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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the view Vischer captured in 1861:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________

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

__________________

Enjoyed this story? Please share it with your friends! And if you’d like to read more Sierra history stories like this, just sign up for our free history newsletter in the box on this page!

Snowshoe Thompson’s Headstone — Stolen??

Well, almost!! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

How a Fire Saved the Fiske Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________

Enjoyed this story?  Please share it on Facebook! And if you’d like to read more Sierra history stories like this, sign up for our free history newsletter at the top right of this page!

#SilverMountainCity #AlpineCounty #Markleeville

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.

________________________________________________________

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

 

Bootleg Liquor

The tax man had a ready pencil.

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.

Saloons did a thriving business.

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.”

Bootleg liquor was a way to make ends meet during Prohibition.

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 & Fredericksburg here!

 

Alpine County’s First D.A.

 

The grave of R.M. Briggs in Jackson, California.

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.

R.M. Briggs’ home in Jackson still stands, although it was moved slightly uphill to make room for the highway.

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.”

This lovely Mono County courthouse was built in 1880, thanks in part to lobbying by judge R.M. Briggs for better quarters.

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.

Nash C. Briggs built a beautiful home in Hollister, which may be shown here at the far right.

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.

Tiburcio Vasquez was a bandit — and a ladies’ man.

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’ home in Hollister, CA (courtesy of San Benito Co. Historical Society).

N.C. Briggs and his wife Annie are both buried at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Hollister.

Grave of N.C. Briggs in Hollister, CA (photo by Verona Flint).
Briggs family plot (photo by Verona Flint).

 

 

 

 

 

But a mystery remains: prominent though he was, we have been unable to locate any photo of Briggs himself!

Silver Mountain City’s Stone Jail

The original heavy iron cell doors can still be seen at the Alpine Museum.

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.

The 1867 advertisement requesting bids contained a typo in the date — off by a decade.

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.

Silver Mountain City, ca. 1867. The jail may be the small light-roofed building just below the twin trees in the center of the photo.

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.

To read more about Silver Mountain City, see  http://www.clairitage.com/books.html and http://www.karendustman.com/AboutSilverMountain.aspx

Liked this article?  Please leave us a comment!

#SilverMountainCity #Markleeville #AlpineCounty #EbbettsPass #CaliforniaHistory

 

Charles Fiske

 

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.

Silver Mountain City, ca. 1867. The Fiske Hotel is the tall building at lower right.
Silver Mountain City, ca. 1867. The Fiske Hotel is the tall building at lower right.

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.

Charles Fisk is likely the older man, third from left, in front of his store in Murphys.
Charles Fisk is likely the older man, fourth from left, in front of his store in Murphys.

Mary Ann passed away in 1893, and Charles in 1896.  They are buried

Gravestone of Charles Fisk at Murphys.
Gravestone of Charles Fisk at Murphys.

in the old Murphys graveyard, along with many of their children and grandchildren.

Charles' wife, Mary Ann Eaton Fisk, died in 1893.
Charles’ wife, Mary Ann Eaton Fisk, died in 1893.

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!

Eliza Withington

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.

CHAPTER I
George Withington

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.

Withington House 1870
Withington House, 1870

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.

Eliza's grave
Eliza’s grave