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