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!
Chambers Lane, a rural road at the southern end of Carson Valley, is just a place name these days. But it once was an early Alpine County homestead, owned by Civil War veteran Thomas Armstrong Chambers.
Born in St. Lawrence, New York in 1837, Chambers (like so many young men) became swept up in the turmoil of the Civil War. He joined the 6th New York Heavy Artillery as a private, probably in response to President Lincoln’s urgent call in August, 1862 for “300 more” patriots to help defend the Union. According to a fellow member of that unit, “there were no bounties offered as an inducement to enlist, and it is safe to say that patriotism is the only motive that brought this body together in defense of our country’s cornerstone, the Constitution.”
Chambers’ heavy artillery unit was trained to fire large canon, and for much of the war was stationed as a defensive force near Washington D.C. But in the spring of 1864, the group was reorganized as an infantry force assigned to the Army of the Potomac. Thereafter the unit fought in such notable battles as Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, and won military acclaim for their “gallant conduct” at the Battle of Harris Farm in May, 1864. Chambers himself was promoted during the war from private to Second Sergeant.
When the war was over in 1865, Chambers returned home to New York, where he married Margaret Morgan about 1866. They eventually had a total of nine offspring, including a pair of identical twins, Myron and Byron.
The family came west about 1873, settling first in the early mining town of Monitor, where the Chambers children attended school. Chambers worked as a carpenter. In 1892, he homesteaded a 160-acre ranch along the country road that soon took his name, Chambers Lane. A devoted member of the local community, Chambers became one of the founders of the Fredericksburg Cemetery Society, helping the Society to acquire its cemetery land in 1891 from Frederick Bruns and serving as the organization’s first president.
Chambers suffered from “consumption” (tuberculosis) acquired during his military service. “They said you could hear the entire company coughing,” a descendant noted. For this combat-related infirmity, he was granted a Civil War pension of $12 per month in 1882.
When he passed away in 1912, Chambers was buried inside a beautiful wrought iron fence at his family plot in the Fredericksburg Cemetery. His wife, Maggie, was later laid to rest beside him, along with three of their children: Myron, Byron, and Ella.
Today when you hear the place name “Chambers Lane,” we hope you’ll remember this proud veteran and Alpine County pioneer. And if you happen to visit, his Civil War headstone is the earliest military marker in the Fredericksburg Cemetery.
Like to read more stories about the early settlers who are buried at the Fredericksburg Cemetery? Check out our Walking Tour book here! (it’s the fifth book on that page.)
The year was 1864. William A. Johnson, road superintendent for Carr & Co., was building a new toll road from Markleeville to the booming mining camp of Silver Mountain. There was just one obstacle in his way: Captain Jim, a Washo Chief. The new toll road, it seems, was passing too close for comfort to a cave long used by the tribe as a shelter in winter, and as a ceremonial spot for their medicine man.
Superintendent Johnson was impatient to finish his wagon road, but the Washo chief knew the value of the location and demanded a stiff price for the site: fifty dollars. And on that point he was adamant: “No pay, no road.”
According to the local newspaper, Captain Jim laid in an abundant supply of pine nuts, acorns, and grasshoppers, and took up residence at the cave. He painted his face and chest with red and black paint, kept his bow at the ready, and slug a fox-skin bag filled with arrows across his back.
Finally, the road superintendent brokered a meeting, and a pipe of peace was smoked. The agreed-upon purchase price was handed over, and a large plug of tobacco thrown in to sweeten the deal. Capt. Jim would permit the new road to be built.
Johnson departed for Markleeville to write up their agreement. But as it turned out, he wasn’t going to acquire such an important right-of-way quite so cheaply. As a contemporary news account explained: “During his absence, Captain Jim distrained and disappeared — and so did Johnson’s overcoat valued at $25.”
This historic Washo Cave is still visible today, along with traces of Johnson’s original old wagon road. To reach it, follow Highway 89 about 1.3 miles beyond the bridge at Markleeville and park at the pull-off before Hangman’s Bridge. The trail to your right leads the short distance to the cave.
According to one long-time local, this cave also saw more recent use: located out of sight and a convenient distance from town, it housed a temporary bar during Prohibition days. The cave also briefly sheltered at least one run-away prisoner from the Markleeville jail. The fast-thinking inmate had engineered his escape by pulling the door of his cell closed and the jailor simply forgot to lock it.
He was a big man with a large moustache and outsized energy.
Born in 1874 in Villa de Maya, Spain, Julian Maisterrena was a Spanish Basque who came to this country at the age of 19 with his pockets empty. Julian worked in sawmills and as a sheepherder, and tucked his meager salary away. Before long he was the proud owner of a band of sheep of his own. Then two bands. Then nine.
Markleeville isn’t usually thought of as “sheep country.” But it was to Julian. He bought the Mayo Ranch southeast of town, and also grazed flocks on the lush meadows of the old Monroe Ranch across the creek. In all, Julian owned over 1,000 acres in Alpine and held thousands more through grazing rights. And he brought a veritable circus to Markleeville every spring, courtesy of the V&T Railroad.
Julian’s home ranch east of Bellota stretched some 4,900 acres. Every year when it was time to move the sheep up to summer pastures in Alpine, the flocks would be driven on the long trip beginning at Clements, up Pipi Valley, over Echo Summit and then down through Hope Valley to their pasture at Markleeville. But Maisterrena wasn’t about to leave the rest of his ranch behind. Instead, he arranged for his entire stockyard to be shipped along each year as well: 100 head of cattle, an equal number of pigs, goats, and horses, and flocks and flocks of chickens and geese were all loaded on rail cars to make the journey.
Just think of the logistics: ranch hands had to travel with the animals aboard the train to feed the livestock and milk the cows. Sacks of feed and barrels of water were needed to sustain the animals for the trip. A summer “kitchen” and all its equipment and supplies had to be packed up and loaded aboard as well. And the journey wasn’t over once the V&T engine chugged into Minden; everything then had to be ferried another 25 miles to the summer camp at Markleeville. Once they arrived, there was all the work of tending so many animals: horses to be shod, harness to be mended, hay to be cut, and hungry help to be fed.
Camp fare for Maisterrena’s sheep hands included (of course) abundant ham, bacon, and sausage. There was homemade bread, baked at the camp in dutch ovens. And everything would be washed down with homemade wine. It was no easy task for the hard-working cook, who also was tasked with gathering and chopping all the firewood, hauling the water, and tending a camp garden.
Julian was a ranch man — he didn’t drive a car. Instead his transportation consisted of a pair of fine white horses hitched to a black buckboard wagon. He favored crisp new Levis and dapper Stetson hats, and puffed on Optimo cigars (which were “the best,” he said). He carried a black valise at all times for important paperwork, and carried his money in a drawstring leather bag. While in Markleeville, his “office” was the bar at the Alpine Hotel, and he could be found there most mornings, doing business and playing cards, with a glass at his elbow.
Julian suffered a stroke at his Markleeville camp during the summer of 1943, and by December, he was dead. His estate included over $200,000 in assets — the equivalent of millions today. It took several years, but the estate was finally probated. Julian had no children of his own, but with assistance from the Spanish embassy, his hard-earned fortune was distributed to his relatives in Spain.
Even today, people who grew up in Markleeville still remember those summers when Julian and his sheep came to town. “In the evenings, you could hear the Basques singing over across the river,” remembers one local lad. “Everybody in town could hear it. It was like drawing a moth to a flame, we kids just migrated up there. They’d hand you a big water glass, and pour it with wine.”
We stumbled across the grave of Robert Marshall Briggs the other day in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Jackson. It was a familiar name from Alpine’s early days. And that led to a story about a bandit, a hanging, how Mono County got its beautiful courthouse — and Alpine County’s very first D.A..
Robert M. Briggs was born in Morganfield, Kentucky in 1816, and trained as a lawyer. By the time he was in his twenties Robert had moved to Hannibal, Missouri, and son Nash C. Briggs was born there in 1838. About 1848, Briggs and his family moved to Wisconsin and four years later they came west — settling first at Olita, and then in Jackson, California.
In Jackson, Robert Briggs built a large Greek Revival-style house beside the creek in 1856 and opened a law practice, which his son Nash would join in 1859.
Robert Briggs was short in stature. But despite what one writer called his “petite form,” he was always eager to give a speech. In one particularly funny tale, Robert was asked to speak to a gathering at a union meeting in San Francisco in 1861. Other speakers droned on and on and, deciding that the moderators had overlooked him, Robert retired to a nearby bar to “drown his disappointment.” Much later in the evening he was tapped on the shoulder and told “they’re calling for you.” Despite being too tipsy to deliver his oration safely from a balcony, Briggs rallied to the occasion and delivering a rousing speech — none of which he was able to remember the following day, except for the enthusiastic applause.
By 1864, R.M. Briggs had become the district attorney for Amador County, a lucrative post that allowed him to hire his son, Nash, as his deputy D.A. But in 1865, Robert Briggs was sued by competitor John A. Eagan over the title of District Attorney, and went on to other pursuits. That year he acquired the printing press of the former Amador Dispatch and began publishing a newspaper he called the Union Advocate, conveniently headquartered next door to the Constitution Saloon in Jackson.
Perhaps looking for greener pastures, R.M. Briggs followed the throngs of eager miners in 1878 to the new boomtown of Bodie, opening a law practice and serving as registrar of the U.S. Land Office. The following year he ran for judge of the Superior Court in Mono County as a member of the “Know Nothing” party, and was elected.
Once on the bench, Briggs had a few choice words for the Mono County Supervisors about Mono County’s original ramshackle wooden court building, calling it a “disgrace to the county.”
It seems the supervisors listened; a beautiful new Mono County courthouse was erected in 1880. R.M. Briggs continued to serve as a judge at Bridgeport until his death in December, 1886, although his family remained on the western side of the mountains. His body was returned to Jackson for burial at the St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery in Jackson.
Robert’s son, Nash, grew up working in his father’s law practice and when Alpine County was formed, ran for District Attorney at the county’s inaugural election in 1864. Just 26 years old at the time, Nash won the post with 980 votes compared to 623 for his competitor, a lawyer named Armstrong. Nash moved up to the remote new mining community of Silver Mountain City, Alpine’s early county seat, and two years later, married the former Annie Barton.
Young Briggs’ first term of office wasn’t without waves, however. In 1867, the local Chronicle newspaper questioned the “economy” of paying the brand new D.A. $445 “to go to San Francisco and live at the Occidental Hotel on the fat of the land, when he is paid $125 per month to live in Silver Mountain and partake of the same fare as the overburdened taxpayer.” Despite this brush with controversy, N.C. Briggs was re-elected to his post on the Union ticket in 1867.
In 1869, Nash and his wife Annie moved to a part of Monterey County (which became San Benito County in 1874), where he helped form the town of Hollister and served another two terms as the San Benito District Attorney.
In perhaps his most notable criminal case, Nash Briggs delivered the opening statement for the prosecution at the 1875 San Jose murder trial of notorious outlaw and ladies’ man Tiburcio Vasquez.
Vasquez had robbed Snyder’s Store in Tres Pinos, San Benito County and during the robbery three people had been killed. Although Vasquez himself may not have pulled the trigger, Nash Briggs argued heartily for the death penalty. After deliberating just two hours, the jury agreed. Vasquez was hanged on March 19, 1875 — to the “entire satisfaction” of a reporter from the Los Angeles Weekly Star, and the great disappointment of the dashing Vasquez’s numerous female admirers.
As for N.C. Briggs, he acquired a large and lovely home in Hollister, California and lived out his days there, passing away at the age of 75 in September, 1913.
N.C. Briggs and his wife Annie are both buried at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Hollister.
But a mystery remains: prominent though he was, we have been unable to locate any photo of Briggs himself!
One glance, and you just know this Markleeville cottage has a story! And quite a story it is.
In 1864, this was the site of the Empire Meat Market, owned by a butcher named M. Peltier. To help promote sales, Peltier hired Augustus T. “Gus” Lee to run a meat wagon peddling his meat to outlying communities like Monitor. It seemed like a good idea at the outset, but the mobile meat market idea proved a dud. One day after Lee returned from his rounds, Peltier informed Lee that he was now unemployed.
Lee had just lost a young daughter and was already grieving. Another calamity was too much. After fortifying himself with a drink or three at a bar close by, Lee stormed back to the meat market and confronted Lee with a raised fist. The startled Peltier did what all good butchers would do; he picked up a meat cleaver to defend himself. Lee quickly found a butcher knife to even the odds and proceeded to stab Peltier in the throat — all of which goes to prove that a meat market is a pretty inauspicious place to hold a fight.
Peltier was able to stagger down the street to the office of Dr. Waters (roughly behind today’s courthouse), but soon expired from his wounds. Lee himself was so badly wounded that court proceedings against him were delayed.
Needless to say, the butcher shop changed hands. The following year (1865) it reopened with new proprietors H.L. Marsden and C.H. Kilgore at the helm.
Yet another tragedy ensued here twenty years later when the Great Fire of 1885 engulfed most of Markleeville’s downtown. The butcher shop was smack in the middle of the conflagration and became one of the many casualties of the fire. Then-owner John Cronkite promptly rebuilt, however, erecting another butcher shop on the same site — today’s building — in 1886. According to local lore, the basement was specially constructed to stay cool, using sixteen-inch walls filled with dirt. Ice harvested from the creek in winter months likely also helped provide refrigeration.
The property remained a meat market until about 1916 when it was purchased by William Barrett and his wife, Wilda (the local postmistress), and the Barretts converted it to a residence. It later became the home of woodworker William Eggleston, who added the section on the north as a workshop. War hero Hoke Barrett and his wife June lived here in later years, and Hoke is said to have added the quonset hut on the side.
Today, the former butcher shop is a private residence, and the quonset hut features an eye-catching tie-dye emporium in summer months.
This charming cottage may hold a giant secret: it just could be Markleeville’s oldest surviving original structure from its Silver Rush heydays.
We know that the home is over a century old – photographs show it in 1905, when it served as the residence of George and Nellie Koenig. (George owned a bar known as Koenig’s Exchange, conveniently located right across the street.)
Daughter Lucille was born in this house in 1906 and eventually grew up to be Alpine’s Sheriff – the first woman sheriff in all of California! Locals still call this the “pink house,” thanks to the family’s whimsical choice in paint.
While a century alone is a respectable life-span, at least one tantalizing hint suggests this quaint house may be even older still: square nails were reportedly found in the walls during remodeling.
If this is indeed the original building at this site, it has a fabulous history! The town’s early newspaper, the Alpine Chronicle, opened its doors here in 1864 as Markleeville was booming — and while the Civil War was still raging. Patriotic publisher R.M. Folger proudly flew a flag outside his office, and the town’s Armory was right across the street.
Journalist Henry Eno would have strolled down Montgomery Street to cross the Chronicle‘s threshhold in 1865; a job here as an editor is what first brought Eno to town. He later would become an Alpine County judge. Snuggling beside the Chronicle office on the half-lot to the west was a “store” run by William Timson – featuring a billiard table and a full stock of “wines, liquors, cordials, and syrups.”
The Chronicle moved its operation to the county seat at Silver Mountain City in September, 1867, and thereafter the building was converted into a residence. Thanks to “hard work” by homeowner James Stuard in 1885, it managed to survive Markleeville’s Great Fire although much of Main Street was wiped out in the catastrophe.
Today the property remains a private residence (thankfully no longer painted pink). As for the home’s exact age – for now, it’s a subject of rumor, speculation and conjecture. But this just could be the oldest surviving structure from early Markleeville.
It’s a tiny gem of a cemetery, nestled on the eastern shoulder of the great Sierra Nevada. It’s also the last remaining vestige of the once-thriving ghost town of Fredericksburg, one of Alpine County’s earliest settlements.
Since its first burial in 1895, Fredericksburg Cemetery has become the final resting place for many Alpine pioneers — and remains home to a nearly-forgotten tale or three.
One fascinating story is that of Margaret Jones, a young Welshwoman. Margaret married Alpine rancher John Ellis in 1893 when he went home to Wales to find a bride. The newlyweds returned to Ellis’s Diamond Valley home, and Margaret soon settled in.
She was said to have the “gift of second sight,” and began to tell fortunes for local folks — so accurately, in fact, that her husband finally ordered her to stop. Her predictions were coming true so often that their Alpine neighbors found it disconcerting.
One day, John came home to find Margaret ironing his shirt. “What’s that for?” he asked. “You’re going to wear it to a man’s funeral in two days,” she predicted confidently, although the neighbor in question wasn’t sick. “And when you get home, be sure and hang it up carefully because you’ll wear that same shirt to my funeral two days after that.”
Sadly, Margaret’s prediction came true; she died in childbirth exactly four days later.
Margaret Ellis is buried here at Fredericksburg, with her newborn child. John bought this cemetery plot on March 2, 1901, the day that Margaret died. And although he lived another 23 years, John now rests here beside her too.
Charles Fiske (or Fisk) was born in Vermont in 1813, and operated a store in Old Town, Maine for many years. He and his wife, Mary Ann (Eaton) had 13 children. Charles’ older brother Royal was a merchant in California, and although Charles wrote that he wished to see “fancy places,” he felt he couldn’t uproot his family.
But the lure of California finally became too strong. About 1863 Charles followed in the his older brother to California. Drawn by the lure of Silver Mountain City, then a booming mining camp, Charles settled in Silver Mountain and erected the Fisk Hotel: three stories tall, and one of the town’s earliest and finest hotels.
When Alpine County was formed the following year, Charles Fisk became one of its earliest officials, serving as Public Administrator and county coroner. Not surprisingly he also invested in the local silver mines, purchasing stock in the Mammoth and other claims. Royal Fisk, the more practical brother, chided him about “dabbling” in the mines, noting that those who did so “have in almost every instance come out second-best.”
Charles’ wife Mary Ann was said to be “ill a good deal of the time,” and daughter Mary Jane Fiske was described as the “presiding genius” of the hotel in 1864. Both Mary Jane and her brother Fred also worked setting type in the local newspaper office, the Alpine Chronicle. Fred would go on to run his own newspaper, the Eureka Daily Leader, in Eureka, Nevada.
Silver Mountain’s winters were long and bitterly cold. The Fiske family would close up their hotel to spend the winter months at the lower elevation of Murphys, and by 1873 it appears that Charles and Mary Ann had moved to Murphys for good. Charles opened a store there and his youngest son, Frank, became local postmaster and would serve on the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors for 14 years, beginning in 1886.
Mary Ann passed away in 1893, and Charles in 1896. They are buried
in the old Murphys graveyard, along with many of their children and grandchildren.
As for for the Fisk Hotel in Silver Mountain, it was disassembled in 1885 and moved to Markleeville to serve guests at the local hot springs. This wonderful old building still graces the corner of Main Street and Montgomery, as a restaurant/bar. So if you happen to visit the historic town of Markleeville, you can still step inside Charles Fisk’s amazing Fisk Hotel!