Saturday, April 19, 2008


Irish Miners & California Deserts

Googling these four words together, not much. The Gold Rush, sure; Virginia City, Nevada, some; Western entries that mention all four, certainly. The five entries I cobble together prove that Hibernian stereotypes may span the sexes. But the sons and daughters from the oul' sod bond over demon drink and/or in dissolute digs.

Mark Twain's Chapter XXI in 1872's "Roughing It" enters Carson City, where lodge fourteen members of the Territorial Irish Brigade, among them four or five commanders. As for their proprietress: "The Secretary and I took quarters in the “ranch” of a worthy French lady by the name of Bridget O’Flannigan, a camp follower of his Excellency the Governor. She had known him in his prosperity as commander-in-chief of the Metropolitan Police of New York, and she would not desert him in his adversity as Governor of Nevada." But no mother lode struck, 25 searched webpages times ten hyperlinks means I've dug deep enough for now. Libraries may well unearth more valuable ore.

Jack Keane, who named after himself Death Valley's very successful "Keane's Wonder Mine," was an Irish miner from Ballarat (not the Australian boomtown). With with a one-eyed Basque partner, Keane hit paydirt in the Funeral Mountains in 1903, after eight years luckless. He and the Basque cashed in their shares for $50,000 each (I reckon around two million bucks today). Keane, living large with two prostitutes back in Ballarat, got liquored up. He shot the "constable." And he shot the deputy, oh no. After being released from county jail in the ironically or aptly named Independence, Keane returned to his homeland. He killed a man in a bar fight there; he spent his last seventeen years in prison.

An online registry of television episodes unearthed this tidbit: "Kung Fu" episode: "Nine Lives": An Irish miner must find a replacement for his camp's beer drinking cat mascot- which he accidentally killed- in order for him to be allowed to return to work. b[roadcast]: 15 Feb 73. A far more comprehensive scan of a more informative site for "Bonanza" failed to produce such a gem to rival this in terseness and tension.

From a handsome website entry about Cerro Gordo, "fat rock," once a mining town along the western slopes of the Owens River Valley to the east of Death Valley: The combination of whiskey and women made the dance halls, and the red-light houses of Lola Travis and Maggie Moore, the principal scenes of gunplay. Dr. Hugh McClelland, physician at Cerro Gordo, reflected upon one such incident the night he accompanied a young man wishing to visit one of the dance halls. A hot-tempered Mexican girl overheard McClelland explaining to his younger companion the reason for her odd nick-name, and came at the good doctor with a stiletto in her hand. An Irish girl caught her by the wrist and disarmed the screaming Mexican, but not before a Mexican man was shot dead by George Snow when he tried to plunge a knife into McClelland on behalf of his girlfriend. This ended in a general shooting until the lights were extinguished. Owens Valley History Still, I realize we do not learn the Mexican hostess' "odd nick-name."

This next nugget did not get uprooted from the desert, but closer to my home. Still, I find it a splendidly random find from an inestimable treasure I mean to grasp-- one day-- in the Library of America edition to take with me into "The Mountains of California," as the title of John Muir's 1894 account tells us. Its concluding chapter's all about beekeeping, which Muir, as always, tells in splendid prose.

Today, near the Rose Bowl and the start of the Arroyo Seco above which I live about fifteen miles south, Eaton Canyon's the gravelly cradle of Jet Propulsion Lab. The expanses around it loom with a typically sub-par public high school named for Muir. Around what he would have seen as orchards are a century later endless substandard ticky-tacky apartments and houses on the flats. Elegant pre-McMansions perch upon the foothills, above mini-malls, over lots of ugly corporate parks. At one of these I took my wife to a doctor, where I thought about the rocky washes above in the San Gabriels. About these, hunt down John McPhee's typically lengthy essay about how we Angelenos hold back the boulders every wet winter in his New Yorker piece published in "The Control of Nature." I have lived most of my life within sight of these ten-thousand foot peaks. Often shrouded in smog or haze, but sometimes crowned by cobalt clouds or tipped in fleeting snow, they watch me grow, for a fraction of their own implacable timespan. Here's Muir, from the Full Books text, Ch. XIV, "The Bee-Pastures"

Setting out from Pasadena, I reached the foot of the range about sundown; and being weary and heated with my walk across the shadeless valley, concluded to camp for the night. After resting a few moments, I began to look about among the flood-boulders of Eaton Creek for a camp-ground, when I came upon a strange, dark-looking man who had been chopping cord-wood. He seemed surprised at seeing me, so I sat down with him on the live-oak log he had been cutting, and made haste to give a reason for my appearance in his solitude, explaining that I was anxious to find out something about the mountains, and meant to make my way up Eaton Creek next morning. Then he kindly invited me to camp with him, and led me to his little cabin, situated at the foot of the mountains, where a small spring oozes out of a bank overgrown with wild-rose bushes. After supper, when the daylight was gone, he explained that he
was out of candles; so we sat in the dark, while he gave me a sketch of his life in a mixture of Spanish and English. He was born in Mexico, his father Irish, his mother Spanish. He had been a miner, rancher, prospector, hunter, etc., rambling always, and wearing his life away in mere waste; but now he was going to settle down. His past life, he said, was of "no account," but the future was promising. He was going to "make money and marry a Spanish woman." People mine here for water as for gold. He had been running a tunnel into a spur of the mountain back of his cabin. "My prospect is good," he said, "and if I chance to strike a good, strong flow, I'll soon be worth $5000 or $10,000. For that flat out there," referring to a small, irregular patch of bouldery detritus, two or three acres in size, that had been deposited by Eaton Creek during some flood season,--"that flat is large enough for a nice orange-grove, and the bank behind the cabin will do for a vineyard, and after watering my own trees and vines I will have some water left to sell to my neighbors below me, down the valley. And then," he continued, "I can keep bees, and make money that way, too, for the mountains above here are just full of honey in the summer-time, and one of my neighbors down here says that he will let me have a whole lot of hives, on shares, to start with. You see I've a good thing; I'm all right now." All this prospective affluence in the sunken, boulder-choked flood-bed of a mountain-stream! Leaving the bees out of the count, most fortune-seekers would as soon think of settling on the summit of Mount Shasta. Next morning, wishing my hopeful entertainer good luck, I set out on my shaggy excursion.


Pictures: "The Irish Brigade" & "Light on the Subject" (of the tarantula that terrifies Mrs. O'Flannigan's boarders) "Fully Illustrated by Eminent American Artists" from Project Gutenberg's e-text.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Interesting post John...reminds me of my History of Monterey Bay class (which I'm taking on weekends right now)...You would enjoy it, I'm sure. Remind me to tell you about the potato boom of Santa Cruz County at some point...