Markleeville as it was before the fire of 1885 |

Markleeville as it was before the fire of 1885

by Karen Dustman

Two-story building at the far right is the old wooden courthouse, with Judge Arnot’s house adjacent. On the left is the white Barnes Hotel. The art work was painted in 1885 for Judge Arnot by Alex Chalmers, son of Lewis Chalmers.
Courtesy of Alpine County Museum | Courtesy of Alpine County Museum

Like many pioneer towns, Markleeville faced its share of fires.

The worst conflagration of all struck on Aug. 2, 1885, when flames swept down Main Street.

Among the businesses turned to ashes were John Weis’s store with $4,000 in contents; Henry Morrison’s saloon and its expensive billiard table; and Harvey and Rask’s butcher shop.

Dozens of homes, stores and outbuildings vanished in the flames, and losses topped $11,000 – all of it uninsured.

The citizens of Markleeville were quick to rebuild.

But just how Main Street looked before the fire was lost forever — or so we thought.

Over the past winter, a researcher thumbing through old newspapers chanced upon a story about a “fine painting” of Markleeville.

The old news column reported that a painting had been created by A.J. Chalmers for Judge N.D. Arnot, showing the town’s wooden courthouse and other buildings on Main Street.

And the date of the article was June, 1885, just weeks before the fire.

It was only a brief mention.

But it was enough to get museum curator Wanda Coyan curious.

Could the old oil painting of Main Street still exist?

And might it even be tucked away among the museum’s collection?

Sure enough, with a quick check of the museum’s records Coyan was able to identify that very painting tucked away in an inconspicuous spot on the wall.

“This is a painting that’s been hanging on our wall for years, so it was exciting to learn more about the history of this particular painting,” said Coyan. “But it is even more exciting to realize the significance of just what this picture shows. It gives an extremely detailed view of Markleeville’s Main Street as it looked just weeks before the town burned in the Great 1885 Fire.”

Clearly depicted are Judge Arnot’s old frame house, one of the earliest homes built in Markleeville.

Just across old Webster Street stands the town’s original two-story wooden courthouse.

And a bit farther down dusty Main Street are the twin roofs of the Barnes Hotel, with a false-fronted butcher shop across the road.

The reporter who described the painting in 1885 was obviously smitten.

“The various tints of the landscape are brought out by the artist with beautiful effect, and they give the picture a most pleasing yet natural appearance,” he wrote.

Finally, visitors can gaze back in time at Markleeville’s Main Street just as it once was in the early 1880s

For those who love history, it was a treasure hidden in plain sight.

Karen Dustman is a Markleeville resident.