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Inception of the Tramp. Stockton to Angel's Camp. Tuttletown and the
"Sage of Jackass Hill"
Following as near as might be the route of the old Argonauts, I avoided trains, and on a warm summer night boarded the Stockton boat. In the early morning you are aware of slowly rounding the curves of the San Joaquin River. Careful steering was most essential, as owing to the dry season the river was unusually low. The vivid greens afforded by the tules and willows that fringe the river banks, and the occasional homestead surrounded by trees, with its little landing on the edge of the levee, should delight the eye of the artist.
I lost no time in Stockton and headed for Milton in the foot-hills, just across the western boundary of Calaveras County. The distance was variously estimated by the natives at from twenty to forty miles - Californians are careless about distances, as in other matters. Subsequently I entered it in my note book as a long twenty-eight. Eighteen miles out from Stockton, at a place called Peters, which is little more than a railway junction, you leave the cultivated land and enter practically a desert country, destitute of water, trees, undergrowth and with but a scanty growth of grass. I ate my lunch at the little store and noted with apprehension that the thermometer registered 104 degrees in the shaded porch. I am not likely to forget that pull of ten miles and inwardly confessed to a regret that I had not taken the train to Milton. Accustomed on "hikes" to a thirst not surpassed by anything "east of Suez," I never before appreciated the significance of the word "parched" - the "tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth."
At Milton one enters the land of romance. What was even more appreciable at the time, it marks the limit of the inhospitable country I had traversed. Mr. Robert Donner, the proprietor of the Milton Hotel, told me he once had "Black Bart" as his guest for over a week, being unaware at the time of his identity. This famous bandit in the early eighties "held up" the Yosemite stage time and again. In fact, he terrorized the whole Sierra country from Redding to Sacramento. He was finally captured in San Francisco through a clew obtained from a laundry mark on a pair of white cuffs. For years, Mr. Donner cherished a boot left by the highwayman in the hurry of departure, which, much to his annoyance, was finally abstracted by some person unknown. To dispose of Black Bart; he served his term and was never seen again in the Sierras. There is a rumor that Wells Fargo & Company, the chief sufferers by his activities, made it worth his while to behave himself in the future.
The following day I reached Copperopolis. This place very justly has the reputation of being one of the hottest spots in the foot-hills. Owing to resumed operations on a large scale, of the Calaveras Copper Company, I found the little settlement crowded to its fullest capacity, and was perforce compelled to resort to genuine "hobo" methods - in short, I spent the night under the lee of a haystack. My original intention had been to walk thence to Sonora, twenty-four miles; but finding the road would take me again into the valley, I decided to make for Angel's Camp, only thirteen miles away.
It is uphill nearly all the way from Copperopolis to Angel's Camp, but mostly you are in the pine woods. My spirits rose with the altitude and delight at the magnificent view when I at last reached the summit. Toiling up the grade in the dust, I met a good old-fashioned four-horse Concord stage, which from all appearances might have been in action ever since the days of Bret Harte. At last I felt I was in touch with the Sierras. The driver even honored my bow with an abrupt "Howdy!" which from such a magnate, I took to be a good omen.
In common with all the old mining towns - though I was unaware of it at the time - Angel's, as it is usually called, is situated in the ravine where gold was first discovered. It straggles down the gulch for a mile and a half. There are a number of pretty cottages clinging to the steep hillsides, surrounded with flowers and trees, the whole effect being extremely pleasing. I registered at the Angel's Hotel, built in 1852. Across the street is the Wells Fargo building, erected about the same time and of solid stone, as is the hotel. Nothing on this trip surprised me more than the solidity of the hotels and stores built in the early fifties. Instead of the flimsy wooden structures I had imagined, I found, for the most part, thick stone walls. It was evident the Pioneers believed in the permanence of the gold deposits in the Mother Lode. Possibly they were right; Angel's is anything but a dead town to-day. The Utica, Angel's and Lightner mines give employment to hundreds of men.
In the afternoon I visited the Bret Harte Girls' High School. It is a very simple frame building, on the summit of a hill overlooking the town. The man who directed me how to find it, I discovered had not the remotest idea who Bret Harte might be; "John Brown" would have answered the purpose equally as well. In fact, all through the seven counties I traversed - Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador, El Dorado, Placer, Nevada and Yuba - I found Bret Harte had left but a hazy and nebulous impression. Mark Twain, Prentice Mulford, Horace Greeley, Bayard Taylor, even "Dan de Quille," seemed better known.
The next morning I started for Sonora. In seven miles I came to the Stanislaus River, running in a deep and splendid cañon. The river here is spanned by a fine concrete bridge, built jointly by Tuolumne and Calaveras Counties, between which the river forms the dividing line. In the bottom of the cañon is the Melones mine, with a mill operating one hundred stamps. The main tunnel is a mile and a half in length; the longest mining tunnel in the State, I was told.
A steep pull of two miles out of the cañon brought me to Tuttletown. Here I stayed several hours, for the interest of the whole trip, so far as Bret Harte was concerned, centered around this once celebrated camp, and Jackass Hill, on which, at one time, lived James W. Gillis, the supposed prototype of "Truthful James." He died a few years ago, but his brother, Stephen R. Gillis, is living there to-day, and after some little difficulty I succeeded in finding his house.
Mr. Gillis scouts the idea that his brother "Jim" was the "Truthful James" of Bret Harte. He said that in reality it was J. W. E. Townsend, known in old times as "Alphabetical Townsend," also by the uncomplimentary appellation of "Lying Jim." According to Mr. Gillis, Bret Harte made but one visit to Tuttletown. He arrived there one evening "dead broke" and James put him up for the night and lent him money to help him on his way. Personally, Mr. Gillis never met Bret Harte but he had seen Mark Twain on a number of Occasions. I got the distinct impression that Stephen Gillis disliked the notoriety his brother had gained, through the fact that his name had become indissolubly linked with the "Truthful James" of Bret Harte's verses. Be that as it may, I later on met several men who had known "Jim" Gillis intimately and they all agreed that he possessed a keen sense of humor and had at command a practically inexhaustible stock of stories, upon which he drew at will. Whether Bret Harte derived any inspiration from "Jim" Gillis may perhaps always remain in doubt; but that Mark Twain did, there cannot, I think, be any question.
In a recent life of Bret Harte, by Henry Childs Merwin, it is stated (page 21) that in 1858 Bret Harte acted as tutor in a private family at Alamo, in the San Ramon valley, which lies at the foot of Mount Diablo. On, page 50, however, we read: "In 1858 or thereabouts, Bret Harte was teaching school at Tuttletown, a few miles north of Sonora." It would seem that this statement is erroneous, apart from the fact that it conflicts with the prior date in reference to Alamo.
Mrs. Swerer, who has lived continuously at Tuttletown since 1850, coming there at the age of ten, told me she received her education at the Tuttletown public school, as did her children and her children's children - she is now a great-grandmother! She said most positively that she never saw Bret Harte in her life, but had frequently seen "Dan de Quille" and Mark Twain. The latter, she said, made periodic visits to Tuttletown, and always stayed with "Jim" Gillis - called by Twain, the "Sage of Jackass Hill."
Mrs. Gross, who keeps the Tuttletown Hotel and whose husband owned a store across the way, built of stone but now in ruins, was born in Tuttletown. She asserted she never heard of Bret Harte being in Tuttletown and feels it to be impossible he ever taught school there. At this ancient hostelry, built of wood and dating back to the early fifties, I dined in company with an old miner, who told me he came across "Jim" Gillis in Alaska. He said: "Gillis was a great josher. For the life of me, I could never tell from his stories whether he had been to the Klondike or not."