The Story of Lame Tom: Finding Gifts Among Tragedy

The true “pioneers” of Alpine County were the native Washoe. But little was written about them in the early days. So it was a real treat to stumble across a 1927 Record-Courier article detailing the life of Markleeville resident “Lame Tom.”

In the early 1900s, Lame Tom (his real name was Assu) lived in a wickiup just below the old wooden schoolhouse on Schoolhouse Hill. By then, he was an elderly gentleman. He shared his humble abode with a friend with the euphonious name of Zon-ha-gen-mal-anay, popularly known as “Squealing Aleck.”

“Lame Tom” (Assu), about 1900 (courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society).

Lame Tom was a son of Chief Possic (or Possuk), a Washoe captain living near the Hot Springs who was said to have been a guide in the early days for John Fremont’s party. Noted basketmaker Dat-So-La-Lee married into their family.

In his youth, Lame Tom was acclaimed as a hunter. But tragedy struck one night while he camped out alone. A large, heavy log rolled off his campfire and onto his leg while he slept, and the burning wood pinned him “like a vise.”

The log pinned his leg like a vise.

The brave young man did the unthinkable: he amputated his own leg with a hunting knife to free himself, and “crawled many miles home” to his camp.

Amazingly, he survived. But Lame Tom could no longer hunt. Instead took up the art of arrowhead-making — soon becoming one of the “most proficient of all the arrowhead makers.” He would shape a flake of obsidian by cradling it in his palm with buckskin, then striking the edge of the stone with a piece of buckhorn (antler) lashed to a length of greasewood. The only person who could equal him was noted arrowhead-maker Poker Charlie (Tillebow Behang), another son of Chief Possic. (A little family rivalry, perhaps!)

Lame Tom, possibly outside his home on Montgomery Street in Markleeville. (courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society)

Lame Tom also crafted bows made of cedar and sinew, and would sell a bow and arrow set to local lads for “two bits” (25 cents). He also taught them how to weave snowshoes.

Due to his injury, Lame Tom was permitted to marry two wives, an important form of social support. Both wives were employed in or near Markleeville: Maley worked for the Musser family, while Susie was employed by Harriet Grover. Interestingly enough, Squealing Aleck (Lame Tom’s friend) had three wives, and an astonishing ten daughters.

Lame Tom passed away in 1910. So it’s a delight to be able to connect this photograph from the Alpine County Museum with his story, thanks to the old Record-Courier article from 1927.

Local arrowheads and display in the Washoe Exhibit at Alpine County Museum.

Stop in at the Museum next time you visit Markleeville: there’s more great information here about the local Washoe heritage, including this stunning collection of local arrowheads. Who knows, perhaps some of these might even have been crafted by Lame Tom (Assu) or his talented brother, Poker Charlie.

More unique history and undiscovered tales! Get your copy at http://www.Clairitage.com

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Special thanks to the Alpine County Museum for permission to share the photo of Lame Tom. Visit the Museum at the top of Schoolhouse Hill in Markleeville Thursday through Sunday from late May through October, summer hours 10-4.

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.

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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Woodfords, California

If you’ve ever stopped at Woodfords, you may have seen the Wade House — and probably never gave it a second glance. But this small, nondescript green house has an amazing claim to fame: it’s said to be the oldest continuously-inhabited dwelling on the entire Eastern Sierra!

Here’s what the Wade House looks like today. (It wasn’t intentional, but we lucked out and got the picture from almost the same perspective as the one nearly 100 years earlier!)

The original cabin (likely just a single room) was built by mill-builder Thomas Knott when he arrived in 1853. The cabin was sold that same year to John Cary, when Knott moved to Mormon Station to build yet another mill (one for which he would never get paid!) Some of the boards in the Wade House are said to be 18 and 24 inches in width, and probably were the product of Knott’s early sawmill.

Another early view of the old Wade house (circa 1920s). This view is probably slightly more recent than the first photo, above; the same fence and gate are still present on the right, but in much worse condition. The large addition on the left is gone.

Long before white settlers ever arrived, of course, the area around what is Woodfords today was a popular gathering spot and campsite for local Washo. Some of their descendants still live nearby. The trail up Carson Canyon (today’s Highway 88) is said to have been a major Native American trading route, used by Native Americans for centuries as they traded obsidian and pine nuts for acorn and other goods on the other side of the Sierra.

Cary sold the cabin to William Wade and his wife, Clarissa in the early 1860s. The Wades had crossed the plains in 1853 by wagon and settled initially near Fredericksburg. They moved here to Woodfords in 1858, where William was employed as a mill-hand at Cary’s lumber mill. He would later serve as the town’s postmaster and the local justice of the peace.

Orville Wade likely operated his store in this building, sometimes called Nye’s Hall (after its original builder). This two-story building stood at the same spot as today’s Woodfords Station/Mad Dog Cafe.

William’s younger brother, Orville, later came west as well with his wife and children. Orville ran a store and operated a small hotel here at Woodfords. Could the large addition to the Wade House have been added for them? We’ll probably never know for sure, but take a look at the left-hand section of building in top photo, above.

After nearly twenty happy years here at Woodfords, William Wade died in 1877 — the result of a terrible mistake. His son, James, had erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin. William came home one day with an open cut on his own wrist and, seeing James’ medicine bottle, dabbed a bit of the remedy on the wound, using a feather which his son had also used as an applicator. Within a few days the mistake became obvious: the infection spread through William’s body. Both his arms swelled up terribly and “mortification” (gangrene) set in. Concerned neighbors brought William to Genoa Hot Springs for treatment, but the doctor there pronounced it too late. The horrible swelling continued to spread, finally reaching William’s mouth and throat, and he died there at Walley’s from asphyxiation.

William’s brother Orville left Woodfords the following year for Oregon. Clarissa, now a widow, continued to live alone in the old Wade house, taking in boarders to help make ends meet. She passed away there in her home in January, 1890, one of the most severe winters on record. There was no way to bury her in the frozen earth, so townsfolk planted her body temporarily in a snowdrift until the spring thaw set in, when a proper grave could be prepared.

More fun local history (check out our book page)!

Clarissa — and most likely her husband, William, too — now rest in peace in the old graveyard just up the road from the old Wade House where they lived so long.

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The Secret Life of Eugene May (Part 2)

We left off last week with the secret Eugene A. May had kept for over 50 years: his real name was Henry Head! He’d left his family back in Illinois after an emotional dispute with his step-mother. His own family in Empire may not even have known the truth.

This was pretty Eldorado, possibly about the time of her first marriage. (Courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society)

After Hank’s death in 1900, his widow, Eldorado, found herself alone again. She now had buried her second husband.  Eldorado would eventually marry a third time: a judge in Washoe Valley named Lamb.

Hank May’s step-daughter, Jennie, was now a schoolteacher. She had attended the University of Nevada Normal School and her first teaching assignments were at the elementary schools at Galena, Pine Grove, and Mina Nevada.

About 1898, Jennie May took a job just over the California border, and began teaching at the little white schoolhouse in Markleeville. In her oral history, Jennie would recall arriving for this job aboard the local stage: a spring wagon with two horses. The following year, 1899 Jennie accepted a teaching position at Fredericksburg School. And, as other Fredericksburg teachers had done, she roomed with the Bruns family in their beautiful ranch house adjacent to the school.

Eldorado’s daughter, Jennie May, about the time of her marriage to Fred Bruns, Jr. (Courtesy of Alpine Co. Historical Society)

Schoolteachers were considered great marriage material. And sure enough, on December 28, 1904, Fred Bruns, Jr. wed young Jennie May in Carson City. Although she was no longer allowed to teach after her marriage, Jennie went on to become Alpine County’s longest-serving superintendent of schools (from 1916-1939). Jennie and Fred had four children together including Hubert, later a well-known Alpine rancher and supervisor.

Eldorado Lamb, Jennie’s mother, about the time she came to live with Jennie and Fred. (Courtesy Alpine Co. Historical Society)

Around 1923 Jennie’s mother, Eldorado, now a widow for the third time, came to live with Jennie and Fred. Eldorado died in 1924 of pneumonia at the age of 70, and is buried at the Fredericksburg Cemetery.

Fred Bruns, Jr. passed away in 1959. His wife Jennie — step-daughter of Eugene “Hank” May (aka Henry Head) and the little girl who grew up in Empire watching the old millworks turn — died in 1970. She was 92.

Eldorado Murphy Dunigan May Lamb — three times a widow — is buried at Fredericksburg Cemetery, California, near her daughter, Jennie May Bruns.
The grave of Jennie (Eugenia) and Fred Bruns at Fredericksburg Cemetery.

Jennie, Fred and Eldorado Lamb are all buried at Fredericksburg Cemetery.

So that’s the story of Hank May, who wasn’t really Hank May at all; his wife Eldorado, who lost three husbands; and little Jennie, who used to watch the millworks turn at Empire and grew up to become an important member of one of Alpine County’s most prominent ranching families!

Hank May’s grave at Empire still looks out over the site where the Mexican Mill once stood.

The grave of Eugene “Hank” May, aka Henry Head.

       Here are directions if you decide to pay him a visit: From Carson City, take Highway 50 East. Turn south (right) at Deer Run and in a short distance, turn right again on Sheep Drive. The road will curve around to Waste Management. Follow the cemetery signs and a rather unusual access road will take you up the hill (you will think you’re driving through private business property, but just follow the cemetery signs!)

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Hope Valley History

Hope Valley received its name from members of the Mormon Battalion making their way back to Salt Lake, who “finally had hope” of reaching their destination once they got this spot. Here they would have found water and grass for their animals, and a place to rest briefly before forging the difficult path down the rocky canyon ahead (Woodfords Canyon).

Two plaques once graced this large rock just east of Pickett’s Junction. Thieves have stolen one plaque, but the Pony Express Marker is still there!

Today there are still fascinating traces of history in Hope Valley — well worth seeking out next time you’re there!

The intersection of Highways 88 and 89 is known today as Pickett’s Junction, but it went by other names in the past. As early as 1854, a hotel owned by Haynes and Warner stood northwest of this spot to serve passing emigrants.

The oval plaque on the left honors the Pony Express, which stopped here from 1861-62

Around 1862 James Green settled slightly west of today’s junction, where the old road veered north. Green operated a dairy ranch, hotel and stage “station” here, and his house was used in 1864 as a reference point for establishing Alpine County’s original boundary line. Polling in the very first county election was held at Green’s Hotel for voters in the “Green’s Station Precinct.”

James Green somehow “went missing” about 1869, just after his third son was born, and his ranch was sold to 24-year-old Samuel Alphonse Nott, a dairyman from Ohio. Nott later became a state Assemblyman, and died in 1880 in Sacramento County.

If you look west from today’s Pickett’s Junction, you will spot this same saddle in the mountains. The old dirt road shown here roughly parallels today’s Hwy 88. This is how the valley looked in 1889, during Pickett’s day. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Drew’s Yerington Collection).

Nott’s Place (as it was known) was sold about 1880 to Edward M. Pickett. Pickett, like his predecessors, operated a stage station here, and his name lives on in today’s place name, “Pickett’s Junction.” When Pickett died about 1899, his estate conveyed the property to Henry Bassman, a local rancher.

This interpretive sign not only contains great information on the Emigrant Trail but also helpfully lets you know you’re in the right spot. The rainbow halo — well, we’d like to say it was a mystical event or ghosts of early passing emigrants, but it’s really just sunlight glancing off our camera lens!

Two clear sections of the Old Emigrant Trail also can still be found in Hope Valley.  The first is a bit hard to locate unless you know exactly where to look. From Pickett’s Junction, go west about 0.3 miles on Hwy 88 (past the intersection with 89) and watch for the Wildlife Area & Fishing Access parking lot on your right. Park in the Fishing Access parking lot, and follow the paved path as it loops around to the left. When you see the interpretive sign, you’ll know you are in the right spot.

The Emigrant path is clear here in sections, though it fades away in others. In spots, trees have sprouted in the pathway the early emigrants took, seeds taking advantage of the disturbed soil.
Before you leave the Fishing Access parking lot, be sure to take the short walk to enjoy the view of the river from the old bridge. In this photo you can also see the special platform (in the distance) that helps make fishing enjoyable and available for anglers with disabilities.      

You’ll easily spot the remains of an early paved road; the old Emigrant Trail ran roughly parallel to this. Look carefully, and you will find the Trail itself. In spots, you’ll notice trees growing in the old trail bed — that’s because seeds found it easy to take root in the disturbed soil.

Park near this gate to access the Fourth Crossing segment of the Trail.

A short drive west of the Fishing Access parking will take you to yet another pristine section of Trail– one especially worth exploring because it is often mentioned in emigrant diaries. Continue west on Hwy 88 about 0.9 miles from the Access parking lot and, after crossing a narrow bridge, look for a graveled pullout near a gate on your left (see photo above).

This is Fourth Crossing — and depressions on both sides of the river here still clearly show evidence of the hundreds of thousands of wagons that made their final river crossing here!
The Emigrant Trail remains clearly visible through this stretch of meadow. This is where the emigrants walked just after crossing the river for the fourth and last time.

This is the area that the emigrants called “Fourth Crossing” — the fourth and last time their wagons had to cross the Carson River. The swale left by thousands of passing wagons is still clearly visible today across the meadow. Another great spot to stop and take a photo!

Hope Valley is always a grand spot for photography! Whether it’s the fall colors, snow-capped winter mountains, or spring and summer greenery, there’s always something beautiful to capture here with your lens!