Vegan Ventura Vacay – Part 2

Ventura Sites & Sights:

Our trip to Ventura, California was a fun “Vegan Vacay” – we dined our way through some fabulous restaurants! (For our vegan eatery itinerary, check out Part 1 of this story!) And of course there are plenty of sights to see and things to do in Ventura, as well. Here are some of our favorites!

Inside the old Buenaventura Mission church.

San Buenaventura Mission and Church Museum: 211 E. Main Street. The Old Ventura Mission was the last of six missions personally founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra. This was actually the third church built on this site: the first was destroyed by fire; a second effort was abandoned when the door “gave way”. This third church was finally completed in 1809, 33 years and one day after Fr. Serra first celebrated Mass on this site. Mass is still regularly celebrated here.

Chumash basketry at the Mission Museum.

Visitors can tour the beautiful Mission church and grounds, and stroll the Mission Museum and gift shop. www.sanbuenaventuramission.org.

Pottery recovered during excavation of the Mission grounds.

Albinger Archaeological Museum:  113 E. Main Street. Right next to the Mission, this fabulous free museum displays artifacts that have been found at excavations nearby. Items found from the Mission period include millstones, crucifixes, bottles, pottery and buttons. Archaeologists also discovered Native American artifacts dating back 3,500 years, including bone whistles, arrowheads, and shell beads. An interpretive walk outside lets you see the actual site that was excavated, including an earth oven dating to 300 B.C. and a well serving the Mission occupants in 1844. https://tinyurl.com/y63mbrq6

Valdez Alley/Eastwood Park: Look for the sign beside the Archaeological Museum to find this easy-to-miss stairway leading up the hillside to the remains of a historic “filtration building.” Constructed under the direction of one of the Franciscan Friars in 1792, this old brick structure helped bring clean water to the early residents of the Ventura Mission.

Peering inside the Ortega Adobe.

Ortega Adobe:  The carefully preserved adobe of the Emigdio Ortega family can be found at 215 W. Main Street; there’s easy parking in the back. Son Emilio Ortega gained fame as the founder of the Ortega Chile Company, making chili sauce in his mother’s kitchen here in 1897. The Adobe itself is not open for visitors to walk inside, but you can stand in the (barred) doorways and peek inside. We especially admired the gardens around the outside, including trees that (we’re guessing) were popular in Ventura’s early days: olives, pistachios, and pomegranates (which had fruit on them when we arrived!) https://www.cityofventura.ca.gov/640/Ortega-Adobe

Although we didn’t manage to visit, there’s also an Olivas Adobe to visit at 4200 Olivas Park Drive — the restored home of one of the early settlers, it dates to 1847. The grapes and fuchsias in its front yard are both said to be over a century old.

Father Serra’s statue gazes out over the town of Ventura, with the old Courthouse (now City Hall) behind.

Courthouse & Father Serra Statue:  501 Poli St. Today used as Ventura’s City Hall, this iconic white stone building was originally built as Ventura Courthouse. The 1937 statue of Father Serra out front was initially sculpted in concrete during the WPA days. Weathering of the concrete artwork led to it being replaced with the current bronze replica in 1989. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ventura_County_Courthouse; https://visitventuraca.com/business/father-serra-statue/

Grant  Park – Take a drive up the hill above City Hall to find a scenic overlook, then all the way to the top of Grant Park for amazing views of the city and the historic Serra Cross. Father Serra himself is said to have erected a wooden cross here in 1782, and ships once used the prominent landmark for navigation. There are botanical gardens here as well. We found a “pop-up yoga” class getting started on the lawn when we arrived! https://visitventuraca.com/business/serra-cross-park-at-grant-park/; www.VenturaBotanicalGardens.com

Two fabulous used-book bookstores: Bibliophiles are in for a treat at Bank of Books used bookstore at 748 E. Main. Check out their offering of fabulous vintage magazines, too. And I could disappear for years in the Calico Cat bookshop at 495 E. Main; definitely one of my favorite stops of the trip! https://visitventuraca.com/business/bank-of-books/; http://www.calicocatbooks.com/

Cool brickwork and ironwork adorn buildings in downtown Ventura.

Stroll  downtown Ventura’s Main Street for some fun and eclectic shops, and don’t forget to look up to check out the interesting architecture here, as well. You’ll find great old brickwork and ironwork adorning the fronts of the old downtown shops.

If you love old buildings, there’s also a fabulous Historic Walking Tour that will take you to 36 of Ventura’s historic sites and buildings. (Pick up a brochure with map at the Visitor Center, 101 S. California St., or you can find it right here: http://www.itqw2019.com/public/files/Ventura_history_map.pdf).

Stop in for coffee at Secret Gardens.

Secret Gardens Florist at 677 E. Main is more than just a florist; their downtown coffee shop is a great place for a pick-me-up cuppa joe. (And as the name implies, you can buy flowers, here, too.) https://www.secretgardensflorist.com/Content/AboutUs

Ventura Pier

The Ventura Pier is historic in itself. Today it’s 1,700 feet long, with food and other concessions. Find a convenient parking garage at the end of California Street (at Harbor Boulevard); just $2 bucks to park for an hour. Fish, picnic, or just stroll out and watch the surfers lining up to catch the waves — Ventura boasts some of the best surfing anywhere! http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=600

Ventura’s Post Office Murals are open to the public.

Post Office Murals by Gordon Kenneth Grant: 675 W.Santa Clara. Stop in to see the famous WPA-era murals painted by artist Gordon K. Grant in 1936-37 at the downtown Ventura Post Office. These folk-style paintings showcase the “industries and agriculture” of Ventura in a beautifully stylized way. Other murals by this talented artist have since been painted over, but Ventura’s have been preserved and remain open for the public to enjoy — for free. https://visitventuraca.com/blog/ventura-post-office-gordon-k-grant-mural/

A pygmy mammoth is one of the displays at Channel Islands Nat’l Park

Channel Islands National Park & National Marine Sanctuary:  This free visitor center includes informative displays about the Channel Islands flora and fauna, plus a gift shop. Find information here about whale-watching and wildlife cruises as well as full- or half-day trips to the Channel Islands. Find the Park at the very end of Spinnaker Dr., past Ventura Harbor Village (a classic tourist venue with lots of shops, dining, and activities). https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm, https://www.venturaharborvillage.com/.

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Pick up the Local Lingo:  Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s old-time drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Use the term and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)

Vegan Ventura Vacay – Part 1

Ventura, California. It’s been called the “most under-rated beach town in America.” And frankly, that’s why we love it.

Tucked between the L.A. bustle and Santa Barbara glitz, Ventura’s undiscovered energy makes this coastal burg even more special. It’s pedestrian-friendly, temperate year-round, and right on the ocean. Despite recent growth, it’s kept the small-town feel. And oh, did I mention the Ventura sunsets?

Unlike its sister town, uber-hip Ojai, Ventura doesn’t especially tout its vegan offerings. But those sunsets and ocean breezes were calling, so a friend and I set out together for a two-day “vegan vacation” in Ventura. Could we make it work?!

Bottom line: Teasing out vegan venues took a bit of digging here. But what we discovered was well worth the hunt! Foodies can find great vegan options here. So we wanted to share the juice!

Vegan Eats:

Vegan Mussamun curry with red rice.

It was a long drive to get there. But our first vegan dinner made the trip worthwhile: Thai food at Rice 2 By Mama, 583 E. Main Street. (Don’t be confused by yet another “Rice by Mama” just to the west — that one is so popular it’s hard to get into on a Sat. night, but Rice 2 isn’t far away!) You’ll find many vegan options to choose from; we dug into Mussamun and Panang Curries. Be sure to try their delicious, nutty “red rice.”

The Busy Bee features cheerful red-and-white decor, vinyl seats, and old-time juke-boxes on the wall.

If you decide to stay at the Bella Maggiore Hotel, as we did (see below), the Busy Bee Cafe, 478 E. Main Street, is a must for breakfast. It’s literally right around the corner from the hotel. (For the in-crowd, there’s even a closer entrance off the alley!) The Busy Bee is a Ventura classic — not to be missed, if only for the decor. Think iconic red-and-white tiles, old-fashioned juke boxes at each table, and waitresses with coin-changers at their waists.

Avocado toast and homemade pico de gallo at Busy Bee.

The menu is pure down-home American. But with a little ingenuity you can create vegan options that work. I started with an order of their hearty whole wheat toast, slathered it with a side of sliced fresh avocado, and topped those wedges off with Busy Bee’s tasty homemade pico de gallo. Bee-utiful! 

Don’t miss the vegan samosas at Himalaya.

For lunch, we found our way to Himalaya, 35 W. Main Street, a restaurant boasting Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan food. Tucked into a shopping center at the corner of Ventura Avenue (just north of Main), the restaurant is a former Taco Bell location. Vegetarians will be delighted to discover a whole page of vegetarian options on the menu, and vegan options are helpfully flagged. And the food was amazing! We started with a shared order of Tadka dal (yellow lentils with Indian spices/vegan), and splurged on a house favorite, Saag naan (traditional naan bread stuffed with spinach dip — a non-vegan naan variation, as it included sour cream, but so good!)

Be sure to try an order of their wonderful vegan Samosas  – little towers of a deep fried potato/pea mixture, accompanied by two sauces: tamarind (red) and mint (green and a little spicy).   While you’re relaxing, browse the shelves of traditional crafts from Nepal, Tibet and India, including figurines and artisan-made clothing.

Nature’s Grill offers lots of vegetarian options – just tell ’em to skip the cheese to go vegan.

For our second night’s dinner we stopped into Nature’s Grill & Juice Bar  – 566 E. Main – Vegan options include a creatively veggie-filled vegetarian chili (including corn, carrots and black olives) and sweet cornbread; just ask them to hold the usual cheese. My travel partner ordered the “Old Town” salad (brown rice, tomato, guacamole, and carrots) — again, just ask them to leave off the feta cheese to make it vegan.

Breakfast granola at Harvest Cafe with fresh fig on top.

Our third morning opened with breakfast at Harvest Cafe – 175 S. Ventura Avenue, Suite B. We were surprised to find no dedicated parking lot, but there’s plenty of street parking a short walk away. The Harvest Cafe proudly displays its “Ocean-friendly” rating, and it’s certified as a “Ventura Green Business.” And their menu is completely gluten-free. I opted for the “Golden Protein Porridge Bowl”: oats, quinoa, buckwheat groats, coconut, banana, raisins, nut butter, flavored with tumeric and cinnamon. Delightfully sweet to the tongue despite no added sugar. My companion chose the “Cashew Yogurt Bowl”:  house-made granola and yogurt, topped with a delightful fresh fig!

Light and delightful: Zack’s vegan tomato soup and passionfruit tea.

Lunch was at Zack’s Cafe, 1095 Thompson Blvd. — an experience so unique it deserved its own write-up! The menu is upscale Italian crossed with farm-to-table foodie. They’ll happily adjust anything on the menu for food preferences, and vegan options were easy to find. We ordered a delightfully light tomato soup, laden with floating bread cubes and topped with ribbons of fresh basil. For the main course we split a tostada salad topped with a mixture of grilled vegetables, all presented on a (homemade) baked whole wheat tostada. And don’t forget to try their passionfruit iced tea!

Maria Bonita is bright and cheerful, with original art on the walls.

Our farewell-to-Ventura dinner was a lower-Main Street find: Maria Bonita, 256 E. Main St. The decor’s a blend of colorful folk art (think Frida Kahlo) mixed with an Old Mexico flair.

The tortilla chips were thick, hearty deep-fried wedges. Be prepared: the homemade salsa is super-fiery but excellent! Vegan options are limited here, but the black bean-and-rice soup makes a wonderful meatless meal in itself. Vegetarians and pescatarians will find many more choices. In addition to the bean soup, the vegetarian in our party tried a cheese-and-veggie quesadilla, which came sizzled to perfection on a grill, blessedly light and free of extra oil.

Cool B&B Stays:

The Bella Maggiore on Ventura’s California Street.

We relished our stay at the marvelous “Bella Maggiore” – 67 S. California St. Located on California Street, the Bella is an easy walk to everything downtown. The hotel is an updated 1930s classic that’s retained its Old World charm.

We were greeted by live guitar music in the courtyard when we arrived, along with complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres.

The courtyard.

Fresh flowers were liberally distributed throughout the hotel, and the concierge was extra-helpful when we had questions. Don’t forget to ask about the ghost of “Sylvia,” a former inhabitant from the hotel’s red-light past, who supposedly lingers in Room #17 — said to be one of the hotel’s most-requested rooms!

The Bella left us chocolates on the pillow. An old-world touch canopy adorned the bed.

Our amazingly large room on the second floor featured not only a fireplace but a padded window seat, perfect for lounging the afternoon away with a great book. (Check out the local bookstores we visited in Part 2, “Sites & Sights”!) Vintage antique faucets have been lovingly preserved in the luxuriously-large bath. And a packet of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory chocolates on the pillow made us feel extra-welcome.

For our second night, we stayed at the “Inn at the Beach” — 1175 S. Seaward. A newer building decorated to look like a Victorian B&B inside, the Inn reminded us a bit of the home of a well-loved aunt: gracious and welcoming, but in need of a carpet clean. Staffing at the front desk doesn’t start until 7 a.m., so if you plan to check out early you’ll be asked to just drop your key card and they’ll gladly email a receipt.

Inn at the Beach, Ventura.

The beds were comfy and the rates terrific. And best of all, it is literally right on the beach. Be sure to ask for a room with an ocean-side view! Big sighs as we watched windsurfers cavort in the waves from our second-floor balcony. We snapped lots of can’t-wait-to-come-back photos of the sunset over the ocean.

I have a feeling we’ll be back. Soon.

A final sunset over the ocean.

And check out Part 2 of this story:  Ventura Sites & Sights to enjoy while you’re visiting Ventura!

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HIP TIP:   Pick up the Local Lingo Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s oldest drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this main north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Try it and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)

Take a Ride on History: The Amador Central Railroad!

Our tickets called it a “Speeder Excursion.” And a delightful (if not exactly speedy) ride into history it was, bumping along on the 114-year-old rails of the  Amador Central Railroad — one of the oldest continuously-running railroad lines in the country!

We gathered at Lane’s Station — a dirt pull-out on Highway 104, about 1.5 miles south of Ione. There we watched in awe as sheer muscle-power (and a pivot) were used to turn the cars around and get them facing in the right direction.

These fully-restored “maintenance of way” cars offered the added luxury of padded seats. (Not part of the maintenance cars’ original equipment!)
Our guides turned each car the “old-fashioned” way — with pivot and muscle,

And before long we were boarding the restored and upgraded cars. All are “maintenance of way” work cars, to which comfortable seats have been added. The oldest (extensively rebuilt) was from 1937; some were World War II vintage; and one was originally in use in the 1970s. The Amador Central owns two of these beautifully restored railroad cars. The rest are privately owned by passionate railroad enthusiasts who make them available for special excursions like this.

Our host for the ride, Mark Demler, kicked off the tour with a fascinating thumbnail history of the Amador Central. Turns out its earliest roots go back to the late 1880s, when would-be founders intended to start an electric-powered railway. Eventually they realized that electricity wasn’t really practical for the route they had in mind.

And who knows just how serious they really were about creating a viable railroad, anyhow?! “Many of the 1880s and 1890s railroad corporations were actually scams,” Demler told us. “They’d set up to sell stock or take donations but then lay no actual track — and eventually declare bankruptcy. So eventually the state prohibited railroad companies from making any stock offerings until they at least made a survey of the route, first.”

It was a gorgeous journey through the Amador rolling hills.

The cows didn’t mind having company a bit.

Undaunted by their early mis-steps, backers of the new railroad managed to complete the necessary railroad survey in 1890, finally incorporating in 1904 as the Ione & Eastern. Becoming an official corporation allowed the promoters to begin selling stock. Even more important, it allowed them to start borrowing money. Short-term bonds were issued to help finance the new railroad line. Track-laying began in 1904, and a short first run took place in 1905.

But expenses were big and profits were small. When those short-term bonds came due in 1908, the company found itself unable to pay. The Ione & Eastern was in a financial mess.

Luckily, a man from Sutter Creek named Erickson stepped forward, acquiring the railroad’s right-of-way by paying off the defaulted bonds. He renamed the railroad the Amador Central. Things were looking up a bit. Erickson passed away just a few years later. But his thrifty wife, Meta, stepped in and managed to not only keep the railroad running but make it solvent.

Once we reached the far end of the journey, the cars had to be turned again.

In its early days, the railroad hauled aggregate, brick, and lumber. (Ione was known for its high-quality clay and quarry goods.) During the WWI-era, the line carried heavy mining equipment like pumps and replacement gears to the Kennedy and Argonaut mines. In the 1930-1950s, the Amador Central began hauling goods for the newly-prosperous local lumber companies. And in later years, it ferried passengers up the hill, too, becoming the “bus” taking kids to and from the local high school (a practice that ended in the late 1930s).

A local lumber mill owner acquired the railroad in the 1980s, renaming it the Amador Foothills. He kept the business name when he sold the railroad a few years later, so another name change was required for the line. And what better name than its early-day moniker, the Amador Central?! A group of passionate railroad buffs incorporated under the Amador Central name, leased the line for five years, then finally bought it in 2010 (in partnership with the Amador Historical Society) for just $1. The group successfully petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to officially change the name.

Larry Cenotto, President of the Amador Co. Historical Society, shakes hands with Larry Bowler, President of the Recreational Railroad Coalition Historical Society on October 29, 2010, celebrating purchase of the Amador Central line for $1. (Photographer: Larry Angier/Amador County Ledger Dispatch photo).

“The community has been very generous in supporting the line,” Mark Demler tells us. “Local companies donate rock and aggregate for the rail bed, and local contractors sometimes do grading for us at cost or for nothing.” When a slide occurred recently, the Jackson Rancheria casino trucked in a quarter of a million dollars of rock to help stabilize the hillside — for just the cost of paying the truck drivers!

Close-up of the original track and crushed rock base. Gaps allow for expansion and contraction, but also make for a bumpy ride in these smaller, lighter work cars!

Total length of the Amador Central’s line today, from end to end: ten miles. But, oh, this short line still boasts major bragging rights! It’s now licensed by the Federal Railway Administration as a true passenger railroad — technically, a “class one non-insular tourist railroad.” The complete route climbs over 1,200 feet in altitude in its mere ten miles, making it one of the steepest railroads in America. Several of the grades are as steep as 4 percent (a rise of 4 feet in 100 feet traveled); for most other railroads, the max is just 1.5 percent (1.5 feet in 100). For a heavy train, that’s astonishing. “In the old days, they had to stop half-way down to cool the brakes off!” Demler notes.

Our six-mile round trip through the beautiful rolling hills took just about an hour. It would be an especially fun trip for kids — though they must be 5 or older to board the cars.

Short excursions like the one we took depart the second Saturday of most months, through November, at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m., and cost a mere $10 bucks. Longer, full-length runs are also offered three times a year. Sunscreen, closed-toed shoes and water are recommended. For more information and a flyer, visit www.amadorcentralrailroad.com.

Take your own ride into history!
“Iron Ivan,” one of the original Amador Central steam engines, can also be seen in nearby Ione.

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Yank’s Station

Old Yank’s Station has a cool anniversary coming up on Sunday, April 28th  — 159 years, to be exact!

On April 28th, 1860, exactly 159 years ago, a young Pony Express rider named Warren Upson came flying in to change ponies, stopping for the very first time for his mount change at Yank’s.

The new road over Kingsbury Grade had just opened, you see, which offered a shorter route for the mail heading east to Genoa than on Upson’s previous rides. (On earlier rides, Upson had taken a longer route through Hope Valley and Woodfords.) Now, with the new Pony Express stop at Yank’s, Upson would only need to ride as far as Friday’s Station (today’s Stateline) before handing the mochila over to the next Pony Express rider.

Pony Express plaque at the former Yank’s Station, at Meyers.

Today, of course, they don’t call it “Yank’s Station” anymore. The site is now home to Holiday Market (formerly Lira’s), at the southwest corner of Highway 50 and Apache Avenue in Meyers. The Pony Express only stopped at Yank’s for a year and a half — until October 26, 1861. But Yank and his station had a fascinating and much longer history!

Ephraim “Yank” Clement had been the owner for less than a year when Upson arrived that April. The previous owner, Martin Smith, had  settled there in 1851, rebuilding the trading station once after an early fire. By the time Yank Clement came along and bought it from Smith and a partner in 1859, the station was already a well-known trading post and stage stop. A telegraph relay station had just been added in 1858.

And Yank Clement brought his own bigger and grander ideas. After he purchased the station in 1859, he kept adding and expanding. Eventually his station was three stories tall, featuring 14 rooms, a general store, a blacksmith shop, and last but not least — twosaloons! It’s said that those quickly became popular with travelers not only for drinks, food and card games, but also a handful of ladies of dubious virtue who could be found there. Across the road, Clement added large corrals, and the station featured a large barn with stables for travelers’ animals.

Sketch of Yanks’ three-story station about 1861. As the building on the right suggests, the earliest buildings here were likely log structures.

Yank was a larger-than-life character who quickly became a local celebrity. He was a true Yankee indeed, claiming to have moved west from his native New Hampshire at the age of 40 and acquiring the station “at the instance of Chorpenning.” Yank would regale visitors with tales of his early adventures, which (supposedly) included a brief sojourn as a cooper in Cuba and service as a chaplain at the Battle of Bunker Hill — this last an amusing but thoroughly impossible tale for a someone born about 1817. Planned future improvements, he assured guests, would include a tree-house lookout for better views of the lake; a fish pond with water-spouting Cupid; and a brand new piano (pronounced “peeyan-er”) for his house. The warm and effusive host was said to accompany his narratives with “many amusing peculiarities of phrase and gesture.”

In the outpost’s early days, at least, the location was still a remote slice of the Old West. A California teamster named Grace got held up at gunpoint near Yank’s Station in November, 1865, while on his way home after delivering a load of goods to Dayton, Nevada. Five “foot-pads” with shotguns accosted Grace’s wagon near Yank’s Station, and the poor teamster was forced to hand over the entire $450 proceeds he’d earned for his trip.

Wedding announcement in the San Francisco Examiner, July 6, 1868. The new Mrs. Clement was evidently already living at Yank’s Station at the time of their marriage.

After almost a decade in business Yank acquired a bride, marrying Mrs. Lydia D. Mark in Genoa on June 30, 1868. The new Mrs. Clement became a strong partner in the hotel business, with visitors commenting on her excellent cooking and housework skills.

Tragedy struck the pair just a few short years later, however, when Yank’s hotel was consumed by fire in December, 1872. Among those who barely escaped with their lives were Yank, his wife Lydia, and a Mrs. Cleveland, the wife of a senator. Mrs. Cleveland suffered burns on her face and hands as she rushed out of the burning building, and Lydia Clement was said to have had her hair “singed to the roots.”

Perhaps as a result of this catastrophe, “Yank” sold his station to George D.H. Meyers in 1873. Meyers would later expand the holdings, purchasing nearby land, and began raising cattle there. The property would stay in the Meyers family for the next 30 years, and later was acquired by the Celio family.

Despite the sale of his original station, Yank wouldn’t abandon the hotel business, however. He soon built another hotel near Camp Richardson known as Tallac House, memorialized by famed photographer Carleton Watkins in 1876. This hotel was grander than ever, featuring a spring floor for dancing called an “emotional floor.” And naturally, given Yank’s personality, it was still commonly known as “Yank’s.”

A visitor in August, 1875 described the accommodations, which included a bed “at least four feet from the floor” and a single shared toothbrush “in a large pressed-glass tumbler,” thoughtfully provided for the comfort of Yank’s visitors. Clements and his wife set a good table, the writer confirmed (“I mean it — a real good table is theirs”), and described them as “bustling around as usual and doing all in their power for their guests.” Another guest remarked cryptically that he and his friends had managed to procure an early breakfast by “ventur[ing] to brave the small explosive dangers of Yank’s dining hall” — possibly a reference to being cornered by Yank with a story.

Yank was described as “the most obliging old coon in the world, [who] flies off here, there, and everywhere all day in the interest and comfort of his guests.” Mrs. Clement was a “first-class housekeeper,” keeping the hotel running smoothly along with help from her niece, a Mrs. Rogers. And Yank was said to out-do himself for guests: “If you want his house, team and wagon, it comes marvelously at your order; and if you order saddle horses or boats he makes a spring and a whiz and you are equipped.”

For a time, Yank Clement also served as local justice of the peace, much to the amusement of those in his courtroom. During the trial of one case, Yank fell sound asleep and “began snoring like a house afire.” When roused from his slumbers so the evidence could continue, Yank responded tartly: ‘That’s all right. I knew all about the darned case [before] it came into the court [and] made up my mind about the merits long ago.” In another instance, one man was trying to sue another for an unpaid debt. “Well,” Yank inquired, “Did you have a talk with him about the matter? And he wouldn’t give you no satisfaction?” No, Yank was assured, the debtor had refused to pay. “By jingo!” he erupted. “If you couldn’t do nothin’ with him, how in blazes can you expect me to do it?”

Clement’s Tallac House was sold about 1880 to Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, who would later build an even grander Tallac Hotel there. As for the original Yank’s Station in Meyers, it was finally “done in” for a third time by fire in 1938  — along with much of the surrounding community of Meyers.

Visit the plaque for old Yank’s Station in the parking lot of today’s Holiday Market at Meyers.

So this April 28, it’s only fitting to consider a pilgrimage to the site of old Yank’s Station in honor of this 159th anniversary. Imagine young Warren Upson, tired and cold, making his hurried change of ponies and dreaming of a quick stop at Al Tahoe and the warm fire ahead at Friday’s Station. And imagine Ephraim “Yank” Clement standing in the door of his original Yank’s Station, waving good-bye and wishing Upson god-speed on the road ahead.

 

The Legacy of Lewis Chalmers

Today, few people know his name. But back in the 1870-1880s, everyone in Alpine County and most of nearby Carson Valley knew mining promoter Lewis Chalmers. And whether they loved him or hated him, everyone had an opinion.

Chalmers on a horse, during construction of the Exchequer Mill near Chalmers Mansion. The brick chimney still stands. (Photo courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society).

Son of a wealthy Scottish family, Chalmers was raised among the movers and shakers of Fraserburgh. His father and grandfather had each served in turn as the local baillie (chief magistrate) for the town, and his family was highly influential in civic affairs. Trained as a lawyer, Lewis took over  as baillie when his father died in 1850. By the early 1860s Chalmers had secured a cushy post for himself as “factor” for Lord Saltoun, managing the nobleman’s estate and finances.

But that good fortune soon evaporated — along with a good bit of Lewis’s inheritance. Chalmers, it seems, was feathering his own nest a bit too freely with his employer’s money. In 1864, Lord Saltoun sent him packing.

Chalmers was forced to leave Scotland in disgrace. Down on his fortunes and with seven children to feed, he moved to London and took a position with an investment firm, where he began studying assaying. News of the recent strikes in the Comstock Lode was dazzling British investors. Chalmers’ new employers acquired the rights to a mine called the Michigan Tunnel in Alpine County, and in 1867 sent Chalmers to oversee their highly speculative investment.

Now 42 years old, Chalmers must have had high hopes indeed as he set sail from Liverpool on September 11, 1867 for his new post. But when he finally arrived in the rough mining camp the foot of Monitor Canyon, it must have been a bit of a culture shock. Chalmers settled in as best he could to make himself comfortable in this wild, untamed country. He halted all work in the tunnel until his workmen could build him a comfortable house, complete with assay office. He hired a housekeeper. (Mining camp or no, Chalmers wasn’t about to do his own cleaning.) And he ordered a few basic supplies, including ivory-handled knives, wine glasses and decanters, and kegs of good Scotch whiskey.

Among Chalmers’ first acts as the new mining superintendent: re-branding the blandly-named Michigan Tunnel Co. as the “Imperial Gold & Silver Quarries.” He certainly had a marketer’s touch. Locals took to calling him “Lord” Chalmers, for his high-falutin’ ways. Meanwhile, in letters home, Chalmers complained bitterly about “rusticating in Alpine.”

Workmen at Chalmers’ Exchequer Mill, circa 1876. The Isabella Tunnel (another of his ambitious projects) was not far away, across the creek. (Dustman collection)

Work on the Michigan Tunnel aka Imperial Silver Quarries continued for the next two years. Despite successfully pushing the hard-rock tunnel 1,406 feet into Mount America, Chalmers never stumbled across any worthwhile ore. Investors in London became harder and harder to come by and eventually, the Imperial’s finances cratered.

Lord Poulett, one of Chalmers’ influential friends in London, who helped secure investors for the Alpine County mines through his wealthy connections. (Courtesy of Alpine Co. Historical Society).

Undeterred, Chalmers slogged on. He acquired title to additional mines in Scandinavian Canyon, and doggedly pursued one mining venture after another — all financed through his influential contacts in London and their gullible friends. For nearly twenty years, hopeful overseas investors poured funds into one Alpine mining venture after another.

Chalmers married his latest housekeeper and had two more children born here in Alpine County. But happiness — and a return of fortune — were not to be his. He departed for London about 1885, ostensibly to raise fresh capital for the mines. He never returned. They say his wife walked down the road every day to the big tree where the stage used to stop, hoping each time that Chalmers was coming home. He never did.

Lewis Chalmers died in London in January, 1904 of “heart complaint.” But he left an amazing legacy behind in Alpine County. Thanks in large part to the steady influx of British capital he wangled to support the local mines (and local jobs), the newly-minted county was able to survive its formative years.

And Chalmers left behind his own rich legacy as well in the form of nearly 20 letter-books, packed with details about the day-to-day operation of his mines. It’s an incredible wealth of data for historians and researchers.

Lewis Chalmers has been gone, now, for more than a century. But now you know his story. We hope you’ll help keep his memory alive.

(If you’d like to read much more about the life of Lewis Chalmers and Alpine County’s early mining days, check out our Silver Mountain City book!)Silver Mountain City: Ghost of the Sierra

Top image is thought to be a portrait of Lewis Chalmers, although we’re not 100% positive. It was found in a photo album donated by the Arnot family, directly opposite the image of Lord Poulett. Photo courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society.

Markleeville: A Bit of Haunted History

There’s more than one “tale of the unexplained” floating around the old buildings in Markleeville!

Perhaps it just seems like there should be a ghost in places that have seen so much life pass through their rooms. But stories about ghosts at Markleeville’s Cutthroat Saloon (Wolf Creek Restaurant) have been swirling for years:

One waitress will swear to you she felt a distinct tap on her shoulder — and whirled around to find the dining room empty.

An old photograph showing a white horse hangs on the wall near the cellar stairs. (Copyright K.Dustman)

There are reports of a horse’s whinny heard in the stone-lined cellar — a greeting, some say, from the century-old steed whose photo hangs near the stairs.

Yet another great ghostly tale emerged during our recent tour of the 150-year-old building. Reaching the top of the steep, narrow stairs we found five wooden chairs, all neatly arranged in a circle in the middle of the attic — much to the exasperation of our guide.

“I move those chairs up against the wall every single time I’m up here,” he huffed. “And yet every time I come back, they’re right back in a circle in the middle of the floor again. And I’m positive nobody’s been up here.”

Five wooden chairs were arranged in a ghostly circle when we arrived. Our guide quickly moved them back  to their spot against the wall again.

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Enjoy ghost stories? Here are 13 true tales of the unexplained, all in and around Markleeville. Get your copy here!

Summit Lake Mysteries (in Alpine County, CA) . . .

Photographer John Calvin Scripture captured this haunting image of a mysterious lake about 1874. The hand-lettered caption calls it “Summit Lake,” and confirms the location as Alpine County, California. So where was this 140+ year-old picture taken?

There is, of course, a “Summit Lake” in Alpine County not far from today’s tiny airport, and another (on some maps, at least) in the wilds southeast of Blue Lakes. But neither lake a likely match for the one captured by Scripture in his old photo.

So where was the lake in this 1874 photo taken? Ah, and that turned into a hunt to solve not one but two mysteries!

We put our heads together with noted Sierra historian Frank Tortorich, who tendered Mosquito Lake as a possibility: a small lake near the crest of Pacific Grade, on today’s Highway 4. That would indeed make it a true “summit” lake! And its location along Highway 4 — once the old Big Tree Road — makes it a great fit for Scripture’s “Big Trees” series.

Check out these images — Mosquito Lake sure looks like a match to us!

Scripture’s “Summit Lake” in 1874. . . and Mosquito Lake today.

So our first “Summit Lake” mystery — apparently solved!  But, as we were researching, we found a second Summit Lake image that posed even more of a challenge!

This one’s an 1861 sketch by Edward Vischer, a Bavarian artist who traveled widely in early California and Nevada. It’s officially titled: “Lake near the summit of the East Range, on the Big Tree Road,” and was printed several years later in Vischer’s book, Pictorial of California Landscape, Trees and Forest Scenes.

Here’s the view Vischer captured in 1861:

The Vischer sketch of another Summit Lake, also on the Big Tree Road, captured in 1861.

And  take a close look — those are camels in the foreground!

Camels, on the Big Tree Road?! Yup. As annotations to the book explain, Vischer accompanied a caravan of nine Bactrian camels over the Big Tree Route in 1861, headed for the Washoe silver mines. The camels, it was hoped, would be useful for carrying salt and other goods to the Virginia City mines from the Walker River District. (If you haven’t already read about this great camel experiment, there’s lots more information just a quick Google search away! That’s another fascinating tale!)

The caption to the Vischer sketch confirms that this “Summit Lake” also was  somewhere along the Big Tree Road. But it’s clearly not the same lake as Scripture’s photo. Vischer’s rocky cliffs more nearly resemble the outcrops near today’s Kinney Reservoir. And that would certainly fit as a “summit” lake on the East Range; Kinney is near the top of Ebbett’s Pass, an easterly sister to Mosquito Lake on nearby Pacific Summit.

Perhaps the camels were taking an afternoon snooze beside the (smaller) original lake that morphed into Kinney Reservoir once the dam went in. On first glance at least, that looked like a good guess! Check out this photo of Kinney Reservoir today.

Kinney Reservoir (holding much more water than the early original natural lake, thanks to today’s dam).
Nearby Lower Kinney Lake is another possible match.

Only one big problem with the Kinney Lake theory:  there was no actual road over Ebbett’s Pass (and Kinney Lakes) in 1861 — just a rough pack trail. The trail was improved into a wagon road three years later, an extension of the Big Tree Road to serve Silver Mountain City. But the good wagon road wasn’t finished until 1864.

Map of the Big Tree Road (yellow dotted line) and the eastward extension over Ebbett’s Pass to Silver Mountain (original map courtesy of Frank Tortorich. Colored annotations and locations of Mosquito Lake and Kinney Lake added).
Historical marker at Hermit Valley, where the roads forked. Border Ruffian Pass (leading from Murphy’s to Hope Valley) was opened to wagon traffic in 1856.

So, would camels have been herded along a mere pack trail to reach the lake at Kinney? Wouldn’t the camel train instead have followed the more-established Border Ruffian wagon road north through Hope Valley, and continued east on the old Carson Emigrant Route?

After scratching our heads for a while, we realized that Vischer’s party might actually have preferred the unimproved trail over Ebbett’s to the better-traveled Border Ruffian wagon route. For two reasons:

First:  The Border Ruffian Road connected with the old Carson Emigrant road, which would have required a steep and rocky descent through Woodfords Canyon — perhaps not such an appealing prospect with camel hooves.

And Second: Horses and mules had a tendency to panic at the sight of the unfamiliar camels. Perhaps the camel party preferred the quieter pack trail to the potential chaos of the busier Big Tree wagon road.

So, while we don’t know for sure, our bet is that Vischer’s camels were resting near the original small mountain lake that’s now become Kinney Reservoir. Take a look at the photos above, and let us know what you think!

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Discover long-forgotten Alpine County sites for yourself: With this guided historic tour of Snowshoe Thompson’s Diamond Valley, early Woodfords, and Fredericksburg’s pioneer ranches!
Grab your copy here:
 http://www.Clairitage.com

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Earl Lessley: The Flying Cowboy

He died over half a century ago. But tales live on about Earl Lessley, the “flying cowboy”!

Earl Lessley was born in 1889 in Drytown, California. His parents, Mary and Samuel Lessley, had crossed the plains from Missouri by covered wagon. Even after they arrived in California, the family evidently moved around a bit; a second son, Ray, was born in 1892 in nearby Volcano.

Just how Lessley happened to mosey east to Carson Valley is unknown. But by 1918 he began working for Dangberg Land and Livestock. He would become a “veteran and respected employee” for the next 37 years. (Younger brother, Ray, may have had something to do with the move to Carson Valley; he, too, worked for Dangberg, beginning in 1919, moving on in 1937 to work for George “Bim” Koenig at the Swauger Ranch at Topaz.)

Earl Lessley (left) on a cattle drive with George Koenig. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire).

Earl’s prowess as a horseman was legendary. Astride a spirited horse named “Fighting,” Lessley took first prize for best rider in the finals at the American Legion rodeo in Carson Valley in June, 1928. As the years went by he would become a well-known “old vaquero” at Vaquero Cow Camp, the summer range for Dangberg cattle in Bagley Valley.

Vaquero Cow Camp in Bagley Valley, Alpine County, California. (Courtesy of Judy Wickwire).
Earl Lessley (left) with unknown friend in the bunkhouse at Vaquero Camp. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire).

But what Lessley was most famous for was his passion for airplanes! Given the difficulty of accessing Bagley Valley, he decided to fly in with John Dangberg one winter, using a rented WWI biplane. Lessley had carefully cleared a primitive landing strip on a low ridge south of the camp. But when he attempted to maneuver in for a landing on his fresh dirt strip, the plane careened down nose-first. (Luckily, Lessley and his famous passenger both survived!)

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the  landing strip at Vaquero Camp continued to be used — though not always successfully. When a second plane also crashed, the practical Lessley happily scavenged parts from the wreck to reuse on the ranch. A third pilot, too, is said to have crashed, escaping with only a broken arm.

Earl Lessley’s infamous biplane. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire.)

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Earl continued to fly in, owning several airplanes of his own throughout the years. He evidently learned from his early mistakes as a pilot; his obituary noted that Lessley “frequently had accomplished the [difficult] feat of landing and taking off from Bagley Valley.”

Other near-apocryphal tales about Lessley paint a picture of a grizzled outdoorsman. Like many of his generation he disdained doctors;  developing “foot trouble” (possibly frostbite or gangrene), Lessley simply lopped off part of his own toes with an axe.

He also enjoyed a frontiersman’s wicked sense of humor. Lessley once pranked local fishermen by stuffing the hind-quarters of a dead bear into a pair of old Levis then half-buried the carcass in a river bank where he knew they would find it!

In 1952, Lessley suffered a concussion in Carson Valley when a horse fell on him. He told his coworkers to leave him there, saying he was content to die in camp. His fellow cowboys didn’t listen, however, successfully carting him out on a stretcher for medical treatment.

Lessley’s end came three years later — and a rather ironic end it was for an old cowboy. It was April 17, 1955, and the spring winds through Carson Valley were strong and gusty. Lessley was working on his car at the Klauber Ranch, and had jacked up the vehicle and crawled underneath. The car slipped off the jack, possibly from the gusty wind. The rear axle landed on Lessley’s chest. His body was discovered the next day by Hans Dunwebber, a fellow employee. If there was any happy news in the tragedy, it was that Lessley was said to have died instantaneously. He was 66 years old.

Earl Lessley’s grave, shared with his brother, Ray.

Earl Lessley was laid to rest near his parents in his family’s plot at Shenandoah Valley Cemetery in Plymouth, California, in a grave shared with his younger brother, Ray. (Ray died in 1962; it is unclear where their sister, Edith Lessley Waters, is buried.)

Prominent locals Bill Hellwinkel and Otto Heise traveled all the way from Carson Valley to Jackson to pay their respects at Earl’s funeral — a touching indicator of the extremely high regard in which he was held by his community.

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For additional information about Earl Lessley and the vaqueros at Bagley Valley, check out Judy Wickwire’s wonderful book, “Land Use Patterns in Bagley and Silver King Valleys” (Clear Water Publishing, 2017) — available at the Alpine County Museum in Markleeville! Contact the Museum at: (530) 694-2317.

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.