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.

Julia Bulette . . . There’s more to her story!

Julia Bulette was a beloved Virginia City prostitute who tended the sick and was a darling of local firefighters — and her murder on January 20, 1867 outraged this tough mining town (though a few high-society matrons were said to be relieved!).

A Frenchman named John Millian paid the ultimate price for Julia’s heinous murder: he was hung. But was Millian really guilty? And how did Julia become a prostitute in the first place?

We asked Kim Harris, the talented Chautauquan who brings Julia to life in her sizzling performances around Carson Valley. Here’s what she shared with us about Julia’s life and death — including details about Julia Bulette’s story you may not have heard!

Chautauquan Kim Harris, as Julia Bulette.

Did John Millian really do it?
KH: “Julia had previously helped send a murderer to prison with her testimony. About a week before she was murdered, Julia heard that that murderer was back in Nevada. So it’s quite possible he was the one who actually murdered her. John Millian might just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“It’s true that they found some of Julia’s jewelry in Millian’s trunk. A few months after the killing Millian tried to sell some of her dress patterns to a lady in Gold Hill. John Millian also admitted being there outside her house on D Street on the night of the killing; he said he was just acting as the look-out.

“But I think there was a rush to judgment; everyone wanted somebody to pay for the crime. Millian was a French-speaking foreigner; he didn’t understand English well. He had come to the U.S. after serving in the Crimean War, which takes its own toll on a person, and did odd jobs to eke out a living. I believe he became a scapegoat.

John Millian, the Frenchman who hung for Julia’s murder.

“Millian’s court-appointed attorney, Charles DeLong, believed his client was innocent and managed to hold off his execution for a year. The case went all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court — but still he lost, and Millian was hung. Ironically, John Millian was buried just a few feet away from Julia, at the Flowery Hill Cemetery — where the prostitutes and criminals were buried.”

How did Julia wind up becoming a prostitute?
KH:  “Julia was what was known back then as a quadroon — one-quarter African-American. Her father was born in France, and after he arrived in the States, he had a plantation in New Orleans. He met Julia’s mother there, who was a well-respected African-American, and Julia was born in Moorehouse Parish. She had brothers and sisters. Their mother died when Julia was two.

“In quadroon society, Julia’s fate was picking cotton and raising her orphaned siblings and cousins. And she didn’t want that. Her Uncle Jules (her father’s brother) would come up from New Orleans to visit and he’d take her on riverboat trips. She’d see these women on board who were beautifully dressed, escorted by gentleman, and ask — who are they?

“‘Well,’ he’d explain, ‘they are courtesans; they entertain gentlemen.’ Julia saw that these women got to travel, to dress well, and go places. When she was 16, she told her uncle, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ So he set her up in business. She had her own apartment; she never worked out of a brothel. Julia was well-read; she could talk about literature and music. Her uncle was like her business manager. He made the arrangements with wealthy gentlemen who wanted company when they were in New Orleans. She was a high-priced courtesan.

Julia Bulette was a high-priced courtesan who enjoyed fine clothes and travel. (Kim Harris here in her role as Julia.)

“During the Gold Rush Julia came to San Francisco with her uncle and her cousin Paul. But she arrived in San Francisco at the wrong time. There were so many prostitutes she found she couldn’t charge the same as she had been in New Orleans. And the men were filthy and dirty. She and her cousin, Paul, who by then was managing her business, moved on to Sacramento and the nearby gold fields, then eventually to Carson City — and ultimately Virginia City.”

Why did the firefighters love her?
KH: “Julia was the darling of the firefighters because she was so charitable. She did what she could to help the community. She wasn’t wealthy; she was an independent operator, not a madam. Julia had lived in San Francisco, where there were fires and earthquakes, and she became enamored with the fire department there for their heroic work. They were the rock stars!

The fire hat given to Julia.

“At Virginia City the prostitutes would throw parties — they called them balls — basically fundraisers, to help widows and orphans. And Julia and other prostitutes took care of people suffering from smallpox or diphtheria. Wealthy women might donate money to treat sufferers in the hospital, but they wouldn’t actually touch the people themselves. Julia did.”

“Julia had met Thomas Peasley, the love of her life, in Carson City. He was the one who convinced Julia to move to Virginia City. He was the first fire chief; he formed Virginia Company Number One.”

How does it feel to play Julia?
KH: “By the time of Julia’s death, her life had taken several tragic turns. The love of her life, Thomas Peasley, had been murdered at the Ormsby House in Carson City by another firefighter. Her cousin Paul, actually more like a brother to her, was killed in a cave-in at the Ophir Mine.

“She was 34 years old, which was getting up in years for a prostitute, and she couldn’t charge as much any more. She was taking laudanum and drinking. She had been seeing the doctor twice a week; he was trying to convince her to leave Virginia City and go home to her people in New Orleans. She had liquor bills and doctor bills and debts for entertaining. She was very depressed; things were not good.

“Even so, she did what she wanted. She was not wealthy, but she dressed very well and had expensive jewelry — half of it was taken in payment from customers. To play her, I do my best impression of a New Orleans accent. I try to play her with dignity and respect and understanding — she chose that profession, and a lot of women still do. In my chautauqua speech I say, ‘What is wealth? To me, it’s an abundance of the things I desire: friends and admirers. Pretty gowns. I may not live in the grandest of homes, but I enjoy attending operas and balls.’

“She had the largest funeral turnout Virginia City had ever seen up until that time. It was a cold, windy, rainy day; everyone didn’t go all the way to her gravesite. But in town, her funeral was huge. The society women stayed home; but the men in town and Julia’s friends and prostitutes all turned out.

“I’m fascinated and drawn to the stories of women in the Victorian era. The options women didn’t have — we can’t blame them for their choices! You see how life forced them one way or another. You have to understand the position society placed them in.

“I don’t think Julia would have wanted us to feel sorry for her. Here’s how my chautauqua speech as Julia ends: ‘Queen of the Comstock?  No, I want to be remembered as Queen of Good Times!’”

This plaque in Julia’s memory describes her as an “angel of miners, friend of firemen, and administrator to the needy.” It sits at the Virginia City cemetery where she is buried.

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Special thanks to the astonishingly-talented Kim Harris for her research and insight into Julia’s life! Learn more about Kim at her website: http://www.WesternHistoryAlive.com.

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The Adventuresome Samuel Chapin

The sign on the tall, blue house in Virginia City caught our eye as we whizzed past one recent afternoon: “The Chapin House.” It’s an unusual last name — and one we recognized from old letters in Alpine County.

So, just who was Samuel A. Chapin? We tracked down a few pieces of his life story puzzle — and what a life he had!

Born in Northbridge, Massachusetts on September 2, 1811, Samuel Austin Chapin was the fifth (out of eight) children of Henry and Abigail Chapin. His family moved to Michigan Territory in the spring of 1830, and Samuel’s early adulthood was spent in White Pidgeon. He would later recount “startling and amusing” tales of “roughing it” there, and serving as sheriff of St. Joseph County, Michigan.

Samuel joined other Michigan volunteers during the Black Hawk War of 1832, quickly rising to the rank of Brigadier General with the Michigan State Militia. In 1840, he went on to serve as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives for one session.

Exciting as all that must have been, nothing could quite rival the excitement of finding gold! Chapin eagerly joined some of the earliest Gold Rush crowds to California, though exactly when he arrived there is unclear. He once claimed to plainly remember the day that “we of ’49” arrived at San Francisco Bay. Other accounts, however, peg the actual date of his arrival as May 20, 1850. Even so, that date still puts him among the earliest eager Argonauts.

Ads like this one lured passengers bound for the gold fields to a “first-rate clipper ship.” Vague promises included: “The voyage will probably be made in a few months.”

Chapin’s adventurous journey included a “rough passage” aboard the vessel Empire City; a “raging fever”  on the Chagres River; and an unexpected hiccup in Panama when the expected continuation vessel Sarah Sereds failed to arrive. Chapin and his companions managed to book substitute passage aboard the steamship Oregon for $500 a head — procuring a berth in steerage along with a thousand other eager travelers.

Once aboard ship again, Chapin was said to have “organized a mess” with fellow passengers William Smith, former governor of Virginia, and L.B. Benchley, of San Francisco — political connections that helped render the rest of his passage “comparatively comfortable.”

San Francisco, about the time Chapin arrived.

During his earliest days in California, Chapin operated a hardware business. He also managed to become a member of the San Francisco Board of Education, helping select property upon which to build future schools, and made friends with the influential editor of the Evening Bulletin.

By 1860 the Gold Rush had largely petered out — but the Silver Rush now was on! And once again, Chapin was in the forefront of adventurous pioneers.

Love silver mining history? Add this to your library!

Chapin acquired a mill site on the Carson River, four miles from Silver City, in July, 1860. That same month he had a survey done on land in Steamboat Valley — property that included not only a mill site but also valuable timber and water rights. And his political instincts evidently remained as sharp as ever; Chapin soon was tapped to serve as a member of the two Constitutional Conventions working to frame Nevada’s state constitution.

Naturally, Chapin had a finger in several early mining pies. He acquired interest in the quartz mines of Mariposa County. His name appears in May, 1863 among the list of incorporators of the Buckeye No. 2 Gold & Silver Mine in Scandinavian Canyon  (soon to become Alpine County). And he also acquired an interest in mines on the Comstock. In 1865, Chapin issued a “report” extolling the merits of his “Gold Hill Front Lodes” at Gold Hill, Nevada — two parallel claims happily situated between the Yellow Jacket and the Justice Mines. This “report” (actually a sales brochure) was, of course, heavily leavened with “affirmations and statements from various persons” about the value of these two mines.

Letters show that not all was sweetness and light in Chapin’s mining business, however. In 1869, Ahnarin B. Paul wrote Alpine County mine promoter O.F. Thornton: “I saw Chapin to-day — he can’t get the [ore-processing] settler to produce the electricity which must be had for precipitating the mercury.” And by 1872 Chapin was back in San Francisco, still trying to sell his mining claims. He wrote to Thornton offering a mining claim near Devil’s Gate for a hefty $100,000 (likely the same two Gold Hill Front lodes), touting his “great expectations” for the property. But his “Hope Mining Co.” at Silver City, he acknowledged, had recently become “embarrassed” and (as he put it) “went to the wall.”

Chapin House (1862) still boasts great architectural details like this arched window at the peak.
The front of Chapin House, with the Savage Mansion in the background.

Chapin’s stately 15-room house at 311 South “C” Street was constructed in 1862, during Virginia City’s mining heyday, and may originally have been built for him as a private residence. But by 1880, Chapin House had been converted into a boarding house, with a Mrs. Cavanaugh acting as the proprietor.

Chapin’s tall, stately house on “C” Street, on a recent rainy afternoon.

Meanwhile, back east, one of Chapin’s sisters had married a Wheaton, and was living in Norton, Massachusetts. Samuel was apparently her favorite brother. In 1884, Samuel and his wife retired and moved back to Massachusetts to live with the sister. There, he would serve as a Trustee of Wheaton College from 1889-1890.

By now 78 years old, Chapin conceived the notion of revisiting “scenes of his early life,” and eagerly joined a group of fellow pioneers for a trip back to California. It would be his last big adventure.

Chapin died suddenly of a heart attack while in San Bernardino, California on April 17, 1890. Stopping there with his fellow pioneers on their way to San Francisco, Chapin had just finished delivering a rousing address to the crowd at a reception. The last words to fall from his lips were: “God bless the noble State and the dear people of California!”

Chapin’s body was placed in an “elegant coffin,” said to be identical to the one in which General Grant had been buried. It lay in state briefly in San Bernardino, with solemnities conducted by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the San Bernardino Pioneers, before being loaded on a train for return to Boston. Both Chapin Hall at Wheaton College and Chapin Street in Alameda, California would later be named in his honor.

As for Chapin House, it continues to keep its silent vigil, looking down over the town of Virginia City from its lofty perch on “C” Street.

As you make your way down Gold Canyon, keep an eye out for this historic marker for “Johntown” below Silver City. Johntown was Nevada’s very first mining town, established in 1853, and the spot where Eilley Orrum (the “Seeress of Washoe” and the future Mrs. Sandy Bowers) had her boarding house. Other early residents included the Groch brothers and the iconic H.T.P. Comstock himself. We thought it was so appropriate that when we visited, someone had left an old shovel here!

And here’s the last, fun snippet to this story: boardinghouse-keeper Mrs. Cavanaugh — or perhaps even Samuel himself — may not entirely have vacated the premises. Visitors have been said to “complain of an uneasy feeling,” as if there’s a ghost in the house!

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Like to read more silver mining history from the Comstock Era in nearby Alpine County? 

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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!