January 2004 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



The Big Hole Mine vs The Bullion Brick

by Cecile Page Vargo as told by Jim Townsend

       In my research on Lying Jim Townsend, I found this little gem of a story taken from an 1890 Carson Appeal column reprinted in Hawthorne Nevada’s Walker Lake Bulletin.  Thanks to Michael H. Piatt and his wonderful book:  Bodie “The Mines Are Looking Well..” published by North  Bay Books El Sobrante, California .

     While Jim Townsend was (in Carson City) a few weeks ago, he was sitting by the Arlington House stove talking in his usual exaggerated vein. 

          “If you want to see mining on a big scale, go to Mono county.”

          “How big?” said a little man close by.

          “Why the Big Hole Mine, that I am connected with, has the deepest shaft and the biggest workings in the world.”

          “How deep?”  said the little man. 

          “You can’t measure it, because if we stopped work long enough to see how deep the shaft was, it would interfere with bullion production. We dropped a line down once and reeled it out until it broke with its own weight.  When a boy falls down the shaft, he strikes the bottom a grandfather.”

          “Must have a big payroll?”

          “We used to send the money down to the hands in cages until the workings got so deep that we didn’t get the winter account settled until a way along in the spring.  So we started a bank and telegraphed the money orders.  That system saved us an awful wear and tear on the cages.  The miners live down there and rear there families.  They got an underground city bigger’n Carson, with a regular charter and municipal elections twice a year. They publish two daily papers and a literary magazine.”

          “I never heard of the magazine,’ said the stranger. 

          “Of course not, it would be a year before it got to you.  Besides they hold a fair there annually and racing every Saturday.  Finest four mile track in the world, lit with electric light.  No mud, no dust, always in the same condition.  Perfect paradise for sports.  What do you think of that for a mine?”            


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He Lied His Way Through the Mining Camps

by Cecile Page Vargo

          Modern readers are quick to associate Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Dan DeQuille with the stories they wrote about the California and Nevada mining camps in the mid to late 1800’s. However, few are familiar with James W. E. Townsend, more affectionately known as “Lying Jim”. James W. E. Townsend was so popular, even the editors published stories about him.  To enlighten you to this man’s lifetime and career, we turn the clock back to May 27, 1882 , in Virginia City, Nevada .  Readers throughout the Comstock Lode were amazed to read this story of Townsend’s life and career:  

          “James W. E. Townsend the gentleman who is making the local department of the Reno Gazette sparkle these days has led a remarkable life.  From information imparted by him to his friends while he lived on the Comstock, we learn that he was born in Patagonia , his mother, a noble English lady, having been cast ashore after the wreck of her husband’s yacht, in which they were making a pleasure trip around the globe. She was the only person saved.  After the birth of her son, and September having arrived (there being an “r” in that month) she was killed and eaten. Jim was saved out as a small stake and was played until his twelfth year against the best grub at the command of the savage tribe for fattening purposes.  Then he escaped on a log, which he paddled through the Straits of Magellan with his hands, and was picketd (sic) up by a whaler and taken to New Bedford.”

          “At the age of 18 he entered the Methodist ministry and preached with glorious results for ten years, when he went to the Sandwich Islands as a missionary to Kanaka heathen, and remained for twenty years.  Then he reformed and returned to New York and opened a saloon, which he ran successfully and made a large fortune.  In an evil hour for himself, but to the world’s advantage, he tried his hand at journalism.  Fifteen years of this reduced him once more to poverty and preaching.  For thirty years longer Mr. Townsend occupied the pulpit, when he went back to the saloon business, after eighteen years of industrious drinking on the part of the public he brought his wealth to the Pacific Coast.  This was in 1849.”

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Can This Mine be Saved?
You Can Make a Difference

           Tucked away in the Sierra Nevada Mountains high above the Mono Basin is an almost completely intact mine and mill.  Legend has it that two prospectors wondered up the mountain and discovered gold, but one miner was killed in an avalanche before they could do anything with the claim. The year would have been1890, and the  original file on this claim was listed as  the Mendocino. The mine and mill were active through the 1980’s.

            Until recently, only a few tried and true ghost towners or local residents have ventured up the dusty dirt road, and explored the area. Most refused to talk much about it in fear that less mindful  people would haul everything away. Today, the Inyo National Forest and the Mono Basin Historical Society have joined hands in efforts to preserve what remains. Plans are in the making to make this area safe for general public access to this important part of California ’s mining history.  Buildings are being locked and safety hazards removed.  Plexiglas may replace glass windows for viewing the complicated mining machinery inside these buildings. Interpretive signs may be put up to help visitors identify what they are seeing.  There’s even talk that a  caretaker will stay at the site during the summer months.

            The Mono Basin Historical Society is spearheading the preservation efforts for this nearly forgotten mine and mill, but they  can’t do this alone. If enough interest from people who care about preserving our mining history is not shown, there is a possibility that these efforts will stall, and this historic site will  fall victim to the harsh winter weather and to the vandals and souvenir hunters who have discovered it.

            Please e-mail us at info@explorehistoricalif.com or contact Don Banta of the Mono Basin Historical Society (760-647-6627) or mbhs@qnet.com, or the Inyo National Forest (760-647-3044), if you would like to  help save this endangered mine and mill.    Volunteers are also needed to help  collect oral or written histories from old timers that actually worked in this mine.  

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Our Tours with Ecological 4-Wheeling Adventures

We're climbing into 2004!

Please check here  for our 2004 tour schedule.

Explore Historic California!

     Not too many years ago, the family station wagon was the magic carpet to adventure. Today, that family station wagon is likely to be a four wheel drive sport utility vehicle or pick up truck. SUV's and other 4x4's are one of the best selling classes of vehicles. Ironically, industry statistics show that once purchased, few owners will dare to drive their vehicles off the paved highway. Click your mouse through our website and enjoy our armchair adventures and the histories behind them. If you are interested in taking one of our guided tours with your vehicle, please visit our ECOLOGICAL 4-WHEELING ADVENTURES.

     Several years ago, we bought our first SUV. We went to a one-night class at a local community college entitled "How to 4-Wheel Drive" by Harry Lewellyn. The following weekend we attended the hands-on day tour. We liked what we were doing so much that we began going out nearly every weekend and learned how to negotiate a variety of dirt roads. Our spare time was spent doing research on the history and ecology of our favorite areas. A one-day outing turned into 15 years of leading others on mini-vacations throughout Southern California and the Owens Valley.

     Our 4WD outings involve driving on easy to moderate dirt roads and are ideally suited to novice and intermediate level drivers. All tours are suitable for stock vehicles in good condition, although some tours do have vehicle size restrictions.

     Our tours are operated under permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other authorities.

     We share our knowledge of the backcountry over the CB radio with our guests. We frequently stop to explore mining areas, old and new, and ponder the rocks, plants and animals we may encounter. We'll occasionally visit an old cabin or deserted mountain lookout.

     California has a fascinating history, from geologic unrest and prehistoric petroglyph scribes to the "Radium Queen of the Mojave" and the "Human Mole of Black Mountain." Load up your 4X, fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore historic California.

Roger, Cecile and Marty

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