Just how often do you get to walk inside a piece of history? Built in 1863, this hotel is a slice of life from Alpine County’s version of the Comstock days. And the building still exists — thanks to a fire.
Yes, a fire is what saved this historic building. Two fires, actually. Here’s how it happened:
By 1882, only a few inhabitants were still left in the once-booming mining town of Silver Mountain City. Gone were the hordes of eager miners, the hopping hotels, and the noise from its dirt streets. Although many of its homes and commercial establishments were still standing, much of the population had moved on to Bodie, where the diggings were fresh — and far more promising.
The Fiske family, owners of Silver Mountain’s prominent Fiske Hotel, had long since picked up stakes and moved over the mountain to Murphys. Their solid three-story hotel — one of the first structures built in Silver Mountain’s early days — stood empty at its once-prime corner of First and Main.
Then, on the fateful winter day of February 18, 1882, a fire swept through the nearly-abandoned town of Silver Mountain City.
So what caused the 1882 conflagration? They say it was a simple chimney fire. By then, of course, few residents were left to battle the flames. Within hours, much of Silver Mountain’s Main Street was in ashes.
That did it; the few remaining die-hards holding out at Silver Mountain packed up whatever they could salvage and trudged off in search of happier climes.
One building that hadn’t burned, however, was the Fiske Hotel. And in 1885, when a different devastating fire swept through Markleeville, Alvin Grover took note.
Grover was the owner of Grover’s Hot Springs resort, and he suddenly arrived at a grand and practical solution: move the old Fiske Hotel from Silver Mountain to fire-stricken Markleeville. It not only would help draw visitors back to the fire-stricken town but also serve as lodging for his guests at the Hot Springs!
Leave it to Grover — he accomplished the feat with just a team and wagon, old-fashioned sweat, and lots of heavy lifting. The stately Fiske Hotel was dismantled, board by board, hauled off to Markleeville, and re-erected — at the spot where it still stands today.
Not only can you still walk inside this amazing bit of history, you can still eat lunch here. What fun to imagine miners’ boots stomping the restaurant’s creaking floorboards back in 1863.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * Special thanks to our friend Ed Rogers, who shared the amazing photos in this article.
. . . the historic jail at the Alpine County Museum, that is!
Built in 1867, these heavy iron cells were created for a new jail in the mining boomtown of Silver Mountain City.
Silver Mountain was Alpine County’s original county seat and a quintessential mining town, back in the days of the Comstock Lode. Think hard-drinking miners; armed barroom brawls; spats over mining claims — yes, a local hoosegow was a totally necessary structure. And the reason for a new jail: restless prisoners had attempted to burn down the earlier log jail.
A new stone jail building was going to solve all that. So plans were drawn and bids were let. Constructed of volcanic stone quarried from the nearby cliffs, Silver Mountain’s new jail was projected to cost an estimated $4,000 — more money than the fledgling county really had. But never mind that! The contract was signed, and funds pilfered from the Hospital Fund to help pay for it.
A cornerstone-laying ceremony was held in May, 1867. Some fifty supportive citizens and at least three Supervisors attended. They likely were the same three supervisors secretly rubbing their hands together in anticipation; two had chummily obtained contracts to do carpentry and blacksmithing for the project, and a third supervisor had an old boiler he planned to sell. Niceties like “conflict of interest” sailed out the window in the rush to complete this grand new County facility. The job was on!
Elsewhere in the county, public sentiment quickly turned against the new jail project. Eyebrows were especially raised over its exhorbitant price. Public grumbling culminated in an Anti-Jail Meeting in Markleeville on May 11th. But despite the malcontents, the jail was rapidly completed. When done, its stone walls were 18 inches thick, laid in cement. A separate “under roof” held up a foot of dirt, a precaution intended to render the building “fire proof.”
Inside were six stout cells: four made of wood, and two of solid iron plate, for the more hardened criminals. Grated iron cell doors weighed in at 500 pounds apiece and, for added security, prisoners could be tethered to the floor with short, 27-inch chains.
Finishing touches included plaster, painted woodwork and trim in the jailer’s portion of the building. And for added bit of comfort, there were two woodstoves, one at each end of the building.
When the building was finally completed around the end of December, 1867, it was a magnificent structure indeed — and had mushroomed with a huge cost over-run. Ups and extras boosted the total cost to more than $7,000 — nearly twice the original contract.
The mines in Alpine eventually petered out, and the demonetization of silver in 1873 dealt its own blow to the local economy. In 1875, citizens voted to move Alpine’s county seat from remote, snowy Silver Mountain to the milder climate of Markleeville. There, a fresh wooden jail was erected. (Damn the fire hazard.) The powers-that-be opted for the cheaper structural option, and cheaper it was: just $603.37 for this notched log jail.
And in yet another nod to economy, the heavy iron jail cells were yanked from the old stone jail and carted off for re-use in Markleeville.
Over the succeeding decades, the old stone jail at Silver Mountain City slowly went to wrack and ruin. But look carefully for the sign, and you can still visit its remains along today’s California Highway 4. (Here’s a map and directions to get there!)
Best of all, you can still step inside the actual iron jail cells that once held prisoners at Silver Mountain! They’re still here, inside the 1876 log jail at Alpine County’s wonderful museum at the top of Schoolhouse Hill in Markleeville.
Like to step inside this original antique jail cell for yourself? Come see the old log jail at the Alpine County Museum in Markleeville! Here’s the website. (They’re open Memorial Day through the end of October and closed during winter months; be sure to check their hours!)
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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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
Back in the 1860s, young Alpine County slapped fees on just about every article and activity. Would-be voters ponied up $2 in poll tax for the privilege of casting their ballot. There was a broker’s license; a license to sell merchandise; a theater license; a peddler’s license; and a license for keeping billiard tables.
On top of it all were hefty property taxes, which were imposed on all sorts of assets. A lawyer’s law library? Taxed. County scrip (that IOU when the County couldn’t pay you in gold)? Taxed. Cows, chickens, horses, and wagons all were taxed too. Pretty much anything of value became prey for the tax man’s eager pencil, including — wait for it — dogs.
With the abundance of saloons hard at work fueling early Alpine County miners, liquor licenses became an especially lucrative revenue source for county government. In one quarter of 1867, for example, liquor license revenue was 50% higher than the license fees collected from merchandise sellers.
Distilleries, too, were supposed to pay a county license fee. Not surprisingly, bootleg operations quickly flourished.
In 1869, rumors began to swirl about an underground liquor operation in Fredericksburg. “All search for its whereabouts proved unavailing” — until a suspicious fire broke out in 1870 in a vacant house owned by Mrs. Woodford. “The whole establishment was thus unearthed, but the guilty parties have not yet been detected by the revenue officers,” the Chronicle chuckled, “and probably never will be.”
Secret stills reappeared in Alpine County during Prohibition years, artfully concealed in local barns. Once again, Fredericksburg seems to have been a center for this illicit activity.
For local ranchers, bootlegging likely meant economic survival. “Almost every one of these ranchers on Foothill Road had a still in their barn during Prohibition,” recalls one rancher’s grandson. “My grandfather refused to do it, and we’re the only ones that went broke!”
Want to read more tales from early Alpine history? You can order our books, Silver Mountain City: Ghost of the Sierra and Driving Tour of Woodfords, Diamond Valley & Fredericksburghere!
We stumbled across the grave of Robert Marshall Briggs the other day in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Jackson. It was a familiar name from Alpine’s early days. And that led to a story about a bandit, a hanging, how Mono County got its beautiful courthouse — and Alpine County’s very first D.A..
Robert M. Briggs was born in Morganfield, Kentucky in 1816, and trained as a lawyer. By the time he was in his twenties Robert had moved to Hannibal, Missouri, and son Nash C. Briggs was born there in 1838. About 1848, Briggs and his family moved to Wisconsin and four years later they came west — settling first at Olita, and then in Jackson, California.
In Jackson, Robert Briggs built a large Greek Revival-style house beside the creek in 1856 and opened a law practice, which his son Nash would join in 1859.
Robert Briggs was short in stature. But despite what one writer called his “petite form,” he was always eager to give a speech. In one particularly funny tale, Robert was asked to speak to a gathering at a union meeting in San Francisco in 1861. Other speakers droned on and on and, deciding that the moderators had overlooked him, Robert retired to a nearby bar to “drown his disappointment.” Much later in the evening he was tapped on the shoulder and told “they’re calling for you.” Despite being too tipsy to deliver his oration safely from a balcony, Briggs rallied to the occasion and delivering a rousing speech — none of which he was able to remember the following day, except for the enthusiastic applause.
By 1864, R.M. Briggs had become the district attorney for Amador County, a lucrative post that allowed him to hire his son, Nash, as his deputy D.A. But in 1865, Robert Briggs was sued by competitor John A. Eagan over the title of District Attorney, and went on to other pursuits. That year he acquired the printing press of the former Amador Dispatch and began publishing a newspaper he called the Union Advocate, conveniently headquartered next door to the Constitution Saloon in Jackson.
Perhaps looking for greener pastures, R.M. Briggs followed the throngs of eager miners in 1878 to the new boomtown of Bodie, opening a law practice and serving as registrar of the U.S. Land Office. The following year he ran for judge of the Superior Court in Mono County as a member of the “Know Nothing” party, and was elected.
Once on the bench, Briggs had a few choice words for the Mono County Supervisors about Mono County’s original ramshackle wooden court building, calling it a “disgrace to the county.”
It seems the supervisors listened; a beautiful new Mono County courthouse was erected in 1880. R.M. Briggs continued to serve as a judge at Bridgeport until his death in December, 1886, although his family remained on the western side of the mountains. His body was returned to Jackson for burial at the St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery in Jackson.
Robert’s son, Nash, grew up working in his father’s law practice and when Alpine County was formed, ran for District Attorney at the county’s inaugural election in 1864. Just 26 years old at the time, Nash won the post with 980 votes compared to 623 for his competitor, a lawyer named Armstrong. Nash moved up to the remote new mining community of Silver Mountain City, Alpine’s early county seat, and two years later, married the former Annie Barton.
Young Briggs’ first term of office wasn’t without waves, however. In 1867, the local Chronicle newspaper questioned the “economy” of paying the brand new D.A. $445 “to go to San Francisco and live at the Occidental Hotel on the fat of the land, when he is paid $125 per month to live in Silver Mountain and partake of the same fare as the overburdened taxpayer.” Despite this brush with controversy, N.C. Briggs was re-elected to his post on the Union ticket in 1867.
In 1869, Nash and his wife Annie moved to a part of Monterey County (which became San Benito County in 1874), where he helped form the town of Hollister and served another two terms as the San Benito District Attorney.
In perhaps his most notable criminal case, Nash Briggs delivered the opening statement for the prosecution at the 1875 San Jose murder trial of notorious outlaw and ladies’ man Tiburcio Vasquez.
Vasquez had robbed Snyder’s Store in Tres Pinos, San Benito County and during the robbery three people had been killed. Although Vasquez himself may not have pulled the trigger, Nash Briggs argued heartily for the death penalty. After deliberating just two hours, the jury agreed. Vasquez was hanged on March 19, 1875 — to the “entire satisfaction” of a reporter from the Los Angeles Weekly Star, and the great disappointment of the dashing Vasquez’s numerous female admirers.
As for N.C. Briggs, he acquired a large and lovely home in Hollister, California and lived out his days there, passing away at the age of 75 in September, 1913.
N.C. Briggs and his wife Annie are both buried at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Hollister.
But a mystery remains: prominent though he was, we have been unable to locate any photo of Briggs himself!
If you’ve ever traveled California’s lonely Highway 4, you may have seen these mysterious stone ruins. They’re one of the few tangible remains of Silver Mountain City, Alpine County’s original county seat. This was the county’s jail, built in 1867 and built to last! Eighteen-inch outer walls were hewn from the volcanic cliff east of town, and the jail’s two interior cells were fabricated of solid iron plate. The grated cell doors alone weighed an astonishing 500 pounds apiece!
The jail’s construction faced a few stumbling blocks along the way. Malcontents in nearby Markleeville held meetings to protest the jail project, noting correctly that the county’s Building Fund did not contain funds enough to cover the edifice’s $4,000 contract price.
Advertisement for bids featured a typo in the date. And when the structure was finally completed around December of 1867, months later than projected, the total price tag came to $7,000 – nearly twice the original bid. Even when completed, the jail was a source of local grumbling. It was “ill advised and uncalled for,” the local newspaper concluded: “If the county comes out, the jail is too small; and if the county don’t come out, it’s too large.” During its first five years of operation the jail would house a mere four criminals — at a cost to the county averaging a whopping $2,000 per prisoner.
One infamous inhabitant of the old stone jail was a fellow named Ernst Reusch, who took justice into his own hands on the cold, dark night of December 17, 1872. Incensed that his wife had taken up with local saloon owner Erick Errickson, Reusch procured a shotgun, loaded it with buckshot, and proceeded to discharge both barrels into the unsuspecting Errickson through the window of his saloon.
Reusch was taken into custody and languished in the cold stone jail for the next year and a half. Finally, on April 17, 1874, while supposedly being transported to Mono County for his “fair” trial, Reusch was ambushed by a group of masked men, attached to a rope, and pitched over the side of a bridge near Markleeville — a site still known today as Hangman’s Bridge.
In 1875, Alpine County’s seat was officially moved from Silver Mountain City to Markleeville, and the old stone jail saw its last. A wall was demolished in the summer of 1876 and the expensive iron jail cells were hauled by wagon to Markleeville, where they were incorporated into a new log jail building.
Visitors to Markleeville today can still walk inside this same log jail and stand inside one of its early iron jail cells at the Alpine Museum — perhaps the very cell that once held ill-fated Ernst Reusch! For information on visiting, call the Museum at (530) 694-2317.
Charles Fiske (or Fisk) was born in Vermont in 1813, and operated a store in Old Town, Maine for many years. He and his wife, Mary Ann (Eaton) had 13 children. Charles’ older brother Royal was a merchant in California, and although Charles wrote that he wished to see “fancy places,” he felt he couldn’t uproot his family.
But the lure of California finally became too strong. About 1863 Charles followed in the his older brother to California. Drawn by the lure of Silver Mountain City, then a booming mining camp, Charles settled in Silver Mountain and erected the Fisk Hotel: three stories tall, and one of the town’s earliest and finest hotels.
When Alpine County was formed the following year, Charles Fisk became one of its earliest officials, serving as Public Administrator and county coroner. Not surprisingly he also invested in the local silver mines, purchasing stock in the Mammoth and other claims. Royal Fisk, the more practical brother, chided him about “dabbling” in the mines, noting that those who did so “have in almost every instance come out second-best.”
Charles’ wife Mary Ann was said to be “ill a good deal of the time,” and daughter Mary Jane Fiske was described as the “presiding genius” of the hotel in 1864. Both Mary Jane and her brother Fred also worked setting type in the local newspaper office, the Alpine Chronicle. Fred would go on to run his own newspaper, the Eureka Daily Leader, in Eureka, Nevada.
Silver Mountain’s winters were long and bitterly cold. The Fiske family would close up their hotel to spend the winter months at the lower elevation of Murphys, and by 1873 it appears that Charles and Mary Ann had moved to Murphys for good. Charles opened a store there and his youngest son, Frank, became local postmaster and would serve on the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors for 14 years, beginning in 1886.
Mary Ann passed away in 1893, and Charles in 1896. They are buried
in the old Murphys graveyard, along with many of their children and grandchildren.
As for for the Fisk Hotel in Silver Mountain, it was disassembled in 1885 and moved to Markleeville to serve guests at the local hot springs. This wonderful old building still graces the corner of Main Street and Montgomery, as a restaurant/bar. So if you happen to visit the historic town of Markleeville, you can still step inside Charles Fisk’s amazing Fisk Hotel!
Her real name was Elizabeth, but everyone still calls her “Eliza.”
She was born Eliza Kirby in New York in 1825. By the age of 20 she was residing in Michigan, marrying George Withington there in 1845.
When the gold rush began, George — like so many others — joined a company of men and set off for California in 1849. He took up residence in what would later become the town of Shingle Springs, El Dorado County, working at a shingle mill. In 1851 he moved on to Ione Valley, working on various mining ventures and peddling land from the Rancho Arroyo Seco land grant.
After nearly three years of separation from her husband, Eliza left Michigan in 1852 to join him in California, bringing their two young daughters Sarah and Eleanor along on the wagon train.
It was not entirely a pleasant journey for the adventuresome young woman. A fellow traveler’s diary recounts that as the group reached Carson Canyon, “Mrs. Withington is very sick with dysentery. It hurts her very much to ride.” Two days later, however, Mrs. W’s condition had improved, and she enjoyed a happy reunion with her husband near Volcano. The couple settled on a homestead in Dry Creek, only to lose their claim in 1855 due to a title dispute.
By 1857, however, Eliza and George had relocated to the new town of Ione and were doing well enough they were able to build a two-story brick home on what is now Welch Lane. In July, 1857, Withington opened a portrait studio on Main Street, the “first door west of the bridge,” specializing in ambrotypes. Her rented studio even featured a skylight, which helped to make the most of available light. Women photographers were still extremely rare at the time. But the new field somehow caught Withington’s interest and she is said to have traveled as far as New York to learn the trade, visiting galleries including that of celebrated photographer Matthew Brady.
In Ione George Withington abandoned his shingle-making tools for those of a farmer, and invested as well in the Ione Copper Mining Company. But in 1861, tragedy struck the family with the death of their only son Everett at the age of just five months. As if to compound their woes, the Withingtons’ wheat and barley crop withered in the drought of 1864. George was forced to file for bankruptcy in early 1865. Among other assets in peril was the couple’s brick home, which was burdened with an $800 debt against it.
In May, 1866, Eliza somehow managed to pay off the $800 obligation, becoming the sole owner of the couple’s 7-1/2-ace property. While some of these funds may have come from her portrait business, the lion’s share likely came from her management of the “commodious” Arcade Hotel in Ione, located on Main Street opposite Sacramento Street.
From about 1871 until shortly before her death in 1877, Eliza took lengthy trips into the mountains to capture landscape photographs and scenes of local mining communities. While she sometimes accompanied other travelers, at other times she continued on alone, traveling “by stage, private conveyance, or fruit-wagons.” Accompanying her was her large, heavy photographic equipment, including as many as 80 glass plates, bottles of negative, developer and other chemicals, a “pair of Morrison lenses, a Philadelphia box and tripod” and a “strong black-linen cane-handled parasol” for shade.
In August and September, 1876, Eliza spent several weeks in Silver Mountain City capturing views of local mines and taking portraits. The local newspaper reported that she was in town for both “health and recreation,” occupying a room at Ford’s Hotel. As luck would have it, her visit coincided with removal of the iron jail cells from the stone jail at Silver Mountain City, and she managed to capture a fateful image of those cells atop a wagon on their way to the new county seat at Markleeville.
Eliza was apparently experiencing health problems at the time of her visit; one article suggested she had “scarcely spoken above a whisper for four months,” but that after a trip to the mountains had returned home “speaking as well as ever.” In addition to enjoying the dry mountain air, she may possibly have sampled the healing waters of nearby Grover Hot Springs.
Within just a few months of her Silver Mountain trip, however, Eliza was dead. She passed away at the young age of 51 on March 4, 1877, and is buried in the Ione Public Cemetery. Daughter Eleanor and son Everett are buried nearby.