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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the view Vischer captured in 1861:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Earl Lessley: The Flying Cowboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Lame Tom: Finding Gifts Among Tragedy

The true “pioneers” of Alpine County were the native Washoe. But little was written about them in the early days. So it was a real treat to stumble across a 1927 Record-Courier article detailing the life of Markleeville resident “Lame Tom.”

In the early 1900s, Lame Tom (his real name was Assu) lived in a wickiup just below the old wooden schoolhouse on Schoolhouse Hill. By then, he was an elderly gentleman. He shared his humble abode with a friend with the euphonious name of Zon-ha-gen-mal-anay, popularly known as “Squealing Aleck.”

“Lame Tom” (Assu), about 1900 (courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society).

Lame Tom was a son of Chief Possic (or Possuk), a Washoe captain living near the Hot Springs who was said to have been a guide in the early days for John Fremont’s party. Noted basketmaker Dat-So-La-Lee married into their family.

In his youth, Lame Tom was acclaimed as a hunter. But tragedy struck one night while he camped out alone. A large, heavy log rolled off his campfire and onto his leg while he slept, and the burning wood pinned him “like a vise.”

The log pinned his leg like a vise.

The brave young man did the unthinkable: he amputated his own leg with a hunting knife to free himself, and “crawled many miles home” to his camp.

Amazingly, he survived. But Lame Tom could no longer hunt. Instead took up the art of arrowhead-making — soon becoming one of the “most proficient of all the arrowhead makers.” He would shape a flake of obsidian by cradling it in his palm with buckskin, then striking the edge of the stone with a piece of buckhorn (antler) lashed to a length of greasewood. The only person who could equal him was noted arrowhead-maker Poker Charlie (Tillebow Behang), another son of Chief Possic. (A little family rivalry, perhaps!)

Lame Tom, possibly outside his home on Montgomery Street in Markleeville. (courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society)

Lame Tom also crafted bows made of cedar and sinew, and would sell a bow and arrow set to local lads for “two bits” (25 cents). He also taught them how to weave snowshoes.

Due to his injury, Lame Tom was permitted to marry two wives, an important form of social support. Both wives were employed in or near Markleeville: Maley worked for the Musser family, while Susie was employed by Harriet Grover. Interestingly enough, Squealing Aleck (Lame Tom’s friend) had three wives, and an astonishing ten daughters.

Lame Tom passed away in 1910. So it’s a delight to be able to connect this photograph from the Alpine County Museum with his story, thanks to the old Record-Courier article from 1927.

Local arrowheads and display in the Washoe Exhibit at Alpine County Museum.

Stop in at the Museum next time you visit Markleeville: there’s more great information here about the local Washoe heritage, including this stunning collection of local arrowheads. Who knows, perhaps some of these might even have been crafted by Lame Tom (Assu) or his talented brother, Poker Charlie.

More unique history and undiscovered tales! Get your copy at http://www.Clairitage.com

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Special thanks to the Alpine County Museum for permission to share the photo of Lame Tom. Visit the Museum at the top of Schoolhouse Hill in Markleeville Thursday through Sunday from late May through October, summer hours 10-4.

How a Fire Saved the Fiske Hotel

Just how often do you get to walk inside a piece of history? Built in 1863, this hotel is a slice of life from Alpine County’s version of the Comstock days. And the building still exists — thanks to a fire.

Yes, a fire is what saved this historic building. Two fires, actually. Here’s how it happened:

By 1882, only a few inhabitants were still left in the once-booming mining town of Silver Mountain City. Gone were the hordes of eager miners, the hopping hotels, and the noise from its dirt streets. Although many of its homes and commercial establishments were still standing, much of the population had moved on to Bodie, where the diggings were fresh — and far more promising.

The Fiske family, owners of Silver Mountain’s prominent Fiske Hotel, had long since picked up stakes and moved over the mountain to Murphys. Their solid three-story hotel — one of the first structures built in Silver Mountain’s early days —  stood empty at its once-prime corner of First and Main.

Then, on the fateful winter day of February 18, 1882, a fire swept through the nearly-abandoned town of Silver Mountain City.

Advertisement for Fiske’s Hotel at Silver Mountain in December, 1865.

So what caused the 1882 conflagration? They say it was a simple chimney fire. By then, of course, few residents were left to battle the flames. Within hours, much of Silver Mountain’s Main Street was in ashes.

That did it; the few remaining die-hards holding out at Silver Mountain packed up whatever they could salvage and trudged off in search of happier climes.

One building that hadn’t burned, however, was the Fiske Hotel. And in 1885, when a different devastating fire swept through Markleeville, Alvin Grover took note.

Grover was the owner of Grover’s Hot Springs resort, and he suddenly arrived at a grand and practical solution: move the old Fiske Hotel from Silver Mountain to fire-stricken Markleeville. It not only would help draw visitors back to the fire-stricken town but also serve as lodging for his guests at the Hot Springs!

The Fiske Hotel aka Grover’s Hot Springs Hotel in Markleeville around the 1920s, looking much as it still does today. Owner John Ellis had renamed it the “Alpine House.” Old-time locals still call it the Alpine.

Leave it to Grover — he accomplished the feat with just a team and wagon, old-fashioned sweat, and lots of heavy lifting. The stately Fiske Hotel was dismantled, board by board, hauled off to Markleeville, and re-erected — at the spot where it still stands today.

Not only can you still walk inside this amazing bit of history, you can still eat lunch here. What fun to imagine miners’ boots stomping the restaurant’s creaking floorboards back in 1863.

The hallway upstairs on the second floor (not open to the public), with a row of doors to the original guest rooms. Bedrooms were tiny — about 10 x 10. (Photo courtesy of Ed Rogers).
Inside one of the former guest rooms upstairs, now used for storage. These wide boards (left) were likely milled at Silver Mountain City when the hotel was built in 1863.
There’s lots more exciting history about Silver Mountain City in this book, including amazing rare photos. Click to grab your own copy before they’re gone! (Just ask for an autographed copy!)

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Special thanks to our friend Ed Rogers, who shared the amazing photos in this article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gold Country Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duchesse blooms.

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

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

The “Pulich Children” rose from the 1860s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So who shot Wells Fargo guard Mike Tovey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tovey’s grave at Jackson City Cemetery.

 

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

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(More) Best Sierra History Books!

After our recent round-up of Sierra history books (you can find it here), we realized we’d left off a number of our own favorites — and we’ve also gotten some more great suggestions from readers!

So check out this additional list for more fascinating Sierra history reads — and be sure to let us know if you have a favorite book to mention for next time!

A Road from El Dorado, by Will Bagley (ed.). The  real-life trail diary of former Mormon Battalion member Ephraim Green, this is the true, day-by-day account of the pioneering Mormons who blazed what soon became known as the Mormon-Emigrant Trail over the Sierras in 1848 as they made their way eastward from California back to Salt Lake. If you’re not familiar with Will Bagley, here’s the Wikipedia summary about him.

Frontiersman Abner Blackburn’s Narrative, by Will Bagley (ed.) Another important work by noted historian Will Bagley, this is the story of Abner Blackburn, one of the original founders of Mormon Station in 1850 (the trading post which became Genoa). Blackburn’s adventurous life included multiple trips over the Sierra and discovering gold in Gold Canyon.

William Brewer and a member of his survey party.

Such a Landscape, by William Henry Brewer. We included Brewer’s familiar Up and Down California in our earlier list, and a reader urged us to include this title as well. Such a Landscape is the story of early survey expeditions through the Sierra, including the weather they encountered, equipment they brought, and how they mapped the landscape and measured peaks, back in the day. These “aggressively healthy” adventurers made impressive climbs, in impressive time. A coffee-table-style book filled with pictures, and a great companion to some of John Muir’s writings. For the fascinating backstory on Brewer himself (did you know he’d just lost his wife and son shortly before his 1860 exploring adventures began?), here’s the Wikipedia thumbnail.

The Humboldt, by Dale L. Morgan. Two extremely knowledgeable history friends both raved about this book, and Kirkus Reviews called it “colorful, adventurous, exciting reading.” Debuting in 1943 as part of a book series called “Rivers of America,” this volume’s reach extends far beyond the Humboldt itself to include the history of Carson Valley — an early and important historical work.

The California Trail, by George R. Stewart. First published in 1964 in Great Britain, this engagingly-written narrative details America’s  cross-continent migrations from 1841 through 1859, ending with a final chapter humorously titled “End of the Trail.” Great research is layered with unusual trail lore and beautifully-executed illustrations and maps. Among the line drawings are illustrations comparing three different styles of emigrant wagons, and detailing a trick for crossing a deep river with oxen. An excellent index at the back makes this a great find for history lovers and researchers.

John A. Snowshoe Thompson: Pioneer Mail Carrier of the Sierra, by Frank Tortorich. The most recent release by one of our very favorite Sierra historians, the inimitable Frank Tortorich. This is the seminal work on the heroic “mailman of the Sierras,” John (Snowshoe) Thompson. A great read, and the most complete work we’ve seen on this legendary figure. As you may know, Frank has also written Gold Rush Trail: A Guide to the Carson River Route of the Emigrant Trail, a long-time favorite for enthusiasts eager to find — and walk — the Emigrant Trail for themselves.

Hetch Hetchy and Its Dam Railroad, by Ted Wurm. A reader kindly suggested this well-illustrated book; it’s the fascinating story of the railway built by San Francisco to support the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam (an improvement for the city’s water supply). In operation between 1917 to 1949 (when it finally was dismantled), this 68-mile railroad not only transported goods and supplies for the dam but also brought passengers out on sleeper-car excursions to view the construction, eat at the project bunkhouse, and enjoy the forest. Great photos make this an especially fun read.

Hope you enjoy, and let us know your favorite Sierra read!

Stage Robberies and Wells Fargo’s Finest (Part 1)

Did stage robberies still occur as late as 1893? Just ask poor Mike Tovey; he died in one.

The silent grave of Mike Tovey, in Jackson City Cemetery, who died in a stage robbery on June 15, 1893. This headstone was erected in his memory by his employer, Wells Fargo & Co.

The headstone of Mike Tovey stands its silent vigil in the Jackson City Cemetery. It was erected by his employer, Wells Fargo & Co., which evidently felt a bit guilty about Tovey’s death.

Our story begins back in 1880, when Tovey had been hired to guard the Bodie and Carson Stage. That stage, it seems, was in dire need of guarding, having risen high on the “frequent flyer” list for stage robbers. The coach was first robbed on June 4, 1880. Three months later, it was robbed again. Eventually the line accrued what may be a world’s record: six separate stages robbed in under four months, and perhaps as many as 20 robberies throughout the region! The whole robbery thing became, as one news article put it, “monotonous.”

Victims reported two robbers worked the hold-ups in tandem. One robber, it was reported, was a true gentleman… well-dressed and unfailingly polite to the unfortunates riding the stage. The other robber — well, not so much. Victims described his voice as gruff and his manner as frightening.

Handsome Wells Fargo guard “Mike” Tovey had wavy hair and a full beard. Born Feb 4, 1842 in Canada, his real first name was Martin.

Wells Fargo assigned one of its best guards to the job: Mike Tovey. Tovey came well-equipped for stage protection. A giant of a man, he stood over six feet tall, was described simply as big, and had a reputation for being fearless.

Sure enough, on September 5, 1880, while Tovey was on stage-protection duty, two men stepped out to hold up the Bodie and Carson Stage yet again, this time about seven miles from Aurora. Tobey managed to shoot one of the would-be robbers, taking a return bullet in the arm himself.

As Tovey was being whisked off to a nearby farmhouse to have his bullet wound attended to, a second Wells Fargo guard scoured the nearby sagebrush for traces of the remaining bandit. But even as pursuers were beating the bushes to look for him, “the robber doubled on his tracks, returned to the stage, and carried off the treasure box” — with its $700 inside. Talk about a cool customer!

Wells Fargo, of course, was now more eager than ever to track down the villain — not to mention recover the money. Trained investigators were put on the task. These helpfully observed that the dead robber (the one Tovey had shot) had been wearing a peculiar “mask made of red morocco leather.” A clue worthy of a Sherlock Holmes himself!

Unfortunately, the dead robber’s body got buried before investigators ever thought to check the dead man’s pockets… but when they did think of it, they belatedly had the body exhumed again. Sure enough, there in the dead robber’s pockets was important evidence: a bank passbook noting the man’s name, a recent deposit of $1,000, and an address at a Minna Street rooming house in San Francisco.

The dead robber could now be officially identified as W.C. “Bill” Jones, aka Frank Dow. A felon who’d already served time at San Quentin, Jones (Dow) had been known for his heavy drinking, large beard, and  scary-sounding voice.

Aided by the helpful address, Wells Fargo’s investigator now had no difficulty tracking the dead man to his room in San Francisco. Detectives descended on the boarding house and the room was searched (apparently without bothering with the nicety of a search warrant). Lo and behold, a gold watch, ring, and other jewelry taken during the June stage robbery were found. Adding to the evidence: swatches of morocco leather turned up, similar to the dead robber’s mask.

The man suspected of being the gentleman bandit who robbed the stage — and wounded Tovey — was a debonnaire character named Milton A. Sharp.

Jones’ fellow robber — the one who coolly made off with the cash box — was arrested at the same boarding house when he showed up a few hours later to “recover his valise.” Or at least, the authorities assumed it was the second robber. As soon as the valise-owner entered the house he was taken to the floor by deputies, a pair of pistols leveled at his head, and his belongings searched.

His name, he told them, was Milton Anthony Sharp. Newspaper accounts made Sharp sound as if he had just stepped out of a novel:  he was “remarkably fine-looking,” with “jet-black hair, swarthy complexion,” a goatee and black mustache, not to mention “eyes that shine so brightly that it is impossible to distinguish their color.” A few lady readers may have swooned.

Sharp had the bad luck when arrested to be carrying an astronomical $2,400 in cash, along with other valuables. Naturally, he claimed he had come by it all honestly while working as a miner. But like his roommate, the dead robber, Sharp also had made a bank deposit on the very same day in the very same bank, and listed Minna Street as his address.

Sharp was hauled off for trial at Aurora, where he was convicted of five counts of robbery, and sent to cool his heels in State Prison for twenty years. There the gentleman bandit was described by his fellow prisoners as the “chief aristocrat in their midst,” or at least so the Pioche Record proclaimed in December, 1880.

But Sharp had a few tricks up his sleeve: he managed to escape incarceration not once but twice! While awaiting trial he tunneled his way out of the Aurora jail, taking off with a 15-pound ball-and-chain still attached, later found smashed against a rock. Sharp was quickly recaptured and sent off to state prison, but nine years later, managed to escape there, too.

Four years after his second escape, Sharp was still running from the law when someone shot Wells Fargo guard Mike Tovey for a second time, as he guarded the stage headed for Jackson. This time, the wound to Tovey proved instantly fatal.

Was the murderer Sharp? Tune in for the rest of the story in Part 2!

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Woodfords, California

If you’ve ever stopped at Woodfords, you may have seen the Wade House — and probably never gave it a second glance. But this small, nondescript green house has an amazing claim to fame: it’s said to be the oldest continuously-inhabited dwelling on the entire Eastern Sierra!

Here’s what the Wade House looks like today. (It wasn’t intentional, but we lucked out and got the picture from almost the same perspective as the one nearly 100 years earlier!)

The original cabin (likely just a single room) was built by mill-builder Thomas Knott when he arrived in 1853. The cabin was sold that same year to John Cary, when Knott moved to Mormon Station to build yet another mill (one for which he would never get paid!) Some of the boards in the Wade House are said to be 18 and 24 inches in width, and probably were the product of Knott’s early sawmill.

Another early view of the old Wade house (circa 1920s). This view is probably slightly more recent than the first photo, above; the same fence and gate are still present on the right, but in much worse condition. The large addition on the left is gone.

Long before white settlers ever arrived, of course, the area around what is Woodfords today was a popular gathering spot and campsite for local Washo. Some of their descendants still live nearby. The trail up Carson Canyon (today’s Highway 88) is said to have been a major Native American trading route, used by Native Americans for centuries as they traded obsidian and pine nuts for acorn and other goods on the other side of the Sierra.

Cary sold the cabin to William Wade and his wife, Clarissa in the early 1860s. The Wades had crossed the plains in 1853 by wagon and settled initially near Fredericksburg. They moved here to Woodfords in 1858, where William was employed as a mill-hand at Cary’s lumber mill. He would later serve as the town’s postmaster and the local justice of the peace.

Orville Wade likely operated his store in this building, sometimes called Nye’s Hall (after its original builder). This two-story building stood at the same spot as today’s Woodfords Station/Mad Dog Cafe.

William’s younger brother, Orville, later came west as well with his wife and children. Orville ran a store and operated a small hotel here at Woodfords. Could the large addition to the Wade House have been added for them? We’ll probably never know for sure, but take a look at the left-hand section of building in top photo, above.

After nearly twenty happy years here at Woodfords, William Wade died in 1877 — the result of a terrible mistake. His son, James, had erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin. William came home one day with an open cut on his own wrist and, seeing James’ medicine bottle, dabbed a bit of the remedy on the wound, using a feather which his son had also used as an applicator. Within a few days the mistake became obvious: the infection spread through William’s body. Both his arms swelled up terribly and “mortification” (gangrene) set in. Concerned neighbors brought William to Genoa Hot Springs for treatment, but the doctor there pronounced it too late. The horrible swelling continued to spread, finally reaching William’s mouth and throat, and he died there at Walley’s from asphyxiation.

William’s brother Orville left Woodfords the following year for Oregon. Clarissa, now a widow, continued to live alone in the old Wade house, taking in boarders to help make ends meet. She passed away there in her home in January, 1890, one of the most severe winters on record. There was no way to bury her in the frozen earth, so townsfolk planted her body temporarily in a snowdrift until the spring thaw set in, when a proper grave could be prepared.

More fun local history (check out our book page)!

Clarissa — and most likely her husband, William, too — now rest in peace in the old graveyard just up the road from the old Wade House where they lived so long.

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