The Story of the Ridge Route (Part 1)

First, of course, came early game trails and Indian footpaths. When the Spaniards arrived, their carreta roads made use of those same rough tracks. They’d follow the route of today’s Temple Street north through what we now call Hollywood to reach Cahuenga Pass. Then it was onward to San Fernando, crossing the foothills at Newhall and up San Francisquito Canyon before veering east to Elizabeth Lake. Eventually the rude track emerged from the mountains at Quail Lake and Gormon Station, then dropped down Canada de Las Uvas (Grapevine Canyon) to reach the plains of San Joaquin Valley.

For Episcopal bishop William L. Kip, who undertook that journey to tend souls at Fort Tejon in 1855, it was a four-day ordeal by mule-drawn wagon. By 1858 the speedy Butterfield Overland stage reportedly was able to cut the time from L.A. to Tejon to a speedy 32-1/2 hours, though passengers would have arrived considerably jostled by the experience.

Auto Club of So. Calif map from 1912, showing the early route to Bakersfield winding east through Lake Elizabeth.

The road itself remained a twisty dirt path well past 1900. Early Gorman settler Mary Ralphs described the trip by horse-drawn buggy from Gorman to Bakersfield as a day-and-a-half journey. In the opposite direction, to L.A., the trip took two days plus, broken up by layovers at Lake Elizabeth and Newhall. And the difficulties weren’t limited to just the hours and the dirt and the bumping. No, that old road also required fording a creek close to sixty times, according to Bakersfield historian Lawrence Weill.

But that was the old wagon days. And then came the automobile!

One of the earliest motorized journeys along the old wagon road – gleefully reported by the Bakersfield Californian in April, 1903 – was that of adventurers T.E. Baker and F. Hughes, who accomplished their 150-mile drive from L.A. to “Kern City” in 31 hours’ driving time – miraculously, “without one single breakdown.” A heavier-footed motorist with the inauspicious name of Jackson Graves ventured over the same primitive dirt road in the summer of 1911, spanning the distance from Saugus to Bakersfield in a mere 12 hours.

By then, the motoring public had become a large enough lobbying group that even the government began to take notice. When a three-person California Highway Commission was formed in 1911 (a branch of the  Department of Engineering), one of their primary missions was creation of an auto-worthy road between Los Angeles and the fertile, oil-rich San Joaquin Valley — preferably by a more direct route than the long, leisurely, easterly jog of the old wagon road.

Surveys for just such a new highway were ordered on January 25, 1912 and actual surveying began the following September, led by engineer W. Lewis Clark. For the next eighteen months, with mules carrying their equipment, the survey party hacked and chopped their way through some of the most survey-inhospitable landscape imaginable.

“[C]linging to the precipitate walls of canyons where no pack mule could keep his feet, across ravines and along the crests of the mountains, the surveyors fixed their stakes, and, link by link, laid the lines along which this mighty highway should run,” as a 1916 California Highway Bulletin later enthused.

Surveyor W.L. Clark on the left.

Once that preliminary survey was completed, a few months of wrangling followed over the best route. And, of course, real money was needed to actually build the new road.

Luckily, series of state road bonds had already been issued, beginning in 1909 with enabling legislation for an $18 million bond issue (which became effective on December 31, 1910 after voters approved). Despite bearing favorable interest rates of four and five percent, those bonds found few at first. They “have not been readily salable,” a newspaper column confessed in February, 1913.

That hurdle was finally surmounted by assuring bond purchasers that road construction would begin in the county with the most bond purchases. Voila! L.A. financiers quickly snapped up some $270,000 worth of bonds. Work on the new Tejon route was finally ready to begin!

A second bond measure, passed by the Legislature in 1915 and quickly ratified by the voters, kicked in December 31, 1916, adding another $15 million to the state’s road-building coffers. And a third bond issue was approved at a special election July 1, 1919 – authorizing a whopping $40 million more. Yes, the new automobile-owning public was all for better roads!

Grading for what was initially termed the Tejon Route (soon more popularly dubbed the “Ridge Route”) began on Sept 22, 1914. A second stage of the grading contract was let that December. And just a year later, once the fills had been given a few weeks to settle, the new roadway was finally “thrown open to travel” in October, 1915.

Where once there had been only mountains and sage, depressions and gullies, a neatly-graded, freshly-oiled roadway now opened its arms to eager travelers. The brand new road became “instantly popular with the motoring public.” Total length: 30 miles. Total width: 24-feet of graded road bed. Cost for grading: $450,000.

In place of grades once as monumental as 20 percent, the new Ridge Route touted much gentle slopes said to be no greater than six percent. That benign figure, however, may have been measured only by the eye of a friendly beholder rather than by instrument. In real life, a few grades still reached a fairly steep seven percent. But even those were a big improvement over the old wagon route.

The new oil-graded Ridge Route was indeed an engineering marvel. And the feat was accomplished almost exclusively by manpower and mule-drawn Fresno scrapers. A steam-shovel and dynamite were used only on a single especially difficult cut (known as the “Big Cut” or “Culebra Cut”). And that particular undertaking moved an astonishing million cubic yards of earth and rock.

Postcard of the “Big Cut” (also known as Culebra Cut or Swede’s Cut) circa 1920. (Dustman collection)
The Culebra Cut as it looked in September, 1992. (Dustman photo)
A steam shovel being used in highway construction (1916 Calif Hwy publication).

As the road left the mountains on the north, engineers nixed the notion of simply paving over the original old wagon track down Grapevine Canyon. For one thing, that early wagon road included onerous 20% grades. Simple observation also convinced them that leaving the roadway in the belly of the canyon would mean constant erosion from spring rains and snow runoff.

Instead, the road-builders decided to loop the new roadway across the hillsides in a series of gentle bends that moderated the drop and weren’t as prone to erosion. The result was a series of sweeping, swooping curves across the foothills of Grapevine Canyon. They made for many accidents. But also for many dramatic photos.

The Grapevine Grade, circa 1923. On the back of this postcard was the handwritten notation: “1200 turns in 20 miles; 30 miles on straight-away into Bakersfield.”

With its much-welcomed opening in 1915, the newly-graded Ridge Route now cut 24 miles off the distance between LA and Bakersfield compared to the old Bouquet Canyon route – and saved more than twice that versus the Tehachapi road.

“Winding to the Summit” was the caption of this early postcard. There’s one small wooden guard rail barely visible just left of the third car.

The Ridge Route was, they said, southern California’s magnum opus in mountain highway construction. And the scenery was magnificent. As the S.F. Chronicle enthused in 1916, the new road traverses “the wildest of southern California mountain country, a section previously known to only a few ranchers and oil companies.”

A contemporary California Highway Bulletin offered a similarly glowing description:

Enraptured by the panoramic beauty of the scenery at every dip and turn of the road, the traveler is lulled into happy forgetfulness of the fact that but a few brief seasons since where he now rides in cushioned and upholstered luxury, mountain goats and coyotes monopolized the solitudes of these perpendicular canyon walls and mountain ledges.”

Magnificent views there might have been. But a driver’s attention really needed to be glued to the roadway. Estimates varied of the number of twists and turns in the new route. One viewer counted a total 697 turns, which taken together represented a dizzying 110 complete circles. Written on the back of the an early postcard was another motorist’s own computation: “1200 turns in 20 miles”!

Many were the stomachs that didn’t appreciate all that twisting and turning.

Something had to give. And within a very few years, it did.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Story of the Ridge Route!)

Looking toward Black Mountain from the Ridge Route. (Dustman collection).

 

The Forgotten Story Behind the Lebec Hotel: Thomas O’Brien

He always carried a Colt .45 under that natty suit jacket. “Irish-stubborn” about business, he was filled with exuberance, too. Over the years he founded half-dozen saloons and gambling halls from Kingman to the Klondike. Yet he didn’t drink or gamble (or so, at least, his family said).

Meet Thomas O’Brien, little-known proprietor of the legendary Lebec Hotel from 1913 to 1931 – and an amazing rags-to-riches-to-rags story!

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Born in Ashland, Kentucky in 1869, Tom O’Brien’s life got off to a rocky start. In 1884, his father drowned while fishing in the nearby Ohio River. Tom was fifteen at the time. And his mother now had five father-less children on her hands.

Tom, the eldest, struck out on his own. He found a job on a railroad, dutifully sending part of each paycheck home to help support his younger siblings. Some say he worked his way up to become the youngest engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad. Others say that was pure puffery; he simply ran a saloon “on the side” to bring in extra money.

Bakersfield oil derrick during the boom. (Dustman collection.)

However he made it, the money was good. O’Brien continued on west to Bakersfield, arriving about 1899 – just as the astonishing Kern River Oil Field was discovered.

By now in his early 30s, O’Brien recognized opportunity when he saw it. With his younger brother, he invested in Elk Hills oil leases. He also opened a saloon known as “The Louvre” at 18th and K Streets, which became known for its paintings, stuffed animals, and “Orchestrion.” And oh yes, prize-fights.

Thomas O’Brien’s “Louvre” (Bar, Cafe and Billiards) in Bakersfield, at the corner of 19th and K Streets.

Now awash in cash, O’Brien apparently financed a saloon in the booming Klondike, too.

About 1906, he tried his hand at a slightly different venture, opening the “Empire” vaudeville theater in Bakersfield. Although he didn’t know it at the time, that theater enterprise would eventually bring him a wife — in the form of Cowee Erskine, an opera singer who performed there for a time with Al Jolson.

Thomas O’Brien, left, with son Thomas E. At right is Bakesfield City Marshal Bert Tibbet with son Harry. (Circa 1913).

O’Brien and Cowee Erskine were married at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in February, 1911. Son Thomas Erskine O’Brien arrived that December.

But the high-energy O’Brien wasn’t ready to stop there. In 1913 he purchased 11,500 acres in Lebec. This remote outpost included a thick-walled adobe home and a crude store. The early dirt Ridge Route which ran by its front door wasn’t even oiled yet.

O’Brien quickly tacked on a large dining room and added 25 small cabins in the rear. And voila: the “Hotel Lebec” was open for the traveling public. Wife Cowee was said to be not thrilled when O’Brien insisted in moving there with their two-year-old son.

The adobe Hotel Lebec (left portion) with attached lunch room. (Dustman collection)

Situated some 82 miles from Los Angeles and 42 miles away from Bakersfield, the site wasn’t exactly convenient to anything – hence the need for a hotel, he reasoned. O’Brien touted local hunting and fishing opportunities, and claimed to offer “every service.” To attract tourists, he advertised Sunday chicken dinners. He also ran cattle on his large ranch nearby.

Sunday chicken dinners were a “thing” at O’Brien’s roadside stop in Lebec. (1913 Oct 31 Bakersfield Californian ad).

By 1915 the Ridge Route had finally been oiled, and in 1919, it had been sturdily paved in concrete. The traveling public could reach O’Brien’s mountaintop resort much more easily. And soon he was working on even bigger ideas, adding a general store, lunch room and garage.

Andrew Kingsbury, a retired motorman from L.A. and local “character,” is shown crossing the street in front of O’Brien’s store. Visible in the distance are the grill and lunchroom, and garage.

Even that wasn’t enough dreaming for the high-spirited O’Brien, however. By spring of 1920, there were reports of a planned “Class A” hotel. Thanks to financing provided by the Durant family, it was to be called the Hotel Durant. (Russell “Cliff” Durant was nominally involved, but the deep pocket actually belonged to his father, auto magnate W.C. Durant.) Thomas O’Brien, of course, was a partner in the new hotel venture.

Advertisement for the Hotel Durant, May 8, 1921.

A blazing headline in the Bakersfield Morning Echo of October, 1920 noted an astonishing $200,000 price tag for the “fireproof” hotel project. A giant barbecue was held for the laying of the cornerstone that November. The hotel’s split-wing design was said to be the creation of Maury I. Diggs, a brilliant but scandal-dogged San Francisco architect who would later design the Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields racetracks.

O’Brien, as always, spun magnificent plans. There would be an “aviation field,” a man-made lake for fishing and boating, a golf course, and of course hunting in the nearby hills – creating a “mountain resort with its own amusements.”

The design for the hotel included 80 guest rooms, plus a ballroom and billiard room. Drapes were sky-blue. There was a “modern” electric plant, plus steam heat. And oh yes, telephones in every room. Out back were 24 separate bungalows, each with cooking facilities.

The hotel opened with a bang. But by the following year, 1922, trouble was already brewing. The national Teapot Dome scandal wiped out O’Brien’s oil interests. And his hotel partnership with “Cliff” Durant quickly fell apart.

A 1923 postcard of Curry’s Lebec Lodge (Dustman collection)

In October, 1922, Durant’s hotel interest was bought out by Foster Curry, of Yosemite fame. Curry also purchased the store, restaurant and garage from O’Brien. The hotel was now “Curry’s Lebec Lodge.”

But a year later, a fresh disaster appeared. This time it was a devastating fire, which on November 4, 1923 wiped out the garage, store, restaurant, and several cabins. Some say the flames broke out in the restaurant; others say it was a grease fire that started in the shop. Either way, O’Brien is rumored to have blamed Curry for not preventing it. The only lucky part of the whole ordeal: the hotel itself managed to escape unscathed.

Lots in Lebec were selling for $150 to $375 in 1924. (June 12, 1924 Bakersfield Californian)

By the following June (1924) O’Brien and Curry were duking out their differences in court. O’Brien claimed Curry owed him $150,000 worth of payments on O’Brien’s mortgage. Curry claimed O’Brien had induced him to undertake the mortgage by fraud.

Yet another investor now arrived for the game of musical chairs: Jack Wooley, a saloon owner from Oakland, acquired Curry’s interest as part of a settlement agreement with Curry in December, 1924. The name of the hotel would be changed once again, back to “Hotel Lebec.”

Hotel Lebec (Dustman collection)

One year after the fire, and mere days after the Curry lawsuit was settled, a third disaster struck: O’Brien’s wife Cowee was killed December 21, 1924 while on a Christmas shopping expedition with two lady friends from Lebec. According to the family, the driver of the big touring car was unable to brake in time at a railroad crossing. The car went into a skid and struck a ditch; Cowee was thrown out and landed on the tracks. She died instantly.

The rock Lebec Coffee Shop complex. (Dustman collection).

Somehow, Thomas O’Brien persevered. He rebuilt the burned-down buildings, this time a rock structure known for years as the Lebec Coffee Shop. Included were a bar, post office, store, and a Richfield gas station/garage.

Travelers on the Ridge Route in the ’20s. (Dustman collection).
The Ridge Route. (Dustman collection).

Despite the many tragedies that O’Brien endured, the ‘20s were good years financially for the hotel. Movies were being made in the nearby hills, with cast and crew from Los Angeles putting up at the hotel. It’s said that movie stars would sometimes sneak away from Los Angeles, too, for a quiet weekend rendezvous.

Prohibition – lasting from January 1920 until he end of 1933 – may have been good for hotel business, too. Just before the new dry laws went into effect, Tom O’Brien is said to have sent a truck all the way to San Francisco to to pick up a huge supply of liquor from a brother-in-law. Forty cases of that liquor disappeared in August, 1925, however, when purported “government agents” arrived at the hotel and “held up” partner Wooley.

New partner Wooley had had enough; he sold his interest in the hotel that same week to O’Brien for about $50,000.

Two years after losing Cowee, O’Brien married Gemma Ann Martina on Christmas Day, 1926. Son Thomas E. was sent off to a private school in Carpinteria – riding over the mountains on horseback with a cowboy, to get there!

O’Brien was able to find a new buyer for his hotel and adjacent land in November, 1927 – this time for the mind-boggling sum of $400,000. The purchaser was an L.A. corporation known as Sales Development Company. Things were looking rosy again.

And then, the Great Depression hit.

O’Brien was unable to make his payments on a debt to Richfield Oil. Meanwhile Richfield was in financial turmoil of its own, with a president/general manager indicted for embezzlement. The company called in O’Brien’s note.

The O’Brien family was forced to leave Lebec in 1931. Son Thomas E.’s final poignant glimpse was captured in a photo he snapped from the back window of the car, showing his pet horse “Dick” grazing on the pasture in front of the hotel.

O’Brien and his family settled in a grand old Victorian house at 2028 – 17th Street, Bakersfield. He hadn’t quite lost everything; son Thomas E. remembered a Steinway grand piano that adorned the formal front room. Family members helped Thomas to purchase a restaurant on the west side of Chester, between 18th and 19th. But perhaps his heart was no longer in it. The restaurant venture didn’t last too long. By 1933 O’Brien had been forced to declare bankruptcy.

As for the Lebec Hotel, it changed hands multiple times in the years after O’Brien had left. In 1936, the hotel, coffee shop and 2,000 acres were sold for just $79,000. In 1938 the hotel changed hands again, this time for $100,000. In 1948, it was sold for $190,000, then $300,000 in 1955.

The Lebec Hotel closed its doors for good in March, 1969. Now empty, the once-grand hotel became an attractive nuisance with uninvited visitors starting warming fires. It was finally burned to the ground by then-owner Tejon Ranch on April 27, 1971.

And what became of the O’Briens? Well, the exuberant, tenacious Thomas O’Brien died of a stroke at 1117 “H” Street, Bakersfield on March 14, 1942 at age 73. He is buried at Bakersfield’s Union Cemetery.

“He was stubborn. Perhaps if he’d been a bit more humble, he might have made out better,” his grandson would later say. “He died without a cent in his pockets.”

And son Thomas E., the little boy in the photograph? He became a welder, helping to build Liberty Ships at Terminal Island during W.W. II. Like his mother Cowee, he loved to sing. In later years, he joined barbershop choruses. He especially loved singing “vintage” arrangements like the ones he had heard as a child at the old Lebec Hotel.

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Family information for this story was provided in June, 1993 by grandson Michael O’Brien (son of Thomas E.) and cousins Buzz and Jean Laird. Michael O’Brien died on April 2, 1998 just five years after I had the privilege of interviewing him.

Thomas O’Brien’s family in happier days. At far left is Thomas O’Brien’s mother, Mary; his wife Cowee is lower right, seated on a rock. (Circa 1918.)

Silver Mountain City: Finding Your Way There

Silver Mountain City, circa 1867.

Today, Silver Mountain City is a ghost of a ghost town. An army of pines has invaded the town’s cross streets, and only the traces of hand-dug cellars and rock foundations remain where noisy saloons and thriving businesses once stood. The old stone jail, once a proud centerpiece of town, is a jumble of broken blocks.

But from 1862 to about 1876, this rocky flat beside Silver Creek was home to literally thousands of citizens: miners and merchants, murderers and mothers. For those few, heady years, Silver Mountain was an incarnation of greed and muscle, silver and seduction – in short, a quintessential silver mining town.

No sooner was work commenced in the croppings [in the summer of 1861], than the richest description of Ruby Silver ore revealed itself, and as a matter of course, created one of those “excitements” once so common in this Country. Eager prospectors covered the mountain sides, swarmed in the immediate vicinity of the pioneer discovery, and almost before the year expired, nothing was left in the shape of a ledge or stain or outcrop to locate, the same ledge taken up two or three times over by a rude Notice on some of its spurs or angles, and all found a place in the Records of the then-formed “Silver Mining District.”

A general rush from Virginia [City] and other mining camps was made to the new El Dorado, buildings of all kinds were erected in anxious haste, saloons drove a rushing trade, corner lots ruled high.

                        Lewis Chalmers, 1871

But in its own ghostly way, the town of Silver Mountain never really died. Its people and their stories remain etched in microfilm and photographs and hand-scrawled documents. With a bit of puzzling, visitors can still visit the spot where the Fiske Hotel once stood, pay a call to the site of Sauquet’s Store, or stop by Davidson’s Saloon. Close your eyes as you stand beside Main Street, and you can almost hear the clink of glasses in the saloons and feel the earth tremble as Giant Powder explodes deep inside the mines.

Silver Mountain City’s legacy also lives on in Alpine County itself. For without the energy of this amazing town, California’s 46th county might never have been formed.

We hope you’ll share our excitement about this amazing community and will help us preserve its history!

We usually do a Walking Tour of Silver Mountain in September each year.  If you’d like to join us for the next Walking Tour, please contact the Alpine County Historical Society at (530) 694-2317 or alpinemuseum@yahoo.com, to find out how to sign up.

— Rick & Karen Dustman

 

Need directions to Silver Mountain? Here you go!

Map to reach Silver Mountain City (copyright K. Dustman)

Coming from Woodfords: From Highway 88, turn south onto Highway 89 towards Markleeville at the flashing light. Continue on Highway 89 approximately 6.3 miles to Markleeville. Then follow directions below.

Coming from Markleeville: Go south through Markleeville on Highway 89, and set your odometer as you cross over the little bridge at the south end of town. About 4.8 miles south of Markleeville, Highway 89 forks to the east (the Monitor Pass turn-off). Do not take this turn; continue straight on what is now Highway 4. At odometer reading 7.2, you will pass Wolf Creek Road, and at 8.7, you’ll see a tall brick chimney on your right (Chalmers’ Mansion).

At 10.3 miles south of Markleeville, you will cross the bridge over Silver Creek. Slow down and watch for a brown Forest Service sign on your left, marking the old jail site at Silver Mountain City (odometer reading 10.5).  You’ll also see a tall, blocky concrete historical marker. You’ve arrived!

Coming from the West:  The easiest route over the mountains is generally Hwy 88 (not Hwy 4, unless you are already close to Hwy 4 . . . then see below). Take Hwy 88 east to Woodfords, then follow the directions above.

Coming from Murphys:  Take Hwy 4 east over the mountain. The road is twisty and eventually comes down the mountain on the other side of the crest. When the road widens again and has a painted centerline, slow down.  That straightaway (about a mile long) is the town’s former Main Street, and nearly all that’s left of Old Silver Mountain! Watch on your right (about half-way down the straightaway) for a brown Forest Service sign and blocky, grey concrete marker. Pull in there, and you’ll see a chain link fence enclosing what’s left of the old jail. You’ve arrived!  (If you see a tall brick chimney on your left, you’ve gone too far!)

Like to read the book about Silver Mountain City?

Silver Mountain City: Ghost of the Sierra book

To get your copy, just click here!

 

 

Lexington: The Long-Lost Treasure Of A Long-Lost Town

It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, 1886 – December 3rd, to be exact. “Colonel” Alonzo Winfield Scott Smith was out exploring the back country of eastern Ventura County, near the confluence of Piru and Lockwood Creeks.

And some might say it was a Christmas miracle: Voilà! Smith stumbled across a “lost” gold mine. Or maybe it was a silver mine. Maybe it was both.

In any event, as Col. Smith gleefully told the tale, this “lost” (now found) mine had been dug by the Spanish padres. The mine’s entrance (he said) was cleverly concealed, hidden by cottonwoods deliberately planted to hide the tunnel’s mouth. Bolstering the seriousness of his discovery (so he claimed) were remnants of an old mining smelter. And for those who might still be dubious, Smith turned up a “silver brick” – or, as later stories would describe it, a one-pound “ancient Jesuit silver spike.” (Spikes made out silver? Well, who knows. Perhaps silver spikes were a “thing” back then.)

The Piru Mining District, where Smith claimed to have made these astonishing discoveries, had long been the focus of “lost mine” tales. There were indeed rumors, even before Smith, that the Spanish padres once mined there. Assorted tales were spun about an elderly Native American named Tecuya who’d worked in the mine for the padres and supposedly spilled pieces of the tale – despite a vow of secrecy and a deadly curse on anyone who shared the mine’s location. Some described ingots stacked up like cordwood. An unnamed prospector once arrived at Fort Tejon (it was said) with a “sack” full of gold. How could you not love such fables?!

The townsite of Lexington was west of I-5 and south of Frazier Park, in eastern Ventura County, at Lockwood Flat (circled, center left). (Sec15, T7N, Range 19W). The survey for the townsite commenced at the nearby section corner and ambitiously encompassed 560 acres.

Long before Col. Smith put in his appearance, traces of placer gold actually had been found in the Piru Creek area. Some sources even claimed gold was found at Piru 11 years earlier than John Marshall’s famous mill-race discovery! In 1871, a good 15 years before Smith wandered out there, a heap of ore at Piru was thought to include both silver and gold – though a later investigation debunked the report. Apparently there was enough substance to the rumors of placer gold, however, that a four-mile ditch was completed in May, 1876 to bring water to would-be Piru miners.

A 4-mile ditch brought water to the Piru placer miners in 1876. (Los Angeles Herald, May 25, 1876.)

And then Col. Smith arrived on the scene in the winter of 1886. Some described Col. Smith as “affable”; the Kern County Echo (perhaps a bit more honestly) called him a “queer character.” But Smith was just the type you’d expect to be intrigued by “lost mine” tales.

“[T]horoughly conversant with the mines of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado,” as one newspaper put it, Smith claimed he hade 14 years of mining experience under his belt. His previous mining travels reportedly had taken him as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico, Chile, and Peru. In addition to whatever mining chops he may have accrued, Smith may also have picked up tips for a mining scam or two. As recently as June, 1886 (less than six months before his miraculous mine “discovery” at Piru), A.W. Smith “of Campo” was exhibiting a sample of ore from a newly-discovered mine in San Diego – one which Smith’s buddy enthusiastically claimed “will astonish the unbelievers.”

Following the happy December discovery of his latest “lost” mine at Piru, Smith rushed to file five mining claims. These included the Exchange; the Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”); and the Matchless (according to Smith, the “mother lead of the world”). News of the find traveled quickly. By February 7, 1887, there were already 150 men in camp. Soon, Santa Maria surveyor J.V. Jesse was busily engaged in laying out an entire town there at Lockwood Flat, to be known as “Lexington.”

Thanks to the surveyor’s work, some 148 blocks were created – on paper, at least. Each block measured 300 x 162 feet, and included 24 individual building lots, each 25 x 75 feet. Newly-arriving miners could secure a town lot for $10 — or $15 for a more desireable corner lot.

That probably sounded pretty appealing, at the time. The new townsite of Lexington was a “wild and beautiful” place and, except for its remoteness, offered a good spot to build. The ground here was nearly level. And the waters of the creek were conveniently just 50 feet away. A few log cabins were thrown up. Other miners took up residence in tents or simply slept out under the stars.

The Town of Lexington, all 148 blocks of it. Surveyor J.V. Jesse owned a 1/12th interest in the town, and DeMoss Bowers, son of a Ventura newspaper publisher, was part-owner in another 1/12th.

Early newspaper reports helped fan the initial mining excitement. Ventura’s Free Press reported enthusiastically on March 17 that the Exchange claim was “bigger than the Comstock and possibly as rich.” Perhaps not surprisingly, DeMoss Bowers, son of the Free Press‘s publisher, was a part-owner in the Lexington townsite.

By late March, a log store was under construction, and a restaurant and boarding house were being planned. By mid-April, hoisting machinery had been purchased for the Esperanza, and a 50-stamp mill and a sawmill were predicted soon. A small arrastra was built of upright logs and a crossbeam, driven by mule-power. “Well-known mining expert” R.B. Harper purchased the Esperanza, and was said to be in negotiations to acquire a second mine as well. Soon even more miners had heard the exciting news. “The camp is becoming lively, and prospectors are arriving every day,” noted the Mining & Scientific Press in early April.

Snow prevented wagon travel, but the walking route to the new town was “good if you want to tackle it.” (Mining & Scientific Press, April 2, 1887).

The Brown claim boasted a 75-foot tunnel and a 68-foot shaft. The Golconda, a 30-foot vein of silver and gold, had its own tunnel stretching 150 feet. The General Lee, Double Standard, Smith & Grover, Exchange, and Matchless were also making progress. A miner named Newton Nunn claimed to have located a quartz vein three feet thick, and rich in free gold. And those were just the hardrock claims.

Men engaged in placer mining were said to be pulling out $5 per day per man. Nuggets worth from $5 to $100 reportedly had been found.

For those eager to join the rush to Lexington, the trip from Ventura took three days by wagon. Directions were helpfully provided by the newspaper, as follows:

        Take the stage road and turn off three or four miles this side of Newhall, up the San Francisquito canyon, to Elizabeth Lake; thence to Gorman’s Station; thence to John F. Cuddy’s, and ten miles farther to Lexington.]

Or, if you preferred to arrive by “trail” (which presumably meant on foot or astride a horse or mule), you could take the Matilija Trail to “Mart[in] Beekman’s, and the next day to Lexington by [way of] Samuel Snedden’s.”

By early April a new wagon road had been opened from Gorman’s Station to Lexington. But even that route was only “passably fair” at first. Wagons remained impractical through the early spring as long as snow lay on the ground. But walking was still possible.

With the snow finally melted, things at Lexington became livelier than ever by May, 1887. Enough would-be miners had arrived that formal miners’ meeting was called for May 8th. A newspaper correspondent was living on site (presumably DeMoss Bowers, whose father published the Ventura Free Press). A post office was said to be planned.

Eager for publicity, promoters shipped off a sample of ore in early July to the offices of the L.A. Times for inspection.

But by summer’s end, 1887, interest in Lexington’s mines was waning. Well, all except for DeMoss Bowers. Still a believer in the mines’ potential, Bowers purchased the Carbonate Prince, Carbonate Queen, Carbonate King, and Matchless claims plus a mill site and five acres of land from Alonzo Smith on September 24, 1887, for real money: $12,500. About this same time, Smith had “just concluded negotiations” with an English syndicate to sell the Exchange claim for a whopping $60,000.

The L.A. Herald reported that Col. Smith had sold his “famous” Exchange mine for $60,000. (September 30, 1887).

On October 6, two weeks after the sale to the ever-hopeful Bowers, the L.A. Times reported: “Lexington is dead; not a man in it.” Even the usual “bar-room mining” had ceased.

The trouble? The news column put it down to “that pile of rock brought down to Los Angeles.” The “rich sample” they’d sent to the Times apparently wasn’t quite so rich, after all. And before long, the town of Lexington itself had disappeared.

So what became of Col. Smith? Well, he didn’t hang around long, either. By October, 1887, Smith had left the wilds of Ventura County and was snugly ensconced in the far more comfortable digs of the St. Charles Hotel in Los Angeles. Remember, he’d just raked in at least $12,500 – possibly $72,500 if his deal with the “English syndicate” actually went through. Either way, he was sitting pretty.

The year 1892 found Smith in Utah, working as manager for a mining company and doing what he did best: rounding up investors. And by November, 1894 he was in Reno, touting a “rich ore discovery” in a “new district” south of Eureka.

But there the trail of Col. Alonzo Winfield Scott Smith goes cold. Someone named “Al.” Smith passed away  in January, 1898 and was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery at Fresno. But so far we’ve found nothing that would confirm this was our Col. Smith.

The “Lost Padres” mine itself dropped out of sight again. For a while, at least.

Then in January, 1915, a Bakersfield paper reported two gentlemen had shown up in town with an “old Spanish map” pointing the way to an old silver mine located somewhere in the San Emigdio district. Wrapped first in silk and then buckskin, encased in a tin, and finally snugged into a protective cover of rawhide, the tantalizing map bore the date 1828. The two gents claimed it once belonged to a great-grandmother – and of course it was for sale.

The world is never short on willing believers. So this “ancient” map was purchased by three hopeful Bakersfield treasure-hunters for $500 – and that was pretty much the end of that fool’s errand.

And now, before you dismiss the legend of the Lost Padres Mine as total bunkum, consider this: In May 1976, a writer for the Mountain Enterprise newspaper claimed she personally had seen a tarnished silver ingot, presented for her inspection “a few years ago” by a stranger named Ben Clark. A metal detecting buff, Clark claimed the bar was just one of 29 silver ingots he’d found in a hollow tree near – yes, Lockwood Flat, the former site of Lexington. Stamped on each bar was the image of a lamb carrying a banner – said to be the mark of an asistencia (extension) of the San Emigdio Mission.

So, who knows. Perhaps the good padres really did once have a silver mine in Piru. Maybe, just maybe, Col. Alonzo Smith was onto something.

Could the indentation in the center of this photo be evidence of an early mine? (R. Dustman photo, July 1994)

 

The road up Alamo Mountain leading out of the Piru Creek area (Dustman photo, July 1994).

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Sandberg’s Lodge on the Old Ridge Route

When we visited in 1992, all that was left was a sturdy stone wall and a few cracked rectangles of concrete. But in the 1920s, Sandberg’s Lodge was a bustling wayside stop for travelers on the old Ridge Route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

Some say Old Man Sandberg was a heck of a guy. Others say he was so mean-spirited he charged shivering travelers 40 cents an hour to warm themselves by his big, stone fireplace. A native of Oslo, Norway, Sandberg had emigrated to the United States in 1880 at the tender of age 12. He’d settled near Lebec as early as 1889, eventually developing an apple ranch “down below.” There his wife, Marian, bred her own tasty green-and-red “Sandberg” apple variety.

When the contract was let for construction of the new Ridge Route in June, 1914, Sandberg smelled opportunity. He determined to open a new lodge to serve travelers along the new route. Although the new Ridge Route was opened to traffic in 1914, it actually wasn’t finished until the grading and oiling were completed in November, 1915. (It would later be resurfaced with concrete in 1919.) Sandberg built his hotel at a site south of Quail Lake, formerly an old stage stop. As many as 300 laborers were said to have camped there while the new road was under construction.

Postcard image of Sandberg’s early “Summit Hotel” circa 1918-1922. (Dustman collection)

Sandberg’s lodge was constructed of hand-hewn logs on a stone foundation, and was surrounded by a stand of bull pines and oaks. This was one of the highest points on the Ridge Route – a great place to offer respite to overheating tin lizzies and serve hungry travelers.

There was only one problem: Sandberg had already used up his homestead rights. So he persuaded his wife’s brother, Alexander Grant, to homestead the site in his own name. In exchange. Sandberg promised to build Grant a house beside his lodge, and make him postmaster of the “town” of Sandberg.

Four years into the five-year homestead prove-up period, however, a family feud erupted. Rather than help Sandberg perfect the homestead, Grant relinquished his rights to the newly-created Forest Service.

Sandberg was furious. He’d already built his new lodge. Now he was forced to negotiate a lease with the Forest Service. This he did in 1920, which allowed the Lodge to continue to operate.

Early guidebooks show “Sandberg’s Summit Hotel” offering 25 rooms, “most with running water and toilet.” Room rates were $1.50 to $2.50, or $2-$4 for double accommodations. Lunch was cost $85 cents; dinner would set you back a dollar.

Sandberg’s in the snow, circa 1940. (Dustman collection).

Wife Marian’s apples were made into tangy apple pies and homemade cider. At least one 6-year-old boy discovered – much to his chagrin – the after-effects of sweet hard cider stored in a barn.

But even good things eventually come to an end. In 1933, the old Ridge Route was bypassed by modern Highway 99, leaving Sandberg’s off the beaten path. Predictably, business plunged. In February, 1936, Sandberg’s bills were going unpaid; a supply company sued him, alleging he owed $302.27 for supplies. Sandberg didn’t even bother to contest the debt. A default judgment was entered against him that April.

Harold Sandberg passed away in July, 1939, at the age of 71. Mrs. Sandberg’s brother, Alexander Grant, may have tried to keep the lodge going; Grant died there at Sandberg’s of a heart attack on May 22, 1944. And Mrs. Sanders soon sold the property.

Pottery by Lillian Grosjean, manufactured at Sandberg’s, displayed a signature “Sandberg apple” motif. (Dustman photo collection)

Subsequent owners included a man named Cox, and a ceramic artist named Lillian Grosjean, whose beautiful greenware pottery featuring Sandberg apples was said to command high prices in the L.A. market.

Another example of Mrs. Grosjean’s pottery from the 1940s. (Dustman photo collection).

During the 1940s the Lodge reportedly became the scene of some rollicking good times. Open 24 hours a day, it continued to offer food, lodging, and – some say – gambling and X-rated entertainment. For such activities, its remote location apparently came in handy.

Then in 1951, Sandberg’s was acquired by Walter “Lucky” Stevens for about $15,000. A larger-than-life character, Stevens had previously worked as a Hollywood stuntman with such stars as John Wayne.

Lucky Stevens, in 1992, at his property in Lebec. (Dustman collection)

“The mileage was rough but it was fun,” Stevens laughed, when we interviewed him in 1992. “I’d ride anything you could saddle, and if you couldn’t saddle it, that just made it a little more interesting.” Among other colorful stories this uber-colorful guy could tell: he once stole bottles of booze from Al Capone’s rum-running gang.

Map drawn by Lucky Stevens to promote his hoped-for guest ranch.

Stevens dreamed of making Sandberg’s a guest ranch. But the old inn was in pretty sad shape. By the time he acquired it, pigeons were making their home in the rafters. An old Victrola was still inside, primed to play that long-ago classic, “Brown October Ale,” if anyone was inclined to crank it up.

Sketch showing arrangement of the buildings at Sandberg’s, drawn by Lucky Stevens. Grant’s house is shown at upper left, and the ceramic studio at right.

Over the next four and a half years, Stevens set about making improvements, trading his labor for logs at the sawmill on Frazier Mountain and hand-hewing them to match the originals. When he was done, the lodge featured a massive stone fireplace, three full floors of guest rooms, an 8-foot mantel, and ten-foot-long wooden dining tables. And there were now a total of 7 outbuildings. “I got good with a draw knife!” Stevens bragged.

Interior of Sandberg’s after Lucky Stevens’ renovation.

Perhaps the ghost of old Man Sandberg or those ladies of the evening hadn’t entirely left. Stevens claimed to have witnessed doors opening and closing all by themselves. Locals say a female spirit remained in the “crib” even after that building was toted a few miles away to become a bunkhouse for the Rodriguez Ranch.

In 1959 and 1960, Stevens arranged lavish Christmas parties for underprivileged kids at his lodge. Stationwagons-full of food and gifts were donated. Wrapped Christmas presents formed a ten-by-twenty-five foot pile, and a delightful turkey dinner was served. “We just flat had a ball!” Stevens recalled. That made him decide to try to open the resort as a campsite for children. He incorporated his business endeavor as the “Town for Lucky Children” on April 29, 1960.

Lucky Stevens dreamed of opening a camp for teens.

But at least in Stevens’ telling, the Forest Service had a 20-year plan to “get everyone out of the Forest.” The government refused to renew his lease. Stevens tried to arrange a land-swap that would allow him to keep his property going, but officials said no.

Exactly a year to the day after Stevens filed those incorporation papers, on Saturday, April 29, 1961, Sandberg’s burned to the ground. It took less than an hour to turn the lodge and another cabin in the rear to ashes.

The timing and severity of the blaze were – to put it mildly – suspicious. “There was evidence that some kind of explosion might have occurred, as pieces of burning wood debris were scattered about,” reported the Bakersfield Californian. One first responder claimed to have heard “popping noises, such as ammunition of dynamite caps.”

Report on the fire in Bakersfield Californian (May 1, 1961)

Locals would quietly hint later that Stevens had packed the fireplace with fuel and closed the damper – deliberately torching his many years of hard work just to make sure that the Forest Service couldn’t have it. But  early news reports blamed a “defective chimney.”

The property was uninsured. “Even if it had been insured, the Forestry would have gotten the money to fight the fire,” Stevens shrugged. He wasn’t able to raise an estimated $250,000 to rebuild.

Stevens continued to live on the property while lawsuits with the Forest Service dragged on. “It took three federal court orders to get me out,” he concluded with a certain amount of pride. “I had to be out on June 17, 1963. I left about three hours early.”

As for the once-thriving resort: “They bulldozed the remainder.” Lucky Stevens eventually acquired a new property in Lebec. And that is where we interviewed him in 1992. His large metal warehouse was filled with out-of-date electronics and miscellany. The steel door had stood open so long two birds had taken advantage, building nests in the doorframe. He was still a dreamer. And his eyes still sparkled when he talked about happy days at Sandberg’s.

Lucky Stevens in 1992 when we interviewed him. (Dustman photo)

Later, we made a pilgrimage to the spot where Sandberg’s once stood. And lo and behold. Small, unglazed apple-leaf shapes could still be found poking from the ashy-soil.

Remnants of this pottery were still visible in the 1990s. (Dustman photo collection).

Markleeville’s (Unofficial) Sister City: Newman, California

Did you know tiny Markleeville, California has a sister city? Well, not an official one. In fact, the two towns probably have no idea they’re even related. But Newman, California and Markleeville share a common heritage.

The link that binds them? The man who gave the town of Newman its name. Here’s the tale!

Hard-working entrepreneur Simon Newman.

Simon Newman (Neumann) was born in 1846 in Willmars, in the Bavarian region of Germany.

Simon was 16 years old when he first set foot in San Francisco in 1862, traveling by way of Panama. His arrival was courtesy of brother-in-law Solomon Wangenheim, who owned a store in Virginia City and put Simon to work for him in that bustling Comstock town.

Then in 1864, Solomon opened yet another store – in Markleeville. The store originally sat in the lower section of Main Street just south of Montgomery Street. But by 1866 “Wangenheim’s” had moved a few lots north to the northwestern corner of Main and Montgomery (today a vacant lot across from the well-known Cutthroat).

Goods sold included “fancy and staple” dry goods, as well as mining and farm implements. Need boots, bacon, or butter? Wangenheim’s was your store. Here you could find powder and fuse; revolvers; crockery; even stoves, doors and windows. And, of course, liquor!

Brother-in-law Simon Newman was not only employed at Wangenheim’s Markleeville store as a clerk; he also lived in the back.

One night in July, 1866, a fire broke out in the store – caused, it was said, by rats or mice “capering over the friction matches.” (Which gives you some idea of the pest problem!) Newman and a fellow clerk sleeping in the  store managed to escape with their lives by jumping out a window. The St. Bernard dog who had alerted them to the flames was (sadly!) not so lucky.

The store had no insurance and the loss was estimated at an astonishing $20,000. But Wangenheim was determined to rebuild. He was back in business within weeks. As for Simon Newman, perhaps it’s no surprise that from 1866-67 he thereafter volunteered as Secretary for the Alpine Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1.

Biographers have described Simon Newman as “frugal and ambitious.” They should have added hard-working! In 1868, Newman purchased the store in Markleeville from his brother-in-law for $1,000. And in 1869, at just 23 years old, Newman opened another store at Hill’s Ferry, California, on the San Joaquin River. (According to family lore, he leased out the Markleeville store, providing a second source of income for his family until 1885, when another devastating fire swept through Markleeville and destroyed the building.)

Advertisement for Newman’s store in Hill’s Ferry (1880).

After moving to Hill’s Ferry, Newman began lending money to local ranchers, securing his loans with an interest in the crops. By 1877 he not only owned his store but also a 4,000-ton grain warehouse.

Simon Newman married in 1877 and moved to San Francisco, commuting Hill’s Ferry by train every week. (Did I mention he was hard-working?!)  He continued amassing ranch land, sheep and cattle interests. And when the Pacific Railroad decided to extend its line into the San Joaquin Valley, Newman donated 320 acres for the railroad – founding a townsite at the railroad’s terminus.

And how did Newman market his new town? Ever the entrepreneur, he arranged for a special train to ferry potential land purchasers and investors from Oakland to the townsite on April 28, 1888. A free picnic was provided, and lots were auctioned off. Originally called Sanger (not to be confused with the other Sanger near Fresno), the town today is known as Newman.

Simon Newman passed away of apoplexy (stroke) at just 66 years of age in 1912, and was buried in Home of Peace Cemetery in San Mateo County. But the town he founded still honors his name.

Just where is Newman? It’s located on State Route 33 between Gustine and Crows Landing. If you don’t know where those are (I didn’t!), it’s 35 miles southwest of Modesto, and just east of I-5.

One of the beautiful buildings on Newman’s historic Main Street.

Today, Newman dubs itself the “Jewel of the West Side” of the Central Valley. And it’s well worth a visit. With a population of about 11,000 citizens, it prides itself on retaining its small-town charm. There’s an annual Fall Festival; a vibrant historic downtown; a restored 1940s theater; and a district filled with beautiful Victorian homes.

There’s also a fabulous brick Museum (1209 Main Street, Newman) – open only Wed 12:30 – 4:30 or by appointment. Check out the wooden fire tank and farm equipment in the fenced yard behind.

Best of all, the historic Newman Store Building is still here (see pictures below), at the corner of Hwy 33 and Fresno Street. And if you stop by, be sure to look for Simon Newman’s name, written in tile in its entryway.

The Simon Newman store, circa 1920s.
The Simon Newman store today — home to a furniture store and auto parts store.
We were so excited to find Simon Newman’s name still featured in the old tile of the entry!

So, town of Markleeville? – meet Newman. And town of Newman? – meet Markleeville.

Whether you know it or not, you’re sister cities. And you both have hard-working emigrant Simon Newman to thank for it.

Jonas Winchester’s Wild, Crazy, Adventurous Life – Part 2

So, how did Jonas Winchester get to California?

Ah, that’s a story in itself!  (And if you missed  Part 1 of Winchester’s wild and crazy story, here’s where to read it!)

The eighth of 13 children, Jonas Winchester entered the world on November 19, 1810 in Marcellus, New York. At roughly age 16 he was apprenticed to Adolphus Fletcher, printer of the Jamestown Journal, a local weekly paper.

But by the time he was 18, Winchester determined to set off for adventure. He made his way to New York City, where he arrived (as he later put it) “a stranger, without friends, acquaintances, or recommendation of any kind.” He was sure a better life awaited him. “Destiny calls and I must follow,” he wrote to his mother in September, 1829.

Despite his lack of connections in the City and with only 2-1/2 years of apprenticeship under his belt, Winchester managed to land a job as a compositor for two  New York City newspapers. But the pay proved meager. Wages for compositors were so low, in fact, that in September, 1830 Winchester moved back home to Western New York, where he took a job with the Fredonia Censor.

Horace Greeley, Winchester’s printing partner (for a short time).

But the lure of the big city hadn’t left him. He returned to New York City again in the Spring of 1832.  And in 1833, Winchester eventually landed a publishing job with Horace Greeley, likely due to his friendship with Frank Story, Greeley’s partner. Winchester had a certain “larger than life” aura about him, and perhaps a certain amount of moxie helped win him the position. Somewhere in his youth Jonas gained the nickname “General” Winchester, a military honorific with “no foundation in fact,” as his descendants would later admit. (It may have been a bit of a family joke; brother Herman went by “Colonel.” And the oldest brother in the family dubbed himself “Patriarch.”)

Horace Greeley himself was a relative newcomer to New York City, too, having arrived in late 1831. By the time Winchester became an associate, Greeley had already launched and lost the short-lived Morning Post – a publication which cratered within three short weeks of its January 1, 1833 debut. A few months later another tragedy struck Greeley — his original business partner (and Winchester’s friend), Francis V. Story, drowned suddenly in July 1833.

Story’s death presented a fortuitous opening for Winchester, who stepped in to become Greeley’s partner. In March, 1834, Greeley and Winchester launched a new publication called the New Yorker — a “large, fair, and cheap weekly folio” based on Ann Street, New York, dedicated to literature with a sprinkling of news. Greeley handled the newspaper’s editing, while Winchester did what he did best — promotion — taking charge of the profitable “jobbing business” (contract printing). Before long Winchester would solidify his fortunes by marrying Story’s sister, Susan — the wedding taking place on Winchester’s own 25th birthday, November 19, 1835.

Although launched with only a dozen subscribers, the New Yorker’s circulation eventually reached 9,000. But it never became a rip-roaring financial success. Instead, it took “a terrible struggle on the part of its proprietors to keep it alive.” Greeley and Winchester eventually dissolved their partnership in September, 1836. Winchester carried on “job printing” on his own, then tried to make a profit by reprint literature from abroad. But he got himself deep into debt (thanks to what one observer called his “careless and venturesome way”), and about 1844 was forced to declare bankruptcy. The timing couldn’t have been worse for a new family man;  Winchester and his wife, Susan, now had two children: Frank S. Winchester, born in 1840, and Julia, born 1844.

Eager for a new start, Winchester was bitten by the “gold bug” when glittering tales of California gold began circulating in late 1848. It was a chance to redeem his fortunes!

News of the California gold strike at Sutter’s Mill was all over the newspapers in New York. Reports circulated that some $2 million in gold dust was already sitting in San Francisco, just waiting for transportation to the East. Despite stories of earlier “disturbances” in the mining districts, the New York Tribune assured its readers that “excellent order [now] prevails.” As for tales about “thousands starving,” those rumors were simply “greatly exaggerated,” the press reassuringly reported.

This advertisement for passage to California by way of Valparaiso, aboard the “fast ship” Tarolinta, ran in the December 19, 1848 issue of the Evening Post.

Winchester learned of a three-masted “half-clipper” ship leaving New York and headed for California. She was called the Tarolinta, Indian for “floating rose,” owned by the Griswold Brothers of New York and captained by William P. Cave. With a capacity of 549 tons and a crew of 27 (some 20 of them African-American), the Tarolinta expected to carry both a lucrative load of cargo and roughly a hundred passengers to the gold fields. Winchester was determined to be among them, and quickly booked passage.

The Tarolinta was initially scheduled to depart from New York harbor on December 28, 1848. But not enough passengers signed up at first, so the date was postponed until January 9, 1849 in hopes of recruiting additional passengers. Then arrangements for additional freight to be delivered to South America caused the date to be pushed off yet again, to January 13. You can only imagine Jonas Winchester tapping his toes in frustration.

Ads and handbills like this one lured passengers aboard “elegant” ships, promising “a very quick trip may be relied upon.” .

The morning of the 13th of January, 1849, dawned clear and cold. A huge snowstorm had dumped as much as three feet of snow on the streets of New York. Passengers were instructed to board promptly at the pier at the foot of Wall Street. And finally the Tarolinta pushed off.

Champagne was passed around as the ship was guided out of the harbor by pilot boats. She was heavily laden indeed. Freight was lashed into tall piles on deck, and included barrels of provisions, small boats, and “house frames.” Total passengers came to 125 – more than originally planned.

Winchester was among the passengers happy to turn his face toward California. He still owed thousands of dollars to his creditors. But he left behind his wife and two children.

This departure notice in the newspaper singled out Winchester and several other prominent passengers for recognition the day after the Tarolinta’s departure. His creditors may not have been pleased.

Ads for passage on the Tarolinta had promised travelers “superior accommodations.” In fact, however, space was minimal and the food less than ideal. One passenger reported a dozen men were sharing a 22-1/2 x 7-1/2 foot “stateroom” that was “nearly filled up with our trunks, chests, and other baggage,” leaving meager sleeping spots just three feet apart.

Passengers, of course, eagerly discussed their possible prospects in the California goldfields. At least 15 separate mining “companies” were organized aboard the ship, each with a name and its own distinctive pennant. Jonas Winchester was no doubt one of the founding members of the ten-person “Leyon Winchester & Co.”

Fellow printers James B. Devoe and Daniel Norcross of Philadelphia (later manager of the San Francisco New Age) were also included among the passengers. Others included an “accomplished Oriental scholar” named Caleb Lyon, and Dr. J.C. Tucker, whose diary of the journey would eventually be published.

A physician named Dr. Nelson whiled away the hours at sea by conducting “experiments on the porosity of glass” — a misguided effort to see if submerging a hermetically-sealed glass tube to 89 fathoms would cause water to penetrate the glass itself. (Not surprisingly, the answer was no. But Dr. Nelson nevertheless shared his “experiment” with the world in an issue of Scientific American.)

The Tarolinta was a three-masted ship that may have looked something like this.

The Tarolinta reached Rio in February, 1849, a happy milestone for the passengers as the stop offered fruit and “lots of mint juleps, and porter-house beef steaks.”  These were quite a treat indeed after the shipboard fare. One passenger filed a report from Rio describing typical shipboard fare as a “curious concoction of mouldy bread and frozen potatoes, boiled down in salt water” and “apple fritters, about two inches thick, eighteen inches around, and weighing four pounds and a half each.”

As they continued on around the Horn, passengers aboard the Tarolinta endured stormy weather, extreme cold, poor fare, and personality clashes. Perhaps predictably, disputes arose over food rations, hammock space, bathing water, petty thievery, and other matters. Some led to fisticuffs.

By and large, Captain Cave tried not to intervene. When two passengers got involved in a brawl on the poop deck, the Captain merely told them to move their dispute down to the quarterdeck so neither would fall overboard. But when eager passengers began trying to chop up barrel staves to make tent stakes in preparation for their anticipated mining adventures, the captain finally asserted his authority and stopped them. Barrel staves were a precious cargo.

Some would later say Cave was a “cold, ruthless and stubborn man, whose odious character would become clear to all as the voyage unfolded.” Others called him “big and blustering.” More likely he was just overwhelmed by trying to corral such a large group of eager, unruly passengers.

After 174 days, the Tarolinta finally sailed into San Francisco harbor on June 29, 1849 (July 6, 1849, according to other sources), much to the relief of all aboard, the captain no doubt included. But there they found the dock space completely occupied. They were forced to drop anchor in the harbor and hire rowboats to get their parties and goods ashore. And goods there were, a-plenty! Operators of the “Russian Store” at San Francisco soon advertised the arrival of assorted silk shawls, handkerchiefs, ladies’ fancy cravats, ribbons, plaid silk, buck gloves, silk scarves, plus a “superior assortment of cigars,” all courtesy of the Tarolinta.

Stepping on shore that summer of 1849 put Jonas Winchester among the very first eager members of the California Gold Rush. He and his associates briefly tried their hand at mining on the North Fork of the American River. They purchased steam-powered equipment, and built dams and even roads. But the fall rains washed all of their hard work away.

By the winter of 1849 Winchester turned back to what he knew best, securing a post as editor and part-owner of the Pacific News – one of the first San Francisco newspapers.  In May, 1850, Winchester also took over the appointment of H.H. Robinson, California’s first State Printer. The government printing contract offered plenty of steady work, but payment by the State was issued in semi-worthless warrants, making it difficult for Winchester to meet his obligations. He resigned the post in March, 1851.

The Pacific News folded in 1851, the victim of several fires. But Winchester was still intrigued by mining, and convinced that “greater things were in store for him.” He moved to Grass Valley, where it’s said he built the first sawmill and quartz mill in the vicinity, and acquired interests in mining companies.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Winchester’s wife, Susan, was suffering from consumption (tuberculosis). Winchester’s California mines had failed to produce the great returns he’d hoped for. So Winchester decided to return to New York.

Susan died in Brooklyn in February, 1855, at just 43 years of age.  Sometime after 1855 Jonas wed widow Margaret Bartholomew Brown in New York. Margaret was a supporter of women’s suffrage and an associate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But apparently that marriage did not last. In April, 1869, Winchester married a third time, wedding Laura Karner. Their first child, Ernest, was born in 1870 but died in infancy.

Advertisement for Winchester’s “Hypophosphite,” in 1887.

Winchester had launched a patent medicine business, “Winchester’s Hypophosphites” — proudly putting his own signature on the label. The endeavor helped him make ends meet, bringing in an estimated $3,000 per year. But he was still eager to try his hand at mining.

In the 1860s he acquired the Globe Gold & Silver Mining Co. and other mining interests in Monitor Canyon, in Alpine County. As early as 1867, Alpine locals were receiving letters saying Winchester intended to come out “next season.” And come out he finally did, moving to Monitor with wife Laura in 1871. They would have two children who were born there at Monitor.

So that’s how Jonas Winchester wound up in Alpine County. And that’s where our story picked up last time! (Here’s the link again, if you missed Part 1 of Jonas Winchester’s amazing story.)

Call it serendipity. But as luck would have it, Winchester’s 209th birthday was November 19th — just about the time this story came out in our 2019 newsletter. We hope you’ll light a candle to celebrate the birthday of the wild, wonderful, adventurous life of Jonas Winchester! What a life he had.

Happy birthday to Jonas Winchester on November 19th!

The Wild, Crazy, Adventurous Life of Jonas Winchester (Part 1)

Jonas Winchester was one of a kind . . . .

The year was 1871. Hope was in the air, in the tiny mining town of Monitor, California. “General” Jonas Winchester and his wife had recently arrived from back East. And word was that the Globe Gold & Silver Mine was finally going to be pushed in earnest.

The title of “General” appears to have been self-applied. Jonas had no military experience (at least none that we’ve been able to find). In addition to that confident title he also adopted an equally confident motto: “Push things.” And promote he did! Advertising flyers screamed about the Globe Mine’s prospects — its ores, they said, were “believed to be incalculable in quantity.” And best of all, they could supposedly be worked cheaply. Winchester assured investors he had “invested all his own fortune in the business,” and intended “to reside permanently at Monitor.”

But despite such bravado, things actually weren’t going terribly well for the Globe. It did have a mill, but the ore was yielding just $10 a ton. Its workmen being unpaid, both mill and mine were soon shut down. In April, 1871, Winchester candidly acknowledged to a fellow miner that there had been “too much coyoteing” going on. A family feud may have been part of the problem; Winchester  complained bitterly about the “treachery” of a brother. The Globe’s mill had also barely escaped a devastating fire, he said, and there was a “need for re-organization of its finances.” Prospects were looking gloomy indeed.

A little glorifying never hurts a mine’s image. Here, an ornamented cement front adorns the tunnel opening of the Globe. That’s Winchester himself in the white coat, posing atop the steps.

By July, however, the mood had switched from gloomy to gleeful. A rich copper vein had just been struck in the Globe, and there was “every indication of a mammoth copper ledge” just ahead. Early assays produced up to $75 in copper and $20 in silver, and ore as rich as 36% copper was said to have been found in the deeper levels. That summer, Winchester also had one more cause for celebration: his third wife, Laura, presented him with a son on August 10, 1871, born there in Monitor.

Continuing the work on the mine, of course, required a continued influx of capital. Winchester put his best literary skills to work in an 1872 prospectus, teasing investors with fabulous statistics. Capitalization of the company was now a rich $650,000. Progress thus far included a 5.5  x 6.5-foot double-tracked tunnel, “nearly” 1,500 feet long (a shameless exaggeration, as later facts showed). Rail had been extended conveniently from the mine to an adjacent 45’ x 60’ mill, which was almost ready to work the ore. “When finished,” the mill should be able to crush 40 tons of ore a day. A 30-horsepower engine and boiler had already been purchased, and 500 cords of wood were on hand. Hoisting works had been erected, and the company’s claims crossed “some half dozen or more veins.” The promised return to those willing to invest? “25% per annum in gold.” How could you go wrong?!

By fall, the Globe again found itself unable to pay its bills. But Winchester’s glowing advertising evidently did the trick. Frank Winchester (a son by Jonas’s first marriage) arrived in Monitor in October with enough cash in hand to pay off the debts of the Globe. And, as an added sign of confidence, Frank signed a contract to extend the tunnel another 100 feet. Frank quickly departed for the East again, but his father, “General” Winchester, remained behind at Monitor as mine superintendent.

Winchester may have been a terrific mine promoter, but he’d apparently had little experience running a silver mine before. What he lacked in practical know-how, however, he made up for with sheer bravado. And on top of his naturally boisterous personality, Winchester was a firm believer in Spiritualism. He firmly believed that he had been personally chosen by the “Ancients” to run the Globe, and that the spirits would guide him to make the mine a success.

1867 advertisement for a “world-renowned Astrologer and Somnambulistic Clairvoyant” named Madame Remington.

Spiritualism was a quasi-religious movement that depended on mediums to communicate messages from the spirit world to convey wisdom to the living. Seances and “table-rapping” sessions were in great vogue in the 1860s and ’70s. Even newspapers in such remote outposts as Silver Mountain and Monitor carried advertisements like those of “Madame Remington” and “Madame E.F. Thornton,” promising to send readers a picture of the “very features of the person you are to marry” — for a mere 50 cents, remitted to the medium by mail.

Winchester, a firm believer in Spiritualism, was convinced that a band of “Ancients” could speak to him through mediums. The leader of this spiritual band was supposedly an Atlantean named Yermah, while Yermah’s wife was the towering six-foot “Queen” Azelia. Winchester went so far as to name his newborn son Yermah, and a subsequent daughter, born in September, 1873, after the spirit Queen.

Jonas Winchester and his wife Laura on the front porch of their home in Monitor, about 1871. Laura is probably holding son Yermah, named after the “Chief” of the spirit band.

Winchester wasn’t alone as a devotee of Spiritualism in early Monitor. Fellow resident O.F. Thornton (no relation to the clairvoyant) corresponded regularly with both psychics and fellow Spiritualists, including one William H. Sterling. “The Spirit World is on our side, and they will take care to bring us success at the right time,” Sterling assured Thornton in one letter in September 1871. Meanwhile, Spiritualism may also have had a practical application. Sterling confided to Thornton that he was using “Spiritual topics” to persuade an investor to sink money into Thornton’s Good Hope mine.

The opportunity for profit from this connection with the “Ancients” was not lost on Winchester, either. In early 1871, he reached out to acquire rights to a set of “spirit pictures” drawn by a pair of San Francisco mediums while in a trance. There was profit potential in selling the images, he was convinced.

Despite the helpful advice of the “Ancients,” Winchester’s stewardship of the Globe was roundly criticized. One aggrieved investor concluded that Winchester’s “reckless and incompetent manner of doing business would prevent forever any success, no matter how rich or extensive the mine should prove.” Winchester was simply a “reckless spendthrift,” he added, notwithstanding supposed selection “by the Ancients as the only man in the world” for the job.

The main street of Monitor, about 1871. This is one of the photos Winchester had made to promote his mining endeavors.

Winchester did manage to push the Globe’s tunnel some 1,000 feet into the mountain, with several side-drifts. A steam furnace and boiler were installed in a separate building at the mouth of the tunnel, and the steam conducted in insulated pipes to an engine and pump located in an underground chamber. Marketing genius that he was, Winchester also had a series of beautifully-detailed photographs taken of the mine and surrounding settlement to help induce investors to continue to float the operation.

Despite the massive work done on the mine, the Globe’s stout 4” Cornish pump eventually proved unable to keep up with water flowing in. The boiler’s steam capacity also proved insufficient to work the pump and the hoist. By the end of 1873, work at the Globe was abandoned. As one mining report concluded, the mine’s sad history had been one of “difficulties, delays, expenses, and disappointments.”

Winchester and his family finally shook the dust of Monitor from their feet in November, 1873, and moved west to San Francisco. He brought along his “well-magnetized desk” to their new abode (perhaps magnetism helped the spirits to focus). Soon he was hawking those “spirit pictures” he’d acquired in a new “Spirit Art Gallery.” Winchester managed to bring in about $6 a day from his gallery, at least for a time — enough to cover costs, though not enough to afford him a salary. Ever upbeat, he claimed to a friend he was simply happy to “re-enter upon civilized life.”

Yermah, “Chief of the Atlantians,” was supposedly the head of the Spirit Band. This is an example of the pencil-drawn “spirit paintings” reproduced in Winchester’s gallery.

Winchester’s  Spirit Gallery featured reproductions of pencil portraits of 28 of the “prehistoric and ancient spirits.” These included “Yermah” and other natives of Atlantis from 16,000 years ago, plus the “progenitors of the Mississippi mound builders, and the architects of the lost cities of Central America. In case you’d never heard of  Atlaneans, there was also Confucius, Gautama, Jesus, and Mother Mary. Included in the mix was a “Hindoo Necromancer and Alchemist” from 8,000 years ago who, by the way, had discovered the Elixer of Life. Not to be overlooked: a Magician priest from Ancient Ninevah, and another learned Egyptian from the time of Moses. Visitors to the Spirit Gallery could acquire a photographic reproduction of these sketches: just 50 cents for a card-size picture or $1 for a larger cabinet card. Such a deal.

A solicitation for subscribers penned by Winchester in 1874 promised that the “locked-up knowledge of prehistoric ages” would soon be opened, thanks to the “lost arts and occult powers” of the ancients communicated through “highly-developed” mediums. “Let a cordial welcome be given to these ancient spirits,” he wrote, who come “offering the priceless boon of knowledge.” The spirits were prepared to share “an outpouring of ancient lore which will bless mortals and point the way to an era of brotherhood which shall no longer be a dream of Utopia but a living reality.”

“Priceless” that ancient wisdom may have been. But the spirit pictures proved a commercial dud. In May, 1874, the local press in Monitor noted Winchester’s current “financial impecuniosity, resulting from his late adventure in the ‘spirit picture’ business.”

1875 advertisement for Winchester’s patent medicine.

Perhaps aware of the benefit of diversifying, Winchester had his finger in more than one entrepreneurial pie about this time. In addition to the spirit picture business, he also was engaged in selling a patent medicine, under the catchy title of Winchester’s HypophosphiteHis own signature was prominently featured on the label.

Winchester’s patent medicine was hardly a novel idea, but it made use of all the recognized ingredients for snake-oil-style success. As one tongue-in-cheek article advised readers in 1872, the “Recipe for Getting Rich” from a patent medicine was:

Get any simple stimulating compound or tonic, or take cheap whiskey and color it, adding any cheap stuff to give it a medicinal taste. Adopt any name you choose, the more nonsensical or mysterious the better. Get up fanciful bottles or boxes or labels. Look out that the package, contents included, don’t cost over 5 to 8 cents. Invent 50 to 100 or 1,000 wonderful cures wrought by your medicine, giving names in full, with residences, date etc., but be careful not to blunder into giving any real name of any person living in the same place. If you connect with your medicine a touching story about some old mythical person, or Indian, or South American, all the better.
This magazine advertisement ran the same month as Winchester’s death: February, 1887.

Eventually, Jonas Winchester took up “fruit-growing” near Columbia, California. And on February 3, 1887, the wild and crazy life of Jonas Winchester finally came to an end. He was 76 years old. His obituary described him — accurately — as energetic, warm-hearted, and a man of high intelligence. He was laid to rest in the Odd Fellows graveyard at Columbia, Tuolumne County, California.

As for Winchester’s family, his obituary reported that in keeping with Winchester’s own Spiritualist views, the family “rejoice in the assurance that the dear patriarch still watches over the loved of home, and will see that no evil attends their footsteps.”

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So, just how did Jonas Winchester manage to get to Monitor in the first place? Ah, that’s a wild and crazy story in itself! Tune in next time for the rest of Jonas Winchester’s amazing story!

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Copyright K. Dustman 2019

Discover the Odd Fellows Rocks

Ever visited the Odd Fellows Rocks? Most folks don’t even know they’re here. But they’re a fascinating and easily-accessible site along the old Emigrant Trail, near the top of Carson Pass!

Several jubilant emigrants paused here between August 25 and 27, 1849, after successfully ascending the infamous “Devil’s Ladder” — one of the most difficult stretches that overland emigrants faced in the entire overland journey. These pioneers honored the occasion by painting their names and the dates of their visit on the large clusters of rocks they found at the top.

Names painted on the rocks today include “C.C. Hammer” and “E.C. Farrary” — although a transcription from the 1930s lists them as “J.G. Hammer” and “F. G. Farren.” The names have been painted over many times in an effort to preserve them and it’s possible that transcription errors have crept in.

And yes, you can still see the pioneer’s names! Well, some of them, anyway. The original white-lead inscriptions have been painted over multiple times now, in an effort to preserve them. Some may have been corrupted a bit by this well-intentioned “preservation” effort. And unfortunately, time and erosion have erased some of the signatures entirely from the rock. But many full and partial names still remain. And oh, don’t we wish we knew what happened to each of those early visitors!

They’re called the “Odd Fellows” inscriptions because many of the writers also left the tell-tale three-ring symbol associated with the Odd Fellows’ motto: friendship, love, and truth. As for the passing emigrants themselves, we haven’t yet been able to trace the history of many of the rock-signers. But among the still-legible names is at least one emigrant whose later exploits we have been able to find.

R.E. Wilhoit signed this document as County Auditor in 1864, directing the San Joaquin Co. Treasurer to pay the County Assessor $23.21 for services from August to November.

R.E. Wilhoit was just 20 years old when he stopped at this spot in 1850 to add his lettering to the already-graffitied rocks. (Yes, Wilhoit was here a year after the original Odd Fellows group passed by.) At the time, of course, this young man had no way of knowing what his future in California would hold. But it turned out to be golden indeed!

Like so many eager emigrants, Wilhoit mined for a time at Mokelumne Hill and other Gold Rush towns before eventually moving on to Stockton in 1852. There he became a noted citizen, holding a variety of important public posts including stints as County Recorder, County Supervisor, and City Councilman. In later life Wilhoit evidently decided to “follow the money”: he became a banker. Eleven years after his difficult journey up Devil’s Ladder, Wilhoit married Delia Dwelley and together they would have six children. It was a future the 20-year-old probably never envisioned on that hot summer day when he paused to scrawl his name on the rocks in 1850!

A second emigrant whose name is still visible is F.P. Belcher, who also left us the date of his visit: “Aug 24, ‘49”. Although we don’t know this Belcher’s identity for sure, it’s possible this was the same F.P. Belcher who was born in 1830 and arrived in California with his two younger brothers by covered wagon from Woodstock, Illinois. That F.P. Belcher found employment as a freight hauler in the “truck and van business;” lived on Russian Hill in San Francisco before moving to Oakland; married a woman named Louise Hamilton; and had five children. If indeed it is the same person, he would have been about 18 years old when he left his moniker on this pile of rocks.

And who were “P. Slater” and “Ray Holms”? We have just one clue and no more: a 1930s listing identifies a “Peter Slater” as having written on these rocks.

There’s yet another tantalizing inscription tucked among the names: “McHenry County, Illinois” is written in at least two places. Perhaps this was the home county that some emigrants had just left; or it might have been the name given to their wagon train. We haven’t had any luck (so far!) in tracing any of the names with certainty back to that particular location. But that F.P. Belcher we mentioned, from Woodstock, Illlinois? Well, Woodstock just happens to be the county seat of McHenry County. Hmm.

Several early Carson Valley-ites also appear to have ties with that same McHenry County, Illinois, too. Pioneer settler Emanuel Penrod was said to have hailed from there. And Joseph Raycraft, Sr. married his wife Ellen back in McHenry County, where he owned a farm, before leading a wagon train west.

Two more potential but harder-to-prove connections:   newspaper records listing the  members of passing of emigrant trains tell us Ira Luther and J.A. Rhodes were among a Michigan wagon group planning to cross the Missouri River on May 16, 1849. That same day, the “Spartan Band” train — from none other than McHenry County, Illinois — was also assembled beside Missouri River. Included among the Spartan Band’s members was a man named James H. Van Sickle — certainly a familiar last name for Carson Valley folks!

Did early Valley settler Ira Luther join up with the folks from McHenry County on his journey west? And was “James” Van Sickle any relation of our well-known local Van Sickle family? That’s probably a “no” for Ira Luther, at least as far as joining an 1849 McHenry County wagon train for any length of time. Luther did own property in Ogle and Stephenson Counties, Illinois, roughly 70-75 miles from McHenry. But an unverified account by Ira’s son claims Ira contracted cholera in Missouri in 1849, finally making made the journey West in 1850 by schooner and rounding the Horn to land in San Francisco. So for now these are just tantalizing  possible further connections to McHenry County, Illinois.

We hope you’ll pay a visit to the Odd Fellows Rocks to see the pioneer names on the rocks for yourself, and check out their homage to McHenry County. (Directions to get there are given below.) Be sure to gaze down at the Devil’s Ladder itself while you’re there, and imagine emigrants hauling their wagons and animals up this incredibly steep climb. It rises an amazing 700 feet in elevation over a distance of less than a mile. For the true flavor of what that meant, here’s how the emigrants themselves described the experience:

After two hours’ hard work lifting at the wheels, whipping our tired teams, and using language not becoming church members, we gained a resting place and well did we need one. After a short rest we are again on the move; the way is now more smooth but very steep and crooked; a man to every wheel, and one to every horse and mule; a few steps and then a rest.” John Hawkins Clark, 1852.

The most astonishing thing respecting the road is that any man of common sense should have first thought of taking a wagon over it.” William Tell Parker, 1850.

Once successfully at the top, some emigrants tossed their hats in the air in celebration, making the “echoes of the Sierra Nevada acquainted with the mode of cheering in good society!” as one wrote in his diary.

Others simply left their names here on the rocks — a happy sign to commemorate their passing. They probably never imagined that visitors would stop by to read their names 170 years later.

The Emigrant Trail winds through the trees near the Rocks. It’s a serene and beautiful place.

Like  to visit the Odd Fellows Rocks for yourself? Here are directions!
Take Hwy 88 headed west toward Carson Pass. Just before you reach the summit, watch carefully for a paved road on your left and turn left (carefully!) onto this paved road. A day-use parking fee applies in this area, so look for the pay drop just after you make the turn. Once you pay the parking fee, follow the paved road the short distance downhill to a cul-de-sac parking area at the end. Be sure to pause here to read the interpretive sign (it includes great illustrations!) and admire the stunning overlook!

Stop to read the interpretive sign and enjoy the beautiful view of Red Lake below.

At the low end of the cul-de-sac, a dirt trail on your right will lead you into the forest where you can gaze down on a trail (on your left) — and see the near-vertical trail they called the Devil’s Ladder. It’s a great section of the Emigrant Trail to actually hike later, if you’re adventuresome enough!

This path to your left dropping down into the canyon below was known as the Devil’s Ladder!

To find the Odd Fellows Rocks, follow the trail on your right that leads upwards and away from the Devil’s Ladder. A short distance uphill, you’ll reach a rocky bench — and will spot the large pile of rocks with white lettering. (They’re above the cul-de-sac and overlook the spot where you parked.) This is the spot where thousands of weary emigrants and animals rested and regrouped after the climb.

Notice the brass plaque set into the rocks, placed by the Odd Fellows of California in 1941. Also notice the three interlocking rings of the Odd Fellows symbol painted on the rocks in two places in this photo.

Before returning to your car, take time to search out the Unknown Pioneer’s Grave, which is hidden in the trees between the Odd Fellows rocks and the paved road that you drove in on. This monument was erected to honor an anonymous pioneer who died here in the wilderness after months of arduous travel, never reaching the fabled gold fields.

Grave of an unknown pioneer who made it to California — but not to the gold fields. Like to see what this site looked like 50 years ago? Here’s a link to an old Frasher postcard of the grave from the 1940s!

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