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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gold Country Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duchesse blooms.

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

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

The “Pulich Children” rose from the 1860s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So who shot Wells Fargo guard Mike Tovey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tovey’s grave at Jackson City Cemetery.

 

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

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