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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XXIII

Panamint City. Genial Crooks

The first search for gold in Death Valley country was in Panamint Valley.

From the summit of the Slate Range on the road from Trona, one comes suddenly upon an enchanting and unforgettable view of the Panamint. If you are one who thrills at breath taking scenery you will not speak. You will stand and look and think. Your thoughts will be of dead worlds; of the silence spread like a shroud over all that you see.

Below, a yellow road twists in and out of hidden dry washes, around jutting hills to end in the green mesquite that hides the ghost town of Ballarat. There the Panamint lifts two miles—its gored sides a riot of pastelled colors.

If you have coached yourself with trivia of history it will require imagination’s aid to accept the fact that from this wasteland came fortunes and industries of world-wide fame. From New York to San Francisco on envied social thrones, sit the children and grandchildren of those who with pick and shovel, here dug the family fortune in ragged overalls.

Only recently a descendant of one of these, living in a city far removed, informed me her mansion was for sale, “because the neighborhood is being ruined....” A sheep herder newly rich on war profits, was moving in.

Eleven miles north of Ballarat, Surprise Canyon, which leads to Panamint City, opens on a broad, alluvial fan that tilts sharply to the valley floor.

In April, 1873, W. T. Henderson, whose first trip into Death Valley country was made to find the Lost Gunsight, came again with R. B. Stewart and R. C. Jacobs. In Surprise Canyon they discovered silver which ran as high as $4000 a ton and filed more than 80 location notices.

Henderson was an adventurer of uncertain character who had roamed western deserts like a nomad. During the Indian war that threatened extermination of the white settlers in Inyo county, Thieving Charlie, a Piute, was induced by outnumbered whites to approach his warring tribesmen under a flag of truce and succeeded in getting eleven of them to return with him to Camp Independence for a peace talk. Henderson, with two companions waylaid and murdered them.

He had been a member of the posse organized by Harry Love to shoot on sight California’s most famous bandit—Joaquin Murietta and boasted that he fired the bullet which killed the glamorous Joaquin. It was he who cut off and pickled the bandit’s head as evidence to get the reward. At the same time he pickled the hand of Three Fingered Jack Garcia, Joaquin’s chief lieutenant, and the bloodiest monster the West ever saw. Garcia had an odd habit of cutting off the ears of his victims and stringing them for a saddle ornament. The slaying of Joaquin was not a pretty adventure and as the details came out, Henderson renounced the honor.

The grewsome vouchers which obtained the reward became the attraction for the morbid on a San Francisco street and there above the din of traffic one heard a spieler chant the thrills it gave “for only two measly bits....” The exhibit was destroyed in the San Francisco fire and earthquake of 1906.

In his book, “On the Old West Coast” Major Horace Bell states that Henderson confided to him there was never a day nor night that Joaquin Murietta did not come to him and though headless, would demand the return of his head; that Henderson was never frightened by the apparition, which would vanish after Henderson explained why he couldn’t return the head and his excuse for cutting it off.

Bell quotes Henderson: “I would never have cut Joaquin’s head off except for the excitement of the chase and the orders of Harry Love.”

To give credence to the ghost story he says of Henderson, “He was for several years my neighbor and a more genial and generous fellow I never met....” Major Bell, it is known, was not always strictly factual.

Following the Surprise Canyon strike, Panamint City was quickly built and quickly filled with thugs who lived by their guns; gamblers and painted girls who lived by their wits.

An engaging sidewalk promoter known as E. P. Raines, who possessed a good front and gall in abundance, but no money, assured the owners of the Panamint claims that he could raise the capital necessary for development. He set out for the city, registered at the leading hotel, attached the title of Colonel to his name; exchanged a worthless 166check for $25 and made for the barroom. It was no mere coincidence that Mr. Raines before ordering his drink, parked himself alongside a group of the town’s richest citizens and began to toy with an incredibly rich sample of ore. It was natural that members of the group should notice it. Particularly the multimillionaire, Senator John P. Jones, Nevada silver king.

Soon the charming crook was the life of the party. His $25 spent, he actually borrowed $1000 from Jones. Having drunk his guests under the table, Mr. Raines went forth for further celebration and landed broke in the hoosegow. Hearing of his misadventure, his new friends promptly went to his rescue. “... Outrage ... biggest night this town ever had....”

To make amends for the city’s inhospitable blunder, Raines was taken to his hostelry, given a champagne bracer and made the honor guest at breakfast. “Where’s the Senator?” he asked. Informed that Senator Jones had taken a train for Washington, Raines quickened “Why, he was expecting me to go with him....” He jumped up, fumbled through his pockets in a pretended search for money. “Heavens—my purse is gone!” Instantly a half dozen hands reached for the hip and Mr. Raines was on his way.

It required but a few moments to get $15,000 from the Senator and his partner, Senator William R. Stewart, for the Panamint claims. He also sold Jones the idea of a railroad from a seaport at Los Angeles to his mines and this was partially built. The project ended in Cajon Pass. The scars of the tunnel started may still be seen.

Jones and Stewart organized the Panamint Mining Company with a capital of $2,000,000. Other claims were bought but immediate development was delayed by difficulties in obtaining title because many of the owners were outlaws, difficult to find. A few were located in the penitentiary and there received payment. For some of the claims the promoters paid $350,000.

On June 29, 1875, the first mill began to crush ore from the Jacobs Wonder mine. Panamint City became one of the toughest and most colorful camps of the West. It was strung for a mile up and down narrow Surprise Canyon. It was believed that here was a mass of silver greater than that on the Comstock and shares were active on the markets.

The most pretentious saloon in the town was that of Dave Nagle, who later as the bodyguard of U. S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field, killed Judge David Terry, distinguished jurist, but stormy petrel of California Vigilante days. Judge Terry had represented, then married his client, the Rose of Sharon—Sarah Althea Hill—in her suit to determine whether she was wife or mistress of Senator Sharon, Comstock millionaire. Feuding had resulted with Field, the trial judge. Meeting in a railroad dining room, Judge Terry slapped Justice Field’s face and Nagle promptly killed Terry.

Poker at Panamint City was never a piker’s game. Bets of $10,000 on two pair attracted but little comment. Gunning was regarded as a minor nuisance, but funerals worried the town’s butcher. He had the only wagon that had survived the steep canyon road into the camp. “I bought it,” he complained, “to haul fresh meat, but since there’s no hearse I never know when I’ll have to unload a quarter of beef to haul a stiff to Sourdough Canyon.”

Panamint City attained an estimated population of 3,000. Harris and Rhine, merchants, having the only safe in the town permitted patrons to deposit money for safe keeping and often had large sums. On one occasion they had the $10,000 payroll of the Hemlock mine.

A clerk arriving early at the store, suddenly faced two gentlemen who directed him to open the safe and pass out the money. “Just as well count it as you fork it over,” one ordered. The clerk had counted $4000 when he was told to stop. “This’ll do for the present,” the spokesman said. “We’ll come back and get the rest.”

“Yeh,” added his partner. “Too damned many thugs in this town.”

They sallied forth on a spending spree. The down-and-out along the mile-long street received generous portions of the loot and a widow whose husband had been killed in a mine explosion, received $500.

These bandits, Small and McDonald, thereafter became incredibly popular and the legend follows that what they stole from those who had, they shared with those who hadn’t.

Wells-Fargo and Company offered a reward of $1000 for their capture, but their arrest was never accomplished. Invariably they were apprised of the approach of pursuers and simply retired to some convenient canyon. The bandits further endeared themselves to the citizenry when Stewart and Jones arranged for the importation of a hundred Chinese laborers.

This aroused the ire of the white miners and a meeting was called to protest. “This is a white man’s town,” was the cry of labor.

Small and McDonald agreed. “Just leave it to us,” they told the leaders. “No use in a lotta fellows getting hurt.” They stationed themselves at the mouth of the canyon and when the coolies arrived, a sudden volley from the bandits’ six-guns brought the caravan to a halt. The frightened Chinamen leaped from the hacks and fled in panic across the desert and Panamint remained a white man’s town.

Engaged at work around their hideout, Hungry Bill stopped to beg 168for food. They told the Indian to wait until they finished their task. His sullen impatience angered Small who booted him down the trail. Hungry Bill left cursing and told a prospector whom he met that he would return shortly with his tribesmen and assassinate the entire population.

Panamint City was warned but Small and McDonald declared that since they had started the trouble, they alone should end it. Accordingly, they set out for Hungry Bill’s ranch to stop the attack before it started. But near Hungry Bill’s stone corral they were ambushed by the Indians. The bandits shot their way into the corral and barricading themselves, killed and wounded about half of the renegades, after which the remainder fled.

Panamint City harbored a hoard of unsung assassins who merely lay in wait, shot the unwary victim down, took his poke, rolled the body into a ravine, went up town to spend the money.

One killer who came decided to dominate the field and with that in view he set forth to establish himself quickly as a gunman not to be trifled with. He chose to display his prowess upon an inoffensive, quiet faro dealer known as Jimmy Bruce, who, it was easy to see, “was just a chicken-livered punk.” The publicity of a well-done murder in such a setting would give prestige.

Armed with two guns, the bully contrived to start an argument with Bruce. The indoor white of the gambler seemed to grow whiter as the rage of his towering tormenter reached the climax. The players moved out of range. The bartenders ducked under the counter. Patrons helpless to intervene, fled from the kill.

A shot rang out. Cautiously, the bartenders lifted their heads. On the floor lay the bad man. Mr. Bruce was calmly lighting a cigar.

There was consternation among the killers. They swore vengeance. After five of them had fallen before Bruce’s gun, he was let alone.

The silent faro dealer, it was learned too late, was surpassingly quick on the trigger.

A spot somewhat distant from the regular cemetery was chosen for the burial place and it became known as Jim Bruce’s private graveyard.

Remi Nadeau, a French Canadian, was the first to haul freight into Panamint City. Nadeau was a genius of transportation. There was no country too rough, too remote, too wild for him. He came to Los Angeles in 1861 from Utah and teamed as far east as Montana.

The Cerro Gordo mine, on the eastern side of Owens Lake in Inyo County began to ship ore in 1869 and Nadeau obtained a contract to haul the ore to Wilmington where it was shipped by boat to San Francisco. He soon had to increase his equipment to 32 teams, using more 169than 500 animals. For his return trip he bought such commodities as he could peddle or leave for sale at stations he built along the route.

In 1872, the contract having expired, Judson and Belshaw, owners of the mine, received a lower bid and Nadeau was left with 500 horses on his hands and heavily in debt. He wanted to dispose of his outfit for the benefit of his creditors but they had confidence in him and persuaded him to “carry on.” Borax discovered in Nevada saved him. Meanwhile the lower bidder on the Cerro Gordo job proved unsatisfactory and Judson and Belshaw asked Nadeau to take the old job back. But now Nadeau informed them they would have to buy a half interest in his outfit and advance $150,000 to construct relay stations at Mud Springs, Mojave, Lang’s Springs, Red Rock, Little Lake, Cartago, and other points. They gladly agreed.

Shortly after Nadeau began hauling across the desert, he picked up a man suffering from gunshot and crazed from thirst. Taking the victim to his nearest station, he left instructions that he be cared for.

Sometime afterward, one of Nadeau’s competitors whose trains had been held up several times by outlaws, wondered why none of Nadeau’s teams or stations had been molested. At the time, Nadeau himself didn’t know that the fellow whom he’d picked up on the desert was Tiburcio Vasquez, the bandit terror.

Vasquez naively condoned his banditry. It disgusted him at dances he said, to see the senoritas of his race favor the interloping Americans. He had a singular power over women. When Sheriff William Rowland effected his capture, women of Los Angeles filled his cell with flowers. He was hanged at San Jose.

Nadeau was now hauling ore from the Minnietta and the Modoc mines in the Argus Range on the west side of Panamint Valley. The Modoc was the property of George Hearst, the father of the publisher, William Randolph Hearst. These mines were directly across the valley from Panamint City and because of Nadeau’s record for building roads in places no other dared to go, Jones and Stewart engaged him to haul out of Surprise Canyon, which was barely wide enough in places for a burro with a pack.

On a hill, locally known as “Seventeen”—that being the per cent of grade, located on the old highway between Ballarat and Trona, one may see the dim outline of a road pitching down precipitously to the valley floor. This road was built by Nadeau and one marvels that anything short of steam power could move a load from bottom to top.

Acquiring a fortune, Nadeau built the first three-story building in Los Angeles and the Nadeau Hotel, long the city’s finest, retained favor 170among many wealthy pioneer patrons long after the more glamorous Angelus and Alexandria were built in the early 1900’s.

The first ore from the Panamint mines was shipped to England and because of its richness showed a profit, but difficulties arose in recovery processes which they did not know how to overcome. The mines would have paid fabulously under present day processes.

Finis was written to the story of Panamint after two hectic years and in 1877 Jones and Stewart had lost $2,000,000 and quit. It would be more factual to state that since they had received from the public $2,000,000 to put into it, who lost what is a guess.

A Personal Narrative of People and Places
Published by Death Valley Publishing Co.
Ontario, California

A Foretaste of Things to Come
What Caused Death Valley?
Aaron and Rosie Winters
John Searles and His Lake of Ooze
But Where Was God?
Death Valley Geology
Indians of the Area
Desert Gold. Too Many Fractions
Romance Strikes the Parson
Greenwater-Last of the Boom Towns
The Amargosa Country
A Hovel That Ought To Be a Shrine
Sex in Death Valley Country
Shoshone Country. Resting Springs
The Story of Charles Brown
Long Man, Short Man
Shorty Frank Harris
A Million Dollar Poker Game
Death Valley Scotty
Odd But Interesting Characters
Roads. Cracker Box Signs
Lost Mines. The Breyfogle and Others
Panamint City. Genial Crooks
Indian George. Legend of the Panamint
Ballarat. Ghost Town
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