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Ghost Mines of Yosemite (1958) by Douglass Hubbard


“LYING JIM” TOWNSEND
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“LYING JIM” TOWNSEND

5. ELOQUENT EDITOR

THE STORY of the Tioga mines would have been veiled in obscurity had it not been for the help of “Lying Jim” Townsend and one or two other of the mining camp newspaper editors. At a time when almost everyone was busy making history, these few were recording it. Gold town newspaper editors were a peculiar breed and those at Lundy were no exception. They had to operate under the most difficult of conditions and be ready to move type, press, and paper with the mining booms. They could be soft: one scribe was constantly championing the large trees around Lundy Lake which he thought were being felled at an alarming rate. Or they could be hard: “We have taken hold of the Index for the purpose of making a living. We are not here for our health. We expect that every man who makes his living in the district will assist this paper to some extent.’” 8

One of the most fabulous of these early editors, James W. E. Townsend, was known as “Lying Jim” to friend and foe alike.

Townsend may or may not have been the inspiration for Bret Harte’s “Truthful James” and there is no way of knowing how many stories Mark Twain may have swiped from him, but there is no doubt that the Homer Mining Index, of which he was sometime editor, was one of the best of the gold camp weeklies. Lundy was nestled against the east face of the Sierra Nevada some five miles west of Mono Lake. From here the Index was in a position to publish events of such nearby towns as Bodie and Aurora, in addition to its own news. It is practically the only remaining record of the excitement which took place in the Tioga Mining District, along the crest of the Serra, in the late 1870’s and 1880’s.

Jim turned out good copy, but he was not above inserting a yarn of questionable veracity now and then to liven things up a bit. His philosophy may have exposed itself when he remarked in an Index column, “It requires inventive genius to pick up local news here now. The scribe has to trust to his imagination for facts and to his memory for things which never occurred.” 9

Townsend must have been a character worth knowing. His influence upon other members of his profession in a time of dog-eat-dog was considerable. No little space was devoted to his escapades by other editors, even in papers with which he was not connected. The Virginia Chronicle (Virginia City, Nevada) in May 1882 carried the story of Townsend’s remarkable career:

James W. E. Townsend the gentleman who is making the local department of the Reno Gazette sparkle these days has led a remarkable life. From information imparted by him to his friends while he lived on the Comstock, we learn that he was born in Patagonia, his mother, a noble English lady, having been cast ashore after the wreck of her husband’s yacht, in which they were making a pleasure trip around the globe. She was the only person saved. After the birth of her son, and September having arrived (there being an “r” in that month) she was killed and eaten. Jim was saved out as a small stake and was played until his twelfth year against the best grub at the command of the savage tribe for fattening purposes. Then he escaped on a log, which he paddled through the Straits of Magellan with his hands, and was picketd up by a whaler and taken to New Bedford. At the age of 18 he entered the Methodist ministry and preached with glorious results for ten years, when he went to the Sandwich Islands as a missionary to the Kanaka heathen, and remained for twenty years. Then he reformed and returned to New York and opened a saloon, which he ran succesfully and made a large fortune. In an evil hour for himself, but to the world’s advantage, he tried his hand at journalism. Fifteen years of this reduced him once more to poverty and preaching. For thirty years longer Mr.

Homer Mining Index (newspaper)
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Townsend occupied the pulpit, when he went back to the saloon business, after eighteen years of industrious drinking on the part of the public he brought his wealth to the Pacific Coast. This was in 1849. For several years Mr. Townsend ran simultaneously eight saloons, five newspapers and an immense cattle ranch in various parts of the Golden State. In 1859 the enterprising gentleman was suddenly afflicted with a disease which for many months compelled him to lie on his back in one position. This misfortune was, with the cruel levity of those rough days, turned to account by his acquaintances, who dubbed him “Lying Jim” Townsend, and ever since the sobriquet has stuck to him. For the last decade he has devoted himself to journalism and is, of course, once more poor. Some of his friends who are of a mathematical turn have ascertained from data furnished them by Mr. Townsend in various conversations the remarkable fact that he is 384 years old. Nothwithstanding his great age, however, the gentleman still writes with the vigor of youth, and his shrewd humor is making for the Gazette more than a local reputation.10

In addition to his writing ability Townsend’s inventive genius was displayed in several arrastras (ore-crushers) which he constructed. Praising one of them the Index stated:

The arrastra is constructed on the most scientific methods, illustrating Jim’s aptitude for mechanics, which is only excelled by his capacity for whiskey, which is simply unlimited.11

His flying machine also brought him fame, many years before the Wright brothers flew theirs at Kittyhawk:

Jim Townsend . . . left the Index all set up and printed full of local news three weeks ahead, and is here to look after his flying machine, one of the greatest inventions of the age, surpassing anything in line of perpetual motion ever talked of. In order to bring it to a standstill after getting it once started one has to begin stopping it six hours before starting it.12

LUNDY, HOME OF THE HOMER MINING INDEX, DATE AND CELEBRATION UNKNOWN
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LUNDY, HOME OF THE HOMER MINING INDEX, DATE AND CELEBRATION UNKNOWN


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