Home -> Paul Elder -> A Tramp Through Bret Harte Country - Chapter 4

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Chapter IV

J. H. Bradley and the Cary House. Ruins of Coloma. James W. Marshall and His Pathetic End.

More than any other town, Placerville gave a suggestion of the olden times. "John Oakhurst" and "Jack Hamlin" would still be in their element, as witness the following scene:

In the card room back of the bar, in a certain hotel, a "little game" was in progress. A big, blond giant, with curly hair and clean-cut features - indeed he could have posed as a model for Praxiteles - arose nonchalantly from the table as I entered, and swept the stakes into a capacious pocket. An angry murmur of disapproval came from the sitters, and one man muttered something about "quitting the game a winner." With a hand on each hip, the giant swept the disgruntled upturned faces with a comprehensive glance, and drawled: "I'll admit there's something wrong in mine, gentlemen, or I wouldn't be here, see?" He waited a moment and amid silence passed slowly through the barroom to the sidewalk, seated himself, stretched his long legs and placidly gazed across the street.

In the morning I had a long talk with Mr. J. H. Bradley, perhaps the best known man in El Dorado County. Though in his eighty-fourth year, his keen brown eyes still retain the fire and light of youth. The vitality of these old pioneers is something marvelous. Mr. Bradley was born in Kentucky, but, as a boy, moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he played marbles with Mark Twain, or Clemens, as he prefers to call him. In '49, he came across the plains to California. He was on the most friendly terms with Twain and said he assisted him to learn piloting on the Mississippi; and when Twain came to California, helped him to get a position as compositor with U. E. Hicks, who founded the Sacramento Union. He also knew Horace Greeley intimately, and has a portfolio that once was his property. Five years after Greeley's arrival in Placerville, which was in 1859, Mr. Bradley married Caroline Hicks, who with Phoebe and Rose Carey had acted as secretary to Mr. Greeley. Mr. Bradley takes no stock in the "keep your seat, Horace!" story. He considers it a fabrication. In his opinion, the romancers - Bret Harte, Mark Twain, et al. - have done California more harm than good. He also has a thinly disguised contempt for "newspaper fellows and magazine writers." Nor does he believe in the "Mother Lode" - that is, in its continuity - in spite of the geologists. He prefers to speak of the "mineral zone." In fine, Mr. Bradley is a man of definite and pronounced opinions on any subject you may broach. For that reason, his views, whether you agree with them or not, are always of interest.

Hanging in the office of the Cary House is a clever cartoon, by William Cooper, of Portland, Oregon, entitled "A mining convention in Placerville;" in which Mr. Bradley is depicted in earnest conversation with a second Mr. Bradley, a third and evidently remonstrant Mr. Bradley intervening, while a fourth and fifth Mr. Bradley, decidedly bored, are hurriedly departing.

Indeed, one glance at Mr. Bradley is enough to convince you that he is a man of unusual force of character. No one introduced me to him. I was merely informed at the Cary House that he was the person to whom I should apply for information concerning the old times. I accordingly started out to look for him and had not proceeded fifty yards when a man, approaching at a distance, arrested my attention. As he drew nearer, I felt positive there could be only one such personage in Placerville, and when he was opposite me, I stopped and said, "How are you, Mr. Bradley?" "That's my name, sir; what do you want?" he replied.

They take life easily in the old mining towns. No wonder the spectacle of a man with a pack on his back caused comment, in that heat, tramping two or three hundred miles for pleasure! Beyond the trivial necessities that bare existence makes imperative, I was not conscious of seeing anyone do anything on the whole trip. Old miners not unnaturally took me for a prospector, and I think I never quite succeeded in convincing them to the contrary.

In Placerville as in Angel's Camp, the evening promenade seems the most important event of the day. Young men and maidens pass and repass in an apparently endless chain. The same faces recur so frequently that one begins to take an interest in the little comedy and speculate on the rival attractions of blonde and brunette, and wonder which of the young bloods is the local Beau Brummel. The audience - so to speak - sit on, chairs backed against the walls of the hotels and stores, while many prefer the street itself, and with feet on curb or other coign of vantage, tilt their chairs at most alarming angles. A sort of animated lovers' lane is thus formed, through which the promenaders have to run the gauntlet, and are subjected to a certain amount of criticism. Everyone knows everyone. Good natured badinage plays like wild-fire, up and down and across the street. Later on, the tinkle of mandolin and guitar is heard far into the night watches.

Having determined to reach Auburn - thirty miles away - the next day, I made an early start. Coloma lies at the bottom of the great cañon of the South Fork of the American River. Hastening down the grade, in a bend of the road I almost ran into my friend. It seemed a strange meeting this, in the heart of the old mining country, and I think we both gave a perceptible start.

It was at Coloma that gold was first discovered in California, by James W. Marshall, January 19, 1848. My companion had been so fortunate on the previous day as to meet Mr. W. H. Hooper, who arrived in Coloma August 8, 1850, and who has lived there practically ever since. Though eighty-three, he is still strong and vigorous. From him my friend elicited some very interesting information in regard to Marshall especially, the substance of which I append from his notes. Mr. Hooper had known Marshall for many years, and his reminiscences of the discoverer have a touch of pathos bordering on the tragic.

Marshall, a trapper by trade and frontiersman by inclination, accompanied General Sutter to California, assisted in the building of Sutter Fort and, on account of his mechanical ability, was sent to Coloma to superintend the erection of a sawmill. It was in the mill-race that he picked up the nugget which made the name "California" the magnet for the world's adventurers. Unaware of the nature of his "find," he took it to Sacramento, where it was declared to be gold. He was implored by General Sutter to keep the mill operatives in ignorance of his discovery, for fear they should desert their work. But how could such a secret be kept, especially by a man of generous and impulsive instincts? At any rate the news leaked out and the stampede followed.

From Mr. Hooper's account, Marshall was a very human character. Late in life the state legislature granted him a pension of two hundred dollars per month. This sum being far in excess of his actual needs, it followed as a matter of course that his cronies assisted him in disposing of it. In fact, "Marshall's pension day" became a local attraction, and the Coloma saloon - still in existence - the rendezvous. These reunions were varied by glorious excursions to Sacramento, his friends in the legislature imploring him to keep away. After two years the pension was cut down to one hundred dollars per mouth and finally was discontinued in toto - a shabby and most undignified procedure. Opposite the saloon, at some little distance, is a conical hill. For many years Marshall, seated on the steps of the porch, had gazed dreamily at its summit. Shortly before his death, addressing a remnant of the "old guard," he exclaimed: "Boys, when I go, I want you to plant me on the top of that hill." And "planted" he was, with a ten-thousand-dollar monument on top of him!

The poor old fellow died in poverty at Kelsey, near Coloma, August 10, 1885, at the age of seventy-five. It is a sad reflection that a tithe of the money spent on the monument would have comforted him in his latter days; for the blow to his pride by the withdrawal of his pension, still more than the actual lack of funds, hastened the end.

Mr. Hooper intimated that the population of Coloma diminished perceptibly after the termination of Marshall's pension. To common with the majority of the old miners, be saved nothing and never profited to any extent by the discovery that will keep his memory alive for centuries to come.

Coloma in its palmy days had a population variously estimated at from five to ten thousand souls, with the usual accompaniment of saloons, dance halls and faro banks. There was a vigorous expulsion of gamblers in the early fifties and an incident occurred which quite possibly supplied the inspiration for Bret Harte's "Outcasts of Poker Flat." A notorious gambler and desperado, and his accomplice, demurred. Whereupon the irate miners placed them on a burro, and with vigorous threats punctuated by a salvo of revolver shots fired over their heads, drove them out of camp. They disappeared over the hill upon which the monument now stands, and were seen no more.

Coloma suffered severely from fires. Little of the old town remains but ruins of stone walls, and here and there an isolated wooden building. The ruins, however, are not only exceedingly picturesque, being half buried in foilage of beautiful trees, but hold the imagination with a grip that is indescribable. I could willingly have tarried here for days.

But while old Coloma is dead, there is a new Coloma that furnishes an extraordinary contrast. It is a sweet and peaceful little hamlet, situated on the lower benches of the cañon, well up out of the river bottom, and is entirely devoted to horticulture. One has read of birds building their nests in the muzzles of old and disused cannon; even that does not suggest a more anomalous association of ideas than the spectacle of a vine-clad cottage shaded by fig trees, basking peacefully in the sun, so close to what was at one time a veritable maelstrom of human passions. So far as the new Coloma is concerned, Marshall's discovery might never have been made. Nowhere else will you find a spot where gold and what it stands for would seem to mean so little, Coloma! It is passing strange that a name so sweet and restful should forever be linked with the wildest scramble for gold the world has ever seen!

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