Killer avalanches, blizzards, rescue parties in search of lost men, mining accidents, gunfights, prostitutes - just about every element of the wild west and life at high altitude was present around the mining towns of Eastern California.
Comparing the tiny silver rush of what I call 'The Tioga Region' to the great California Gold Rush is like comparing an ant hill to Mount Everest. But what sets this region apart, is the location, along what is now the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park.
With cabins and mines at 10,000 feet elevation and above, the work of mining was grueling. Some men decided to work the mines through winter in below freezing temperatures, blizzards and on bare mountainsides where nothing stood between the miners and gale force winds except the flimsy shelters they could cobble together or in the diggings in the bedrock.
In the late 1870s the closest town - and help - was 30 miles away and many years before helicopters, cars, paramedics, cell phones, GPS, and 911. The miners and merchants depended on the goodwill of friends. An incapacitating injury for a lone miner could mean a slow death.
For 30 years miners had been swarming over most of California in search of gold or silver and instant riches. Gold had been discovered in eastern California in the late 1850s at Dogtown and Monoville to the north and Cerro Gordo to the south in the 1860s.
In 1874 a young sheepherder, William Bruskey, Jr., was walking along a grassy knoll above today's Tioga Pass with his sheep herd when he saw a rusty pick and shovel lying on the ground. Since his father was a parttime gold miner in the Mother Lode region he knew what this meant. It was the sign of a mining claim. Someone long ago had found gold or silver and left the tools to mark the spot and to tell others it was already claimed. And in those days many men honored the claim and left the tools untouched. But these rusty items obviously meant it was a long abandoned claim. The miner could have died, found a richer strike or just lost interest.
He had heard of the legend of a lost silver lode in this area - could this be it? He picked up a few rocks, not really knowing what silver ore looked like. He took it back to Sonora, 30 miles to the west, and showed it to his father. His father had the rock tested for silver, but the results were barren. Three more summers in a row Billy persisted in bringing back more rocks from the site. Then in the summer of 1878 his father's skepticism cleared away instantly when assay tests came out high in silver with traces of gold. The legend of the Sheepherder Mine began.
Almost instantly, yet another small 'Rush to Riches' was on in the West. The Bruskey family called in their friends and headed for the far eastern mountain peaks just north of what is now called Tioga Pass, the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. Not far behind them were other groups hopeful of finding a rich silver claim. People came from Sonora, Knight's Ferry, Fresno, Columbia, Bodie, Bridgeport, even San Francisco and Aurora, Nevada. Through the summer and until the first heavy snows of winter, claims were staked north and south along the two main silver-bearing veins - the Sheepherder Lode and the Great Sierra Lode.
At almost exactly the same time, a few miles to the northeast, another silver mining region was opening up in Lundy Canyon. The canyon was a deep chasm in the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that opened onto Mono Basin. As time went on, the town of Lundy grew up and became the major source for mining supplies, liquor and entertainment. In 1880 the first edition of Lundy's newspaper, The Homer Mining Index, was printed. Thus began the recording of people's triumphs, travails, and just plain everyday life in this region.
In time a company called the Great Sierra was formed (just north of Tioga Pass) and several mine shafts and a tunnel were driven into the bedrock. The company town of Bennettville sprang up and life looked pretty good - and very promising - to those investing in the growing company.
Predictions were made of a Bennettville with a population of 10,000 becoming the centerpiece of a trans-Sierra highway. Similar predictions were made for a town on Mount Gibbs and one in Mono Pass just a few miles south of Bennettville. However, just as everything started looking possible, the rug was pulled out. Eastern investors in the main company grew tired of pouring money in, but seeing nothing on the income side of the ledger. The development of the tunnel to over two thousand feet, the purchase of mining equipment still sitting in San Francisco and the high cost of a 30-mile road was simply too much for the investors.
Equipment was stored in the tunnel, the door was closed and locked. In Bennettville, buildings were closed up with dinner tables still set for meals, clothes hanging on walls, paperwork in the company office. Everything was left as if the occupants would be returning within a few weeks. Months went by. Years went by. The buildings deteriorated, the wind blew through and the paperwork scattered over the land.
A flurry of activity occurred later in the 20th century. The mine was reopened and the equipment roared again. The tunnel deepened to over three thousand feet, but no great shiny silver lode ever showed.
A few buildings and mineshafts, many prospect holes and a long dark tunnel are all that mark this brief flurry of activity on the land. But, some of the stories and many of the official records of these pioneers remain. Slowly, the portraits of once-living people are being re-drawn. And, sometime soon, it will all be set forth in a book.