A mirror can be a fickle friend, sometimes making you feel good or
sometimes bad; sometimes illuminating every corner around you while at
other times leaving you wrapped in shadow; and sometimes showing
something behind you which you didn’t know was there – behind you in
the room, or – if you have the right mirror - behind you in Time.
There is just such a mirror here in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; a
real mirror made of glass and framed in wood; and, if it approves of
your curious gaze and senses a sympathetic soul, it will perhaps open
for a moment and let you glimpse back in time.
To get into the mood for this story, let’s say that you just got home
from work. You’re worn out, and wonder what that job is all about as
the first thing to greet your arrival home is a pile of junk mail and
bills. You remove your coat and shoes, and pause to look in the hall
mirror as you pass, then wonder why you even have that mirror there
because it only makes you look as bad as you feel, while that sheaf of
bills in your hand somehow appears much larger than it should. You
toss the bills into a pile on the table and begin to wonder which form
of alcohol might best suit your mood of frustration.
Mirrors are strange that way – they sometimes bend what we think is real.
You are, perhaps, one of those slightly dissatisfied individuals who
finds yourself feeling unsettled by modern society; the crowds of
people, the babble of electronic noise, the never-ending hamster wheel
of income and debt which has become the cycle of modern life, and it’s
leaving you running on empty. You feel increasingly left out of
society and all it has to offer because you’ve paused for a moment on
that hamster wheel and had the audacity to question how you got there.
You’re one of those fringe-types who feels that maybe you would have
been more comfortable had you been born a century or two in the past,
into a time when life and all its cares were of a simpler nature.
You’re thinking that maybe you should just get off that hamster wheel
for good and move to the mountains to get away from it all. So you
turn off all the lights in the house save one for reading, light a
fire in the fireplace, and settle into your favorite comfortable chair
with a bottle and a glass at hand. After some time of staring into the
mesmerizing flames you begin to relax. Your most loyal friend has
settled down nearby and stretched his four furry legs in pleasure
before the fire. Then you open up a book to lose yourself in a story
of people who did decide to chuck away their former lives and move to
these mountains to make that change.
The mirror in the hall is forgotten by you for the time being; perhaps
it holds some memory of a reflection, or perhaps it’s watching you as
Coloma, in 1830’s, was a sleepy mountain town, one of many quiet
places in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where life was slow and
pleasant. Hunters and trappers were in large supply, and they mixed
easily and peacefully with the Miwok who had lived for generations in
that part of the mountains. As the 1840’s dawned, Gringos were coming
in from the West and Spaniards from the south, while the Russians were
getting more active farther away along the coast. But everybody was
getting along with each other, more or less. Trees were plentiful
around Coloma, and that’s what drew a Swiss immigrant by the name of
John Sutter there to build a lumber mill, also because Coloma also had
lots of swiftly running water to power that mill. But the mill wasn’t
even finished when Sutter’s workers found gold and shouted the
discovery across the mountains. By 1848 Coloma had quadrupled in
population with gold seekers. By 1849 it had grown so much that people
stopped counting the thousands of people – all they wanted to count
were nuggets of gold.
By the early 1850’s miners and their equipment covered the hillsides.
Most lived in makeshift cabins or tents. The majority of buildings in
town were devoted to the business of separating the miners from their
newly acquired wealth – saloons, gambling halls, supply stores, and
brothels sprang up all over town, on every crooked street where an
empty space begged to be filled. And they all did quite well in
catering to the needs of the thousands of lonely, thirsty, hard
And in one of these buildings in the town of Coloma - not one of those
old, leaning, ramshackle structures so hastily built to serve the
needs of the eager young miners - but instead in a carefully crafted
hotel meant to stand the rigors of time; in one room of this forgotten
hotel there stands a mirror; a sheet of antique glass bound in a
wooden frame which will not only show your reflection, but also which
sometimes opens as a window; a window through which someone from the
past has been observed peering out at the viuewer.
It’s a unique hotel, and a very unique mirror.
The Sierra Nevada House was a fine place indeed. Built around 1850, it
was conveniently situated near both Sutter’s Mill and the brand new
Wells Fargo office in the heart of the bustling Sierra mining town of
Coloma. Two stories tall, the ground floor held a bar, kitchen, and
dining room, while the upstairs floor contained bedrooms situated all
around the outside walls with a board walkway circling an open space
above the eating area. It was light, spacious, and clean.
And it was advertised for respectable women residents only - no
This was an entirely new concept for a gold rush mining town.
Certainly there were women in town, but most had come to work in the
bars or in the brothels, and in such places a bed was usually provided
as part of the job. But the Sierra Nevada House was setting itself up
for a different type of tenant; for women who had either accompanied
or followed their men to California but who didn’t wish to live in the
shabby accommodations which their men had put together out on their
claims. The Sierra Nevada House desired to cater to the cares of
(The mirror, at this time, had not yet arrived. It was on board a ship
bound from Boston, making its way around the Horn on its way to San
Not surprisingly, the Sierra Nevada House didn’t manage to make a go
of it as a boarding house for respectable women. There just weren’t
enough respectable women in town. So women of a somewhat less socially
respectable character soon came to occupy the Sierra Nevada House, and
it quickly reincarnated itself as one of the more popular of the bars,
brothels, and gambling halls dotting the streets of Coloma. The
numerous rooms lining the walls of the second story became more
populated that they ever had been – albeit for short periods of time -
and the boardwalk leading to them constantly resounded with the noise
of the tramping boots of the eager miners. The Sierra Nevada House had
seemingly found its purpose.
(By now the mirror had reached San Francisco, been unloaded from the
ship and repacked onto a wagon, and was on its way up to the
Isabel (or Isabella) was a popular lady in this new incarnation of the
Sierra Nevada House. Short, slender, with dark hair, she always liked
to dress in blue. She was a favorite companion of every miner, either
while keeping him company drinking in the bar, or standing behind him
with one hand on a shoulder giving him luck while he gambled at cards,
or – if he could afford it – accompanying him upstairs to her personal
room where he could appreciate her beauty and affection in a more
private setting, and then take home a happy memory to keep him warm on
those cold dark nights alone beneath a blanket in his shanty. Isabel,
it was generally agreed, shone brightly from an inner radiance as well
as from her lovely outer beauty, and she was always dressed in blue.
And so it was that when the mirror which had traveled so far finally
came to Coloma, its original purpose was immediately forgotten and it
was given as a gift to Isabel; a token of admiration and gratitude
from a lonely gentleman whose nights had been made brighter by her
company. Already an antique when it arrived at the Sierra Nevada
House, no one knew its exact age. It was old, and beautiful, and very,
Isabel placed the mirror in her room and gazed into it often. Several
times every day she would check her appearance and perhaps also admire
her beauty, the gold filigree on the wooden border framing her lovely
self just as it framed the mirror. Sometimes her gentlemen companions
would also pause there, although it was Isabel’s reflection which
caught them, not their own. But one of those men caught Isabel’s
heart, and left it forever empty. It was the very man who had given
her the mirror, a man who had brought the antique mirror and a wagon
load of other furnishings around the Horn to furnish a fine home he
had intended to build for the anticipated arrival of his wife, but who
instead chose to delay the wife, postpone the home, and abandon
Isabel, and disappeared back into the mountains in his search for
gold. From that moment on Isabel was often observed standing alone on
the porch gazing up into the high Sierra. If approached by men at
those times she would always decline an invitation for company, and
then retire to her room alone. And sometimes there in her room she
would be seen gazing into the mirror, staring, as if she was dreaming
of finding something within the antique glass. Men still sought her
out, but the one man whom she desired had gone and she could never
recover from that loss. So one day she quite suddenly disappeared from
Coloma, never to be seen again. It was rumored amongst the ladies of
the Sierra Nevada House and their patrons that she had gone in search
of the man who still held her heart. Isabel left all of her
possessions behind, including the mirror.
After her disappearance Isabel’s mirror was moved downstairs into the
parlor, then into other rooms variously used as a dance hall and a
dining room. Always it stood regally against one wall, and always its
antique elegance was appreciated by the patrons of the house when they
stopped before it. It wasn’t until a few decades had passed that some
who paused to admire themselves in the glass now instead saw the face
of a strange woman staring back out at them; a lady with dark hair and
sad eyes; a lady in blue. And she would hang suspended in the glass
before them as they gawked, the murky furnishings of an old bedroom in
the shadows behind her, her eyes meeting those of the one who gazed in
disbelief before she slowly faded away.
Isabel had returned.
Soon other strange occurrences began to manifest – a glass or a bottle
would slide by itself off the bar and crash to the floor; footsteps
could be heard pacing the catwalk that ran along to the rooms above
when no one could be seen on the walkway. When it was quiet there were
now times when a voice could be heard, perhaps loudly or sometimes
just a whisper; a voice where there was no person to be seen. And
sometimes when a lady or a guest walked into that bedroom which had
belonged to Isabel things were seen to have been moved, as if Isabel
had come to check the décor and then rearranged the furnishings to
suit her own taste. And then there would be that soft whisper as the
current occupant of the room slowly backed out.
The Sierra Nevada House burned down in 1902; it burned to the ground
and was completely destroyed. All except for the mirror. The mirror
survived intact, its antique glass and beautiful frame unmarred by the
roaring flames which had consumed everything around it. The Sierra
Nevada House was quickly rebuilt, mostly on the original floor plan,
and soon reopened as a fine hotel. The mirror was placed in the dining
hall and was again used for the next two decades for guests to admire
It wasn’t long before the lady in blue soon began to appear once
again; the lady with the dark hair and sad eyes who stared back out of
the mirror as if she was searching for something. Or someone. And then
she would fade away. And, as before, there were phantom footsteps and
soft whispers heard, and things moved all by themselves. The hotel had
an unseen guest as well as the paying ones.
The Sierra Nevada House burned to the ground again in 1925. Again, it
was completely destroyed – except for the antique mirror which eerily
survived unscathed. The House was again rebuilt and soon reopened to
the public, again as a hotel built on the original floor plan from the
1850’s, with a bar and dining room downstairs and rooms to rent above.
It also now came into occasional use as a town meeting hall and
community theater. The antique mirror was placed in a position of
honor in the banquet room. And it wasn’t long before the beautiful
Lady in Blue returned to visit the patrons, gazing out at them sadly
from its glassy depths.
Three appears to be a lucky number for the Sierra Nevada House, as
this third incarnation of the hotel and bar has now survived for
almost a century. And although, like the original hotel, the original
crowds of paying guests have long ago passed into the mists of time,
the spirits of the rough miners and the painted ladies eager to
entertain them still walk the mountains seeking gold and haunt the
rooms of the Sierra Nevada House searching for that brief reprieve
from lonliness. On the floor boards you can still sometimes hear
phantom footsteps; in the bar you might catch a quietly whispered word
in your ear, sending an unexpected thrill down your spine.
And if you gaze into the old wood framed mirror standing in the
banquet room you can still sometimes see a sad, beautiful lady in blue
swim upward out of its hidden depths to look back at you, searching
for something; for someone. Whether charmed or cursed the antique
mirror has survived the centuries and the infernos to offer itself as
a window to the past; Isabel’s mirror, the mirror of her dreams.
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.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501(c)(3) nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy
47050 Generals Hwy Unit 10
Three Rivers, CA 93271