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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 ofWinchester’s Hypophosphite. His 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.”
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.”
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!
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.
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 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.
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 happensto 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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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What’s not to like about a lawyer who got kicked out of law school?! His best-selling Perry Mason novels aside, Erle Stanley Gardner would still be legendary for that un-lawyerly feat!
Born in 1889 in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner managed to stay enrolled at Valparaiso University’s law school for only a few short months. Legend has it that Gardner was sent packing after organizing an underground boxing match in which he himself became a pugilist. It probably didn’t help that Gardner also claimed to have slugged a professor.
Never mind his lack of a formal law degree. Gardner managed to get himself admitted to the California Bar by passing the test in 1911 at age 21. He’d spent three years working as a typist at a law firm in Oxnard, so perhaps that experience gave him sufficient insight into the mysteries of the profession.
The following year (1912), Gardner eloped with one of the secretaries at the firm, Natalie Talbert. A hasty wedding it may have been, but the marriage lasted — officially, at least — until Natalie’s death some 57 years later.
Gardner had his own law practice in Merced for a short time. Then in 1915 he was invited to join the trial law firm of Frank Orr in Ventura. He abandoned law briefly in 1917, working instead as a salesman. But by 1921 he was back doing trial work for the Ventura firm. He seemed to most love representing legal underdogs: “I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.
Meanwhile, Gardner was trying his hand at writing pulp fiction on the side. His typewriter clacked late into the night in the study over his garage. But would-be writers can identify with Gardner’s early tribulations. His initial efforts produced only a growing pile of rejection slips. Finally, in 1921, Gardner’s first short story appeared in print. Some claim it was “The Shrieking Skeleton.” Others say it was the equally-alliterative “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” a bit of pulp fiction that generated all of $15 bucks. (Gardner’s mother reportedly refused to read it.) But Gardner had found his true calling. Over the next decade, he would crank out an astonishing 600 short stories and novelettes in his spare time.
A daughter was born in 1923. Gardner would soon happily begin teaching her to fish off the nearby Ventura Pier.
Things were apparently going well in his professional life, too. In 1926, Gardner’s law firm moved into offices in a newly-completed bank building at the corner of California and Main. Although Main Street itself was still unpaved, the building boasted the finest accoutrements, from sparkling chandeliers to the city’s very first elevator.
The four-story office building was conveniently situated in the heart of downtown, with the Ventura Courthouse just a short walk up the hill. Gardner was able to enjoy some of the finer things that Ventura had to offer, including steak dinners at his favorite Pierpont Inn.
As Gardner’s publishing credits began to grow, his agent encouraged him to try his hand at book-length works. And there in his third-floor law office in 1932, Gardner would crank out the opening pages of what would become his first Perry Mason novel. Some say it took him a mere three days to finish his first draft.
The book, “The Case of the Velvet Claw,” debuted in 1933 and became an immediate success. Soon, Gardner was spending just two days a week as a lawyer. The rest of his time was devoted to writing. Before long, Gardner gave up law entirely and devoted himself to writing full-time.
Although he pounded out stories at first as a two-fingered typist, Gardner quickly figured out that he could produce far more by dictating. A chance encounter with Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn (where she worked as a hostess) led Gardner to offer Agnes a job as his secretary. The dictation system worked so well that he soon hired her two sisters as secretaries, too.
Some sources say Gardner set himself a goal of 4,000 words a night; others say his target was 10,000 words every three days. He regularly churned out some 100,000 words a month. That meant he could produce between three and six books a year — a track record that would make him any writer’s idol!
Gardner and first wife Natalie acquired a newly-built home on Foster Avenue about 1936. But Gardner himself didn’t live there long. Although they never formally divorced, the couple lived separately beginning about 1935. In 1937 Gardner purchased “Rancho del Paisano” in Temecula. It would be his home for the rest of his life.
Natalie passed away in 1968. A few months later, Gardner married his long-time secretary and companion, Agnes. He was 79 years old. Gardner lived just two another years, passing away of cancer at his home in Temecula in 1970.
All-told, Gardner authored nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring the quintessential sleuth, Perry Mason. His books have been translated into 71 languages, making him the most-translated American author. Despite this incredible record, Gardner claimed “no natural aptitude” as a writer. He was simply a “good plotter,” he once said — and oh yes, “one hell of a good salesman.” His goal was to offer his readers “sheer fun.” And readers loved it.
Today, modern-day Perry Mason fans can still follow in Erle Stanley Gardner’s footsteps on a visit to Ventura. A bronze plaque flags the downtown building on California Street where Gardner had his third-floor law office — and drafted his first Perry Mason tale. The Courthouse just up the hill (now Ventura’s City Hall) is where Gardner, as a real-life lawyer, once argued tenaciously on behalf of his clients. The Ventura pier where Gardner taught his daughter to fish has since been rebuilt, but still juts out proudly into the Pacific. The Pierpont Inn, where Gardner tucked into delicious steak dinners and where he met Agnes Jean Bethell, remains an iconic Ventura attraction.
And you’re really eager to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, you can even purchase Gardner’s former home at 2420 Foster Avenue. It’s two stories, 2,770 square feet, with a killer view overlooking town. And it’s on sale right now for just $1.79 million.
Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.
Our trip to Ventura, California was a fun “Vegan Vacay” – we dined our way through some fabulous restaurants! (For our vegan eatery itinerary, check out Part 1 of this story!) And of course there are plenty of sights to see and things to do in Ventura, as well. Here are some of our favorites!
San Buenaventura Mission and Church Museum: 211 E. Main Street. The Old Ventura Mission was the last of six missions personally founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra. This was actually the third church built on this site: the first was destroyed by fire; a second effort was abandoned when the door “gave way”. This third church was finally completed in 1809, 33 years and one day after Fr. Serra first celebrated Mass on this site. Mass is still regularly celebrated here.
Albinger Archaeological Museum: 113 E. Main Street. Right next to the Mission, this fabulous free museum displays artifacts that have been found at excavations nearby. Items found from the Mission period include millstones, crucifixes, bottles, pottery and buttons. Archaeologists also discovered Native American artifacts dating back 3,500 years, including bone whistles, arrowheads, and shell beads. An interpretive walk outside lets you see the actual site that was excavated, including an earth oven dating to 300 B.C. and a well serving the Mission occupants in 1844. https://tinyurl.com/y63mbrq6
Valdez Alley/Eastwood Park: Look for the sign beside the Archaeological Museum to find this easy-to-miss stairway leading up the hillside to the remains of a historic “filtration building.” Constructed under the direction of one of the Franciscan Friars in 1792, this old brick structure helped bring clean water to the early residents of the Ventura Mission.
Ortega Adobe: The carefully preserved adobe of the Emigdio Ortega family can be found at 215 W. Main Street; there’s easy parking in the back. Son Emilio Ortega gained fame as the founder of the Ortega Chile Company, making chili sauce in his mother’s kitchen here in 1897. The Adobe itself is not open for visitors to walk inside, but you can stand in the (barred) doorways and peek inside. We especially admired the gardens around the outside, including trees that (we’re guessing) were popular in Ventura’s early days: olives, pistachios, and pomegranates (which had fruit on them when we arrived!) https://www.cityofventura.ca.gov/640/Ortega-Adobe
Although we didn’t manage to visit, there’s also an Olivas Adobe to visit at 4200 Olivas Park Drive — the restored home of one of the early settlers, it dates to 1847. The grapes and fuchsias in its front yard are both said to be over a century old.
Grant Park – Take a drive up the hill above City Hall to find a scenic overlook, then all the way to the top of Grant Park for amazing views of the city and the historic Serra Cross. Father Serra himself is said to have erected a wooden cross here in 1782, and ships once used the prominent landmark for navigation. There are botanical gardens here as well. We found a “pop-up yoga” class getting started on the lawn when we arrived! https://visitventuraca.com/business/serra-cross-park-at-grant-park/; www.VenturaBotanicalGardens.com
Stroll downtown Ventura’s Main Street for some fun and eclectic shops, and don’t forget to look up to check out the interesting architecture here, as well. You’ll find great old brickwork and ironwork adorning the fronts of the old downtown shops.
If you love old buildings, there’s also a fabulous Historic Walking Tour that will take you to 36 of Ventura’s historic sites and buildings. (Pick up a brochure with map at the Visitor Center, 101 S. California St., or you can find it right here: http://www.itqw2019.com/public/files/Ventura_history_map.pdf).
The Ventura Pier is historic in itself. Today it’s 1,700 feet long, with food and other concessions. Find a convenient parking garage at the end of California Street (at Harbor Boulevard); just $2 bucks to park for an hour. Fish, picnic, or just stroll out and watch the surfers lining up to catch the waves — Ventura boasts some of the best surfing anywhere! http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=600
Post Office Murals by Gordon Kenneth Grant: 675 W.Santa Clara. Stop in to see the famous WPA-era murals painted by artist Gordon K. Grant in 1936-37 at the downtown Ventura Post Office. These folk-style paintings showcase the “industries and agriculture” of Ventura in a beautifully stylized way. Other murals by this talented artist have since been painted over, but Ventura’s have been preserved and remain open for the public to enjoy — for free. https://visitventuraca.com/blog/ventura-post-office-gordon-k-grant-mural/
Channel Islands National Park & National Marine Sanctuary: This free visitor center includes informative displays about the Channel Islands flora and fauna, plus a gift shop. Find information here about whale-watching and wildlife cruises as well as full- or half-day trips to the Channel Islands. Find the Park at the very end of Spinnaker Dr., past Ventura Harbor Village (a classic tourist venue with lots of shops, dining, and activities). https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm, https://www.venturaharborvillage.com/.
Pick up the Local Lingo: Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s old-time drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Use the term and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)
Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.
Ventura, California. It’s been called the “most under-rated beach town in America.” And frankly, that’s why we love it.
Tucked between the L.A. bustle and Santa Barbara glitz, Ventura’s undiscovered energy makes this coastal burg even more special. It’s pedestrian-friendly, temperate year-round, and right on the ocean. Despite recent growth, it’s kept the small-town feel. And oh, did I mention the Ventura sunsets?
Unlike its sister town, uber-hip Ojai, Ventura doesn’t especially tout its vegan offerings. But those sunsets and ocean breezes were calling, so a friend and I set out together for a two-day “vegan vacation” in Ventura. Could we make it work?!
Bottom line: Teasing out vegan venues took a bit of digging here. But what we discovered was well worth the hunt! Foodies can find great vegan options here. So we wanted to share thejuice!
It was a long drive to get there. But our first vegan dinner made the trip worthwhile: Thai food at Rice 2 By Mama, 583 E. Main Street. (Don’t be confused by yet another “Rice by Mama” just to the west — that one is so popular it’s hard to get into on a Sat. night, but Rice 2 isn’t far away!) You’ll find many vegan options to choose from; we dug into Mussamun and Panang Curries. Be sure to try their delicious, nutty “red rice.”
If you decide to stay at the Bella Maggiore Hotel, as we did (see below), the Busy Bee Cafe, 478 E. Main Street, is a must for breakfast. It’s literally right around the corner from the hotel. (For the in-crowd, there’s even a closer entrance off the alley!) The Busy Bee is a Ventura classic — not to be missed, if only for the decor. Think iconic red-and-white tiles, old-fashioned juke boxes at each table, and waitresses with coin-changers at their waists.
The menu is pure down-home American. But with a little ingenuity you can create vegan options that work. I started with an order of their hearty whole wheat toast, slathered it with a side of sliced fresh avocado, and topped those wedges off with Busy Bee’s tasty homemade pico de gallo. Bee-utiful!
For lunch, we found our way to Himalaya, 35 W. Main Street, a restaurant boasting Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan food. Tucked into a shopping center at the corner of Ventura Avenue (just north of Main), the restaurant is a former Taco Bell location. Vegetarians will be delighted to discover a whole page of vegetarian options on the menu, and vegan options are helpfully flagged. And the food was amazing! We started with a shared order of Tadka dal (yellow lentils with Indian spices/vegan), and splurged on a house favorite, Saag naan (traditional naan bread stuffed with spinach dip — a non-vegan naan variation, as it included sour cream, but so good!)
Be sure to try an order of their wonderful vegan Samosas – little towers of a deep fried potato/pea mixture, accompanied by two sauces: tamarind (red) and mint (green and a little spicy). While you’re relaxing, browse the shelves of traditional crafts from Nepal, Tibet and India, including figurines and artisan-made clothing.
For our second night’s dinner we stopped into Nature’s Grill & Juice Bar – 566 E. Main – Vegan options include a creatively veggie-filled vegetarian chili (including corn, carrots and black olives) and sweet cornbread; just ask them to hold the usual cheese. My travel partner ordered the “Old Town” salad (brown rice, tomato, guacamole, and carrots) — again, just ask them to leave off the feta cheese to make it vegan.
Our third morning opened with breakfast at Harvest Cafe – 175 S. Ventura Avenue, Suite B. We were surprised to find no dedicated parking lot, but there’s plenty of street parking a short walk away. The Harvest Cafe proudly displays its “Ocean-friendly” rating, and it’s certified as a “Ventura Green Business.” And their menu is completely gluten-free. I opted for the “Golden Protein Porridge Bowl”: oats, quinoa, buckwheat groats, coconut, banana, raisins, nut butter, flavored with tumeric and cinnamon. Delightfully sweet to the tongue despite no added sugar. My companion chose the “Cashew Yogurt Bowl”: house-made granola and yogurt, topped with a delightful fresh fig!
Lunch was at Zack’s Cafe, 1095 Thompson Blvd. — an experience so unique it deserved its own write-up! The menu is upscale Italian crossed with farm-to-table foodie. They’ll happily adjust anything on the menu for food preferences, and vegan options were easy to find. We ordered a delightfully light tomato soup, laden with floating bread cubes and topped with ribbons of fresh basil. For the main course we split a tostada salad topped with a mixture of grilled vegetables, all presented on a (homemade) baked whole wheat tostada. And don’t forget to try their passionfruit iced tea!
Our farewell-to-Ventura dinner was a lower-Main Street find: Maria Bonita, 256 E. Main St. The decor’s a blend of colorful folk art (think Frida Kahlo) mixed with an Old Mexico flair.
The tortilla chips were thick, hearty deep-fried wedges. Be prepared: the homemade salsa is super-fiery but excellent! Vegan options are limited here, but the black bean-and-rice soup makes a wonderful meatless meal in itself. Vegetarians and pescatarians will find many more choices. In addition to the bean soup, the vegetarian in our party tried a cheese-and-veggie quesadilla, which came sizzled to perfection on a grill, blessedly light and free of extra oil.
Cool B&B Stays:
We relished our stay at the marvelous “Bella Maggiore” – 67 S. California St. Located on California Street, the Bella is an easy walk to everything downtown. The hotel is an updated 1930s classic that’s retained its Old World charm.
We were greeted by live guitar music in the courtyard when we arrived, along with complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Fresh flowers were liberally distributed throughout the hotel, and the concierge was extra-helpful when we had questions. Don’t forget to ask about the ghost of “Sylvia,” a former inhabitant from the hotel’s red-light past, who supposedly lingers in Room #17 — said to be one of the hotel’s most-requested rooms!
Our amazingly large room on the second floor featured not only a fireplace but a padded window seat, perfect for lounging the afternoon away with a great book. (Check out the local bookstores we visited in Part 2, “Sites & Sights”!) Vintage antique faucets have been lovingly preserved in the luxuriously-large bath. And a packet of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory chocolates on the pillow made us feel extra-welcome.
For our second night, we stayed at the “Inn at the Beach” — 1175 S. Seaward. A newer building decorated to look like a Victorian B&B inside, the Inn reminded us a bit of the home of a well-loved aunt: gracious and welcoming, but in need of a carpet clean. Staffing at the front desk doesn’t start until 7 a.m., so if you plan to check out early you’ll be asked to just drop your key card and they’ll gladly email a receipt.
The beds were comfy and the rates terrific. And best of all, it is literally right on the beach. Be sure to ask for a room with an ocean-side view! Big sighs as we watched windsurfers cavort in the waves from our second-floor balcony. We snapped lots of can’t-wait-to-come-back photos of the sunset over the ocean.
HIP TIP:Pick up the Local Lingo: Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s oldest drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this main north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Try it and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)
Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.
Our tickets called it a “Speeder Excursion.” And a delightful (if not exactly speedy) ride into history it was, bumping along on the 114-year-old rails of the Amador Central Railroad — one of the oldest continuously-running railroad lines in the country!
We gathered at Lane’s Station — a dirt pull-out on Highway 104, about 1.5 miles south of Ione. There we watched in awe as sheer muscle-power (and a pivot) were used to turn the cars around and get them facing in the right direction.
And before long we were boarding the restored and upgraded cars. All are “maintenance of way” work cars, to which comfortable seats have been added. The oldest (extensively rebuilt) was from 1937; some were World War II vintage; and one was originally in use in the 1970s. The Amador Central owns two of these beautifully restored railroad cars. The rest are privately owned by passionate railroad enthusiasts who make them available for special excursions like this.
Our host for the ride, Mark Demler, kicked off the tour with a fascinating thumbnail history of the Amador Central. Turns out its earliest roots go back to the late 1880s, when would-be founders intended to start an electric-powered railway. Eventually they realized that electricity wasn’t really practical for the route they had in mind.
And who knows just how serious they really were about creating a viable railroad, anyhow?! “Many of the 1880s and 1890s railroad corporations were actually scams,” Demler told us. “They’d set up to sell stock or take donations but then lay no actual track — and eventually declare bankruptcy. So eventually the state prohibited railroad companies from making any stock offerings until they at least made a survey of the route, first.”
Undaunted by their early mis-steps, backers of the new railroad managed to complete the necessary railroad survey in 1890, finally incorporating in 1904 as the Ione & Eastern. Becoming an official corporation allowed the promoters to begin selling stock. Even more important, it allowed them to start borrowing money. Short-term bonds were issued to help finance the new railroad line. Track-laying began in 1904, and a short first run took place in 1905.
But expenses were big and profits were small. When those short-term bonds came due in 1908, the company found itself unable to pay. The Ione & Eastern was in a financial mess.
Luckily, a man from Sutter Creek named Erickson stepped forward, acquiring the railroad’s right-of-way by paying off the defaulted bonds. He renamed the railroad the Amador Central. Things were looking up a bit. Erickson passed away just a few years later. But his thrifty wife, Meta, stepped in and managed to not only keep the railroad running but make it solvent.
In its early days, the railroad hauled aggregate, brick, and lumber. (Ione was known for its high-quality clay and quarry goods.) During the WWI-era, the line carried heavy mining equipment like pumps and replacement gears to the Kennedy and Argonaut mines. In the 1930-1950s, the Amador Central began hauling goods for the newly-prosperous local lumber companies. And in later years, it ferried passengers up the hill, too, becoming the “bus” taking kids to and from the local high school (a practice that ended in the late 1930s).
A local lumber mill owner acquired the railroad in the 1980s, renaming it the Amador Foothills. He kept the business name when he sold the railroad a few years later, so another name change was required for the line. And what better name than its early-day moniker, the Amador Central?! A group of passionate railroad buffs incorporated under the Amador Central name, leased the line for five years, then finally bought it in 2010 (in partnership with the Amador Historical Society) for just $1. The group successfully petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to officially change the name.
“The community has been very generous in supporting the line,” Mark Demler tells us. “Local companies donate rock and aggregate for the rail bed, and local contractors sometimes do grading for us at cost or for nothing.” When a slide occurred recently, the Jackson Rancheria casino trucked in a quarter of a million dollars of rock to help stabilize the hillside — for just the cost of paying the truck drivers!
Total length of the Amador Central’s line today, from end to end: ten miles. But, oh, this short line still boasts major bragging rights! It’s now licensed by the Federal Railway Administration as a true passenger railroad — technically, a “class one non-insular tourist railroad.” The complete route climbs over 1,200 feet in altitude in its mere ten miles, making it one of the steepest railroads in America. Several of the grades are as steep as 4 percent (a rise of 4 feet in 100 feet traveled); for most other railroads, the max is just 1.5 percent (1.5 feet in 100). For a heavy train, that’s astonishing. “In the old days, they had to stop half-way down to cool the brakes off!” Demler notes.
Our six-mile round trip through the beautiful rolling hills took just about an hour. It would be an especially fun trip for kids — though they must be 5 or older to board the cars.
Short excursions like the one we took depart the second Saturday of most months, through November, at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m., and cost a mere $10 bucks. Longer, full-length runs are also offered three times a year. Sunscreen, closed-toed shoes and water are recommended. For more information and a flyer, visit www.amadorcentralrailroad.com.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!)
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.