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 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 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 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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.”
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.
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’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.
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.
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!
Like to read more silver mining history from the Comstock Era in nearby Alpine County?
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.
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!
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.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * Special thanks to our friend Ed Rogers, who shared the amazing photos in this article.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Next time you’re up for a fun hike, try the short loop trail at Curtz Lake. Just over a mile long, it’s currently well-maintained (thanks to a recent joint effort between BLM and the Alpine Trails Association). There are plenty of scenic backcountry views along the trail, and interpretive signs make for interesting reading. For a longer hike, you can also access Summit Lake from this same trail.
The lake itself is a natural (not man-made) lake, fed by snowmelt. Old-timers say it used to be a great place for duck hunting. There’s no fishing here, however, because there are no fish; in dry years the water dries up completely (not so good for aquatic life!)
Curtz Lake is said to be named after early Alpiner Peter Curtz. But exactly what Peter had to do with this lake remains a mystery!
Born in Canada about 1835, Peter Curtz came west in 1859 via the Panama route, and a few years later became one of the pioneering miners in (future) Alpine County. He evidently knew town founder Jacob Marklee, as both Marklee and Curtz were among the locators of two mining claims in 1863 near the new townsite of Markleeville.
By December that year, however, Curtz had moved on to Silver King, where he became a principal in a lumbering operation and sawmill. In later years he owned a sawmill at Boiler Flat, between Markleeville and Woodfords.
Curtz was a well-known early citizen, holding a variety of important public posts. He was a county supervisor; the County Coroner; District Attorney; and a Justice of the Peace; and he also sat on the local Board of Education.
But Curtz’s real love, it seems, was mining. In 1884 he worked enough rock at his arrastra on the Carson River to produce a bar of silver weighing more than 15 pounds. Over the years, he was said to have “made several fortunes” (suggesting he not only made but also lost them). As late as 1915, his Curtz Consolidated Mining Co. owned an astonishing 22 mining claims in the Monitor area, including the famous Morning Star — assets Curtz grandly asserted were worth $23 million. Curtz lived to be 88 years old, finally passing away after a car in which he was riding plummeted over the embankment beside the river, not far from his mill. (As an aside, there’s a ghost story that just might be related to this spot!)
As for exactly how Curtz Lake got its name, the record remains unclear. The Lake isn’t close to Curtz’s early mining activities, and it doesn’t appear that Curtz ever lived nearby. There’s plenty of timber in the vicinity, however, and one old-time local has speculated that Curtz might once have had a timber claim here.
For now at least, that’s pure speculation. But given Curtz’s interest in lumber and sawmills, it’s as good a guess as we’ve been able to come up with. If anyone out there has more information that would help to solve this naming mystery, we’d love to hear!
Directions: Located between Woodfords and Markleeville, the trailhead is not far off Hwy 89. Take Airport Road heading east 1.1 miles, then look to your left for the entrance road.
Map: Like to see an aerial map showing both Curtz Lake and the trail? Here’s a great one, from a blog by Tim Messick: http://tinyurl.com/y9bwkdh9
Alas, poor Jacob Marklee! His name lives on in his namesake town of “Markleeville.” But aside from that one honor, this first pioneer has largely been forgotten.
We know Marklee was a Canadian, born about 1821. And we know he had a fine eye for real estate, picking out the beautiful 160-acre parcel (which now includes his townsite) on September 12, 1861. Just a year and a half later, however, Marklee lay dead in front of his cabin from a pistol ball — the victim, in part, of his own hot temper, buckling on a pistol during a dispute with erstwhile partner Henry Tuttle. (Tuttle was later acquitted.)
But what happened to Marklee’s body? Where was he buried? When Jacob breathed his last on May 14, 1863, the town was still in its embryonic stages. There likely was no cemetery before this sudden need arose.
We’ll probably never know for certain where Marklee is buried. But two important clues have surfaced in a newspaper report from just three months later — so soon afterwards that the writer describes Marklee’s remains as lying “under a still freshly heaped mound of earth.”
Clue Number One: After noting a “fine stream” running through the townsite, the writer reports Marklee’s grave is “overlooking it” (the stream).
And Clue Number Two: Marklee’s burial site is also described as being “on a little eminence” above town.
Every time we visit the Markleeville Cemetery, I am drawn to the isolated point of land that overlooks the town. Two towering pines grace its edges, and the creek flows peacefully below. Could this be the spot where Jacob Marklee was buried?
It certainly fits the description. And on a recent visit to the cemetery, we discovered what appears to be the outline of a grave: rocks laid in a roughly rectangular pattern, with a depression in the middle. The view is serene. And it’s exactly where Marklee should be buried: on a little eminence (high point), overlooking the town that he founded.
We hope you’ll pay a visit to this quiet and peaceful cemetery soon, and decide for yourself!
Like to read more of the history of Markleeville’s very own “Unsung Founder,” Jacob Marklee? Additional details of Jacob’s story can be found here: http://wp.me/p8oQ7A-Z
The old wooden headstones that once graced Markleeville Cemetery have long since turned to dust. Time, neglect and a bit of vandalism have wreaked havoc here; sadly, most of those who rest in this historic cemetery now lie in unmarked graves.
But this week, at least one of the cemetery’s mysteries was solved! Thanks to a devoted great-grandson and his 96-year-old mother, the final resting place of Alpine pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Koenig finally bears a gravestone. It’s been a long time coming; this November will mark 135 years from Koenig’s death.
Born in Prussia about 1840, Friedrich Wilhelm Koenig (or William F. as he was also known) was one of the earliest settlers in soon-to-be Alpine, arriving with his wife, Lena, in 1862. Koenig and a partner opened a store in 1864 at the corner of Main and Montgomery Streets in Markleeville — property they purchased from the estate of Jacob Marklee himself. Evidently a cautious businessman, Koenig’s ads warned sternly against asking for credit: “None need come for goods without the cash.” Even so, by 1866 Koenig himself was out of funds and filing for bankruptcy.
Koenig switched professions from storekeeper to butcher, and in 1873 listed his occupation as “shoemaker.” These apparently were more profitable undertakings; in 1873, Koenig was able to purchase the former Bagley Ranch and moved his family to Silver King Valley. There he not only ran cattle and operated a hotel but also began hauling freight over the mountain to Bridgeport and Bodie, via Rodriguez Pass.
Koenig and Lena had a total of five children, but sadly Lena died in childbirth sometime between 1872 and 1879. William soon remarried — to a widow named Anna Heppe who was working as a dressmaker in San Francisco, with two children of her own. Together, William and Anna would have two additional children.
But wedded bliss was not to be William’s fate. On November 6, 1882, he was killed in a freighting accident on his way home from Bridgeport. His wagon was found overturned, and his body was discovered beside the road, with his neck broken. His second wife, Anna, was again a grieving widow — and a pregnant one, at that. William and Anna’s last child together, George, was born in December, just a few weeks after his father’s death.
If William Koenig ever had a headstone, it disappeared for decades. But his 96-year-old granddaughter could recall visiting his grave, and luckily was able to describe the spot precisely to her son. A team of grave-detection dogs also visited the cemetery. The granddaughter’s site description exactly matched one “unknown” grave the dog team had found.
On August 18, 2017, Koenig’s great-grandson laid a headstone to honor him. One mystery grave: solved!
But several additional mysteries about Koenig still remain. Was his death truly just a tragic accident? Koenig was an experienced teamster, and there were whispers that perhaps foul play had been involved. A coroner’s inquest was convened, which concluded the death was accidental. To this day, however, the family has its suspicions. Koenig apparently had been in an altercation with a suitor sweet on Koenig’s oldest daughter. And according to a story handed down from generation to generation, the team’s outside lead horse had been shot.
And one more mystery: Where is Lena, Koenig’s first wife? It’s possible she was buried in Silver King, near the ranch. But at least one family member believes she, too, is interred in Markleeville Cemetery, next to William.
And if you look closely, there is, indeed, a second silver marker on an “unknown” grave not far away from William’s.
Watch for our next blog — we may just have found the spot where Jacob Marklee himself is buried!
Alpine County artist Walt Monroe was born in the tiny mining town of Monitor in 1881. His artistic talent became evident quite early when he began sketching murals in chalk on the schoolhouse walls at the old Webster School.
At the age of 17, Walt had his first exhibit of wooden carvings. “In Markleeville, Alpine County, California lives a boy by the name of Walter Monroe. He is a genius in his way,” reported the Nevada Appeal in 1898. “There is on exhibition at the Briggs House some very superior hand carvings of horses and dogs done by this young life. His perfect work is done with a jack knife.”
As an adult Walt lived a bit of a nomad’s life, roaming the mountains on foot or astride his motorcycle, with painting gear tucked in a specially-equipped sidecar. He traveled and painted from Bishop to Mount Hood, Oregon and as far east as the Great Lakes, sometimes trading his art work for gas or lodging. Perpetually low on funds, his canvas could be a scrap of cardboard, the back of a metal sign, or a wooden box lid.
But Alpine County was always Walt’s home base, and he returned here frequently. His paintings include many scenes of Alpine life including the old homestead at Grover’s Hot Springs and the peaceful vista at Blue Lake. Walt died July 13, 1945 of Hodgkin’s Disease, and is buried at the Merrill Cemetery.
Today, Walt is finally being recognized as the fine artist he was, and his paintings are becoming more and more sought-after by collectors. One of his works was recently discovered in a local antique store and snapped up for just $40 from a seller who didn’t recognize Monroe’s name.
Interest to see Walt’s paintings for yourself? A very special exhibit of Walt Monroe paintings has been assembled by the Alpine County Historical Society, and is on display at the Alpine County Museum through August 31, 2017. Although some works are part of the Historical Society’s permanent collection, other paintings were kindly lent by local owners just for this special event.
For more information, contact the Alpine County Museum at (530) 694-2317.
Back in the 1860s, young Alpine County slapped fees on just about every article and activity. Would-be voters ponied up $2 in poll tax for the privilege of casting their ballot. There was a broker’s license; a license to sell merchandise; a theater license; a peddler’s license; and a license for keeping billiard tables.
On top of it all were hefty property taxes, which were imposed on all sorts of assets. A lawyer’s law library? Taxed. County scrip (that IOU when the County couldn’t pay you in gold)? Taxed. Cows, chickens, horses, and wagons all were taxed too. Pretty much anything of value became prey for the tax man’s eager pencil, including — wait for it — dogs.
With the abundance of saloons hard at work fueling early Alpine County miners, liquor licenses became an especially lucrative revenue source for county government. In one quarter of 1867, for example, liquor license revenue was 50% higher than the license fees collected from merchandise sellers.
Distilleries, too, were supposed to pay a county license fee. Not surprisingly, bootleg operations quickly flourished.
In 1869, rumors began to swirl about an underground liquor operation in Fredericksburg. “All search for its whereabouts proved unavailing” — until a suspicious fire broke out in 1870 in a vacant house owned by Mrs. Woodford. “The whole establishment was thus unearthed, but the guilty parties have not yet been detected by the revenue officers,” the Chronicle chuckled, “and probably never will be.”
Secret stills reappeared in Alpine County during Prohibition years, artfully concealed in local barns. Once again, Fredericksburg seems to have been a center for this illicit activity.
For local ranchers, bootlegging likely meant economic survival. “Almost every one of these ranchers on Foothill Road had a still in their barn during Prohibition,” recalls one rancher’s grandson. “My grandfather refused to do it, and we’re the only ones that went broke!”
Want to read more tales from early Alpine history? You can order our books, Silver Mountain City: Ghost of the Sierra and Driving Tour of Woodfords, Diamond Valley & Fredericksburghere!