools, and made friends with the influential editor of the Evening Bulletin.

By 1860 the Gold Rush had largely petered out — but the Silver Rush now was on! And once again, Chapin was in the forefront of adventurous pioneers.

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Chapin acquired a mill site on the Carson River, four miles from Silver City, in July, 1860. That same month he had a survey done on land in Steamboat Valley — property that included not only a mill site but also valuable timber and water rights. And his political instincts evidently remained as sharp as ever; Chapin soon was tapped to serve as a member of the two Constitutional Conventions working to frame Nevada’s state constitution.

Naturally, Chapin had a finger in several early mining pies. He acquired interest in the quartz mines of Mariposa County. His name appears in May, 1863 among the list of incorporators of the Buckeye No. 2 Gold & Silver Mine in Scandinavian Canyon  (soon to become Alpine County). And he also acquired an interest in mines on the Comstock. In 1865, Chapin issued a “report” extolling the merits of his “Gold Hill Front Lodes” at Gold Hill, Nevada — two parallel claims happily situated between the Yellow Jacket and the Justice Mines. This “report” (actually a sales brochure) was, of course, heavily leavened with “affirmations and statements from various persons” about the value of these two mines.

Letters show that not all was sweetness and light in Chapin’s mining business, however. In 1869, Ahnarin B. Paul wrote Alpine County mine promoter O.F. Thornton: “I saw Chapin to-day — he can’t get the [ore-processing] settler to produce the electricity which must be had for precipitating the mercury.” And by 1872 Chapin was back in San Francisco, still trying to sell his mining claims. He wrote to Thornton offering a mining claim near Devil’s Gate for a hefty $100,000 (likely the same two Gold Hill Front lodes), touting his “great expectations” for the property. But his “Hope Mining Co.” at Silver City, he acknowledged, had recently become “embarrassed” and (as he put it) “went to the wall.”

Chapin House (1862) still boasts great architectural details like this arched window at the peak.
The front of Chapin House, with the Savage Mansion in the background.

Chapin’s stately 15-room house at 311 South “C” Street was constructed in 1862, during Virginia City’s mining heyday, and may originally have been built for him as a private residence. But by 1880, Chapin House had been converted into a boarding house, with a Mrs. Cavanaugh acting as the proprietor.

Chapin’s tall, stately house on “C” Street, on a recent rainy afternoon.

Meanwhile, back east, one of Chapin’s sisters had married a Wheaton, and was living in Norton, Massachusetts. Samuel was apparently her favorite brother. In 1884, Samuel and his wife retired and moved back to Massachusetts to live with the sister. There, he would serve as a Trustee of Wheaton College from 1889-1890.

By now 78 years old, Chapin conceived the notion of revisiting “scenes of his early life,” and eagerly joined a group of fellow pioneers for a trip back to California. It would be his last big adventure.

Chapin died suddenly of a heart attack while in San Bernardino, California on April 17, 1890. Stopping there with his fellow pioneers on their way to San Francisco, Chapin had just finished delivering a rousing address to the crowd at a reception. The last words to fall from his lips were: “God bless the noble State and the dear people of California!”

Chapin’s body was placed in an “elegant coffin,” said to be identical to the one in which General Grant had been buried. It lay in state briefly in San Bernardino, with solemnities conducted by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the San Bernardino Pioneers, before being loaded on a train for return to Boston. Both Chapin Hall at Wheaton College and Chapin Street in Alameda, California would later be named in his honor.

As for Chapin House, it continues to keep its silent vigil, looking down over the town of Virginia City from its lofty perch on “C” Street.

As you make your way down Gold Canyon, keep an eye out for this historic marker for “Johntown” below Silver City. Johntown was Nevada’s very first mining town, established in 1853, and the spot where Eilley Orrum (the “Seeress of Washoe” and the future Mrs. Sandy Bowers) had her boarding house. Other early residents included the Groch brothers and the iconic H.T.P. Comstock himself. We thought it was so appropriate that when we visited, someone had left an old shovel here!

And here’s the last, fun snippet to this story: boardinghouse-keeper Mrs. Cavanaugh — or perhaps even Samuel himself — may not entirely have vacated the premises. Visitors have been said to “complain of an uneasy feeling,” as if there’s a ghost in the house!

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Like to read more silver mining history from the Comstock Era in nearby Alpine County? 

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How a Fire Saved the Fiske Hotel

Just how often do you get to walk inside a piece of history? Built in 1863, this hotel is a slice of life from Alpine County’s version of the Comstock days. And the building still exists — thanks to a fire.

Yes, a fire is what saved this historic building. Two fires, actually. Here’s how it happened:

By 1882, only a few inhabitants were still left in the once-booming mining town of Silver Mountain City. Gone were the hordes of eager miners, the hopping hotels, and the noise from its dirt streets. Although many of its homes and commercial establishments were still standing, much of the population had moved on to Bodie, where the diggings were fresh — and far more promising.

The Fiske family, owners of Silver Mountain’s prominent Fiske Hotel, had long since picked up stakes and moved over the mountain to Murphys. Their solid three-story hotel — one of the first structures built in Silver Mountain’s early days —  stood empty at its once-prime corner of First and Main.

Then, on the fateful winter day of February 18, 1882, a fire swept through the nearly-abandoned town of Silver Mountain City.

Advertisement for Fiske’s Hotel at Silver Mountain in December, 1865.

So what caused the 1882 conflagration? They say it was a simple chimney fire. By then, of course, few residents were left to battle the flames. Within hours, much of Silver Mountain’s Main Street was in ashes.

That did it; the few remaining die-hards holding out at Silver Mountain packed up whatever they could salvage and trudged off in search of happier climes.

One building that hadn’t burned, however, was the Fiske Hotel. And in 1885, when a different devastating fire swept through Markleeville, Alvin Grover took note.

Grover was the owner of Grover’s Hot Springs resort, and he suddenly arrived at a grand and practical solution: move the old Fiske Hotel from Silver Mountain to fire-stricken Markleeville. It not only would help draw visitors back to the fire-stricken town but also serve as lodging for his guests at the Hot Springs!

The Fiske Hotel aka Grover’s Hot Springs Hotel in Markleeville around the 1920s, looking much as it still does today. Owner John Ellis had renamed it the “Alpine House.” Old-time locals still call it the Alpine.

Leave it to Grover — he accomplished the feat with just a team and wagon, old-fashioned sweat, and lots of heavy lifting. The stately Fiske Hotel was dismantled, board by board, hauled off to Markleeville, and re-erected — at the spot where it still stands today.

Not only can you still walk inside this amazing bit of history, you can still eat lunch here. What fun to imagine miners’ boots stomping the restaurant’s creaking floorboards back in 1863.

The hallway upstairs on the second floor (not open to the public), with a row of doors to the original guest rooms. Bedrooms were tiny — about 10 x 10. (Photo courtesy of Ed Rogers).
Inside one of the former guest rooms upstairs, now used for storage. These wide boards (left) were likely milled at Silver Mountain City when the hotel was built in 1863.
There’s lots more exciting history about Silver Mountain City in this book, including amazing rare photos. Click to grab your own copy before they’re gone! (Just ask for an autographed copy!)

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Special thanks to our friend Ed Rogers, who shared the amazing photos in this article.

Great Nevada History Reads

You can’t have too many friends, too many adventures, or too many books. (And books, after all, are a whole lot like friends and adventures!)

Here are four new Nevada history books we recently found — or that recently found us. We wanted to share in hopes they follow you home, too!

Nevada State Orphans/Children’s Home: My Life as a “Home” Kid, by Bonnie Boice Nishikawa – Lovingly told by a real-life “Home” kid who lived at Carson City’s Orphan’s Home from 1942 to 1955, this is not only a true personal story but the story of the amazing Children’s Home itself — a Nevada institution that gave shelter and nurturing to orphans and half-orphans from 1870 to 1992. A great story about thriving despite tragedy, and how a few caring individuals can change a life.

 

 

Dayton, Nevada, by Laura Tennant and Jack Folmar – The story of Dayton, told (as Arcadia Publishing does so beautifully) in vintage pictures with well-researched captions. Fabulous illustrations include what might be the original trading post built along the Emigrant Trail; the old town itself as it looked in the late-1800s; and a photo of one-handed Otto Schroder around 1902 in front of his Old Sazarac Saloon (Otto’s left hand was amputated as a result of a fight involving another man’s ex-wife). Everything you never knew about this gold discovery town, by a noted Dayton historian/journalist.

 

Sparks, Nevada, by Joyce M. Cox – This lavishly-illustrated Arcadia history of Sparks (Nevada’s fifth largest town) shares charming rare photos from the Sparks Heritage Foundation, Nevada Historical Society, and several private collections. Our favorites: the ruins thought to be the very first trading post  (established in 1852 by H.H. Jamison); freight wagons moving entire buildings from Wadsworth to begin the new town; and a 1907 auto-stage bedecked with dangling fringe and rear-facing wicker seat for pampered passengers.

 

Aurora, Nevada: 1860 – 1960 – by Clifford Alpheus Shaw – If a book could ever return a town to life through pictures and stories, this one works that magic. In addition to fascinating quotes from period newspapers and documents, this 480-page volume adds special rare photos: Mark Twain’s cabin; the interior of a saloon in Aurora’s “Red Light” district; pictures of James S. Cain, the Bodie banker who revived Aurora’s mines in 1903 after a quarter-century slumber; and local Paiute Indians and beautiful Paiute baskets. (This second edition just came out in 2018.)

Happy history reading!

Why You’ll Actually Want to See The Inside of THIS Jail Cell. . .

. . . the historic jail at the Alpine County Museum, that is!

Built in 1867, these heavy iron cells were created for a new jail in the mining boomtown of Silver Mountain City.

Silver Mountain City was a boomtown when this photo was taken circa 1867.

Silver Mountain was Alpine County’s original county seat and a quintessential mining town, back in the days of the Comstock Lode. Think hard-drinking miners; armed barroom brawls; spats over mining claims — yes, a local hoosegow was a totally necessary structure. And the reason for a new jail: restless prisoners had attempted to burn down the earlier log jail.

A new stone jail building was going to solve all that. So plans were drawn and bids were let. Constructed of volcanic stone quarried from the nearby cliffs, Silver Mountain’s new jail was projected to cost an estimated $4,000 — more money than the fledgling county really had. But never mind that! The contract was signed, and funds pilfered from the Hospital Fund to help pay for it.

A cornerstone-laying ceremony was held in May, 1867. Some fifty supportive citizens and at least three Supervisors attended. They likely were the same three supervisors secretly rubbing their hands together in anticipation; two had chummily obtained contracts to do carpentry and blacksmithing for the project, and a third supervisor had an old boiler he planned to sell. Niceties like “conflict of interest” sailed out the window in the rush to complete this grand new County facility. The job was on!

Elsewhere in the county, public sentiment quickly turned against the new jail project. Eyebrows were especially raised over its exhorbitant price. Public grumbling culminated in an Anti-Jail Meeting in Markleeville on May 11th. But despite the malcontents, the jail was rapidly completed. When done, its stone walls were 18 inches thick, laid in cement. A separate “under roof” held up a foot of dirt, a precaution intended to render the building “fire proof.”

Inside were six stout cells: four made of wood, and two of solid iron plate, for the more hardened criminals. Grated iron cell doors weighed in at 500 pounds apiece and, for added security, prisoners could be tethered to the floor with short, 27-inch chains.

Finishing touches included plaster, painted woodwork and trim in the jailer’s portion of the building. And for added bit of comfort, there were two woodstoves, one at each end of the building.

Remains of the original (expensive!) stone jail at Silver Mountain City, as they looked about 1950.

When the building was finally completed around the end of December, 1867, it was a magnificent structure indeed — and had mushroomed with a huge cost over-run. Ups and extras boosted the total cost to more than $7,000 — nearly twice the original contract.

The mines in Alpine eventually petered out, and the demonetization of silver in 1873 dealt its own blow to the local economy. In 1875, citizens voted to move Alpine’s county seat from remote, snowy  Silver Mountain to the milder climate of Markleeville. There, a fresh wooden jail was erected. (Damn the fire hazard.) The powers-that-be opted for the cheaper structural option, and cheaper it was: just $603.37 for this notched log jail.

And in yet another nod to economy, the heavy iron jail cells were yanked from the old stone jail and carted off for re-use in Markleeville.

Removing the iron jail cells from Silver Mountain’s jail for transport to the new county seat of Markleeville (summer, 1876). On hand for this event were Undersheriff George Dunlap; Sheriff J.B. Scott; and one of the county supervisors, Charles Gregory.

Over the succeeding decades, the old stone jail at Silver Mountain City slowly went to wrack and ruin. But look carefully for the sign, and you can still visit its remains along today’s California Highway 4. (Here’s a map and directions to get there!)

Here’s the sign, with the fenced-in ruins of the old stone jail behind it. (P.S. Don’t believe everything you see on signs… there were never 3,000 people here!)
You can still see what we believe was the original entrance, on the creek side of the foundation. The stonework on the far side appears to be original; notice how beautifully the stones are fitted together!

Best of all, you can still step inside the actual iron jail cells that once held prisoners at Silver Mountain! They’re still here, inside the 1876 log jail at Alpine County’s wonderful museum at the top of Schoolhouse Hill in Markleeville.

The old log jail at Alpine County Museum — incorporating the barred windows, metal door, and iron jail cells from Silver Mountain.
Step inside the actual cells from Silver Mountain — and imagine what the poor prisoners must have experienced, sans electric light and with only a woodstove for winter heat!
The cell walls were shipped by wagon via Shingle Springs and riveted together once they reached Silver Mountain.

Like to step inside this original antique jail cell for yourself? Come see the old log jail at the Alpine County Museum in Markleeville! Here’s the website. (They’re open Memorial Day through the end of October and closed during winter months; be sure to check their hours!)

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Virginia City’s Cemetery

So beautiful – and so many mysteries are buried here!  We recently paid a visit to the historic cemetery on the outskirts of Virginia City. Here’s Tip #1: Be sure to bring your camera. (You’ll definitely wish you had one!)

And Tip #2: Don’t count on it being a quick visit.  If you’re like us, you’ll find yourself wanting to ramble the hills of this beautiful graveyard for hours!

Mysteries abound here. Like: Who were George and Elizabeth Strasser?

George and Elizabeth are still remembered, over 100 years after their deaths, thanks to these amazingly preserved (and recently repainted) wooden headstones.

George and Elizabeth are on the downward slope of the hillside, away from the main body of the cemetery. Someone has not only recently repainted their wooden headstones but also carefully laid flowers there — a kind touch adding a cheerful splash of color.

A quick search once we got home produced a few bits of their story:  Both George and Elizabeth (Erhart) were born in Berlin, Germany, and were married there in 1851. George would have been a dapper 21 at the time; Elizabeth was two years older, and was 23.  They decided to emigrate to America, settling in Virginia City in the 1860s, during its early mining hey-day. George worked as a saddle and harness-maker — an important trade in those horse-and-buggy days, and a whole lot safer than working as a mill-hand! A son, George S., was born in 1868.

George was 66 years old when he died of a stroke in August, 1896. A member of the local Masons, he was no doubt laid to rest by his fraternal brothers here in the Masonic section of the cemetery. Elizabeth passed away six years later, in 1902, at the age of 74.

Their headstones, interestingly enough, were originally made of stone. They must have been beautiful indeed, as vandals stole them. The current wooden markers were added by family members, luckily making sure that George and Elizabeth are still remembered to this day.

This beautiful small marker features a hand holding a flower.

But not all the mysteries we stumbled across had such clear answers! Take this beautifully-carved small marker — a monument erected by a daughter named Lillie in memory of her father.

So, who was Lillie? And what was her father’s name? How did he die? And what ever happened to Lillie? It’s possible there’s still a record somewhere. Someday, perhaps, we’ll know!

And in the meantime, we plan to come back here, again and again.

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Gold Country Roses

Visit a historic old graveyard in Mother Lode Country to see the — roses?!?  You bet!

Plymouth Pioneer Cemetery off Highway 49 is a cool place to visit, all by itself. But it turns out that this pioneer cemetery’s roses are so special they even have their own Facebook page! (Just type “Plymouth Pioneer Cemetery Heritage Roses” in the search box to find them.)

Pillars at the entrance to Plymouth Pioneer Cemetery bear engraved plaques with names of early pioneers and military veterans who are buried here.

Local volunteers banded together to “rescue, preserve and protect” these heritage roses so future generations can enjoy them. And they had quite a time with the “rescue” prong of their mission!

Buds were just starting to open when we visited in late April.
How amazing to see a rose developed in China pre-1835 — and so loved that later generations kept propagating it!

In the past, well-intentioned groundskeepers applied herbicides to the cemetery grounds and — yup, the antique roses too got sprayed. Sadly, some century-old rose bushes never made it. Then in 2014, the curator of the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden reached out to local residents to try to save the remaining heritage roses at Plymouth Cemetery. Thanks to the care of these dedicated volunteers, the cemetery’s antique rose bushes are thriving again — and what a treat for the eyes they are!

Pioneers lugged these heritage roses here to the Mother Lode. Some made the journey tucked in covered wagons, while others spent months in the dank, dark recesses of sailing ships. Once here, the beautiful flowers became important reminders of home. Treasured for their heady fragrance and beautiful shape, roses were also planted as a special tribute at a loved one’s grave.

Duchesse blooms.

Roses can be propagated from a cutting, with “babies” retaining the same characteristics as the mother plant; identifiable varieties can be traced back hundreds of years. Here at Plymouth Pioneer Cemetery, rose varieties  include the Duchesse de Brabant— a long-flowering “tea rose” dating to about 1857. Drought-tolerant and vigorous, this rose was said to have been a particular favorite of Teddy Roosevelt.

The Elizabeth Roberts rose, dating from the late 1800s, was at death’s door here at Plymouth Cemetery due — not just once, but twice! After two years of intensive TLC it bloomed again in 2017 — volunteers deemed its recovery a “garden miracle.”

The “Pulich Children” rose from the 1860s.

A gorgeous deep-pink hybrid known as the Pulich Children rose dates back to the 1860s. Cuttings propagated from a bush here at Plymouth Pioneer Cemetery have produced bushes that now grace other gardens, including the Howard Rose Garden at the Banning Museum in Wilmington, California.

Several of the gravestones here at Plymouth are also decorated with beautiful roses graven in stone. A couple we saw on our recent visit:

“Annie” has a beautiful stone rose on her headstone. As the inscription notes, “the angels took her home.”
Maryann Purcell died in 1889, just 13 years old. An engraved rose tops her headstone.

The Gold Rush town of Plymouth isn’t alone, of course, in having spectacular old roses in its cemetery. Sacramento, too, has a rose garden associated with an early cemetery. The collection of roses at Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery is said to be “among the world’s best,” boasting over 500 rare rose specimens from between 1850 and 1915. Many were collected and propagated from specimens at other old cemeteries and early homesites. Check them out here: http://oldcitycemetery.com/roses.htm. And for a wonderful story about how this special rose collection narrowly escaped being regulated out of existence: http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article142206839.html.

Sacramento’s historic cemetery rose collection has its own Facebook page, too: type “Sacramento Historic Rose Garden” in the Facebook search box. (Be sure to check out the cool costumes its volunteers are wearing!)

And if you’re a true rose afficionado, there even a “Mother Lode Rose Society” you can join in Jackson.

The Pentecost Rose — not really a rose at all, but a peony.

Carson Valley, too, had its own old rose bushes — including a heritage “rose”  that isn’t really a rose at all. Many early homesteads were brightened by the deep red, rose-like “Pentecost Rose” peony — tubers of which are said to have first been brought to Carson Valley by Anna Neddenriep, all the way from her home in Germany.

Directions to reach the Plymouth Pioneer Cemetery:
From Jackson, go north on Hwy 49 through Sutter Creek and Amador City to reach the town of Plymouth. You’ll come to a stop sign; continue through for a short distance, then turn right on Church Street. Cross Landrun and keep going; the road will take you up a hill and jogs left; the cemetery entrance is on your right.

Don’t forget that selfie with a rose bush — share your history adventure with your friends!

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Walking Tour of Old Minden, Nevada

The pillars on County Road at the entrance to the Town of Minden once proudly bore a date of 1905. Perhaps it was wishful thinking; plans for this fresh town actually weren’t approved by County commissioners until 1906. And once it was a go, new homes began to spring up immediately in the fresh town.

Minden was the brainchild of Henry Fred Dangberg, Jr., oldest son of H.F. Dangberg. After the death of H.F. Dangberg Sr. in 1904, Fred began to dream of creating a well-ordered, planned community — to be dubbed Minden, in honor of a town near his father’s birthplace in Germany.

Town founder Henry F. Dangberg, Jr., sporting the snappy slicked-down hair, center part, and pocket handkerchief that were fashionable in his day.

That means, of course, that many of the beautiful old homes and commercial establishments in Minden are now more than a century old.

Luckily for historians and visitors, the Town of Minden has published a fabulous walking tour of its oldest buildings, featuring many of the gracious homes surrounding the town’s iconic square. Just click here to pull up  their walking tour flyer. Scroll to the end for a handy map, which includes helpful thumbnail photos to help you identify the buildings.

This well-designed map contains information about some of Minden’s most fascinating and beautiful old homes, including these landmarks:

The C.O. Dangberg House at 1609 Esmeralda.

Built by Davies Brothers Construction in 1910 for Clarence Oliver Dangberg, this house is made of thermally-efficient cement block, an innovative building material for the day.

The C.O.D. Garage, named for Clarence Oliver Dangberg.

At the time this home was built, Clarence had sold his share of the family ranch to his brothers, and was about to turn his attention to his next creation, the C.O.D. Garage (just down the block, at 1593 Esmeralda), built in 1911. Clarence later became a founding charter member of the Minden Rotary Club in 1926. He died in 1938 and is buried at Lone Mountain cemetery.

John Dangberg House, at 1600 Sixth St.

Another fascinating house on the walking tour map is the John Dangberg home. This beautiful two-story home was designed by noted Nevada architect F.J. DeLongchamps for H.F. Dangberg, Jr.’s younger brother, John. It was completed in 1912.

John was president of H. F. Dangberg Land Livestock Company beginning in 1904. He also served as a director for Farmers’ Bank, Alpine Land Reservoir Company, East Fork Water Users Association, and Minden Milling Company. This home was later occupied by his daughter, Grace Dangberg, until her death.

John Schrengohst house, 1578 Mono Avenue.

This humble frame home with the twin-peaked roof was built by blacksmith John Schrengohst in 1918. John was born in Kansas in 1860.

John and his son, Bill, were blacksmiths in Minden — an important trade in the days when horse-drawn buggies, wagons and farm tools were still in use. The Schrengohsts ran a family blacksmith shop across the street from this house for the next two decades. John died in 1938 at the age of 78, and is buried at Mottsville.

Helpful plaques on many of the original Minden homes and businesses make it fun to visit the outside of these buildings in person.

If you choose to make the tour in person, be sure to look for helpful brass plaques mounted at many homes and businesses in Minden’s historic downtown. We hope you’ll take time for a leisurely tour next time you visit this beautiful town!

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Stage Robberies -Wells Fargo’s Finest (Part 2)

It was June 15, 1893 on a remote stretch of road outside Jackson, California. Mike Tovey was again riding shotgun as security guard for Wells Fargo, this time aboard the stage headed from Ione into Jackson. Mike had been shot once before in his dangerous career; no doubt his eyes were always scanning the countryside for possible trouble.

Over six feet tall, burly Wells Fargo guard Mike Tovey was known for his gentle humor and lack of fear.

But as the stage crested Morrow Grade that fateful day, the vista was open — not the sort of territory where a concealed highwayman would be expected. And that’s exactly when a man clad in blue coveralls stepped out from behind a small clump of buckeye bushes — and, without warning, fired directly at the stage.

Tovey toppled forward. A bullet had ripped its way through his heart. Fearless Mike Tovey, “one of the strongest, biggest and most cheerful shotgun messengers in the employ of the Wells Fargo Express company that ever rode through the lonely mountain passes of the Sierras,” was dead.

Milton Sharp was a prison escapee. But was he Tovey’s killer?

Suspicion promptly centered on Milton Sharp, of course — Tovey had been instrumental in sending Sharp to Nevada State Prison for a series of Bodie stage robberies in 1880. After several failed attempts to escape Sharp had finally successfully broken out of prison in 1889, and had been running from the law for four years before Tovey was shot. Rumor was that Sharp had sent threatening letters to Tovey — or at least someone had, using Sharp’s name.

The hunt for Milton Sharp was on. He was soon captured in Red Bluff, California by a sharp-eyed police officer who recognized his “wanted” picture.

But somehow the sweet-talking bandit managed to convince authorities he wasn’t the one responsible for Tovey’s killing. And although he still had a sentence to serve for his original stage robberies, Sharp had by now served nearly half his original twenty-year sentence. He managed to talk Wells Fargo into recommending a pardon for this earlier crime, claiming he’d become “rehabilitated” during his years on the run. Sharp won a formal pardon in 1894 and was released. For the rest of his life he remained on the right side of the law — or so they say, anyway.

So . . .  Sharp wasn’t convicted of Tovey’s murder. Instead, a petty criminal named Bill Evans confessed to the crime. Well, he offered up a confession to it. Modern lawyers would cringe to hear that he did so without benefit of having a lawyer present. Evans would later say he’d been drugged and set up by an over-eager sheriff and a cooperating stool pigeon.

So who shot Wells Fargo guard Mike Tovey?

Even the press expected a “not guilty” verdict when Evans finally came to trial, due to the large volume of what the newspapermen carefully termed “conflicting evidence.” None other than Wells Fargo’s own detective was convinced that Evans was not guilty.

It took two criminal trials. But three hours into deliberations following the second trial, a jury finally voted to convict. Evans was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison — for a murder he may or may not have committed.

So did Evans really shoot Tovey? Or did Sharp, Tovey’s long-time enemy, not only exact revenge for sending him to prison but also get away with murder?

And one other mystery: whatever happened to Milton Sharp’s robbery loot? Treasure-hunters are convinced that Sharp and his partner must have buried a good bit of their treasure. Estimates of how much was taken during the pair’s estimated 20 stage robberies vary. Some say it came to $6,000 (in 1880 dollars); others claim it could have been even more.

Small portions of the loot were said to have been found in 1910 by a pair of treasure-hunting brothers named Hess. Wouldn’t we all love to know where the rest might still be hiding.

P.S. We hope you’ll pay a visit to Mike Tovey’s grave if you’re ever at the Jackson City Cemetery. It’s close to Zacharius Kirkwood’s tall monument which has a ball on top. 

Mike Tovey’s grave at Jackson City Cemetery.

 

(If you missed Part 1 of this story — the robbery of the Bodie stage that sent Sharp to prison — just click  here.)

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(More) Best Sierra History Books!

After our recent round-up of Sierra history books (you can find it here), we realized we’d left off a number of our own favorites — and we’ve also gotten some more great suggestions from readers!

So check out this additional list for more fascinating Sierra history reads — and be sure to let us know if you have a favorite book to mention for next time!

A Road from El Dorado, by Will Bagley (ed.). The  real-life trail diary of former Mormon Battalion member Ephraim Green, this is the true, day-by-day account of the pioneering Mormons who blazed what soon became known as the Mormon-Emigrant Trail over the Sierras in 1848 as they made their way eastward from California back to Salt Lake. If you’re not familiar with Will Bagley, here’s the Wikipedia summary about him.

Frontiersman Abner Blackburn’s Narrative, by Will Bagley (ed.) Another important work by noted historian Will Bagley, this is the story of Abner Blackburn, one of the original founders of Mormon Station in 1850 (the trading post which became Genoa). Blackburn’s adventurous life included multiple trips over the Sierra and discovering gold in Gold Canyon.

William Brewer and a member of his survey party.

Such a Landscape, by William Henry Brewer. We included Brewer’s familiar Up and Down California in our earlier list, and a reader urged us to include this title as well. Such a Landscape is the story of early survey expeditions through the Sierra, including the weather they encountered, equipment they brought, and how they mapped the landscape and measured peaks, back in the day. These “aggressively healthy” adventurers made impressive climbs, in impressive time. A coffee-table-style book filled with pictures, and a great companion to some of John Muir’s writings. For the fascinating backstory on Brewer himself (did you know he’d just lost his wife and son shortly before his 1860 exploring adventures began?), here’s the Wikipedia thumbnail.

The Humboldt, by Dale L. Morgan. Two extremely knowledgeable history friends both raved about this book, and Kirkus Reviews called it “colorful, adventurous, exciting reading.” Debuting in 1943 as part of a book series called “Rivers of America,” this volume’s reach extends far beyond the Humboldt itself to include the history of Carson Valley — an early and important historical work.

The California Trail, by George R. Stewart. First published in 1964 in Great Britain, this engagingly-written narrative details America’s  cross-continent migrations from 1841 through 1859, ending with a final chapter humorously titled “End of the Trail.” Great research is layered with unusual trail lore and beautifully-executed illustrations and maps. Among the line drawings are illustrations comparing three different styles of emigrant wagons, and detailing a trick for crossing a deep river with oxen. An excellent index at the back makes this a great find for history lovers and researchers.

John A. Snowshoe Thompson: Pioneer Mail Carrier of the Sierra, by Frank Tortorich. The most recent release by one of our very favorite Sierra historians, the inimitable Frank Tortorich. This is the seminal work on the heroic “mailman of the Sierras,” John (Snowshoe) Thompson. A great read, and the most complete work we’ve seen on this legendary figure. As you may know, Frank has also written Gold Rush Trail: A Guide to the Carson River Route of the Emigrant Trail, a long-time favorite for enthusiasts eager to find — and walk — the Emigrant Trail for themselves.

Hetch Hetchy and Its Dam Railroad, by Ted Wurm. A reader kindly suggested this well-illustrated book; it’s the fascinating story of the railway built by San Francisco to support the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam (an improvement for the city’s water supply). In operation between 1917 to 1949 (when it finally was dismantled), this 68-mile railroad not only transported goods and supplies for the dam but also brought passengers out on sleeper-car excursions to view the construction, eat at the project bunkhouse, and enjoy the forest. Great photos make this an especially fun read.

Hope you enjoy, and let us know your favorite Sierra read!