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The town of Chinese Camp appears bigger when approached by way of Six Bit Gulch than when, bowling along Highway 120, one simply skims its upper edge. Even so it has decreased sharply in population and importance since the day, at the height of the Gold Rush, when it is said to have sheltered sketchily some 5000 persons, principally Oriental.
William Heath Davis wrote that two Chinese men and a woman who arrived on the Brig Eagle, February 2, 1848, were the first to appear in the port of San Francisco and were looked upon as curiosities. During the ensuing winter the number increased rapidly. The effort and initiative displayed in arriving at the port of San Francisco by these Chinese, mainly untraveled and speaking no language but their own, is tremendous. To get passage up the river to Stockton and trudge from there to the mines was another chore not lightly to be discounted. There were few if any helping hands. It was not that they were uniquely unwelcome; they were entirely unknown to any but seafaring men and world travelers. Thomas O. Larkin received a letter, dated San Francisco, March 6. 1848, showing that the Chinese immigrants had at least one advocate: “. . . One of my favorite projects is to introduce Chinese emigrants into this country, and desire some encouragement. Any number of Mechanics, Agriculturists, and Servants can be obtained,—they would be willing to sell their services for a certain period to pay their passage across the Pacific,—they would be valuable Miners.
“The Chinese are a sober and industrious people and if a large number could be introduced into California, landed property would increase in value fourfold. . . .”1
Early in the Gold Rush it occurred to a ship’s captain to persuade some Chinese from the crew of a stranded ship to wash gold for him. He brought them to a hilltop encampment called Campo Salvador because it was founded by a group of San Salvadorians.2 Its site is traversed by Highway 120 just before starting down Shawmut Grade. Here on the timber-grown height above Woods Creek the Chinese built a queer dwelling after their own fashion. It soon formed a nucleus for Chinese who drifted in from other diggings or came straight from the harbor of San Francisco.
Naturally the Caucasians at once pushed in to Campo Salvador to see if the Chinese had uncovered anything worth while; saw the gleam of gold and stayed. Whereupon, in 1850, the Orientals moved out.
This was the procedure all through the gold region. Sometimes, as in this case, they seem to have chosen to leave. Sometimes they were more or less peacefully elbowed out. All too often they were robbed or driven out by violence without regard for common justice or humanity. This was deplored by the majority of decent miners but, before the coming of organized government to the camps, either prevention of crime or its retribution depended upon the busy miners themselves. It took murder or horse stealing to stir them to the concerted action necessary for definite results.
When the Chinese moved they found a group of Americans mining on the west side of Rocky Hill who called their sketchy settlement Camp Washington. It grew; absorbed the incoming Orientals and was soon known as Chinese Camp or Chinee. Washington Street in Chinese Camp is a holdover from those earliest days. Several of the first buildings, including the adobe store belonging to the Morris family, were on Washington rather than on Main Street.
Proof of the use of the name Camp Washington seemed difficult to find; in fact has only recently materialized. William Solinsky, son of C. W. H. Solinsky of Chinese Camp, wrote a statement which has just been made available to us. He was born in Chinese Camp and lived there most of his mature life. He knew the town perfectly. He wrote: “. . . After a short stay in Carson Hill and other parts of the Southern Mines papa went to Camp Washington, Tuolumne Co. . . . and engaged in mining after which he joined with S. M. Miller & Co. and became agents of Adams Express Co.”
Campo Salvador was sometimes called East Chinee. The displaced Chinese miners had not gone far—less than a mile. They had simply put Rocky Hill between them and their ertswhile Caucasian competitors.
Campo Salvador was now composed mainly of Americans, Germans and Chileans. In 1850 E. W. Emory ran a general store. By 1856 there was a blacksmith shop owned and operated by C. W. Ollrich and John Reitz ran a saloon. The camp was rough and tough. It acquired a bad name even in this tolerant section of the mines. The Chinese had established a nucleus of profitable gambling and fandango houses; the Caucasians brought liquor. It had the traditional lynching when the sheriff of Amador County came to arrest a man in John Reitz’ saloon. The man killed the sheriff and, so we are told by Robert Curtin, was hanged on a large oak about where the present highway starts down the grade to Jacksonville. It was all quite according to pattern. For a few years the camp was a center of excitement and dissipation for the surrounding mountains, then the diggings dwindled. The gold here had always been of fine quality, but scarce. The miners, one at a time or in small groups, went doggedly off to find a better place.
After it was deserted the Chinese returned in small numbers and frugally sluiced out the tailings. So much for Campo Salvador, destined for complete obliteration.
The new location selected by the Chinese was an entirely different matter. It sat smugly behind little Rocky Hill and began to do very well for itself.
As the Chinese were driven from other camps—notably from Sonora—they congregated here. Chinese Camp was the magnet that drew most of them. It was their “Little Pekin.” The diggings were rich but dry, with no water available for sluicing out the gold which may be one reason why the industrious and patient Chinese were able to make a success of their project at this location with, at first, but little interference from the Caucasians. Their colony grew until it is generally accepted that the Mongolian population was several thousand and that four out of the famous Chinese “Six Companies” had their agents on the spot.
At first the gold-bearing dirt was hauled to a creek on the Sims Ranch or, still farther, to Six Bit Gulch and there sluiced out. When it was evident that this process was paying, the white miners edged in but the Chinese were too numerous and too well established to be displaced with impunity, so they worked together amicably enough. The American miners brought more efficient methods. After paying $15.00 a cartload to have dirt hauled to the creeks, they decided to dig ditches and promptly did so, bringing the water from Woods Creek. The miners’ meeting in Chinese Camp on September 17, 1850, which decided on the size of claims and laid down the rules, was one of the first in the Southern Mines. They then worked the diggings—lightly once over—with precision and dispatch and, after a few years, moved out.
The Chinese, who had calmly waited for this to happen, panned out the tailings and reaped a fair harvest from the gold which the rough and hasty methods of the Americans had wasted. They continued many years in the town as merchants, cooks and laundrymen after the main bulk of the miners had taken their departure, until finally but one Chinese remained, Chee Quat, a character affectionately regarded in the settlement, whose tiny cabin stood to the right of the school house at the foot of Rocky Hill.
During the lusty, swashbuckling first years of gold the town of Chinese Camp (never, at its best, monotonous) was greatly enlivened by a Tong War—a battle somewhat like a wholesale feud that took place between opposing clans or families of Chinese.
There were other Tong battles in the California mines, notably the famous encounter at Weaverville. Old-timers admit that these conflicts were fomented by drunken white miners who enjoyed the excitement of the foray. But, although the death rate was by no means in proportion to the mighty cacophony of yells, tinny clashings of hand-made swords, and scattering revolver shots, enough deaths resulted to make the admission embarrassing.
The Tong battle proudly claimed by Chinese Camp took place on September 26, 1856, in the meadow opposite Crimea House at the junction of the Mound Springs Road with the modern road to La Grange. It was caused by a dispute between two companies of Chinese who were mining at Two Mile Bar on the Stanislaus River; one company having rolled a boulder onto the claim of the other company and refused to move it. Very few men were involved at the outset but it ended with over a thousand. One account says 1200 on one side and 900 on the other. History tells us that the Chinese invented gunpowder, but the Orientals who came to the gold mines neither owned nor knew how to use fire arms. Their weapon was the knife. While light-heartedly planning their battle they beseiged the blacksmiths with orders for swords and spears which the smith (apparently just as happily) forged for them out of wagon tires or what not. When all was ready the embattled Celestials went tearing off in hysterical exultation and had a fine, impersonal, clattering fight.
Captain Ayres, a resident of Tuolumne County, told of the spectacle when the thousand or so Chinese, accompanied by most of the miners of the vicinity, left Chinese Camp on the four-mile journey to Crimea House. “There was no discipline nor order,” he wrote. “Everybody marched as he pleased or ran about hooting and shouting. Chinamen on horseback hovered around the flock and it looked like a band of cattle being driven. One man was killed, one wounded who was bayonetted. He was carried from the field as they carry a hog. His (pig) tail and heels tied to a pole.”3
After it was over and the accidentally deceased had had an elaborate Chinese funeral, the blacksmith with his helpers went out to the battlefield and collected the debris. George Egling stated that the swords and other weapons stayed in their scrap heap at the smithy until he sold them for old iron at the time of the first World War.
At one time Chinese Camp had three Joss houses in town, large structures filled with carvings and images covered with gold leaf — rich and surprisingly luxurious; but, by a strange contrast, provided with no floor but the hard-packed earth. Ghee Quat faithfully frequented the last of these.
The Chinese made industrious residents of the settlement, kept to themselves and took care of their own indigent—if any. The white merchants appreciated them as customers, for, although frugal, they were scrupulously honest. The only drawback seemed to be that dozens of them had the same name. There were so many called Lim, Chew, Hoy or Hong that it became simpler to describe them; so the records in the accounting books show: Blind Chinaman, Squint Eye, Lame One, Flat Nose and many more.
However, freely granting the fundamental honesty and industry of the man from China, a large Oriental quarter in a mining town did not add to its moral tone. They were quick to establish gambling shacks; to bring prostitutes into the settlement and to house them comfortably in accessible spots; to bring opium along as a matter of course and to sell it openly. In short, they had a good many of the less presentable proclivities of a modern Chicago gangster tucked away behind their fat bland faces. And, when approached with opprobrium by reform-minded citizens, did not under any condition worth mentioning speak English.
One good thing, the Chinese did not particularly care for their American neighbor’s whiskey nor for their morphine which was equally easy to purchase; but fortunately neither did the Anglo-Saxon care for their sickly and outlandish-smelling opium.
By 1852 or ’53 two small hotels had appeared in Chinese Camp, the Eagle under the proprietorship of Mr. O. Waltze and the Garrett Hotel and livery stable run by Hiram and Peter Garrett, the latter answering amiably to the local title of “Stovepipe Pete.” Other hotels, the Belvidere—H. Mattison, proprietor, and the El Dorado, owned by Ramon and Peacock, appeared in 1856. About the same year the Garrett Hotel was purchased by one of the most colorful characters to enter the Southern Mines, C. W. H. Solinsky; or, to give him his lawful title, Count Christian William Hugo Solinsky4 forced to leave Poland for fear of exile to Siberia.
He arrived in the United States in the middle 1830s; served as a lieutenant in the Mexican War and then came around the Horn, arriving in San Francisco about January of 1849 where he struck out immediately for the mines. By 1852 he was located in Chinese Camp where he and “Sol” M. Miller became agents for the Adam’s Express Co. When their employers failed they continued with the Pacific Express Co. and later, in 1857, Wells, Fargo & Company. They managed also a branch agency of Fretz & Ralston, San Francisco bankers, and shipped gold dust and nuggets. The partners remained in business together until 1870. According to a written statement by a son, William Solinsky, they had five offices located at Montezuma, Big Oak Flat, Camp Washington (Chinese Camp), Coulterville and Don Pedro Bar.
The same year, 1856, that Solinsky bought the Garrett Hotel, he married Mary Amelia Sprague and settled down to run a truly first class hostelry. As it became necessary he enlarged and improved his property. Next to the hotel was a building used as a dance hall. Eventually, to house the embarrassingly large number of guests, this property was purchased and divided into rooms by seven-foot partitions. By standing on a bed the occupant had a view at once comprehensive and uninterrupted. It was necessary to go into the hotel proper to wash. No provision was made for heating and the building was usually referred to as “the Morgue.” Garrett House became famous throughout the Mother Lode country and, its scrupulously upright host was favorably known over a wide area. Many persons of distinction were guests here before Solinsky’s death in 1896. Their names, including that of Sir Thomas Lipton, are recorded in the old register recently presented to the Sonora Museum.5
C. W. H. Solinsky’s daughter Margaret married Thomas Jackson, one of the drivers of the stage line passing through the town. In those early days the bachelor stage drivers were the catch of the community.
From the beginning the town maintained excellent stores. Mr. Buck (forerunner of Hedges and Buck of Stockton) managed a business there, as did also at various times, Thomas McAdams; the Gamble family; Brock and Blake; Wass, Veader and Cutler; C. O. Drew; Charles B. Cutting, and Mr. Rosenblohm. At least as early as 1850 the Walkerley Brothers, William and Martin, owned and operated a general store housed in a substantial brick building. A nephew and namesake, Martin Bacon, came from England at the age of seventeen; served in the Civil War and then came to Chinese Camp to help out in the business which he later took over. He married Mary Elizabeth Shepley, daughter of Robert Shepley who arrived in ’52 and took up land east of the town. Martin Bacon became a very active citizen, serving as a banker and also as treasurer for the Yosemite Turnpike Road Company when that organization was founded, but left the mountains about 1876 to go into the stock and bond business in San Francisco.
The store, founded by James and Pauline Morris, which developed into an institution in the town, began in a large adobe structure on Washington Street, but as the business section shifted and, probably, as Martin Bacon moved away they purchased Walkerley Brothers’ interests. James Morris founded a family greatly beloved throughout the Southern Mines. He was succeeded by his sons, Paul, Henry, George and Saul and by a daughter, Grace. To the last surviving son, Saul, now recently deceased, we are indebted for much of our detailed local information. “Our store was typical of the times,” he wrote, “with not much order and with mining supplies scattered all about. We carried everything from a needle to an anchor, even including fine imported china and glass from England, France and Bavaria. We prided ourselves on well-stocked shelves, often buying in carload lots which then had to be freighted from the railroad or from the Stockton boat levee. The books showed more than $250,000 in business. As a very young man I was deeply opposed to the railroad coming any closer because we all liked the teamsters and were afraid that they would lose their jobs. It was a misconception. The closer the railroads came, the more work they had.”
Blacksmith and wheelwright shops were vital to the life of the times. Louis Egling, a strapping young fellow of twenty-two just over from Germany began to shoe horses for the miners early in the history of the camp and is said to have founded his famous wheelwright shop in 1852. He specialized in the building of wagons, stages and freighters. The shop remained in active service until about 1920 and, after a century, occasional wagons made by Egling still may be found standing in the blackened and weather-beaten barns of the nearby towns and ranches. Louis married Emilie Krautter who had likewise come from Germany with the laudable intention of keeping house for her father in Big Oak Flat. Such good intentions seldom lasted in the early mountain towns where women were at a premium, but Emilie had plenty to do, as, after the hospitable custom of the times, out-of-town customers with blacksmith work to occupy a day or so moved into town with their families and stayed in the blacksmith’s home.
Egling kept several helpers busy. Six forges held heaps of red hot coals, blown to fury by bellows when extra heat was needed. Every object used in the shop was made by hand—horseshoes, nails, hammers, many of the implements in common use by the miners and farmers, wheelbarrows, picks, shovels, and the scythes which were used for harvesting to the exclusion of any other method. Even the truss rods of the Knight’s Ferry Bridge were turned out by this shop.
Recently the authors received a letter from Howard Egling, grandson of Louis, in which he states that the young John Studebaker, founder of the famous manufacturing company, makers of wagons and later of automobiles, worked in the Egling shop as a helper of such juvenile obscurity that his name apparently has not been remembered as a part of the history of Chinese Camp. From there John went north to the mining camp of Placerville where he became a partner in a firm “that could shoe a mustang or make a wagon.” He furnished the mechanical skill while his partners did the blacksmithing. In 1858 he returned to South Bend Indiana, where he helped to establish the beginnings of the Studebaker Company.6
In all of the data that came to him through his own father, Mr. Egling is corroborated by his uncle, George Egling of San Jose, only surviving son of Louis. It was his job on Saturdays, at the responsible age of eight, to wash the chimneys, trim the wicks and fill with kerosene all the lamps at the Garrett House. For this he received fifty cents.
Louis Egling had another helper, James Mecartea, who later branched out with a shop of his own in Chinese Camp which he ran until 1872 and then moved to Big Oak Flat. All but two of his thirteen children were born in Chinese Camp; his son James being probably the first white baby to appear on the scene.
As the placer mines were worked out the town gradually grew into an ordinary American trading center with a large Chinese quarter. It had a head start on the towns higher in the mountains and drew the trade of a large area. In the early ’60s many persons moved to California on account of the Civil War. The East suffered and the West prospered. Luxuries came in from China and the Orient. The families who had arrived early and were, by this time, well established built fine homes and often furnished them elegantly.
The town was sharply divided into two elements: Chinatown, peaceful and law-abiding in the main but with a fringe of rough hangers-on, and the families of merchants, doctors, lawyers and other professional men. In 1854 a school was built close to the site of the present one and here the small, pig-tailed sons of the Chinese residents played with the other boys, were taught to read by the teacher, Benjamin Butler, and hung around the blacksmith shop after school with the rest to watch the sparks fly and to see which of them could best stomach the nauseating smell of burned hair and hooves.
Two years after the Chinese Camp School appeared there were eight scattered schools in the county.
By the late ’50s there were several lodges in town, supported by the more far-seeing among the citizens. They were a steadying influence, furnishing focal points for gatherings among miners of the higher type and among those men who intended to remain and grow with the country.
There was also a Vigilance Committee.
At first the religious life of the people was cared for by traveling ministers and priests. Beginning in 1851 priests were allotted territory by Bishop Alemany from his headquarters in San Francisco. The one assigned to this section, Father Henry Aleric, lived in Sonora and visited the camps between Knight’s Ferry and Second Garrote, riding mule-back. These men of religion traveled untold dangerous miles on mule-back to hold services wherever they could find men gathered together. Reverend James Woods, a Presbyterian minister, wrote: “I have preached in churches, school houses, theaters, halls, gambling saloons, drinking saloons, and twice have preached funeral sermons in houses of ill fame. . ."7
Father Chan, a Chinese priest, is mentioned by Henry L. Walsh in his book, Hallowed Were the Gold Dust Trails. The Oriental was ordained in Rome and assigned to Chinese Camp for work among his fellow countrymen but did not meet with outstanding success and remained but a few years.
The Caucasian population in Chinese Camp was predominantly Catholic. The potato famine in 1848-49 caused thousands to emigrate from Ireland;8 the discovery of gold in California gave them an objective. Vessels carrying food and succor from the United States took the news of gold to Ireland and brought back many of the destitute who seem to have been more or less officially deported to the States, Australia and elsewhere. These newcomers provided a strong motivating force for the establishment of churches by bringing to the gold towns respectable family women in sufficient numbers to insist upon places of worship. By 1855 beautiful little St. Xavier Church was built on a knoll beside the present highway. It has been restored and is still in use. Most of the early wooden markers in the adjoining cemetery have long since fallen and rotted or have burned.
Later, during the Civil War, the Chinese Camp Military Company was formed under Captain W. H. Utter and named the “Tuolumne Volunteers.” On its roster were some of the leading citizens. Armory Hall was built in 1861.
As Chinese Camp grew and gathered the trade of outlying mining communities and ranches, roads became of paramount importance—wagon roads to replace pack trails. An act of the Legislature, approved May 12, 1853, made it possible to form a joint stock company for the purpose of constructing “plank and turnpike roads” in the counties of Tuolumne and Mariposa.
It was possible, yes. But for some years little was done about it. Still the roads continued to improve without any legal procedure. Miners widened Indian trails to permit passage of laden pack mules; merchants encouraged road-work enabling the much needed freight wagons to pass thus allowing them to buy in larger quantities and to reduce the exorbitant prices; private individuals constructed sections of road useful to themselves, personally.9
By 1853 conditions had improved to the extent that stages now passed between Chinese Camp and Sonora every two or three hours.
The town, naturally, had grown and prospered but growth did not always mean improvement in the mines. Along with the sterling citizens came the riffraff of the world. They seldom worked. It was easier to hold up a miner and take his gold than to obtain it lawfully. Chinese Camp, being the first large settlement above the foothills, acquired a wagon road early and had her fair share of bandits and road-agents of all kinds.
In December of 1852 the Sonora Union Democrat told the story of two of these unwelcome “bad-men” who viciously attacked a livery stable proprietor. They were apprehended quickly and put in jail. That same night a bell rang once to collect the citizens who took them from their cell and hanged them without much formality from a nearby tree.10 This was considered only fair to the town’s respectable element. Other settlements along the Big Oak Flat Road won notoriety by hangings of this nature, but the lynching in Chinese Camp is seldom mentioned.
For the most part, the bandits of the vicinity were unglamorous, cold-hearted killers, stopping solitary travelers and often leaving the bodies where they fell without so much as dragging them off the road. If they could put a day’s ride between themselves and retribution they felt quite safe. Especially they picked on Chinese victims as offering even less chance for an unpleasant aftermath. References to such sordid characters will appear now and then as this history of the Big Oak Flat Road unfolds but, right now while probing into the past of Chinese Camp, we may as well touch on the two rather “different” bad men of whom old-timers of the vicinity speak almost with affection: Joaquín Murieta and Black Bart.
This is not the life story of either one. If such a chronicle interests you, you can’t do better than to read Bad Company, by Joseph Henry Jackson. But their lives did touch the community and, by the contact, managed to add color, spice and gossip interest to its history.
Joaquín Murieta was a Mexican of pleasant manners and superior bearing. His adventures in the Southern Mines took place between 1850 and 1853 and, by some strange alchemy, time and the legends of the gold camps have altered their base metal to something rather precious in the memories of the old-timers. No one living now remembers him but some have heard of him from their parents; from their fathers of his occasional appearances in town; from their mothers of his courtly manners and old-world fashion of bowing from the waist.
Those who have done extensive research on the life of this man, tell us that the name served as a peg on which to hang the exploits of several different bandits, all claiming the name Joaquín. No doubt they are right. We give only the simple statements that have come down from father to son, and, of those, only the ones they will put in writing and sign.
From George Egling, son of Louis Egling, blacksmith of Chinese Camp, and from Eugene and Austin, sons of his helper, James Mecartea, we get the statement that a man who said he was Murieta and for that reason demanded, and got, instant service, came more than once to the smithy with several mounted men and had emergency horse-shoeing done. He came quite openly but was in a hurry to be gone. He always paid lavishly.
From Robert Curtin, son of John Curtin, we get the account of Murieta riding out of the shrubbery to stop a Cloudman freighting outfit; selecting the best horse with a shrewd eye and causing it to be taken from the team and put under the saddle from his spent animal. For this he paid far above its value and rode on.
This man who rode openly but hurriedly and was always attended by other mounted men, gave his name unhesitatingly and was known by sight to many in Tuolumne County especially around Sonora, Sawmill Flat, Chinese Camp and Moccasin Creek which he habitually passed on his way to a hangout at Marsh’s Flat. We have never met anyone who claimed to know anything about his family, nor have we met anyone with an especially detrimental incident to recount. It was too bad, everyone felt, that he was on the wrong side of the law but even so his entertainment value was enormous.
When his outlawry finally came to its logical conclusion and a posse caught up with him near modern Coalinga a battle took place. His head was severed from his body for identification purposes, as was the hand of his companion Three Fingered Jack. Among the men of the posse who knew Murieta by sight were William Byrnes of Columbia, George S. Evans of Sonora and T. T. Howard who lived on a ranch in Mariposa County. The head, not too sightly after several hot days in a saddle bag, was then positively identified by Caleb Dorsey, a lawyer and prominent citizen of Sonora.11 To the end of a long life Mr. Howard told the incident and insisted that the head belonged to the leader of the outlaw riders who had haunted the Sonora-Chinese Camp portion of the Southern Mines. The prevalent and persistent story that the wrong man had been killed and decapitated sprang (so these men maintained) from the fact that the original posse had split and over half had followed an objector who insisted that Joaquín Murieta had gone north. Captain Love, in command of the posse, had held fast to the idea that Murieta would head for Mexico. He and his men tracked down and killed their familiar Tuolumne County outlaw; collected the reward and were gratified to note later that he had indeed vanished from their midst.12
Probably there was another Joaquín. The chances are excellent that he had gone north. One faction said that the objectionable head (by this time preserved in alcohol) should have had brown hair instead of black. The large Mexican population which had founded and named Sonora followed their spokesman and agreed. Mr. Howard and Mr. Dorsey always insisted that this was partly because they had no love for the Americans—nor had, indeed, any reason to love them—and would not admit that their fellow countryman had been brought low; but it is quite possible that they had only known the brown-haired Joaquín.
Whether or not the original owner of the head was the true Joaquín Murieta, he had publicly accepted the title and with it the blame that was inseparable from it; he died the death that was appropriate to the name and Murieta he will always be to the folks along the Big Oak Flat Road.
Of much later date was the second bad man in whom Tuolumne County claims an interest. His twenty-eight holdups extended from 1875 to 1883.
Black Bart, sometimes known in private life as Charles Bolton, was a natty-looking gentleman, preceded by a mustache and wearing a bowler hat and three-quarter length coat with a velvet collar. So slick was Mr. Bolton that he probably kept his Prince Albert on his person with glue. He represented perfectly a respectable business man or even a clergyman. Apparently he used no horse, but always paid his way into the mountains on the stage, cheered by the thought that he would get it all back on the morrow. He did not carry a loaded gun, and trusted for security to the fact that no one saw his face during hold-ups and to his utter respectability at other times. His mask was a sort of pillow case with eye-holes, inside of which he continued to wear the bowler hat presumably to add to his height and to tempt a possible recalcitrant holdup-ee to aim too high.
There was another reason for the long continued immunity from the normal results of his transgressions. Black Bart’s ability to travel fast on foot and his habit of turning up within twenty-four hours at an unconscionable distance from the scene of the robbery prevented the suspicions of any one from turning in his direction. Meanwhile, to all but his victims he offered no end of pleasurable excitement. Where would he strike next? How much gold would he make away with? Would he ever hurt any one? But this latter he never did.
In his guise of respectability he was a somewhat familiar figure at the stage stops between Stockton and Sonora. Robert Curtin remembers him leisurely pacing up and down on the porch of their home at Cloudman, stretching his legs as he waited for the stage to go on. Never drinking as did most of the men; never smoking; just cheerfully passing the time of day and then effacing himself. Saul Morris remembers him as sauntering into his father’s store at Chinese Camp while the horses were being changed; remembers that he always bought candy.
After he was apprehended and his picture was in all the papers they knew whom they had seen.
Robert Curtin adds a couple of interesting anecdotes to the story of Black Bart’s last, or 28th, hold-up: “In early staging days,” wrote Mr. Curtin, “the express was carried loose in the stage except for a wooden box with a heavy padlock for jewelry and papers and an iron box in which was gold dust, bullion or money for the payroll for some mine. A road agent simply had the boxes thrown out and ordered the stage to drive on. But the stage company soon devised a plan whereby the iron box was bolted to the floor of the stage. After that the highwayman ordered the driver to unhitch the horses and drive them up the road leaving the stage behind so that he might be free to knock the box apart. When Bart robbed the stage on Funk Hill he ordered the driver, whom I knew, to unhitch the horses and to go up the road with them. In no time he had hammered the box open and disappeared but not before a young lad who was hunting had taken a shot at him and wounded him in the hand, causing him to lose a handkerchief.
“This was his last robbery and, in the days before his capture, it was the talk of everyone in these parts that the famous Black Bart must be a stage driver or hostler familiar with stages, for he had cut a length of scantling that exactly fitted between the ground and the bottom of the stage. This he wedged under the spot where the iron box was bolted and thus had a firm foundation on which to hammer it apart. Otherwise it would have crashed through the floor boards before it would have opened.”
Eventually he turned up, smug and respectable, at his San Francisco lodging—a middle-aged unpretentious man who had been away on business. The story of his apprehension by means of a laundry mark on the lost handkerchief is well known.
We quote again from Mr. Curtin: “He served but a short term in San Quentin, helped by the fact that he had never fired a shot or bodily harmed any person. I saw him in the streets of San Francisco several times after his release in 1888 but, as I was in the uniform of a police officer, he never gave me recognition. As far as I know he was never seen after the great fire and earthquake of ’06.”
By the late seventies the settlement of Chinese Camp had completely evolved from a riotous mining camp into a reasonably staid family town with all of the comforts and many of the luxuries obtainable at the time. It, in common with most of the mountain towns, had been practically demolished by fire more than once but, for the most part, was rebuilt of more durable materials, the native schist rock slabs held together by lime mortar being more popular than expensive brick. Population was decreasing steadily. Mining, except in a few large quartz mines, was a thing of the past and men had left for the lumber camps.
Prior to 1856 a “female seminary” or, in other words, a private school for girls was conducted in his home by Allen T. Bartlett, a Presbyterian minister. It was located near the Shepley Ranch of those days and not far from the W. E. Menke residence southeast of town. A book of the verses of Thomas Moore still exists which was given as a prize by this institution to Mary Elizabeth Shepley at the age of eleven. Prosperous families preferred to have their daughters educated away from the rough elements in the camp.
The town, or at least that portion of it which held meetings and formed policies, was now almost belligerently right-minded. A maiden could flutter a flounce along Main Street without seeing (more than maybe two or three times a week) anything to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of youth.
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Coming in from Six Bit Gulch one enters the town of Chinese Camp by way of Webster Street. An orchard spreads to the right. On the left is the site of Egling’s wheelwright and paint shops. On Washington Street the house on the southeast side behind a picket fence was built by Judge Abraham Halsey and later was the home of Louis and Emilie Egling and is the oldest dwelling in town. The original portion is in the rear and the timber used was brought around the Horn. Lumber had become so scarce in the early ’50s that the partitions were tailored economically from a white cotton material called “drill.” Afterward came the luxury of wallpaper—simply pasted to either side of the drill where it added a certain stiffening but very little else.
With the years have come major improvements but Mrs. N. R. Turner who now occupies the house says that the enormous fig trees date back to the Egling occupancy.
“The Garrett House stables were up Washington Street a little ways, on the right side,” she explained, “but the Garrett House itself faced on Main Street—that’s the next one over, so the stables were right in back of it. There’s a little alley all covered with trees that led from the stables to where the hotel stood. You see, almost everything in this town has burned down at one time or another, so many of the famous old buildings are gone. Chinatown was at the west end of town, below Webster.”
Main Street, from Webster to the highway provides the most fascinating block in Chinese Camp. Unfortunately, the Morris store, purchased from Walkerley Brothers, vanished long since. In the ’90s it held the Wells, Fargo & Company’s office. Here young George Morris, resisting a bandit, baptized the records with his blood and brains so that one of their old account books was burned for that reason and is lost to history. The Wells, Fargo & Company Museum in San Francisco shows an old-fashioned iron shutter punctured by a bullet fired in this encounter.
Fandango Frank’s still stands. Fandango House was full of “cribs” and “fancy women” and boasted both a saloon and a dance hall. The Rosenblohm store, built in 1851, still boasts its strong iron doors. It is constructed of rock with a wooden top. The brick front was added later. Its genteel coat of whitewash is peeling off into the tall weeds.
Next to Fandango House is a ruined wall—all that remains of the three-storied Fred Weir brewery that ran clear through the block to Washington Street. On the wall is a painted sign, “Levi Strauss.” It is barely decipherable, almost covered with the feathery branches of tree of heaven. The sign was intended merely as an announcement that Levi Strauss overalls were a staple in the mountains but it served to remind us of a story prevalent in the Southern Mines: A miner, disgusted with his inability to keep work pants from ripping, finally took those unmentionables to a shoemaker in the town of Coulterville and asked him if there was no way to keep seams from tearing out at the end. Levi Strauss, then a young man, was much interested when the cobbler experimented by putting in a rivet. The result of this small incident is known to all wearers of workmen’s clothes and even to our children who wear the blue riveted overalls. Several variations of this basic story may be heard.
An adobe store originally owned by a Mr. Cutler and later purchased by C. B. Cutting was across Main Street, roughly opposite the brewery; then, still on the north side comes the attractive home of Mrs. Fox which was originally built in Montezuma and moved to its present location. After the death of Count Solinsky the Fox family took over the management of the Garrett House and it was during their regime that it burned. The town’s physician, Dr. R. M. Lampson, who arrived in 1870 to succeed Dr. Benj. L. Conyers, had served previously at Montezuma. Like most mountain physicians he was respected, loved and overworked. There was no doctor between Chinese Camp and Yosemite and, in case of serious illness, Dr. Lampson’s little buggy traveled to the most remote portions along the Big Oak Flat Road.
The present post office is in good repair, made of stone with a brick front. Its narrow flat porch is also the sidewalk. The ubiquitous, modern corrugated iron forms its roof, but the heavy iron shutters are old and are the authentic insignia of the early mining town where the threat and the fear of fire was always oppressive during the dry season. It was at one time the Thomas McAdam’s store. The building is dark and cool and is presided over, as postmistress, by the granddaughter of Charles B. Cutting.
Nearly opposite the post office is a lonely stone wall which marks the property of the early Wells, Fargo & Company’s office run by Solinsky and Sol Miller. We know that it was in operation as early as 1857. Almost every large mining town had such an office and, in the days when honesty was no longer an expected quality, when “Sidney Ducks” from Australia and slick confidence men from all over the world infested the towns and road-agents terrorized the thoroughfares, Wells, Fargo & Company with its promise of armed guards and at least an attempt at security for the gold dust en route to San Francisco banks or to the family at home, was a name by which to conjure.
In later years this was the site of the Nonpareil Saloon Building operated by J. A. Cogswell and M. K. Graham. On the second floor was the Masonic Hall.
East of the remaining wall of the Wells, Fargo & Company’s Building is the tiny passageway known as Solinsky Alley, connecting Main Street with Washington. At first it is almost hidden by tree of heaven but breaks through to sunlight and glistening wild oats as it nears the end of its course. The alley separated Solinsky’s express office from his especial pride, the Garrett House. Nothing remains of the latter but the cellar and foundations, smothered in feathery branches. It is impossible to form any idea of this gold-town hostelry—the acme of elegance for its time and place. Saul Morris told that the bricks of which it was constructed chanced to be made from gold-flecked clay and were often defaced by exploring pen knives.13
The Odd Fellows’ Building has long been used as a home by Dr. and Mrs. D. E. Stratton. He was, in the early 1900s, physician and surgeon for the Eagle-Shawmut Mine. In what is now their garden stood the home of C. O. Drew, pioneer cattleman and his wife, Maria, daughter of Albert Snow, well-known hotel man of Yosemite. Mrs. Stratton is a daughter of Charles B. Cutting, and Helen Anthony Cutting of Farmington. He was active in his day in the construction of the Big Oak Flat Road. She readily gave her memories of the town which were, of course, of its later period. She told of the feeble remainder of the once prosperous Chinese quarter and of its final disappearance; of the beautiful Chinese girl, Yung Ida, born in the Camp, who was sold for $3000 and taken across the Pacific by her purchaser to China which she had never seen; of “Duck Mary” who came as a slave girl aged eleven and who spent her old age raising the fowl for which she was named and was usually followed about her tiny place by a waddling procession of fat ducks. She was 85 when the last of the Chinese went back to China; cried bitterly and begged to stay but there was no one who could keep her and she went with the rest. Ah Chee was still able-bodied and remained in his little cabin on the hill near the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery. There was no way, after the exodus, that the old Chinese could get his customary opium and Dr. Stratton, out of humanity undertook to break him gradually from the habit. Often, on returning from a hard day’s round of visits Ah Chee would be found waiting with his customary plea, “Please give me some wind in my head,” whereupon the good doctor doled out a slight breeze.
“Mecartea’s blacksmith shop used to be on the opposite corner,” Mrs. Stratton said, “right next to the historical marker. And I think that Sol Miller had what was probably the most pretentious house in town. It was on a knoll at the corner of Washington Street and Highway 120, where the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery is now. It burned in one of the big fires. We had four cemeteries here,” she continued. “The Catholics buried their dead in the churchyard at Saint Xavier’s. The Protestant, or City Cemetery, was just north of it on the east side of the highway. Count Solinsky was buried in the City Cemetery. His grave is boxed up and easy to find but most of the headstones were wooden slabs carved with the name and date and the fires destroyed almost all. Quite a few had small shallow niches gouged out into which were fitted tintypes of the deceased. A piece of shaped zinc, flush with the surface of the picture, pivoted on a nail so that it could be swung up, exposing the tintype, and then allowed to fall back over it to protect it from the weather. As children we used to wander from one headstone to another looking at the faces, making up stories about them and covering them up again. It was a strange art gallery.”
We have since found this appropriate sentiment in “Ballou’s Pictorial,” dated August 25, 1855, and published in Boston: “Gravestones are now being prepared with daguerreotypes of the deceased set in marble. The idea, says a New Hampshire paper, is poetic, and if generally adopted, would make living galleries, through which the eye would delight to wander.”
Mrs. Stratton finished a running commentary on the landmarks of her neighborhood. “There was a last and terrible fire in the ’90s,” she said. “The town was so depleted in population that it was never properly rebuilt and is only a fraction of what it once was, but we who live here love it.”
Before leaving the town, a continuation of Main Street across Highway 120 will lead to the knoll where Saint Xavier’s white steeple points upward and the cross-topped gravestones of old and revered residents remind one that the most exciting portion of Chinese Camp’s Century of Progress was its beginning.
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