During a recent visit to the Alpine County Museum, I was fascinated by the new Silver Mountain City two-case display of artifacts, photographs and written accounts all carefully selected to transport the viewer into the world of the mining town. From the journal of William H. Brewer, “Up and Down California” (entry for Aug. 4, 1863) one reads:
“Silver Mountain...is a good illustration of a new mining town. We arrive by trail, for the wagon road is left many miles back. As we descend the canyon from the summit, suddenly a bright new town bursts into view. There are perhaps forty houses, ... as bright as new, fresh lumber, which but a month or two ago was in the trees, can make them. This log shanty has a sign up, ‘Variety Store’; the next, a board shanty the size of a hogpen, is ‘Wholesale & Retail Grocery’; that shanty without a window with a canvas door, has a large sign of ‘Law Office’...The best hotel has not yet got up its sign, and the ‘Restaurant and Lodgings’ are without a roof as yet, but shingles are fast being made....There are town lots and streets, although as yet no wagons.”
A brief history of the Big Tree road is given:
“In 1862, the Big Tree & Carson Valley Turnpike Co. was incorportated with $4,000 raised by a group of Murphy’s men...The road folled the “old trail [“Emigrant Road”] from Big Tree to Hermit Valley, veered east to Highland Lakes, went over Ebbett’s Pass to Silver Creek, then continued on through Markleeville. Oxen were used to construct the road at first, but then horses were substituted.”
After financial problems and voluntary help from miners, the wagon road was finally completed to Silver Mountain in the summer of 1864.
Who knows who the Odd Fellows (1.O.O.F) were? I didn’t until I read how it came into being:
“...life was tough, often lawless and desperate...Life expectancy was about 45-50. There were lots of sickness, orphaned kids, widowed mothers, and many people could not afford to pay a decent burial for the dead. So, ordinary people...found it necessary to group together as brothers and sisters and contribute some of their hard-earned wages to a common fund which they could use for unfortunate times, such as sickness, losing a job, and even death...”
(Independent Order of Odd Fellows website.)
“Miners may initially have joined the Odd Fellows for the camaraderie...but later found refuge in an Odd Fellows Home. ‘The Homes provided relief for people who didn’t strike it rich in California’ ”
(Saratoga 1.O.O.F. Cemetery History).
Artifacts include: a pocket pistol, tiny enough to be stored in a pocket and a finger lamp, a small kerosene lamp which could be carried by hooking a finger through the loop on the side, a light source in the days before electricity. There is also a collection of photgraphs which would have been used in a stereopticon, a form of the magic lantern which would use two photgraphs with slightly different perspectives to produce a three dimensional image when seen through a viewer.
When I visited Karen Dustman* who created the display with her husband, Rick, it was embarassing to ask: “Where is Silver Mountain City?” The abbreviated directions are: Go through Markleeville (courthouse on your left) on Highway 89/4; drive past the Monitor Pass turn-off (Highway 89) and keep going straight on Highway 4. At 8.7 miles from Markleeville you will pass a tall brick chimney on your right (next to Chalmers Mansion). At 10.3 miles, you will cross a bridge over Silver Creek. Slow down and watch for the Forest Service sign on your left marking the old jail site at Silver Mountain City.
Now enclosed in a chain link fence, eighteen inch thick stone blocks are all that remain of the jail, and it seems, at first glance, all that remain of the city that once had a population of over a thousand. However, on closer examination one discovers sites where buildings stood, fragments of glass and tin, and trails that suggest old streets.
In the fall, Karen and Rick Dustman conduct a free tour of Silver Mountain City. Participants are introduced to Silver Mountain’s people and history, a thrilling experience by all accounts. The next tour will be 9 a.m. Oct. 5. Meet at the jail. Wear layers and comfy shoes. The terrain is flat so the walk is not strenuous. Donations to the museum will be greatly appreciated.
*Author of Ghost of the Sierra: Silver Mountain City, Clairitage Press, 20ll, very highly recommended, available at the Museum, Chamber of Commerce and the Library.
Thursday through Sunday 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Memorial day weekend through October. Phone: (530) 694-2317.