Genoa’s Avalanche of 1882

Genoa, Nevada has weathered its share of disasters:  earthquakes, high winds, and of course the Great Fire that nearly wiped out the town in 1910. But did you know Genoa once was struck by an avalanche?

The time was 5:30 a.m. on March 16, 1882. Residents who happened to be awake at that early hour heard a terrible warning rumble, akin to an oncoming freight train.

Main Street in early Genoa, looking north.

It was indeed a train of sorts; an avalanche of terrifying proportions came cascading down Genoa Canyon, sweeping along everything it encountered. Directly in its path was the home of Nimrod Bowers. When the snowslide finally stopped, the bodies of Bowers and his wife were found lifeless amid the snow and debris. With epic bad timing, two relatives from Germany had just arrived to visit them the previous evening. Both relatives luckily managed to escape alive, although one suffered a broken shoulder.

The crushed remains of Bowers’ barn and house came to rest in William Daniel Gray’s kitchen just below, “heaped in a confusing mass,” mixed liberally with hay from Gray’s own mangled barn.

A native of Ohio, William Gray was one of the earliest citizens of Genoa, arriving in 1862, finding work initially as a blacksmith for Henry Van Sickle. Before long, Gray had his own blacksmith shop and was building buggies, spring wagons and heavy wagons across the street from the Genoa courthouse. Gray and his wife, an Irish lass named Anna, had a house on Main Street, right next door to the lovely brick home once owned by Lucky Bill Thorington.

William Daniel Gray’s advertisement for his blacksmith shop, from the Genoa Weekly Courier of 1882.

Gray was an early riser, and on that fateful March morning in 1882 he was already up and shoveling snow away from his back door when he heard the approaching torrent. He yelled to his wife, and they both managed to run toward the front of the house before the mass of snow struck, crushing the kitchen into (as the Genoa Courier put it) “a shapeless mass.”

Miracle of miracles, not only did the Grays survive but their children also were spared. The kids’ bedroom off the kitchen was seriously damaged, with snow coming “within a foot or two of their bed.” As old-timers today tell the tale, the children had gotten cold during the night and moved into the main portion of the house to sleep by a woodstove. Talk about lucky!

Behind the hedge is the Genoa home that once belonged to W.D. Gray and his wife. A corner of Judge Virgin’s brick home (formerly owned by Lucky Bill) is just visible at right.

Old-timers also claim at least one animal miraculously survived the onslaught: when the gigantic pile of snow finally ceased moving, one lucky horse was discovered standing right on top of the heaped-up mound!

Next door to the Grays, Judge Virgin’s sturdy brick home survived the devastation largely intact, although his orchard, barn and  outbuildings were flattened. But the Boerlin home on the other side of the Grays was completely demolished. Mr. Boerlin, one son, and two other occupants came through unscathed. Mrs. Boerlin was also discovered alive, still in bed, some distance away from where her house once stood, although she’d been “nearly suffocated” under broken timbers and debris. Sadly, she was clutching the lifeless body of her little daughter, Paulina, in her arms.

Hardest hit of all was a structure farther south, occupied by several Washoe Indian families. This “Long house” (as the Courier described it) was completely destroyed by the snow slide. At least seven Native Americans tragically lost their lives in the disaster.

Surprisingly, as workers were clearing away debris from one of the homes two weeks later, they discovered a dog beneath the broken timbers and snow. “Although it had lain cramped up for 14 days,” the newspaper happily reported, “the little animal was still alive and is likely to entirely recover.”

A dog somehow managed to survive in the rubble for two weeks!

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Hope you enjoyed this story! And if you’re a fan of Genoa history, you’ll be happy to know our next book about the Genoa Cemetery is nearly done!  (Small pause for happy dance!!) This will be Book #2, filled with more great stories about fascinating people buried at Genoa. We’re hoping to finish it up by December!! Just drop us an email if you’d like to be among the first to know when the new book comes out!
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Minden’s Old-Time Judge

Clark Gable was a true gentleman. And we have that on the very best authority: straight from Minden’s own early Justice of the Peace, Walt Fisher. One of Fisher’s very first acts as JP was to perform the 1955 marriage of the much-married Gable to actress Kay Williams.

The Douglas County Clerk pulled a bit of a fast one when Gable and Williams showed up to apply for a marriage license. It was after hours, so she dialed up Judge Fisher and asked if a couple could come to his home to be married. “Fine,” he said. “Send them over.” The clerk didn’t bother to mention who she was sending. So imagine Fisher’s surprise when he opened the door!

The couple had brought their own witnesses with them, so there was no need to call Fisher’s wife from the other room. Gable was quiet — a true gentleman, Judge Fisher later recalled. The service was quickly over, and Gable tucked $500 in the judge’s hand as the newlyweds departed. The judge’s wife didn’t learn who had been in her house until several minutes after they’d left (an omission for which the judge, it was said, later paid dearly!)

It was Gable’s fifth marriage, and Kay’s third. Perhaps it was Judge Fisher’s special touch; this marriage stuck, lasting until Gable died in 1960.

G.W. “Walt” Fisher, East Fork Justice of the Peace. (Photo courtesy of granddaughter Teri Balfour)

And as for Judge Fisher’s own story, that’s a fun tale in itself!

Walt Fisher was born in 1885, on a Colorado ranch adjoining the famous Calgary Ranch. Walt’s father was killed in a tragic ranching accident when Walt was just a boy, leaving his mother a widow — and a pregnant one at that. Next-door rancher Calgary had recently lost his own wife in childbirth, so the solution was obvious: Calgary and Mrs. Fisher were soon married, combining  households, ranches and children.

This new arrangement was tough on Walt, however; his step-father, he felt, was “too much of a disciplinarian.” So at 16 Walt struck out on his own, working his way west as a hired hand on cattle and sheep drives. Walt and a brother eventually arrived in Virginia City about 1906. There they opened a bakery together — an occupation that Walt continued to love all his life. His grandchildren still remember his homemade sourdough bread, biscuits and pancakes.

An early view of the V&T Station in Carson City, where Walt Fisher began his 40-year career with the railroad.

Mining in Virginia City hit a downturn, and Walt moved to Carson City. There he found employment as a freight engineer for the V&T Railroad at the Carson Station, beginning in 1910. And there he also found — love.

In Carson,  Walt met pretty Alice Taylor, a young seamstress. Alice had come west by wagon from Illinois with her widowed mother and three sisters as a teenager, and together they had opened a tailoring shop in Carson City about 1910.

Alice and Walt Fisher with their two children, Lois and Franklin. (Photo courtesy of granddaughter Teri Balfour).

Alice and Walt met when he came into her shop — and were married in 1913.

Walt continued to work for the V&T and in 1924, secured a position as the new Minden stationmaster. The small wooden terminal at Minden included a branch post office, a pot-bellied stove, and a large pickle jar. Local ranchers would come in to get their mail, hang around the woodstove, and (of course) talk. Walt soon knew everyone in town.

But around 1950, word came that the Minden station was going to be shut down. Walt had worked for the V&T for a total of over 40 years, and was ready for something new.

The early depot at Minden. To the right is the stationmaster’s home. (Photo courtesy of Teri Balfour).

Walt had once rescued a young Basque being beaten by local thugs, earning him the respect of the local Basque community. Hearing that Walt was about to retire, the Basques approached Walt to offer support if he would run for local Justice of the Peace. And the rest, as they say, is history. Walt ran successfully for the office in 1954, and eventually served four consecutive terms in office as East Fork Justice of the Peace.

Walt and Alice lived on Mono Avenue, across from the old brick Elementary School in Minden. It’s the modest home where Gable and Williams arrived in 1955 to be married. It’s also where one very drunk woman driver was hauled by arresting officers at 4:30 in the morning, after backing her vehicle from a bar into a parked car. Given the wee hour, Judge Fisher answered the door clad in a black bathrobe.

The Fisher home on Mono Avenue. The sign over the door says “Justice.”

There stood the arresting officers with the inebriated woman — so inebriated she mistook Fisher in his black bathrobe for a Catholic priest. Once assured that the judge was not a priest, she berated him for impersonating a priest. The woman proved too tipsy to face the legal music even hours later, when court began. As the Record-Courier reported, the ever-patient Judge Fisher simply ordered “another 24 hours free lodging in the calaboose.” And with that plus a $100 fine, justice was served.

Walt’s wife, Alice, passed away in December, 1960, after a lengthy illness. Walt continued to serve on the bench until poor health finally forced his retirement in 1961. He passed away in 1963.

Alice and Walt’s headstone at Lone Mountain Cemetery, Carson City, Nevada.

Walt and Alice are buried at Lone Mountain Cemetery in Carson City, their simple joint stone a sweet reminder of their fascinating lives.

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Many thanks to Walt Fisher’s granddaughter Teri Balfour for photos and family history for this story!

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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.

Snowshoe Thompson’s Headstone — Stolen??

Well, almost!! 

Here’s the fascinating tale about how Snowshoe’s grave got capped with concrete — and who’s sleeping in the long-forgotten grave next to him!

John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson, as he looked about 1870.

Snowshoe Thompson, you may remember, exited this life on May 15, 1876 at his ranch in Diamond Valley, California. Just 49 years old, this giant of a man was likely felled by an opponent he couldn’t fight: a burst appendix.

Erected by Snowshoe’s widow in 1885, Thompson’s headstone features a pair of crossed skis.

It took nine long years before Snowshoe’s widow, Agnes, was able to have a tombstone placed on his grave. But when she finally did, the headstone was a thing of beauty. Carved of white marble, it features a carved pair of miniature skis, crossed in silent mourning.

But though Snowshoe’s grave was now properly marked, it became something of a mess. Agnes died in 1915, and Snowshoe’s only son passed away just two years after his father. With no one left to care for the family plot, the ever-present sagebrush and weeds began taking over.

Until Decoration Day, 1924, that is. (Never heard of Decoration Day? A predecessor of Memorial Day, Decoration Day was started to honor the Civil War dead, and expanded after World War I to include those killed while serving in any war.)

On that fateful 1924 Decoration Day, a thoughtful little girl from Gardnerville decided Snowshoe’s grave deserved a champion. A “self-appointed guardian angel,” she pulled the weeds and laid flowers on Snowshoe’s nearly-forgotten grave that year — and for years to come. Even though Snowshoe hadn’t died in a war, she felt he merited that special remembrance.

Years passed, and eventually other school children took up the cause. Hearing that “persons unknown” had callously attempted to steal Snowshoe’s headstone (unsuccessfully, thank goodness!), children in Genoa began raising funds to anchor his stone firmly in concrete.

Snowshoe Thompson’s family plot is now neatly protected by a concrete cap — paid for by funds raised by Genoa school children.

And thanks to their efforts, by the end of May, 1948 (now known as Memorial Day), the Thompson family plot had been covered over in two feet of heavy concrete. (They were taking no chances!) Public-spirited Genoans Carl Falcke, Sr., Arnold Juchtzer, and Joe Gossi pitched in to do the heavy labor.

Thompson’s headstone was happily safeguarded from thieves, and his family plot protected from encroaching sagebrush. It’s a great tale of community involvement, and local generosity. Once unkempt, Snowshoe’s grave is now such a point of pride that special signs mark the way for eager pilgrims.

Next time you pay a visit to Snowshoe’s marble marker, take a brief look around for the long-forgotten grave of John Sauquet next door. Today, nobody even knows Sauquet’s name. But back in Snowshoe’s time, he was a “honcho” in tiny Alpine County.

John Sauquet’s grave near Snowshoe’s, in Genoa Cemetery. The weeping willow is a symbol of mourning.

Born in France about 1818, Sauquet was well over forty when he made his way to the mining boomtown of Silver Mountain City. He opened a general merchandise store there about 1865,  selling groceries, provisions, mining supplies — and, of course, wines! (He was, after all, a Frenchman!) Sauquet did so well that between 1865 and 1870 the value of his inventory jumped from $800 to $2,000 — not an easy feat, in a town where mining busts typically followed the short booms.

Sauquet tried his own hand at mining speculation, becoming a trustee (director) of the Mountain Mine. And when mining entrepreneur Lewis Chalmers racked up an unpaid bill approaching $4,000, Sauquet took title to the Imperial Silver Quarries mine as a way to satisfy his judgment.

By February, 1881, however, Sauquet (now in his early 60s) had become ill. He ventured as far as San Francisco to consult a doctor, and in October, 1883, left Silver Mountain behind entirely, moving his merchandise from the now-nearly-abandoned town to the tiny settlement just below at Silver Creek. Sauquet hung on two more years, finally passing away September 27, 1885.

And here’s the fascinating connection to Snowshoe Thompson: Sauquet drew his last breath in Diamond Valley at the home of Agnes (Thompson) Scossa. Snowshoe’s widow and her new husband (John Scossa) took care of Sauquet in his final illness. As a token of his gratitude, Sauquet’s will left everything he owned to John Scossa — assets that included real property in San Francisco as well as in Alpine.

All those old Alpiners knew each other. And Snowshoe Thompson — even though he’s buried in Genoa — was truly an Alpiner, too.

And P.S. — Look closely at Snowshoe’s headstone — the “P” in Thompson is missing! Exactly why remains a mystery. But some say either Agnes or John Scossa may have accidentally given that misspelling to the stone-carver.



Like to read more of the stories, legends and amazing true tales about Snowshoe Thompson, Silver Mountain City, and Alpine’s wild and crazy silver mines? Jump in and grab a copy– you’re in for a wild ride!

A fascinating treasure, enjoy, read and re-read!  http://www.Clairitage.com

Great Nevada History Reads

You can’t have too many friends, too many adventures, or too many books. (And books, after all, are a whole lot like friends and adventures!)

Here are four new Nevada history books we recently found — or that recently found us. We wanted to share in hopes they follow you home, too!

Nevada State Orphans/Children’s Home: My Life as a “Home” Kid, by Bonnie Boice Nishikawa – Lovingly told by a real-life “Home” kid who lived at Carson City’s Orphan’s Home from 1942 to 1955, this is not only a true personal story but the story of the amazing Children’s Home itself — a Nevada institution that gave shelter and nurturing to orphans and half-orphans from 1870 to 1992. A great story about thriving despite tragedy, and how a few caring individuals can change a life.

 

 

Dayton, Nevada, by Laura Tennant and Jack Folmar – The story of Dayton, told (as Arcadia Publishing does so beautifully) in vintage pictures with well-researched captions. Fabulous illustrations include what might be the original trading post built along the Emigrant Trail; the old town itself as it looked in the late-1800s; and a photo of one-handed Otto Schroder around 1902 in front of his Old Sazarac Saloon (Otto’s left hand was amputated as a result of a fight involving another man’s ex-wife). Everything you never knew about this gold discovery town, by a noted Dayton historian/journalist.

 

Sparks, Nevada, by Joyce M. Cox – This lavishly-illustrated Arcadia history of Sparks (Nevada’s fifth largest town) shares charming rare photos from the Sparks Heritage Foundation, Nevada Historical Society, and several private collections. Our favorites: the ruins thought to be the very first trading post  (established in 1852 by H.H. Jamison); freight wagons moving entire buildings from Wadsworth to begin the new town; and a 1907 auto-stage bedecked with dangling fringe and rear-facing wicker seat for pampered passengers.

 

Aurora, Nevada: 1860 – 1960 – by Clifford Alpheus Shaw – If a book could ever return a town to life through pictures and stories, this one works that magic. In addition to fascinating quotes from period newspapers and documents, this 480-page volume adds special rare photos: Mark Twain’s cabin; the interior of a saloon in Aurora’s “Red Light” district; pictures of James S. Cain, the Bodie banker who revived Aurora’s mines in 1903 after a quarter-century slumber; and local Paiute Indians and beautiful Paiute baskets. (This second edition just came out in 2018.)

Happy history reading!

Virginia City’s Cemetery

So beautiful – and so many mysteries are buried here!  We recently paid a visit to the historic cemetery on the outskirts of Virginia City. Here’s Tip #1: Be sure to bring your camera. (You’ll definitely wish you had one!)

And Tip #2: Don’t count on it being a quick visit.  If you’re like us, you’ll find yourself wanting to ramble the hills of this beautiful graveyard for hours!

Mysteries abound here. Like: Who were George and Elizabeth Strasser?

George and Elizabeth are still remembered, over 100 years after their deaths, thanks to these amazingly preserved (and recently repainted) wooden headstones.

George and Elizabeth are on the downward slope of the hillside, away from the main body of the cemetery. Someone has not only recently repainted their wooden headstones but also carefully laid flowers there — a kind touch adding a cheerful splash of color.

A quick search once we got home produced a few bits of their story:  Both George and Elizabeth (Erhart) were born in Berlin, Germany, and were married there in 1851. George would have been a dapper 21 at the time; Elizabeth was two years older, and was 23.  They decided to emigrate to America, settling in Virginia City in the 1860s, during its early mining hey-day. George worked as a saddle and harness-maker — an important trade in those horse-and-buggy days, and a whole lot safer than working as a mill-hand! A son, George S., was born in 1868.

George was 66 years old when he died of a stroke in August, 1896. A member of the local Masons, he was no doubt laid to rest by his fraternal brothers here in the Masonic section of the cemetery. Elizabeth passed away six years later, in 1902, at the age of 74.

Their headstones, interestingly enough, were originally made of stone. They must have been beautiful indeed, as vandals stole them. The current wooden markers were added by family members, luckily making sure that George and Elizabeth are still remembered to this day.

This beautiful small marker features a hand holding a flower.

But not all the mysteries we stumbled across had such clear answers! Take this beautifully-carved small marker — a monument erected by a daughter named Lillie in memory of her father.

So, who was Lillie? And what was her father’s name? How did he die? And what ever happened to Lillie? It’s possible there’s still a record somewhere. Someday, perhaps, we’ll know!

And in the meantime, we plan to come back here, again and again.

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Walking Tour of Old Minden, Nevada

The pillars on County Road at the entrance to the Town of Minden once proudly bore a date of 1905. Perhaps it was wishful thinking; plans for this fresh town actually weren’t approved by County commissioners until 1906. And once it was a go, new homes began to spring up immediately in the fresh town.

Minden was the brainchild of Henry Fred Dangberg, Jr., oldest son of H.F. Dangberg. After the death of H.F. Dangberg Sr. in 1904, Fred began to dream of creating a well-ordered, planned community — to be dubbed Minden, in honor of a town near his father’s birthplace in Germany.

Town founder Henry F. Dangberg, Jr., sporting the snappy slicked-down hair, center part, and pocket handkerchief that were fashionable in his day.

That means, of course, that many of the beautiful old homes and commercial establishments in Minden are now more than a century old.

Luckily for historians and visitors, the Town of Minden has published a fabulous walking tour of its oldest buildings, featuring many of the gracious homes surrounding the town’s iconic square. Just click here to pull up  their walking tour flyer. Scroll to the end for a handy map, which includes helpful thumbnail photos to help you identify the buildings.

This well-designed map contains information about some of Minden’s most fascinating and beautiful old homes, including these landmarks:

The C.O. Dangberg House at 1609 Esmeralda.

Built by Davies Brothers Construction in 1910 for Clarence Oliver Dangberg, this house is made of thermally-efficient cement block, an innovative building material for the day.

The C.O.D. Garage, named for Clarence Oliver Dangberg.

At the time this home was built, Clarence had sold his share of the family ranch to his brothers, and was about to turn his attention to his next creation, the C.O.D. Garage (just down the block, at 1593 Esmeralda), built in 1911. Clarence later became a founding charter member of the Minden Rotary Club in 1926. He died in 1938 and is buried at Lone Mountain cemetery.

John Dangberg House, at 1600 Sixth St.

Another fascinating house on the walking tour map is the John Dangberg home. This beautiful two-story home was designed by noted Nevada architect F.J. DeLongchamps for H.F. Dangberg, Jr.’s younger brother, John. It was completed in 1912.

John was president of H. F. Dangberg Land Livestock Company beginning in 1904. He also served as a director for Farmers’ Bank, Alpine Land Reservoir Company, East Fork Water Users Association, and Minden Milling Company. This home was later occupied by his daughter, Grace Dangberg, until her death.

John Schrengohst house, 1578 Mono Avenue.

This humble frame home with the twin-peaked roof was built by blacksmith John Schrengohst in 1918. John was born in Kansas in 1860.

John and his son, Bill, were blacksmiths in Minden — an important trade in the days when horse-drawn buggies, wagons and farm tools were still in use. The Schrengohsts ran a family blacksmith shop across the street from this house for the next two decades. John died in 1938 at the age of 78, and is buried at Mottsville.

Helpful plaques on many of the original Minden homes and businesses make it fun to visit the outside of these buildings in person.

If you choose to make the tour in person, be sure to look for helpful brass plaques mounted at many homes and businesses in Minden’s historic downtown. We hope you’ll take time for a leisurely tour next time you visit this beautiful town!

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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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