Spending a winter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is not always the
idyllic snowy slice of life pictured on a postcard or a Christmas
greeting. True, the mountains are lovely when covered by a fresh
blanket of snow, and the trees are at their most beautiful when they
are freshly flocked. The air is crisp and clean and the cold mountain
wind turns the sky a deep blue. Lovely, absolutely lovely; and that’s
why so many people come to the mountains in the winter to have some
fun. But in these modern times most of those people come only to play,
and they stay for usually just a few days - to play in the snow; to
ski in the fresh powder; to sit by the fire in the lodge sipping
Peppermint Schnapps or get hammered on Irish Coffees. It’s fun because
they don’t really have to live in the mountains for the winter. But
for those who actually live at high elevation in the Sierra Nevada
Mountains all year long it can be just a little more difficult, even
in the years of light winters. And in the heavy winters it can
severely try the fortitude of the strongest of souls – waiting for the
roads to get plowed; laying on your back in the slush and putting on
tire chains with frozen fingers; sliding down a steep road and
spinning through an icy patch you didn’t quite see in time; trying to
find your way home through a wall of drifting white flakes that can be
hypnotizing. It can make you a little frustrated.
Snow - it can make you a little crazy.
And yet, difficult as it can be, it’s really nothing compared to what
people experienced in Sierra Nevada winters a century and a half ago.
Just ask the Donner Party. Oh, wait – you can’t. They’re too busy
eating each other.
So, how did people pass the days, the weeks, the months during the
winters in the Sierras in the eighteen hundreds? Well, there weren’t
nearly as many people in California back then, and skiing wasn’t yet a
destination sport which brought people up here – although,
interestingly, one small mining town in the northern Sierras is
credited with being the birthplace of that particular sport back in
the 1860’s. So, without tourism, the individuals who stayed in the
mountains all winter back then were mostly those who worked here, and
the most common professions were those of mining, logging, hunting,
If you were a logger, then your employers would keep you busy cutting
trees and dragging them to the mills until the snow got deep enough to
keep the donkey engines from running or until the flumes froze over.
Then they would move their operations to lower elevations if they had
any timber rights down there. Otherwise you were out of work until the
snow melted in May or June and would most likely spend the winter in
one of the valley towns, rubbing elbows with farmers and hearing of
the latest plans for a new church or museum and generally going slowly
crazy. If you were a hunter then you’d probably keep on working in the
mountains all winter long. The big game of deer and bear would be just
a plentiful. And if you were a trapper you’d also keep at it all
winter, because a winter trap line could yield just as many fur pelts
as during the summer. Except, in the winter, you’d end up wearing more
of those furs to keep warm. But, compared to the Rockies, there were
relatively few trappers here.
And if you were a miner?
The miners were the ones who had come to the Sierras to get rich, so
they comprised the majority of those who stuck it out all winter long.
Most of the large streams and all of the major rivers flowed all
winter long without freezing, so panning for gold could take place
just as easily on Christmas Day as it could on the Fourth of July. If
you were a gold digger instead of a gold panner, then as long as you
already had your hole in the ground - your mine shaft - then you could
continue to pick away at the veins of ore in dry comfort all winter as
long as you kept the opening to the mine shoveled free of snow. And
since miners had come here to get rich they weren’t about to abandon –
even temporarily – any spot which showed some promise, because it was
a certainty that someone else would move in on their claim before
their footsteps had even faded away. So the logistics of mining
allowed – even demanded - that it be practiced all of the winter,
except for those times when heavy snow was actually falling heavily
and accumulating quickly.
So, what about those times when the snow was falling heavily, and
accumulating quickly, and building walls of heavy white snowdrifts
around them faster than they could shovel? What did the miners do
then? Miners were different in this respect; different from hunters,
or trappers, or loggers. Miners tended to form large communities; they
constructed buildings; they built towns. And these towns consisted of
not only shelters from the snow - homes in which they could stay away
from the ravages of winter in relative comfort, but also of numerous
places of entertainment so that there was a handy distraction from the
Sierra Winter which usually lasted at least half of the year; places
like saloons, and gambling halls, and houses of ill repute. (Actually,
‘ill repute’ is a more modern term. Back in those days such houses
were of the best repute possible.) So, with a pouch of freshly panned
gold to spend and all of these varieties of entertainment close at
hand to spend it on, life didn’t have to be either boring or
confining. There was no need to eat your neighbor.
But that didn’t mean that everyone got along. Quite the contrary.
Winter still managed to get to people; to drive them a little crazy.
In fact, a perusal of local newspapers from the time reveals more than
a few interesting tales, and the mining town of Rabbit Creek might
perhaps offer a typical cross section of Winter Life in a Sierra
Nevada mountain mining town.
The town of Rabbit Creek in the northern Sierras had some particularly
harsh winters in the 1850’s. The roads would become impassable beneath
the heavy layer of snow, and prices for food would climb sharply as
supplies dwindled. In the winter of 1853 flour and coffee both climbed
to fifty cents per pound, sugar was close behind at forty-five cents
per pound, and butter reached the status of a luxury food at one
dollar per pound – that would be about forty dollars per pound in
today’s dollars. Pork got as high as sixty-five cents per pound and
beef reached fifty cents, although beef soon became so scarce that it
wasn’t to be found at any price. So perhaps the cost of eating as well
as the deep isolation brought by the snow were at least partially to
blame for several unusual deaths during those snowbound times.
In 1853, just as the cold was settling in for the winter, a man named
Jenkins was killed in Rabbit Creek under confusing circumstances, hit
and crushed by a falling tree. The papers seemed uncertain as to
whether he intended to have the tree fall on him because he had grown
maudlin or if he was merely slow in getting out of the way, and they
did not pass judgement. At about the same time another unresolved
death occurred when a man shot and killed himself. It may have been
suicide, but newspaper reports tended toward instead blaming him with
stupidity and carelessness. And then in October of 1853 a murder –
there was no doubt about this one – took place. A Mr. Henry Smith was
boarding at the house of Mr. Harlow. As the snow had not gotten too
deep yet Harlow asked his tenant to accompany him on a firewood
cutting expedition, and the two men set out, axes in hand. A few hours
later Thomas Tregaskis walked by their woodpile and noticed parts of
Smith protruding from underneath a pile of brush. Harlow was seated on
a log nearby with an axe in his hand and asked Tregaskis to stop and
visit for a while, but Tregaskis was a bit wary and pretended that he
had to hurry on. He took one look at the axe in Harlow’s hand and
quickly took off for town to report a murder. When an eager group of
townsmen soon reappeared on the scene they found Smith’s body with
multiple head wounds – just like those made by an axe. Harlow had
disappeared. He was later arrested in San Francisco, taken back up to
the mountains, tried, and hung. Newspaper accounts hinted at an affair
between Smith and Mrs. Harlow. Women were, after all, a scarce
commodity in the mining towns, and perhaps the onset of snow had made
all three of them a bit edgy; a little crazy.
In early October of 1856, also in Rabbit Creek and just at the onset
of winter, a Mr. C. Stockman was shot and killed by a man named Betts.
It seemed that Mr. Betts was being entertained by a female employee of
the Pontoosue House of Rabbit Creek when Stockman pounded on the door
of their room, demanding his turn. When there was no answer Stockman
broke the door down and angrily yelled at the couple in bed. Betts
drew his gun – we don’t know from where exactly he drew it, but it can
be safely assumed that he wasn’t wearing it – and shot Stockman,
killing him. Betts then finished doing what he had paid for, got
dressed, and left town. When he was tried for murder several months
later he was acquitted. The jury sympathized with Betts’ anger at
having the amorous mood of the moment interrupted by Stockman and it
was found to be a justifiable homicide.
Stockman should have shown more patience.
Later that same winter in Rabbit Creek a traveling soda-water salesman
by the name of John Rousch committed suicide by drinking a bottle or
laudanum. A California paper wrote “… finding himself despondent and a
prey to dissipation and gambling and not having the moral strength to
conquer those demons he concluded to launch his frail life into the
untried waters of death.”
Of course he was despondent – he was a soda-water salesman in a mining
town, for god’s sake; trying to peddle bubbling water in a town where
whiskey was the drink of choice and where water was used only for
washing – and even then only rarely. He should have known that he
wouldn’t have been able to even give soda water away, much less sell
it. Yet the newspaper account does make one long for the days when a
newspaper reporter had the linguistic talent to be both poetic and
judgmental at the same time.
Also in 1857 – a statistically rough winter for the people of that
town – a notorious murder/suicide took place. On the 26th of April a
man named Harry Yates decided that he would propose to the woman of
his dreams, Miss Caroline Young. His overtures throughout the winter
had not elicited quite the excitement he had hoped, and with the
promise of Spring in the air Mr. Yates apparently felt that now was
the time to plan for that Big June Wedding. So off he went to her home
– she was living with her sister and sister’s husband – and was
quietly ushered into the sitting room where he proceeded to ask for
her hand in marriage in a tone of sincere affection yet naïve
hopefulness. But if Miss Young had failed to make her lack of interest
plain in the previous months she certainly did not fail to do so now.
In fact, she was so articulate in her dismissal of Yates that he drew
a pistol and shot her, killing her where she stood. Then, apparently
realizing that the much longed for June wedding was now probably out
of the question and that he would soon be captured and hung, he put
the pistol to his own throat and shot himself, then laid down beside
the body of his beloved to die. When death didn’t come quickly enough
and he apparently heard approaching footsteps, he drew a second pistol
from his pocket and shot himself in the head. This time he got it
Those were the days when a suitor could comfortably bring a pistol or
two to the proposal, just in case things went awry.
In 1857 the people of Rabbit Creek got tired of the town’s name and
voted to change it to La Porte. Perhaps they felt that giving the
community a more pretentious French-sounding name would make the town
a more desirable community than one named after a wet bunny. Or
perhaps they felt it might change the local karma and stem the flow of
corpses to Boot Hill. It did neither, and the miners eventually
drifted away from the town as soon as the veins of ore ran out and
there was nothing left to mine. There are 26 people in La Porte now,
down from the thousands who spent the winter there in the mid-eighteen
hundreds when there was still gold. But there hasn’t been a murder
there for many, many years.
One might think that living through Sierra winters in modern times
would be much easier because of paved roads, electricity, and
telephone service. But the paved roads are often lying beneath a sheet
of ice while the electricity and telephone connections often flicker
and die beneath the weight of the snow, leaving us in conditions
approaching those of the 1850's. So, next time the winter snow starts
driving you crazy and you find yourself wishing for a saloon or other
House of Entertainment nearby, just remind yourself that if one were
close at hand, some other lonely mountain person might see your
irresistible well-groomed good-looking self and fall head over heels
for you and make you an offer you couldn’t refuse. With a gun,
perhaps, to prevent rejection.
And next time you pop a frozen Hungry Man meal into the oven for
dinner because the roads are too icy for you to drive to town to get
fresh food, look on the bright side – at least you’re not eyeing your
neighbor as a potential meal and looking through the cookbooks for
just the right recipe for Leg of Sam.
But remember – when washing that meal down, whatever it might be,
whiskey is still the beverage of choice; not soda water. There’s no
reason for anyone to go that crazy.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
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