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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter IX

Romance Strikes the Parson

Scorning Al Myers’s advice to locate a claim on the Goldfield hill, Shorty Harris headed south, prospecting as he went until he reached Monte Beatty’s ranch where he camped with Beatty, a squaw man. “I’m going to look at a rhyolite formation in the hills four miles west. It looks good—that hill,” Shorty told him.

“Forget it,” Beatty said, “I’ve combed every inch.”

With faith in Beatty’s knowledge of the country, he abandoned the trip and crossed the Amargosa desert to Daylight Springs, found the country full of amateur prospectors excited by the discoveries at Tonopah and Goldfield. After a few weeks he decided there was nothing worthwhile to be found. “I had a hunch Beatty could be wrong about that formation and decided to go back.”

He was well outfitted and with five burros and more than enough provisions, was ready to go when, out of the bush came a cleancut youngster—a novice who had brought his wife along.

“Shorty,” he said, “we’re out of grub. Can you spare any?”

“Sure. But you’d be better off to go with me. I have enough grub for all of us.”

Ed Cross had all to gain; nothing to lose by following an experienced prospector.

At a water hole known as Buck Springs they made camp. Within an hour they went up a canyon, each working a side of it. Shorty broke a piece of quartz from an outcropping; saw shades of turquoise and jade. “Come a-runnin’ Ed,” he shouted. “We’ve got the world by the tail and a downhill pull.”

They staked out the discovery claims. “How many more should we locate?” Cross asked.

“None. Give the other fellow a chance. If this is as good as we 54think, we’ve got all the money we’ll ever need. If it isn’t and the other fellow makes a good showing it will help us sell this one.”

They went to Goldfield. Shorty showed the sample to Bob Montgomery, an old friend. Bob was skeptical. But in an hour the news was out and Goldfield en masse headed for the new strike. Those, who couldn’t get conveyances, walked. Some pulled burro carts across the desert. Some started out with wheelbarrows. Jack Salsbury began to move lumber. Others brought merchandise, barrels of liquor. Everything to build a town.

“Specimens of my ore,” Shorty said, “were used by Tiffany for ring settings, lavallieres, bracelets. It went to Paris and London. Ore broken from the ledge sold for $50 a pound. I must have given away thousands of dollars’ worth of it for souvenirs.”

Overnight Rhyolite was born. Shorty bought a barrel of liquor, drove a row of nails around the barrel, hung tin dippers on the nails and invited the town to quench its thirst. Two railroads came. One, 114 miles from Las Vegas. Another, 200 miles from Ludlow.

“Two things influenced me in naming it Bullfrog,” Shorty said. “Ed had asked, ‘what’ll we name it?’ As I looked at the green ore in my hand, a frog bellowed. ‘Bullfrog,’ I said.” (One writer has stated erroneously that there is not a bullfrog on the desert.)

The tycoons of mining and their agents appeared as if borne on magic carpets and in a little while men who would have turned him from their doors, were fawning around the little man with the golden smile and the ugly brawl for the Bullfrog was on—a struggle between cheap promoters who gave him cheap whiskey and moguls who gave him champagne.

Scores of yarns have been written about the sale of the Bullfrog. It was one of the few things in Shorty’s life which he discussed with reserve. In my residence two years before he died and in my presence he told my wife, to whom he was singularly devoted, the sordid story. “Cross had a good head,” Shorty said. “He attended to business, sold his interest and retired to a good ranch.

“I woke up one morning and judging from the empties, I must have had a grand evening. I reached for a full pint on the table and under it was a piece of paper with a note. I read it and learned for the first time that I’d sold the Bullfrog.”

“The law would have released you from that contract,” I said.

“I’d signed it,” he answered quietly.

I thought of the crumbling adobe on the Ballarat flat and the lean years that followed.

“At that, I got good money for a fellow like me,” he added. “I’ve never wanted for anything.”

A fortune blown like a bubble meant absolutely nothing—stopped no laugh; dimmed no hope; quenched no fire in his eager eyes.

“If I’d got those millions the big boys would have hauled me off to town, put a white shirt on me. Maybe they would have made me believe Shorty Harris was important. ‘Mr. Harris this and Mr. Harris that.’ I’ve got something they can’t take away. I step out of my cabin every morning and look it over—100 miles of outdoors. All mine.”

The future of Rhyolite seemed assured when Bob Montgomery sold to Charles M. Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel Company, his interest in the claim known as the Montgomery Shoshone for more than $2,000,000.

The discovery of this claim has been accredited to Shoshone Johnnie and historians have said that Montgomery bought it from Johnnie for a pair of overalls, a buggy, and a few dollars. Actually Bob Montgomery was among the first on the scene following Shorty’s discovery strike and located the claim himself. Even if Johnnie had located it Montgomery would have been entitled to one-half interest for the reason that he had been grubstaking Johnnie for years.

It never paid as a mine, but America was gold mad and the two railroads which brought mail for Rhyolite also carried stock certificates out and the promoters lost nothing.

The strike at Bullfrog was made in 1904. Rhyolite attained a population of about 14,000 at its peak—then started downward. On January 1, 1926, I made a camp fire in its empty streets and beside it tried to sleep through a biting wind that seemed aptly enough a dirge. The next morning I poked around in the abandoned stores to marvel at things of value left behind. Chinaware and silver in hurriedly abandoned houses and in the leading cafe. The cribs still bore the castoff ribbons and silks of the girls and for all I know, the satin slipper which I found on a bed may have been the one that Shorty Harris filled with champagne to toast the charms of Flaming Jane.

I walked up to the vacant depot. Across the door, through which thousands had passed from incoming trains with youth and hope and the eagerness of life, lay the long-dead carcass of a cow. It fitted, it seemed to me, the scene about.

Like Tonopah, Skidoo on top of Tucki Mountain overlooking Death Valley may be accredited to the straying of a burro in 1905.

John Ramsey and John Thompson, two prospectors, camped overnight in Emigrant Canyon which leads into Death Valley. The grass about was lush and they thought it safe to turn the burros loose. The 56burros strayed during the night and because the walls on the east side of the canyon are perpendicular, search was immediately confined to the sloping west area. But the burros, always unpredictable, found a way to ascend Tucki Mountain and there they were found—one of them actually straddling an outcropping of gold.

This happened on the 23rd day of the month and because of a popular current slang expression, “Twenty-three for you—skidoo,” (meaning phooey, or shut up) the claim and the town were named Skidoo.

Bob Montgomery bought the claim on sight. A winding road with a spectacular view of Death Valley was built, a mill installed on the side of Telephone Canyon and water brought 22 miles from Panamint Canyon. A long rambling building on top of the mountain served as offices and living quarters for officials. A broad porch encircled it and afforded a sweeping and unforgettable view of Death Valley country.

On the area about this building was the company town. Adjoining was “Our Town” where the cribs and honkies thrived.

I first visited it with Shorty Harris, holding my breath most of the way on the steep, narrow, and winding road. We appropriated the company building for our temporary home. Shorty had owned claims there and had helped build the road.

Montgomery paid $60,000 for the claims and took out $9,000,000 before production costs exceeded his profits, when work was abandoned.

During World War I, Montgomery sold the pipe, which had brought the water to Skidoo, to Standard Oil Company at a price far in excess of its cost. That was the end of Skidoo.

More interesting to me than the fate of Skidoo was that of Blonde Betty and the traveling preacher, of which Shorty was reminded when we strolled by the crib in which Betty had lived.

“Skagway Thompson, as fine a chap as ever drew a cork, died right over there in that shack and we decided he deserved a nice planting. Everybody liked Skagway. Only women around at that time were crib girls and they banked his grave with wild flowers and I got this sky pilot to say a few words.

“He was a young fellow, good looking and agreeable. I told him Skagway’s friends thought it would be nice if one of the women in town would sing Skagway’s favorite song. ‘It’s called “When the Wedding Bells Are Ringing”’ I said, ‘and I hope you don’t mind if it’s not in the hymn books.’ I didn’t tell him the girl who was going to sing it was Blonde Betty—a chippy—figuring he’d be on his way before he found out. That gal could sing like a flock of larks and after the service the preacher barged up to me and said he wanted to meet Betty and would I introduce him.

“There was no way out and besides, I figured what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. He told her what a wonderful voice she had, how the song had touched him and hoped she would sing at one of his meetings.

“Blonde Betty was pretty as curly ribbon and I was afraid every minute he was going to ask if he could call on her, so I horned in and said, ‘Parson, excuse me, but I promised I would bring Miss Betty home right away.’

“So I took her arm and pulled her away.

“‘You big-mouthed bum,’ Betty says when we were out of hearing. ‘Why don’t you attend to your own business? I know how to act.’”

Shorty pointed to a riot of wild flowers on the side of a hill across the gulch. “The next day I saw her and the Parson picking flowers right over there. Of course he didn’t know then what she was. After that I reckon he didn’t give a dam’. He chucked the preaching job and ran off with Betty. But maybe God went along. They got married and live over in Nevada and you couldn’t find a happier family or a finer brood of children anywhere.

“It is no argument for sin, but this was a hell of a country in those days and you just couldn’t always live by the Book.”

On July 4, 1905 Shorty Harris made the strike which started the town of Harrisburg, now only a name on a signboard. A feud due to a partnership of curious origin, started immediately and is worth mention only because it confused historians of a later period who, gathering material after Shorty’s death have given only the story of the feudist who survived him.

Here is Shorty’s version: “I was trying to save distance by taking the Blackwater trail across Death Valley into the Panamint. I had been over the country and had seen a formation that looked good and was going back to look it over. The Blackwater trail is a wet trail and one of my burros sank in the ooze. I had just gotten her out when a fellow I’d never seen before, came up. He said he was a stranger in the country and he wanted to get to Emigrant Springs where his two partners were waiting. He explained that the foreman at Furnace Creek had told him I had left only a short while before, but he might overtake me by hurrying, and I would show him the way. Then he asked if he could join me.

“I told him it was free country and nobody on the square was barred. When I reached my destination I showed him the trail to Emigrant Springs. I reckon I talked too much on the way over—maybe made him think I had a gold mountain. Anyway, he said he believed he would look around a little to see what he could find. I didn’t even know his 58name and though it was against the unwritten code, he followed me. There wasn’t anything I could do about it without trouble and I was looking for gold—not trouble.

“In 15 minutes I had found gold. He was pecking around a short distance away and also found rock with color and claimed a half interest. It was then that I learned his name—Pete Auguerreberry and that his partners were Flynn and Cavanaugh. Wild Bill Corcoran had grubstaked me. I told Pete five partners were too many and we should agree upon a division point—each taking a full claim and he could have his choice.

“He refused and wanted half interest in both and nothing short of murder would have budged him. I went to Rhyolite for Bill Corcoran. He went for his partners. When we met, Corcoran had an offer to buy, sight unseen, from one of Schwab’s agents. Everyone of us wanted to sell, except Pete who stood out for a fantastic price. His partners offered to give him a part of their share if he would accept the offer. Pete refused. He thought it was worth millions. Wild Bill organized a company and we started work.”

For awhile it seemed the Harrisburg claims would prove to be good producers. In the end it was just another town on the map for Shorty. Futile years for Pete.

Once I asked Shorty Harris how he obtained his grubstakes. “Grubstakes,” he answered, “like gold, are where you find them. Once I was broke in Pioche, Nev., and couldn’t find a grubstake anywhere. Somebody told me that a woman on a ranch a few miles out wanted a man for a few days’ work. I hoofed it out under a broiling sun, but when I got there, the lady said she had no job. I reckon she saw my disappointment and when her cat came up and began to mew, she told me the cat had an even dozen kittens and she would give me a dollar if I would take ’em down the road and kill ’em.

“‘It’s a deal,’ I said. She got ’em in a sack and I started back to town. I intended to lug ’em a few miles away and turn ’em loose, because I haven’t got the heart to kill anything.

“A dozen kittens makes quite a load and I had to sit down pretty often to rest. A fellow in a two-horse wagon came along and offered me a ride. I picked up the sack and climbed in.

“‘Cats, eh?’ the fellow said. ‘They ought to bring a good price. I was in Colorado once. Rats and mice were taking the town. I had a cat. 59She would have a litter every three months. I had no trouble selling them cats for ten dollars apiece. Beat a gold mine.’

“There were plenty rats in Pioche and that sack of kittens went like hotcakes. One fellow didn’t have any money and offered me a goat. I knew a fellow who wanted a goat. He lived on the same lot as I did. Name was Pete Swain.

“Pete was all lit up when I offered him the goat for fifty dollars. He peeled the money off his roll and took the goat into his shack. A few days later Pete came to his door and called me over and shoved a fifty dollar note into my hands. ‘I just wanted you to see what that goat’s doing,’ he said.

“I looked inside. The goat was pulling the cork out of a bottle of liquor with his teeth.

“‘That goat’s drunk as a boiled owl,’ Pete said. ‘If I ever needed any proof that there’s something in this idea of the transmigration of souls, that goat gives it. He’s Jimmy, my old sidekick, who, I figgered was dead and buried.’

“‘Now listen,’ I said. ‘Do you mean to tell me you actually believe that goat is your old pal, whom you drank with and played with and saw buried with your own eyes, right up there on the hill?’

“‘Exactly,’ Pete shouted, and he peeled off another fifty and gave it to me. So, you see, a grubstake, like gold, is where you find it.”

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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