Finding the Ghosts at Silver Mountain City |

Finding the Ghosts at Silver Mountain City

by Lisa Gavon
R-C Alpine Bureau
Karen and Rick Dustman in period costume in front of the Alpine County Museum after one of their Silver Mountain tours
Judy Wickwire |

It was a bustling mining town, but all that is left are long, shallow holes where buildings once stood. The old jail is just a pile of blocks, the only structure left that was not burned, recycled, or removed in its entirety. The Snowshoe Thompson Chapter of the Clampers have put up a huge plaque recognizing the site of legendary Silver Mountain City.

The area is bordered by rough, towering cliffs, and a deep ravine where Silver Creek flows. When these trails were traveled by the Washoe Tribe, it laid unchanged through the ages, an ancient trade path over the mountains where their ancestors collected gooseberries and currants.

In the fall of 1860, all of this changed when groups of miners began prospecting, finding enough potential to form the “Silver Mountain Mining District” in 1861. In what was to be called Scandinavian Canyon, two mines were located that played a starring role in the formation of Alpine County. One was dubbed I.X.L., cleverly using letters to say “I excel,” and the Buckeye No. 1. Gold and silver seekers swarmed the vicinity, and in the blink of an eye, it was transformed into a settlement. Buildings, including stores, hotels, a bakery, blacksmith shop, and assay office were all erected during the same period that Civil War was raging through our nation.

Author Karen Dustman spent years of study going through grainy newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, old photos, and mining claim certificates that illuminated the people, triumphs, and tragedies of this long forgotten town. She found that in these documents, individual testimonies had never actually died. Dustman deciphered the difficult-to-read handwriting of the infamous Lewis Chalmers, builder of a great mansion below Silver Mountain, a man who came so very close to discovering a second Comstock Lode.

When Karen and her husband Rick began visiting the empty land where the town once stood, they imagined the raucous saloon laughter, the low-pitched whine of a lumber mill, the bleating of a flock of sheep being herded down Main Street, and the splash of water coming up in a bucket from the hand-dug wells. The town comes alive in Karen’s fascinating and meticulously researched book Ghost of the Sierra: Silver Mountain City. Karen takes us on a journey to discover the true accounts of the hard-working, long-suffering, tenacious, crooked, or kindly citizens who once called this place their home.

From the end of wagon roads at Big Trees in the west, and Markleeville in the east, brave souls would have to make the final 10 to 12 mile trip to Silver Mountain by horse, mule or on foot. Because of the palpable promise of riches, residents circulated a petition that asked the California Legislature to approve the “Alpine Bill.” This gave the official nod to form a 723 square mile county from the junctions of Amador, El Dorado, Calaveras, Mono, and Tuolumne combined.

Dustman’s volume is a detailed chronicle of how Alpine County was formed, what day-to-day life was like in a mining town, and the personalties and families that made a mark on the development of our community. That includes local legend “Snowshoe Thompson,” who was one of the earliest to claim an interest in a newly discovered silver lode mine. She has uncovered tales romantic, joyous, surprising, and tragic. Her book is available from the Alpine County Museum (530 694-2317), the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce (530 694-2475), or on Karen’s website You will read about rivalries and restless spirits, betrayal and justice, births and deaths, and the legendary “orange groves” of Woodfords. Find out how the town faded away, having a current population made up entirely of ghosts.

Karen and Rick lead free yearly tours of the site, dressing in period costume, and painting the town back into existence with their words. All donations go to the Museum, and they can be contacted for the date and time of this years presentation. It is an historical adventure not to be missed.