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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The Story of Double Springs (Part 1)

Today there’s little to mark the site of Double Springs, Nevada, roughly a dozen miles south of Gardnerville on Highway 395. All that’s left is just a historical plaque plus remnants of an old fence line and cattle trough. But a century-and-a-half ago, Double Springs was not only well-known — it was notorious!

An early hotel here beside the toll road to Aurora and Bodie offered travelers meals, beds, and pasture. A fluke of climate or simple bad luck, Double Springs was also the site of several early murders. And, because all good tales include a treasure story, there’s also a hidden treasure legend involving Double Springs!

The pair of springs for which Double Springs was named made this a valued spot for Native Americans back in the early-early days. Round dances were held here in both spring and fall, with prayers for the health of the pinenut trees and celebrations for abundant harvests. These huge events sometimes included up to 500 Native Americans, and pinenut harvests could last as long as six weeks. The site’s earliest recorded name, “Round Tent Ranch,” may have reflected these Native American celebrations.

This may be the same James C. Dean who once owned Double Springs station.

In 1861, rancher S.D. Fairchild claimed 320 acres here, erecting a hotel, stable, and barn. H.W. Bagley owned the property briefly, then sold it to James C. Dean about 1863. And here our tale takes a turn for the murderous!

Dean was a colorful if slightly shady character who popped up in various incarnations in early Douglas County history. He and a partner bought a house and town lot in Genoa as early as August, 1860. A year later, in 1861, Dean was appointed Justice of the Peace for Genoa by Governor Nye. Although ostensibly a lawyer, Dean swiftly made waves for failing to carry out the duties of his new post. Just one month after Dean’s appointment, an appeals court was forced to order Dean to do his duty; he reportedly stubbornly refused to file in papers appealing one of his decisions, and had similarly refused to send up a transcript for the higher court to consider. (The higher court was not amused.)

Despite this brouhaha, Dean’s Genoa home became the site where the very first meeting of the Douglas County Commissioners was convened just after Christmas, December 28, 1861. Dean also was honored by being elected to serve in the Nevada Territorial Legislature’s House of Representatives in September, 1863, as a proud member of the Union Party.

By late 1863 Dean had moved south to Double Springs in Nevada Territory’s Mammoth Precinct, a district that stretched from Teasdale bridge on the East Carson to the southernmost edge of the county. Here he was operating his own “1st Class” Hotel and serving as a retail dealer in liquor. But Dean continued to keep an eye out for political plums. In early 1864 he penned a pleading letter to Gov. James Nye, confessing a desire to become a military man and offering to assemble a cavalry company of “burly mountain boys” if the governor would accommodate him with a commission to do so. (The governor apparently didn’t take him up on this kind offer.)

Edwin Dean (possibly a cousin or younger brother of James) also briefly held elected office in early Nevada. Ed Dean became Lyon County Treasurer in September, 1864, only to resign in disgrace a little over a year later when his books disclosed a $2,484 shortfall.

1881 map showing Double Springs at the intersection of two roads. (Nevada Division of State Lands & UNR’s DeLaMare Library).

Dean’s Hotel was conveniently located at the junction of the cross-valley Olds Toll Road and the north/south Bryon’s Toll Road. Travelers to Bodie or Aurora could feed their horses on hay grown at the ranch, grab a meal, or spend the night at the hotel. Dean was appointed to fill a vacancy for Justice of the Peace for the Mammoth Precinct on December 5, 1864, with a member of the Olds family making the motion for Dean’s appointment.

The historical marker at Double Springs. Many later accounts suggest Dean was the murderer, though it appears he was never convicted of the crime.

Sometime around 1864, however, Dean’s wife, Fannie, came to a tragic end at the Double Springs station. A passing teamster found the house suspiciously quiet and, upon investigating, discovered Fannie’s lifeless body. She had been severely beaten and her head then “jammed into a bucket of water.” Dean was arrested by the local sheriff, but denied the murder. Dean’s hotel was only about two miles from Slinkard’s, and transients and travelers came and went on the road by the station. As Dean pointed out, it could have been anyone who murdered Fannie Dean. Neighbors “were not satisfied with the story told,” as the Record Courier later put it. But given the lack of evidence on which to hold him, Dean was finally released. Nevertheless, the story persisted for years that Dean himself had committed the murder.

By the following year, October, 1865,  Dean was advertising his Double Springs property for sale. And it wasn’t cheap: for his house, barn, blacksmith shop and 600 acres of land, Dean wanted $1,500, half down and the balance in just six months. But he clearly was ready to move on; in November, 1865, he managed to get himself elected Justice of the Peace for the Walker River Precinct to the south.

Fannie’s death, as it turned out, would not be the end of “notorious” murders at Double Springs. In November, 1881, another body was discovered in a small cabin about three miles south of the old station. E.A. Doud, about 65 years old, had once been an Alpine County rancher and member of the Board of Supervisors. He’d sold his Alpine ranch about 1873, taking up residence in a 10’ x 12’ cabin not far from Double Springs. The body was discovered by a Washoe Indian seeking work who had approached the cabin. Looking in a window beside the door, he spied Doud on the floor, covered in a bloody blanket. An ax was near the body. The Indian alerted the innkeeper at Double Springs, who in turn notified the coroner. Although a generous $150 reward was posted in early 1882, no suspects were ever identified.

Dean had already moved on by then, selling his Double Springs property to rancher P.L. Sprague about 1865 and trudging off to new adventures — and that quirky tale (including what happened to Dean’s second wife) is next week’s story!

View from Double Springs toward the west.

As for the famous Double Springs Hotel itself, the building was torn down in the fall of 1887. Its lumber was hauled off to a mining settlement known as South Camp overlooking Smith Valley, where (as the Genoa Courier put it), it was used “to cover the mill and to build a mansion for the miners.”

Join us next week for Part 2 of this story — whatever became of James Dean? And in Part 3, the tale of a hidden treasure at Double Springs! 

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The Secret Life of Eugene May (Part 1)

Eugene A. May was a long-time resident of of Empire, the early mining town east of Carson City. You might say he’s still a resident: his quiet grave is tucked in at the little Empire Cemetery, overlooking the valley. Little did we know when first saw his headstone — but May had a secret life!

Known to his friends as “Hank,” May moved to Nevada about 1863 and was living at Empire at the time of the 1870 Census. Around 1878 he married a young widow named Eldorado, who had a one-year-old daughter named Jennie (Eugenia). May was 47 years old at the time of their marriage and solidly middle-aged. Eldorado, on the other hand, was only about 24 — roughly half Hank’s age.

Pretty Eldorado, possibly about the time of her marriage to first husband, Michael Dunigan. (Courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society)

Their age difference would raise eyebrows today, but May/December romances weren’t all that uncommon back then. And for a widow with a young daughter it was a practical match. Eldorado’s first husband, Michael Dunigan, had died in 1877 after a fluming accident at Lake Tahoe, and women had few work options outside the home. Eldorado had young Jennie to think about.

The steam-powered Mexican Mill was built in 1861 and could process 75 tons of ore a day. Nine men worked at the Mill, including foreman Hank May.

Hank May was a skilled millwright and was the foreman of the Mexican Mill. He was a stable breadwinner, and raised young Jennie as his own. The family lived in a house near the mill, and Jennie would follow Hank to work, later recalling spending “many hours of my early life watching the mill process.”

Hank was a “strong Republican,” and ran for state Assembly in the fall of 1880, beating Democrat Samuel Longabaugh in the election. Jennie remembered visiting the Nevada legislature with her mother, Eldorado, where “we sat proudly on the Assembly floor.”

The Mexican Mill eventually closed about 1885, but Hank remained on as a caretaker and watchman. When the mill was later remodeled to process gypsum (used for making cement), Hank was again employed. With his skills as a millwright, he also was called upon to help build other mills and hoisting works along the Carson River through the years, including the power plant at Rodenbaugh’s Station (the old Power Dam at Ruhenstroth).

One morning in the winter of 1898, however, Hank May met with a tragic accident. According to Jennie, he “slipped near the dynamo and his arm was caught in a revolving wheel.” His arm was dislocated at the shoulder, and the bone was broken in three places.

Eugene May was born in 1832. His gravestone incorrectly lists his death year as 1901 (he actually died in late 1900).

Hank May lived for another two years, but never fully recovered. He died at his home in Empire in November, 1900. Rev. J.W. Durrance officiated at his funeral when Hank was laid to rest at the peaceful Empire Cemetery atop the hill overlooking the Mexican Mill where he worked for so long.

Soon after Hank’s death, however, an astonishing story came to light. Hank’s friend, B.F. Denton,  notified newspapers back in Hank’s home state of Illinois about his death, noting that his real name was not Eugene May at all!

Eugene “Hank” May, it turns out, was actually Henry Head, son of a wealthy father (whose own name might produce chuckles today: Biggar Head).

Hank aka Henry was born in Illinois in 1832, and grew up at Sand Ridge, between Edwardsville and Alton, Illinois. Biggar had evidently remarried, and Hank/Henry got into a dispute with his step-mother that led him to leave home about 1850, at the age of 18. By 1863 Hank/Henry had made his way to what would soon become Nevada; the 1870 Census shows him living in Empire. He not only left behind his home and his family, but also adopted a new name and kept his true identity a secret: he was now “Eugene A. May.” Denton, his friend since childhood, knew about the fiction but at Hank’s insistence kept mum.

Hank/Henry held tight to his family grudge for the next 50 years, refusing to contact two living brothers back east, William and Augustin Head. A half-sister sent Hank several letters about 1880, but he refused to open the envelopes, sending each of the letters back unread. He admonished life-long friend Denton that “if he ever wrote East about him, they would never again be friends.”

Even Hank’s headstone held tight to his secret; it bears the name he was known by for so many years in Empire: ‘Eugene A. May.’

Eugene May’s quiet grave at Empire Cemetery. Eldorado must have stood here, shedding tears as she buried her second husband. Little Jennie, too, must have mourned over this grave; Eugene was the only father she had ever known.
Here’s Eldorado in later life — still smiling, despite the hardships she lived through!

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE, INCLUDING A SURPRISING LINK TO ALPINE COUNTY!
Tune in next week to read the second half of this story, with more of the tale about widow Eldorado and her young daughter, Jennie!

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A giant thank-you for assistance with this story to Nevada historian Sue Silver for her amazing research on the Empire Cemetery! You’ll definitely want to check it out if you’re interested in any of the folks buried there. Her research is conveniently referenced by last name. Here is the link to her complete Empire Cemetery research online.

The other great resource we found helpful for this article was www.Newspapers.com. If you haven’t already stumbled across it, it’s a subscription site but definitely worth it for finding obituaries and other stories across the country. For this article, for example, we turned up the Alton Telegraph (Illinois), December 6, 1900, which gave fascinating additional contemporary details about Denton and May’s “secret”.

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Murder — Or Was It?

One lonely tombstone at Gardnerville’s Garden Cemetery begs silently for justice. “Murdered” it proclaims, as if visitors might help solve the terrible mystery.

Moore’s headstone proclaims the belief he was murdered around Christmas, 1900.

The victim, William Moore, met his awful fate sometime between the 9th and 14th of December, 1900. But the story behind Moore’s demise is a tangled one indeed. Did he even really die?

Moore, 67, was evidently something of a hermit. A poor man and in poor health, he’d lived alone for twenty years in a small cabin on his ranch near the east fork of the Carson River above Horseshoe Bend. Here he raised horses, ran a few head of cattle, and perhaps panned for flour gold in the nearby river.

A few days before Christmas, 1900, local Indians alerted authorities that Moore’s tiny cabin had burned to the ground. Sheriff Brockliss and Judge Dake promptly rode out to investigate. Not finding Moore, they searched the remnants of the charred cabin, but didn’t locate any trace of a body. A day or so later other local citizens, too, showed up to paw through the debris, and they, too, came up empty-handed. Possibly complicating matters was the fact that a rainstorm had gone through sometime after the fire.

Horseshoe Bend is on the east side of Carson Valley, not far from Mud Lake.

Christmas came and went, and a few determined searchers decided to try again. On December 26 they returned, “sifted the ashes” — and came up with a few small pieces of charred something that might have been bone. These were carted off to Dr. Gerdes of Gardnerville, who pronounced them shards of a human skull. And when he examined one fragment more closely, “three small shot” were found embedded in the bone.

The local newspaper promptly dubbed this as “almost positive evidence that William Moore was murdered, and his cabin burned over his body.” Dr. Gerdes opined that the position of the bone might explain why the fragment was charred but the shot hadn’t melted. A Coroner’s Jury was convened, which agreeably confirmed the general belief that Moore had beens murdered. Community suspicion instantly focused on “a certain Indian” named Mike Holbrook, a “half-breed Washoe” said to have threatened Moore in the past.

In January, the Board of Commissioners for Douglas County put out a $250 reward “for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who murdered William Moore.” That was more than enough encouragement for three enthusiastic Genoa citizens. Having heard further rumors, young William Gray, accompanied by his brother-in-law Frank Walker and their friend Edgar Seamon drove a wagon out to Mountain House in March, where they made a citizens’ arrest of “Indian Mike.” The local paper assured readers that this private party arrest was a “perfectly proper and legitimate proceeding,” adding uncharitably that if the prisoner should later establish his innocence “he will have no one to blame but himself.”

Advertisement for candles from the same paper that carried news of Moore’s “murder.” Could the fire have been purely accidental?

By now a new sheriff had been sworn into office and was eager to show the public his chops. The local paper expressed confidence that now-Sheriff McCormack would not only do his best to suppress crime, but “criminals have good cause to fear him.”

The murder case against Indian Mike was now the talk of the town. The Genoa courthouse was “packed” during the two-day preliminary hearing, and “nothing was talked of on the streets but the Moore tragedy.”

Several other Indians now came forward, claiming that Mike Holbrook had an alibi: he had been with them on a rabbit drive when the killing occurred. The evidence against Mike Holbrook appeared decidedly thin — except for one thing. Charlie George, also an Indian, swore he had personally witnessed Holbrook shooting Moore.

Charlie’s credibility as a witness left something to be desired, however. Among other things, Charlie had been arrested the same evening as Mike on an outstanding warrant for larceny. Charlie and Mike also were said to be enemies; as the newspaper put it, “it is stated that Mike is very friendly with George’s mahala.”

Nevertheless, Mike was bound over for trial. The case languished for another month until April, when a new Grand Jury could be convened to issue the indictment. Friends urged Mike to take a plea bargain and admit to manslaughter in order to “save his neck.” He refused.

Moore’s lonely headstone in the Garden Cemetery, Gardnerville, NV. Buried here presumably are the few bits of charred “bone” found at his cabin. But were they really Moore’s, or perhaps not even bone at all?

On April 24, 1901, a jury pool of 40 local citizens was pulled, and by 3 p.m. the jury was in place. Trial began the following day, and the evidence was over by 5 p.m.. Charlie George “proved a strong witness,” the paper pronounced. Other “sensational” details of the case now came to light, including a “wild story” that Moore had always kept a skull in his cabin, “the victim of his rifle in former years.” The newspaper hinted darkly that Brockliss, the former sheriff, had done a lousy job of investigation, sniffing that “no steps officially were taken to investigate the matter until McCormack, the present Sheriff, took office.”

About dinnertime the jurors retired to deliberate, and by midnight they had their verdict: Not guilty. “And so another chapter is added to the criminal records of this county, which is not without blemish now,” the newspaper concluded.

As for the County Commissioners, they rescinded their earlier offer of a $250 reward for Mike’s capture. Opined the local paper: “they have learned that a mercenary incentive for the capture of criminals does not work satisfactorily in this county.”

 

Help Us Get These Great Photos Back Home!

Several years ago I bought some old photos — which arrived with a huge packet of other snapshots I hadn’t expected.  These black-and-white “bonus” pictures obviously  came from a family album of the 1920s, and are now nearly a century old. And that was the start of trying to unlock their mystery!

Most of these old photos were unlabeled, but a few names were sprinkled here and there. One cryptic caption in particular became the starting point for my hunt to learn more about these great images: “Grandma [and] Grandpa Spielvogel.” There’s Grandma, looking a little frail  — and a good bit out of focus. And there in the background stands Grandpa in his suspenders, still hale and hearty though perhaps in his 80s.

And then there was this nostalgic scene — evidently Grandma and Grandpa Spielvogel’s family farm. This one, at least, was marked with a location: Prescott, Michigan. (And you’ve got to love that car!)

There were other pictures, too, with partial names as tantalizing clues. Here is a fascinating image of Aunt Anna and Uncle Otto. Between them is Harley, roughly ten years old  and leading a horse. And there’s an affectionate Paul and Mildred, big grins on their faces and holding pails as if they were just out for blackberries.

Such a wonderful picture! But what was their story?

Spielvogel is a lovely German last name meaning “songbird.” But these photos definitely weren’t singing much information about their original owners!

I tried reaching out on the internet to every modern Spielvogel whose email address I could find — with zero success. A few photos mentioned sites in Ontario, so I tried local historical societies and even an Ontario genealogical group, but came up equally empty-handed. Finally, a friend plugged the Spielvogel name into Ancestry.com– and BINGO!! Finally, we have Grandma and Grandpa Spielvogel’s first names!

Grandma & Grandpa Spielvogels’ grave in Mich.

He was Paul Spielvogel, born in Germany in 1856. And his wife is Paulina Newbower Spielvogel, born in 1858, also in Germany. Paul and Paulina were the proud parents of four children: Elizabeth, Paul, Anna, and a girl named Bartlair. Grandma Paulina, it seems, was indeed frail; she died in 1929, just a few years after her picture was taken. Grandpa must have missed her terribly; he died in 1930, the very next year after Paulina passed away. Both are buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Whittemer, Iosco County, Michigan.

And with that small beginning, the story behind the photos began to come together! “Aunt Anna” was one of Paul and Paulina’s children, born in 1882. Otto was Anna’s husband — Otto Charles Fuerst.  And Harley was Anna’s and Otto’s son.

But exactly which  Spielvogel descendant once owned all these wonderful photos? We still don’t know for sure.

Son Paul married Mildred Alstrom, and they seem to have ended up in Detroit. Daughter Elizabeth married a fellow named Wayne. Bartlair doesn’t seem to be in the later picture. So if Anna was an aunt, the mystery photographer was likely a son of either Paul or Elizabeth — but who was he?

We know he liked to travel; there are snapshots of the U.S. Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925 (then a wide-open street lined with Tin Lizzies). There are references to Mt. Vernon, Virginia and Lexington Avenue, New York. And there are photos taken in Vancouver and Bay City, Belle Isle and Island Lake.

Lillian Tuckey

A few more names are scrawled as possible clues: There’s Lillian Tuckey and what might be her sister, Florence. There’s a smiling Ruby and her beau, a young gent named Claire. There’s Leo with a hunting rifle.There’s a dapper lad with glasses named Lou. And here’s the best clue of all: a photo of “Herb and myself.”

The best clue of all: Herb and “myself”! But who was he??

But who exactly was the mysterious photographer who once owned these wonderful family photos?  And most important, does he have any descendants who would love to have them back?

They say that there are just six degrees of separation in this world — between friends, family, and friends-of-friends, we’re all connected. So we are reaching out to ask for YOUR help!! Do you know any Spielvogels? Anyone named Fuerst, or perhaps a contact near Prescott, Michigan? To someone, these nearly-one-hundred-year-old family photos would be a priceless legacy.

We’d love to find a way to get them back home!! Please let us know if you can help — and feel free to forward this post to anyone else who might know!

Key in the Tree

The key is embedded in the side of one of the two large trees, just as you pull off.

Some discoveries just beg for a movie to be made about them. There must be a story behind this mysterious key, wedged firmly in the trunk of a tree at the top of Highway 4. A hidden treasure that this key would unlock? A clue to a long-forgotten murder?

If you’d like to visit the mysterious key for yourself, here’s how to find it (once Highway 4 reopens in the spring!):  Head west on Highway 4, past Kinney Reservoir and Kinney Lakes. Watch for the Ebbbett’s Pass gate and cattle guard; the elevation sign will let you know that you’ve reached 8,730 feet.

Here’s a close-up of the key, firmly embedded in the tree.

Continue 0.3 miles past the gate and cattle guard, and watch for a pullout on your left. The key is in one of the two large trees just as you pull off. (And it goes without saying, but please, please leave it there for the next explorer to find!)

Remnants of an old blaze — not quite grown over — near the base of this tr

Before you leave this peaceful spot in the forest, take a close look at the nearby trees. Here you can also find a very old axe blaze near the base of a tree. This may once have marked the route for the early wagon road, long before the paved highway came through.

As the sign notes, the road here was not completed until Silver Mountain City drew eager miners in this direction, beginning in 1864. (We hope someone will tell them it wasn’t “Silver City” though! That’s in Nevada!) 

On your return trip, take time to read a little bit of history about Ebbetts Pass on the historical sign just west of the cattle guard.

The Toll Station for the Big Tree Carson Valley Turnpike once sat here, when the route opened in 1864. Note the rock retaining wall (probably in roughly its original location, although possibly somewhat rebuilt).

And one more not-to-miss site nearby: a brand new historic marker (just east of the cattle guard) identifying the site of the original toll-keeper’s station on the Big Tree Road! This is the spot where eager miners began their detour from the Big Tree Road to the new boomtown of Silver Mountain when the connecting roadway was completed in the summer of 1864.

These bricks are all that’s left of the original toll-keeper’s station.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still visible today at the site where the toll station once sat are the old rock retaining walls and a few tell-tale bricks, likely once part of the toll-keeper’s hearth or chimney.

So fun, to visit the real toll-keeper’s location! And when you visit Silver Mountain City next, imagine the exhausted-but-happy travelers exiting the toll road at the other end in the 1860s, ready to begin their mining adventure!

This is the other end of the Big Tree toll road, as it came into Silver Mountain City in the 1860s.

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A walking tour of the Old Genoa Cemetery

We’re so excited — our new book is here! Take a walk through a section of the Old Genoa Cemetery in this new book — and discover the stories of some of Carson Valley’s earliest pioneers and settlers.

“Well-researched and concise — A walk through the Genoa Cemetery is not complete without this guide.”

http://www.clairitage.com/books.html

 

Curtz Lake Mystery

Next time you’re up for a fun hike, try the short loop trail at Curtz Lake. Just over a mile long, it’s currently well-maintained (thanks to a recent joint effort between BLM and the Alpine Trails Association). There are plenty of scenic backcountry views along the trail, and interpretive signs make for interesting reading. For a longer hike, you can also access Summit Lake from this same trail.

The trail takes off from the parking area.

The lake itself is a natural (not man-made) lake, fed by snowmelt. Old-timers say it used to be a great place for duck hunting. There’s no fishing here, however, because there are no fish; in dry years the water dries up completely (not so good for aquatic life!)

Curtz Lake is said to be named after early Alpiner Peter Curtz. But exactly what Peter had to do with this lake remains a mystery!

Born in Canada about 1835, Peter Curtz came west in 1859 via the Panama route, and a few years later became one of the pioneering miners in (future) Alpine County. He evidently knew town founder Jacob Marklee, as both Marklee and Curtz were among the locators of two mining claims in 1863 near the new townsite of Markleeville.

Dapper Peter Curtz himself, circa 1910.

By December that year, however, Curtz had moved on to Silver King, where he became a principal in a lumbering operation and sawmill. In later years he owned a sawmill at Boiler Flat, between Markleeville and Woodfords.

Curtz was a well-known early citizen, holding a variety of important public posts. He was a county supervisor; the County Coroner; District Attorney; and a Justice of the Peace; and he also sat on the local Board of Education.

But Curtz’s real love, it seems, was mining. In 1884 he worked enough rock at his arrastra on the Carson River to produce a bar of silver weighing more than 15 pounds. Over the years, he was said to have “made several fortunes” (suggesting he not only made but also lost them). As late as 1915, his Curtz Consolidated Mining Co. owned an astonishing 22 mining claims in the Monitor area, including the famous Morning Star — assets Curtz grandly asserted were worth $23 million. Curtz lived to be 88 years old, finally passing away after a car in which he was riding plummeted over the embankment beside the river, not far from his mill. (As an aside, there’s a ghost story that just might be related to this spot!)

As for exactly how Curtz Lake got its name, the record remains unclear. The Lake isn’t close to Curtz’s early mining activities, and it doesn’t appear that Curtz ever lived nearby. There’s plenty of timber in the vicinity, however, and one old-time local has speculated that Curtz might once have had a timber claim here.

For now at least, that’s pure speculation. But given Curtz’s interest in lumber and sawmills, it’s as good a guess as we’ve been able to come up with. If anyone out there has more information that would help to solve this naming mystery, we’d love to hear!

Directions:  Located between Woodfords and Markleeville, the trailhead is not far off Hwy 89. Take Airport Road heading east 1.1 miles, then look to your left for the entrance road.

Map:  Like to see an aerial map showing both Curtz Lake and the trail? Here’s a great one, from a blog by Tim Messick:  http://tinyurl.com/y9bwkdh9

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Found: A Markleeville Pioneer!

The old wooden headstones that once graced Markleeville Cemetery have long since turned to dust. Time, neglect and a bit of vandalism have wreaked havoc here; sadly, most of those who rest in this historic cemetery now lie in unmarked graves.

But this week, at least one of the cemetery’s mysteries was solved! Thanks to a devoted great-grandson and his 96-year-old mother, the final resting place of Alpine pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Koenig finally bears a gravestone. It’s been a long time coming; this November will mark 135 years from Koenig’s death.

F.W. Koenig circa 1870.

Born in Prussia about 1840, Friedrich Wilhelm Koenig (or William F. as he was also known) was one of the earliest settlers in soon-to-be Alpine, arriving with his wife, Lena, in 1862. Koenig and a partner opened a store in 1864 at the corner of Main and Montgomery Streets in Markleeville — property they purchased from the estate of Jacob Marklee himself. Evidently a cautious businessman, Koenig’s ads warned sternly against asking for credit: “None need come for goods without the cash.” Even so, by 1866 Koenig himself was out of funds and filing for bankruptcy.

Koenig switched professions from storekeeper to butcher, and in 1873 listed his occupation as “shoemaker.” These apparently were more profitable undertakings; in 1873, Koenig was able to purchase the former Bagley Ranch and moved his family to Silver King Valley. There he not only ran cattle and operated a hotel but also began hauling freight over the mountain to Bridgeport and Bodie, via Rodriguez Pass.

Koenig and Lena had a total of five children, but sadly Lena died in childbirth sometime between 1872 and 1879. William soon remarried — to a widow named Anna Heppe who was working as a dressmaker in San Francisco, with two children of her own. Together, William and Anna would have two additional children.

But wedded bliss was not to be William’s fate. On November 6, 1882, he was killed in a freighting accident on his way home from Bridgeport. His wagon was found overturned, and his body was discovered beside the road, with his neck broken. His second wife, Anna, was again a grieving widow — and a pregnant one, at that. William and Anna’s last child together, George, was born in December, just a few weeks after his father’s death.

If William Koenig ever had a headstone, it disappeared for decades. But his 96-year-old granddaughter could recall visiting his grave, and luckily was able to describe the spot precisely to her son. A team of grave-detection dogs also visited the cemetery. The granddaughter’s site description exactly matched one “unknown” grave the dog team had found.

Headstone for William Koenig. Note the round silver marker where the dog-detection team earlier found a burial.
Placing Koenig’s headstone 8-18-17.

On August 18, 2017, Koenig’s great-grandson laid a headstone to honor him. One mystery grave: solved!

Grave of Maria Mayo. Koenig’s grave is located behind this plot, near a bench.

But several additional mysteries about Koenig still remain. Was his death truly just a tragic accident? Koenig was an experienced teamster, and there were whispers that perhaps foul play had been involved. A coroner’s inquest was convened, which concluded the death was accidental. To this day, however, the family has its suspicions. Koenig apparently had been in an altercation with a suitor sweet on Koenig’s oldest daughter. And according to a story handed down from generation to generation, the team’s outside lead horse had been shot.

And one more mystery:  Where is Lena, Koenig’s first wife? It’s possible she was buried in Silver King, near the ranch. But at least one family member believes she, too, is interred in Markleeville Cemetery, next to William.

Want to visit the Cemetery for yourself? After crossing the Markleeville bridge,  turn right at Laramie. Park at the turnout and take the (long!) walk up the steep hill to the cemetery at the top.

And if you look closely, there is, indeed, a second silver marker on an “unknown” grave not far away from William’s.

___________

Watch for our next blog — we may just have found the spot where Jacob Marklee himself is buried!

 

Key in the Tree

You gotta love it when you stumble across a mystery. Especially two mysteries in one day.

Key in the tree.

On a recent drive up Highway 4 we found an old key, firmly embedded in the trunk of a tree. Just a guess, but it’s probably been there at least 50 years — long enough for the tree to almost completely envelop the body of the key. Who could have left it? What did that key once unlock? And why leave it stuck in a tree in the forest?

As luck would have it, another nearby tree trunk also caught our attention. This one bore blaze marks, possibly flagging the original old trail prior to modern Highway 4. What pathfinder left this mark? And how long ago?

Such great mysteries for future explorers to puzzle over!

 

Tree at top of the pass on Hwy 4, about two miles west of Kinney Reservoir.