Who’s got the water?
January 29, 2007
It was all about water in the 1800s. Young Tom Rickey, 16, and one of seven children, migrated in 1852 from Dubuque, Iowa, in search of a better life with his parents, William and Liza Jane Brinley Rickey. For Rickey, the understanding of that basic need would mean the difference between making it or losing it in this new land.
It would be that knowledge that would eventually acquire him the title of Cattle King of the West and help build his empire, only to eventually become the catalyst that broke his empire into many pieces.
Thomas Brinley Rickey, born Aug. 23, 1836 in Greenfield, Ohio, was the oldest of 11 children to eventually be born to William and Liza, with the first seven born in Ohio and Iowa, and four more born after their arrival in California. The family settled in Amador County, Calif., first in Volcano and then in the Ione Valley.
Rickey tried his hand at gold mining in Amador County and having found as much as $1,600 in one day, he invested his earnings in the rich brown gold of land, land he would eventually cultivate and turn into lush green pastures. He took up homesteading in Amador County and raised cattle in a small way. As fast as he made money, he bought ranch land.
In 1859, at the age of 23, Rickey drove a small herd of cattle over the Sierra into Antelope Valley in Douglas County where he was to establish his original homestead near the south side of the Walker River. While the miners were taking gold out of the surrounding areas, he prospered in the cattle business, providing beef for the mines. Soon his father William and the rest of the family joined him and homesteaded land along the west fork of what was then called Walker’s River.
Some of the land was in Douglas County and some of it was in Mono County,Calif. It wasn’t long before most of Antelope Valley, from present day Walker in California at the mouth of the rugged vertical canyon walls that contain the Walker River, emanating from the high elevations of the Sierra to where Topaz Ranch Estates is now, at the foot of the Pine Nut Range on the northern end of the valley. His land then spread eastward to the Sweetwater Mountains (a spur range of the Sierra and at this point higher than the Sierra) and west to the foot of the Sierra was all to become Rickey owned land.
Rickey met and married Jane Caroline Jennie Gillis, July 18, 1863. Jennie was the daughter of Charles Gillis, an early pioneer who ran a stage business in Genoa from the time he arrived in the Valley in 1861. They had four children. Caroline M. Rickey was born in 1865 in Antelope Valley; Charles William Rickey was born in 1867, also in Antelope Valley; Helen Nellie was born in 1869 in the Valley but died of typhoid fever in 1904 and finally Bertha (Birdita) Lavina was born in 1871.
In those days, ranchers could seldom make it completely on their own and the formed alliances and partnerships with financiers. Such was the case with Rickey who formed a partnership with Richard Kirman, a wealthy banker in Reno in 1876 who helped finance the buying of ranches and homesteads. Kirman’s son, also named Richard, would go on to be Nevada’s 18th governor from 1935-1938. The Rickey family, in partnership with Kirman, would eventually gain control of vast amounts of land, not only in the Antelope Valley of Mono County but also a major part of the Owens Valley near Bishop, Calif., and up to the Oregon border. Lands were sometimes acquired by less than honorable means through dummy entrymen and family members. In 1880 it was reported the partners, quite active in establishing new grazing land, had the Chinese digging miles of ditches in Antelope Valley. Soon they acquired interests and ownership in the Walker River Irrigation Ditch Co., the Tunnel Ditch Co., and the Hartshorn Ditch. Control of water and the building of new ditches enabled Kirman and Rickey to control the land. Much of the Kirman & Rickey Cattle Company holdings came from the 10,819 acres acquired from Jesse and G.N. Summers, earlier cattle barons of the area who had built the Grand Central Hotel in Bodie and also owned five meat shops in the town during Bodie’s boom days. Kirman and Rickey purchased the meat markets in Bodie and the Summers holdings, quickly establishing themselves as the successors to the Summers cattle empire.
In 1882 Kirman and Rickey began acquiring land very quickly in Antelope Valley, buying out the smaller ranches of Swauger, Moore and Cochran, which gave them the greater portion of the Valley. They employed a gang of Chinese to clear the land of sagebrush in the upper end of the Valley, and alfalfa was planted in its place.
The lands were flooded from the irrigation ditches cut to divert water from the river in order to eliminate the sagebrush. The native sagebrush could not survive in these flooded conditions and was easily killed and uprooted. Grass seed was then disseminated through the flood waters and soon, where it had once been arid desert land, grass was growing in abundance and the valley grew green with grasses and alfalfa, which is still grown today.
Present-day Topaz Lane, in Mono County, was the site of the ranch’s headquarters. The ranch, it’s main house, out-buildings, barns and corrals, sprawled in many directions. It was described as a paradise by many. The boarding house was built in 1888, also used as a hotel, it housed some of the 400 employees reported to have worked on the massive holdings of the Kirman & Rickey Cattle Company. The L-shaped building had two huge dining rooms, one for ranch employees and a kitchen attended by a Chinese cook. There were ice and store houses and even a house for the bookkeeper, Albert Bird, who was the accountant for the Rickey holdings in 1898. There was a post office, general store and a saloon, an important amenity for the time, as everyone drank and gambled in those days. The heading of the Kirman and Rickey stationary read as follows: Dealers in General Merchandise, drygoods, hats, caps, boots, shoes, harness, saddles, bridles, spurs, riatas, chaperejos, etc., hardware, wagons, agricultural implements and machinery-paints, oils and brushes-and a full line of goods usually kept in a first class general store. The post office was first established on the main complex in 1885 with Walter Swart as its first post master. A school was established prior to 1890, a jail and a full-service blacksmith shop, the Rickey Ranch at Topaz was a small town unto itself.
The long barn was surrounded by corrals. A small cabin served as the bunkhouse near a round corral, where cowboys broke horses. Will James, cowboy artist and author, is said to have stayed at the ranch while he was working for the Rickey Cattle Co. as a bronc buster. His encounter with an unbreakable strawberry roan outlaw inspired Curly Fletcher, another bronc buster on the ranch, to write the classic cowboy poem, Strawberry Roan.
Little by little, all the valley’s small ranches were consumed to form the Kirman & Rickey Cattle Co. empire. Over 3,000 head of cattle ranged the valley. It was said by some that at round-up time, other brands were ignored and a lot of cattle that didn’t bear the Kirman/Rickey brand were included in the count. It was also said that one could walk from sunup to sundown and never leave Rickey lands.
By 1892, Kirman and Rickey had bought the old Morris Dick Ranch and the 1,000 acre Waltze Dairy Ranch at Bridgeport and were leasing the old Huntoon ranch where they battled foxtail grass, which had invaded in 1889 and had ruined most of their Antelope Valley hay crop. And still the empire grew.
Richard Kirman died in 1896, Kirman Lake (above Leavitt Meadows) bears his name. In 1897 T. B. Rickey reportedly bought out the Kirman interest from his estate and continued the cattle operation, naming it Rickey Cattle Company. He was on his own after being with Kirman for more than 20 years.
Again, in the understanding of the need to control the water, Rickey planned to build a large reservoir, using the waters of the Walker River to increase the size of Alkali Lake, then three-quarters of a mile wide and 2 miles long. It is now known as Topaz Lake on the California-Nevada border. On one old map, the lake was known as Rickey Lake.
The water was to be used to irrigate Rickey lands in the Smith and Mason valleys with the excess sold to ranchers down stream of the Walker River in the Mason Valley. This plan was the beginning of a fierce water war between Rickey and Henry Miller, who was a big cattle owner and half of the famous Miller & Lux Company in California and Nevada. Miller & Lux, based in the San Joaquin Valley of California, had major holdings in Nevada ranches that had gone under. These ranches included the ranches along the Walker River below T.B. Rickey’s holdings in the Smith and Mason valleys. Miller was concerned that Rickey was acquiring a lot of land in the mountains of California in the upper reaches of the water system and was taking too much water out of the Walker River for irrigation. Miller hired an attorney to work on the water rights for his ranches below the Rickey holdings and the proposed reservoir.
Rickey claimed that the water rose in the headwaters of the Walker River in California and his land was in California and riparian to the river. Claiming riparian rights to all the water on California side, both the east and the west Walker rivers, which came together in the Mason Valley where Miller had extensive holdings, Rickey stated that he had a right to all the water-and Nevada could only get what California couldn’t use. Rickey used, as example, a previous legal victory by Miller & Lux in California concerning riparian state water rights; Lux v. Haggin decreed that the riparian owner above doesn’t have to be concerned over a water user below.
Miller filed suit in federal court in Nevada where both sides tried to organize water users up and down the Walker River in Nevada. A special referee was finally selected and approved in the concern of the water users below the contended area. The case involved more than 160 defendants along the Walker River and was organized by Miller interests. The case went to the U.S. Circuit Court, then to the Circuit Court of Appeals and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court which decided in favor of Henry Miller. By the time the case was resolved, Rickey had other financial problems and, selling his properties, the Walker River water rights war ended. Miller & Lux were to complete the reservoir project, started by Rickey, which is present day Topaz Lake.
Rickey would take days to travel his extensive holdings. Sybil McGee Summers’ memories of Rickey arriving on one of his ranches in the Owens Valley driving a wagon with four very fast horses were very vivid. Her later memories were that of him arriving in a touring car with the same speed and flair.
The loss of the water wars to Miller & Lux was just the beginning of the demise of the Rickey empire in Antelope Valley and beyond. Rickey had speculated heavily in other ventures as well as being part of the political scene. A staunch Republican, he was offered the nomination for governor many times, but he turned it down. He organized, among his many ventures, the Nevada State Bank and Trust Company with branches in Carson City, Tonopah, Goldfield, Manhattan and Blair. With the panic of 1907, an economic downturn in United States finances. Nevada banks had loaned too much money that belonged to their depositors (Rickey being one of them) and many banks were forced to close their doors. The failure of the T.B. Rickey chain of banks brought the greatest disaster to the mining industry and the Rickey cattle empire. Rickey also had extensive ranch and mine interests in Nevada and California. When he needed money for his own interests, he used money belonging to the depositors. When he could not replace the money used, his banks were forced to close and his vast holdings were sold.
To add to all of this, his wife Jennie died Oct. 15, 1891. He married his, one-time housekeeper, Alice Belle Gleason Straub Crowell in 1893. This was a marriage not well accepted by his children from his first marriage. There had been rumors of an affair with Alice before Jennie died. This was to alienated his children, now young adults, from him. In 1898 Thomas Rickey and Alice had a daughter they named Alice Brinley Rickey. Thomas was 61 and Alice was 39 at the time.
The Rickeys had taken up residence in a home in Carson City on Mountain Street. In an effort to redeem her husband’s reputation after the bank failures, Alice offered to sell a piece of property to their home to the state for $10. The offer was gratefully accepted, and the Governor’s Mansion was built on the site, where it stands today.
Through all the litigation of the bank failures and the sale of all his land, T.B. Rickey was able to hide a considerable amount of money-money enough that he could purchase a home in Oakland where he and his wife could live comfortably until his death, at the age of 84, on January 11, 1920.
The remains of the ranch property were managed by his grandson, Charles Treadwell Rickey and highly contested in a will. It was claimed that Rickey was coerced and the will falsified by Alice to reduce the amounts awarded his heirs from his first marriage and giving the majority of the estate to Alice and their daughter .
Little remains of what was once a great cattle empire. The valley is again divided, for the most part, into small ranches. On the north end are the communities of Topaz Ranch Estates and Holbrook Junction, to the south are Coleville and Walker. The main ranch has been reduced to a few outbuildings along Topaz Lane, but the constant is Topaz Lake and the vision of a man who understood the need for water in the Antelope Valley and the lands beyond.