Friday, December 25, 2009

A Western Xmas - 1864

Alf Doten was 19 when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California. He sailed from Plymoth to California to seek his fortune. He spent the next two decades trying to strike gold (or silver) in California and Nevada. Finally in 1864 he went to join the staff of a newspaper in Virginia City Nevada. He overlapped another prospector-turned-Virginia-City-newspaperman by only a few months. That man was Sam Clemens, who had just started to write under the pen name, Mark Twain.

Alf Doten was not as witty or successful as Mark Twain, but he kept detailed journals of his experiences from the day he stepped onto the ship bound for San Francisco until the day he died, in 1909. He left 79 leather-bound journals, with entries in pencil. In 1973, the respected scholar and author of The Ox-Bow Incident, Walter van Tilburg Clark, published The Journals of Alfred Doten in three huge volumes. They offer fascinating glimpses in to the daily life in the American West in the second half of the 19th century.

Here for example, are some of his entries from December 1864, his first Christmas in Virginia City.

above: Alf Doten in 1866, two years after he wrote the entry below

Dec 22 - Clear and pleasant - Went up to Morton's to Forefather's dinner - some 10 or 12 sat at table - chicken roasted, succotash, pies, cakes etc, cider, wine &c - I took a bottle of that champagne along that I stole from the office - jolly time... at 6 1/2 ocl'k went to Consolidation meeting & reported it... in the evening I attended the Ladies Fair for the benefit of the Sisters of Charity...

Dec 24 - Stormy - blustery with light sprinkles of rain occasionally - Christmas eve - after got through work about 11 oclock our boys all pitched into the egg-nog, two pitchers full of which were sent into us by the saloons - sang songs & had a jolly time - drank it all up & then started out - got all the Enterprise boys out - some 15 or 20 of us in all - Dan De Quille also along - visited all the saloons - free drink with all of them - printers on the rampage - went down to Chinatown and kicked up thunder - came back - at 4 oclock Dan & I made out to get clear from the crowd & home to our beds. -

Sunday, Dec 25 - The same - blew like the devil all day - stripped several roofs of tin - blew down buildings and did much damage - Light rain most of the day - rose at 11 - turkey, pudding etc at Mrs Dill's - went up to Morton's dined there also - chicken, pudding, succotash, etc - Evening we attended Sabbath school Festival at St Pauls Church - went from there to Music Hall - then to Great Republic - I slept with Sutterly [sic] at his room -

Clem Sutterley (pictured) was a photographer and friend of Alf Doten

Dec 27 ... Was down with Higbee to visit Jessie Lester who was shot last Sunday night - had to have her right arm amputated at the shoulder joint this afternoon - poor creature, she was just recovering from the taking of chloroform during the operation, and was shrieking with pain - and in her delirium, calling on her mother...

Dec 31 ... I got through about 1 o'clock - run about town couple of hours longer, with Higbee & other policemen - lots of pistols, guns, &c being fired off to welcome in the new year. All over the City - bed at 3 or 4 - So ends 1864


Monday, December 14, 2009

Stagecoach #2

In the 1860's there were at least half a dozen stage coaches in and out of Virginia City every day.

In a book called Resources of the Pacific Slope, J. Ross Browne gives details of the routes of a dozen stages in the 1860's. For example, Route #1 went to Sacramento California via the Donner Pass and North Lake Tahoe. It cost $20 to Sacramento but $25 back because that was the most popular direction of travel in the 60's. Another stage went down to Dayton and from there to Como across the Carson Valley. Some stagecoaches went up to an area called Humboldt and from there to Salt Lake City and the east.

As our time in Virginia City is now over, we decide to follow Stagecoach Route #2 to California. J. Ross Brown tells us exactly which towns it passed through: Gold Hill, Silver City, Empire, Carson City, Genoa, Van Sickles Station, then up the Kingsway Grade to Dagget Pass at the summit and down into California via Strawberry, Placerville and Shingle Springs, all the way to Sacramento.

It's a beautiful September morning as we get in our convertible 'stagecoach' and set out from Virginia City to follow this route. We leave at 10.00am, and five minutes later we go over the hump called 'The Divide' which marks the boundary between Virginia City and Gold Hill. The Civil War re-enactors staged a mock battle here in a quarry beside the train tracks. Of course the Civil War never got this far west, and the V&T train wasn't here in 1862, when my first book will be set. However, the Gold Hill Hotel was. It's the oldest hotel in Nevada. Sam Clemens, Dan De Quille and Alf Doten all ate there.

Down the hot, winding road through a pair of dramatic rocks (above) called Devil's Gate. This was a popular place for bandits to lie in wait to rob the stage. An old illustration exaggerates the size of the rocks by putting tiny people between them. Exaggeration was rife in the 1860's... We breathe a sigh of relief as we pass through Devil's Gate into Silver City without incident.

As we pass an abandoned mine just out of Silver City we wave to our friend 'Irish'. He runs the Comstock Gold Mine and Stamp Mill and we met him when he demonstrated how the ore stamps worked and sounded. He is a colourful character who first came to Virginia City as a 16 year old in 1958. LIke many others, the popular TV show Bonanza was what brought this region to his attention. He went back to California to be a roadie for The Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson, but now he has ended up back here in a fabulous 'boys' fort' type of dwelling on the golden, sage-dotted hills.

After Silver City, the road flattens out into the wide flat Carson River Valley. We join Hiway 50 here. If we were to go left we would reach Dayton, which might be Nevada's oldest town. My great-grandmother Corinne Prince grew up there. Her father was a teamster, one of those men who drove eight to twelve-mule carriages with loads of ore going out and timber coming back. Corinne probably went to school in the Dayton School house, which was built in 1863 and is now a museum.

But our 'stagecoach' doesn't go left to Dayton. It goes right, west, to Empire. We can't really see any signs of old Empire; New Empire is a suburb of Carson City. But in Carson City we see the old mint, where my great-grandmother worked for a while, and the governor's mansion. Stages might have changed teams here in Carson, as it's about 20 miles from Virginia City.

A road west takes you towards the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are barren and rounded and steep on this side. Then the flat road curves south to Genoa. Originally known as Mormon Station, Genoa is a pleasant surprise. It's green and shady with excellent information about the pioneers and local characters like Snowshoe Joe, who was a mail carrier. Genoa and Dayton have a little rivalry going on as to which of them is the oldest town. Let's just say they are both old, founded in 1851. Richard and I stop for an espresso on the rocks at the delightful Genoa Coffee & Candy Company. We go to see the famous hanging tree before setting out south with a 'fresh team of horses.'

There are hot springs south of Genoa and today David Walley's Hot Springs is a popular place to get married. Half a mile south, on the right of the road, is Van Sickles Station Ranch, now a private residence. Van Sickles was a commissioner and in the early 60's his hotel was the first port of call once you crossed the mountains. With hot water and good food, it must have been a joy for the weary traveller. In winter you could sledge down the eastern Sierras. Van Sickles was famous for shooting a desperado called Sam Brown who had killed half a dozen men. After Sam fired on Van Sickles, the hotel owner went after him with a shotbun. He was later tried and a jury passed a verdict of 'self-defense'.

The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains come straight down and stop dramatically at the flat plain of the Carson Valley. One minute you're on the flat, the next you're climbing the Kingsbury Grade. This wagon road was built by two men named Kingsbury and MacDonald in 1860, it shortened the distance between Virginia City and Sacramento by 15 miles. The road cost $585,000 to build and the builders charged a toll to pay for the road. A wagon and four horses had to pay $17.50 for a round trip from Shingle Springs to Van Sickles Station. The Pony Express used this road, too, for the short period of its existence between 1860 and 1861.

The four-horse team strains as it pulls our stagecoach and up over sparsely wooded eastern slopes with dizzy views down to the flat Carson Valley. Once over Dagget Pass, tall pines and smooth grey granite boulders take over. The summit is over 7400 feet, then down to Lake Tahoe, blue and peaceful in the warm September sun. When we were in Virginia City, we took a ten minute stagecoach ride with Gary. What you don't realise until you try riding as a passenger in one is how claustrophobic it can be. You can't see what's coming and the scenery whizzes by. If you were sitting facing backwards it might have been quite disconcerting. Not good for people who are easily travel-sick. The idea of taking a bone-rattling stagecoach all this way is almost inconceivable. Especially knowing that they sometimes travelled at night around the precipitous bends. Eeek!

After the pass, Richard and I stop at South Lake Tahoe for lunch. In the 1860's people were often malnourished because fresh fruit and veg were almost impossible to find apart from the autumn. We know from J. Ross Browne and others that staple foods were corn-meal, lard, bacon, eggs, potatoes, cabbage, cheese, sugar and coffee, When Sam Clemens arrived in Virginia City in 1862, a man called Rollin M. Daggett remarked that he 'had been living on alkali water and whang leather...' This is an exaggeration, of course, but gives you an idea of the monotony of food back then.

Strawberry was one of the most famous stopping places on the western Sierra Nevada Mountains. There were no strawberries there, but according to some reports, a man called Berry owned the inn and he had straw for the horses. Another article by J. Ross Browne, first published in Harper's Monthly Magazine, December 1860 documents the first wave of prospectors coming over the Sierra Nevadas to mine gold and silver on the Comstock. Some of his most hilarious anecdotes take place at Strawberry.

The illustration above right shows 'Dinner at Strawberry', an illustration from 'A Peep at Washoe'. A light at length glimmered through the pines, first faint and flickering, then a full blaze, then half a dozen brilliant lights, which proved to be camp fires under the tree, and soon we stood in front of a large and substantial log-house. This was the famous Strawberry', known throughout the length and breadth of the land as the best stopping-place on the route to Washoe...

Soon the road shows glimpses of the American River on the left. Further down in Coloma gold was discovered for the first time in 1848 with the cry: 'Gold. Gold in the American River!' The road down the western Sierra Nevadas is a much gentler grade. It takes us into the hot valley and Placerville, which was once known as Hangtown. Placerville was named after 'placer' mining, the method where you pan for gold in an open stream or creek. Placerville's Main Street still has buildings dating back to the 1850's and you can see Stage Coach Alley. You can also get a hot dog at Hangville Hot Dogs. This was another staging place for horses. After Placerville it is on to Shingle Springs.

We tried to find the old train station at Shingle Springs but only founded traces of the old track in a cutting of earth red with iron. The train arrived here in 1865, but until then you would carry on in your stagecoach to Sacramento, another 30 miles on. At last you could emerge and take a different method of transport: boats plied daily from here to San Francisco. I'll bet plenty of travellers vowed never to sit in a stage coach again!


The best seat inside a stage is the one next to the driver. Even if you have a tendency to sea-sickness when riding backwards - you'll get over it and will get less jolts and jostling. Don't let "sly elph" trade you his mid-seat.

In cold weather, don't ride with tight-fitting boots, shoes or gloves. When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do so without grumbling, he won't request it unless absolutely necessary. If the team runs away - sit still and take your chances. If you jump, nine out of ten times you will get hurt.

In very cold weather abstain entirely from liquor when on the road, because you will freeze twice as quickly when under its influence.

Don't growl at the food received at the station - stage companies generally provide the best they can get.

Don't keep the stage waiting. Don't smoke a strong pipe inside the coach. Spit on the leeward side... Don't lean or lop over neighbours when sleeping. Take small change to pay expenses. Never shoot on the road as the noise might frighten the horses. Don't discuss politics or religion.

Don't point out where murders have been committed, especially if there are women passengers.

Don't lag at the wash basin. Don't grease your hair, because travel is dusty. Don't imagine for a moment that you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyances, discomfort and some hardships. (Omaha Herald 1877)

P.S. Listen to a fun audio account of a young Englishman's stage journey across America in 1859 on the Wells Fargo History site.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Slippery Gulch

In September I spent four days in Virginia City, Nevada, researching a new series of books.

Virginia City was a wealthy and rowdy mining town in the 1860's and 1870's. On the famous Comstock Lode, it produced billions of dollars of gold and especially silver ore. Mark Twain was a reporter there from Sept 1862 until May 1864. The town had gunmen, prostitutes, Indians, miners, con-artists, saloon-keepers as well as bankers, lawyers, mine managers, journalists and speculators. There were even a few respectable women and children. Mark Twain once remarked that his days there 'were full to the brim of the wine of life.'

By the early 20th century, however, Virginia City was in danger of becoming a ghost town. Then in the late 1950's, something happened to revive interest in it. A hugely successful television show called Bonanza made Virginia City popular again. However, the show got several things wrong about Virginia City. Because it was filmed in Los Angeles, Virginia is shown as a flat town. But one of the most distinctive things about Virginia City is that it is built on a steep hillside. This is something you have to experience to believe.

No photo really shows you how radical the steep streets are. Imagine a city built on the slope of a pitched roof. Or a city built on stairs. The stairs are the north-south running streets, named after the letters of the alphabet. 'A' street is high up Mount Davidson, 'B' Street is further down, then the famous 'C' Street, with all the saloons and shops. In the olden days 'D' street was where the 'soiled doves' had their 'cribs' and 'F' Street was Chinatown, etc. But the east west running streets are ramps on almost a 45ยบ angle! Now they are paved, but in the olden days they were just dirt. Imagine trying to walk on a muddy, icy street, or worse yet, trying to drive a carriage!

My great-grandmother grew up near Virginia City and remembers how a man and his wife were riding in a carriage when the horses lost their grip. Down they went, down and down and right over a cliff. The horses and the husband died. The wife was in a coma for several days and when she came out of it she discovered her broken and reset left arm was two inches shorter than her right. Apparently runaway carriages were almost daily occurrences in the 1860's. One of the many nicknames for Virginia City is 'Slippery Gulch'...

Another thing they never tell you about Virginia City is the physical effect it has on you. It is over 6000 feet high and the air is thin and dry. The first time I went I felt slightly sick and dizzy and had heart palpitations. This time I noticed the extreme dryness. My eyes felt scratchy and my nose prickled. You get used to it after a while but it really has an effect on you physically.

From the time of the late 1950's, Virginia City has attracted bikers. They love the scenic roads up to Virginia City and the saloons once they get there. Sometimes the streets throb with the sound of Harley Davidson motorcycles. In one bar you get leather-clad patrons and heavy metal music, in the saloon next door cowboys and Country Western music. Mostly everyone gets on with everyone else.

It was fun that Labor Day Weekend to see equal parts bikers and Civil War re-enactors. And sometimes both combined.

There really is nowhere in the world like Virginia City.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Western Mysteries

I've been visiting Nevada and California to research a series of history mystery stories I hope to write. They will be set in the Comstock region of Nevada in the autumn of 1862, the beginning of the big silver boom there and the time of Mark Twain's arrival at the Territorial Enterprise Newspaper.

left: Sam Clemens - not yet Mark Twain - when he arrived in Virginia City in 1862 aged 27

I don't want to say too much because it is a fantastic idea - and nobody else has done it - but here are a few clues.

1. The series will be for children aged 8 - 14+
2. The detective will be a loner: the western hero is always a loner.
3. The detective will be a kid.
4. The detective will own a Smith & Wesson seven-shooter.
5. Real historical figures will appear in the books.
6. The bad-guys will be gunfighters, tricksters & newspapermen.
7. The mysteries will be based around real historical events.
8. The books will be told in the first person.
9. My detective will love black coffee and layer cake.
10. I am going to have a lot of fun writing these books.

So watch this space!