Carson City Stories
Bull and Bear
"Old Dad" related his "experience" in the circus business in the Sazerac Lying Club one night. It was in the early days of Carson City, Nevada. Money was more plentiful than mosquitoes on the Carson River; gambling was as common as praying at camp meeting, and whisky as free as water. But the boys pined for a little excitement, and "Dad," who in those days was a moneyed prince, concluded to give it to them and at the same time-make a nice little clean-up for himself.
"Dad" had a partner, and to him he communicated his plan, which was to build an amphitheater a short distance out of town, send a hunter into the mountains to trap a bear, (bears were numerous in the Sierras) procure a bull, and have a regular old-fashioned bull-and-bear fight on the Mexican plan, and charge two dollars a head admission to view it. The partner fell in with the project; the amphitheater was built, the animals procured, and a day set for the fight, the announcement of the “entertainment" throwing three counties into the wildest excitement.
It appeared that in order to have the show go off in strict accordance with Mexican custom and rule, it was necessary to have a colored man to act the part of clown. The American colored men knew nothing about bull-fighting, and it was found impossible to persuade one of them to act the part, and the projectors of the show were in despair. They had bears, bulls, and Mexican bull-fighters, but no clown.
Finally they found a Central American Negro who understood the business, but lie was known as finch a tricky customer that it was not considered safe to employ him. And pay him any money to bind the bargain, for fear he would run off without fulfilling his contract. As this was in the days of Negro slavery, the showmen determined to buy the Negro, and own him out and out. He had no master, and belonged to no man but himself, so it was determined to purchase him of himself. In pursuance of a bargain which was struck up, the Negro was taken before a lawyer, by whom a bill of sale was drawn up, in which the Central American sold himself to the show proprietors for the sum of $500. He could neither read nor write, but affixed his mark to the document, and the sale was consummated.
On the day of the fight a procession was formed, headed by the Negro, tricked out in red flannel drawers and a spangled shirt, a brass band, and the Mexican bull experts, which marched to the amphitheater in the outskirts of the town, followed by a concourse of three thousand men. To make a long story short, the bull-and-bear fight was a failure. The bull, maddened at the sight of the clown's red flannel drawers, made a lunge at the unfortunate colored individual, and tossed him over its head, spoiling him for service as a clown for many a long day; to save the Negro’s life the Mexicans were forced to kill the bull, and the door-keeper ran away with the gate-money, amounting to some 86,000.
As the bull had rendered the Negro useless to them, the showman made him a present of himself back to himself; and there was not another bull-and-bear fight in Carson City for three weeks.
With the forgiveness of Fred H. Hart's 1878 collection of stories, The Sazerac Lying Club.
Journey, 1858 what could have happened.
If we were to tell the story of how Carson City came to be, part of the tale would be about the fateful journey made from Downieville, to Placerville then the overland stage to the lee side of the Sierra Nevada’s. If allowed a little license, the trip may have read something like this.
1858 Charles, Abraham Curry’s son tried to concentrate on the passing scenery and not focus on his churning stomach and the smell inside the battered Overland Stage. With each wicked turn, smashing drop and violent rock it was getting harder to focus and stay calm. His eyes and head hurt, he looked around at the other passengers but knew he had to hold his own. These were tough men who lived during tough times, sympathy would not be spared for a young man. They left Downieville to Placerville to catch one of Pioneer Stage Lines tri-weekly stages to Genoa. When they arrived in Placerville they met with the station manager, Theodore Smith just before leaving. An animated conversation ensued with Mr. Smith and a number of other men who were headed the next day out on the Carson Valley Express. There was heated talk of the Mormon situation, price of food, escalating problems with Indians and how long the mines in Red Dog, Downieville and Sutter’s Creek would hold. Charles had read Placerville’s newspaper, The Mountain Democrate, with interest during the stop over. There was considerable trouble back east. Talk of war with the southern states were headline news. It was impossible to imagine, war, a civil war over slavery. Charles wondered how far it might go? Would there be war out here? What sides would be taken, for, against? The stage slowed, bucking and rattling. Silver Creek was just a head and none too soon. Charles leapt out before any of the other and ran around the station to the bushes in back. His fortitude weakened, his bladder beaten about and head pounding Charles couldn’t hold back. His hand reached out and grabbed the rough fencing as his breakfast fed the sage and brush. Abraham Curry, Frank Proctor, J.J. Musser and Benjamin Green stepped off the stage, dusted themselves off and breathed deep the fresh Sierra air. “You can have about twenty minutes folks, then we’ll be on our way.” The driver dropped down and headed to the small halfway station. The men nodded, each headed off in different directions pleased to stretch and vacate. The trip for young and old alike was hard, though still better than 10 hours on horseback or buckboard, it was nonetheless, uncomfortable. Twenty minutes later they were settled in and being battered about covering the last leg of the journey towards Genoa. Mormons had been on the move away from the western Utah Territories, all called back by their church to defend their community back in Salt Lake City. Land became available and available cheap. The area was growing. Telegraph lines were being talked about. The Placerville & Humboldt Telegraph Company had been established to accommodate the surge. There was even talk of the Railroads running lines across the country. Heady times with money and progress around every turn. Back in Red Dog and Downieville they had long talks about the future, the west, railroads, telegraph, the war, gold, silver. Opportunities abound around them. Action was required to capitalize on these opportunities or they would disappear or be taken by someone else. The Carson Valley showed great promise and if not there, other points along the east side of the mountains were great possibilities. The driver was relentless and drove the team of six hard and even though the stage was equipped with a floating harness that hung the carriage like an egg in a cradle, the inside was still akin to scrambling passengers like eggs. They were all on a trip that would change their lives, would prove to be historic and would effect all those who passed this way after them.
George W. Gussak
There is living in Carson City a famous old cat who is generally known by the significant cognomen "Stump." This name was given him because of a shortcoming of the caudal appendage. Stump has also "bob ears." It is a matter of wonder to me why he is not called by the latter instead of the former name.
This feline is an old resident of Carson, having lived in the place for the last fifteen years. He is an immense creature. When I first saw him I thought he must belong to the wild cat family. I am told, however, that he is perfectly peaceable in disposition, and that the scratches upon his nose are only the results of exchanging love taps with his neighbors. I came to the conclusion that his offspring were numerous, from the strong family resemblance to be detected in many of the young felines in the neighborhood.
Stump does very little for the family, I assure you; he is like many men in this respect--so afraid that he might do something for the children of other cats that he will do nothing for his own. The younger felines may thank the superior industry and diligence of the mother cat, who is generally equal to the task of rearing her offspring, without assistance from relatives. I realize that cats have always been terribly misrepresented and slandered; but I am speaking only the truth when I say that Stump frequents all the most popular saloons in the vicinity. He may frequently be seen serenely sitting on a beer keg or counter, looking as if he did not care whether school kept or not.
Dogs have few rights or privileges which Stump feels bound to respect. If one happens by on his way from the meat market, Stump will pounce upon him and speedily relieve him of all further responsibility of marketing. Stump is recognized as one of the first settlers, is a member of the society of "Old Prospectors," and is treated with the acknowledged deference due an aged bummer. He puts up, for the present, at the "Old Globe Saloon."
We are now called upon to record the death of this most worthy creature who was endeared to the sympathizing hearts of this community by the mutual associations of a long and eventful life.
About fifteen years ago this cat was found by a townsman, in a half-starved condition, just as he had been dropped down from the moon or some unknown planet, after the obscure manner of cats. He was "taken in," fed and cared for in a way characteristic of the inhabitants of Carson City; the results were, that in a short time he became able to hunt for himself, and in so doing, to contribute his share of general blessings to the community by keeping rats, mice, small birds, all vermin and dogs within the limited sphere allotted them by nature.
As Stump leaves behind him many living friends and relations, it may be well to mention some of his faults as well as his many virtues.
Misfortune, adventure, disappointment and sorrow is the common lot of all creatures; most especially did this fall true to the early Carson residents, and Stump shared the common adversities and peculiar social reverses of many an early settler.
His associations were not always what they might have been. He spent his last days in a saloon. His last rest was upon a beer keg. It was a sad, although somewhat interesting sight to see Stump, with other invalids, taking his daily sun bath in the door of his favorite resort.
He seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of the common laws of health, and although a frequenter of doubtful places, was known to be perfectly temperate in his habits. Stump's early love-life, like that of most of the old settlers, has been one of many perils and hairbreadth escapes. The scars resulting from these adventures he carried to his last resting place. He was somewhat addicted to profanity, and would roll out terrible oaths, as cats are wont to do when vexed by the green-eyed monster, jealousy.
Notwithstanding his faults (and who has them not?) he played well his part in life, and departed, having the love and toleration of the entire community. On the 6th of April Stump took an informal leave of his old "stamping" ground; he was found dead by a man who frequented the "Old Globe".
When poor old Stump was stiff and cold, Alas! said he, poor Stump was very old. Jack may have thought, but nothing more he said; Just raised his hat and scratched his head, Drew off his boots and went to bed.
Excerpt from "Little Sheaves" Gathered While Gleaning After Reapers (1874), by Caroline M. Churchill.
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What may have transpired back in the spring of 58.
Spring 1858, late April. Pioneer stage run, Placerville to Genoa, Nevada Territory
“ Silver Creek’s ahead.” Charles Curry moaned, head hurt, stomach churning. Abraham Curry watched his son with a father’s sense of concern. The stage barely came to a stop when Charles leapt out. Frank Proctor, J.J. Musser and B.F Green slapped at the layers of dust standing by the stage. “ Not as green as Placerville.” Musser looked east at grey hills on the horizon. “ Not so many people neither.” Proctor commented. “ Ten minute’s folks.” The driver spit a black stream of chewing tobacco. Not much later the battered stage crested over a ridge. Immigrant cattle and oxen ravaged the broad grass fields but Carson Valley was still impressive. A few hours passed before the team of six slowed. Genoa. There was promise here but it wasn’t to be. A few hours later Curry and his traveling companions were back in the stage. Next stop, Eagle Ranch. J.J. Musser shook his head as he stared out the window at the shallow bowel they rode into. “ Eagle Ranch.” The driver called, came to a stop and stepped down. The travelers weary, spit dirt through their teeth then looked up at a weather beaten eagle. A thin man stepped from the shadows. “John Mankin’s the name. Frank Hall shot it back a few years. My place now. You passing through?” “ Not sure.” Abe Curry said carefully. The five men spent the rest of the day picking their way through sage and thicket, bramble and bush. “ It’s butt ugly land.” Musser quipped. “ Certainly not much to look at.” Curry shaded his eyes from the setting sun over the hills. “ But it’s smack on the immigrant trail.” That night they laid a proposal on the table. Mankin, a widower with four young daughters and a hazy reputation tried to hold off but Curry and the men held to a price. By morning it was settled. $300 in cash, the rest in 30 days, all for 865 acres. The stage driver, having breakfast out on a wooden table at the front of the building grinned at the men, tin coffee cups in hand. “ You paid how much good money for this?’ His eyes searched the scrub and brush, then began to laugh uncontrollably.
Did it happen exactly like this? No one can be sure but its very possible.
George W. Gussak
Christmas, 1860, Carson City (and glad to be alive)
A wind blew down from the canyons west. With it slid in a blanket of snow, just enough to cover the crust of frozen dirt that made up Curry, one of the streets named for the founder of Carson City. I stepped cautiously. Deep muddy ruts were covers by the silk white, a perfect place for a hoof or foot to be sprained and I wanted no part of finding myself staring straight up into the swirling abyss overhead. With elegant motion I stepped as though on eggshells.
Small billowing tufts of smoke rose then fled from the stout chimneys that lined the street. I could just make out the rear of the buildings that lined Carson Boulevard and the clutter of empty crates and lumber lay errant on the ground collecting drifts of snow. I hastened a look left and right, the tilt of my heavy hat and brim pulled down low made looking ahead difficult. Few were out. It was still very early, too early even for me. I tilted my head slightly left and listened to hear the steady smack and crack of an axe finding purchase. Within a few carefully orchestrated steps came to view the origins of the disturbance. I nodded towards the gentleman in coveralls swinging the deadly steel. He stopped for a moment to collect his work and nodded back. Within a few strong armed scoops he had the results of his labor and marched with gusto back toward his home.
A strong wind settled in again and I pulled tight the aging coat I had brought with me from Philadelphia, where it had served me very well indeed. The next house along my cold march was owned by a man who, as I understood it, was a lawyer of some distinction. A distinction probably self imposed I reasoned not having much use for lawyers and such. It was nonetheless a small, neat place with just the start of a picket fence. In his front yard stood a small wagon and the planted saplings of six trees, the kind of which I knew not but assumed in a few years would offer this quiet home fair shade from the beating sun come summer. Along the side stood a meager stall in which stood a mule, a horse of considerable size and what looked like sheep and goats but it wasn’t clear, the snow was blowing at such a stream anything past a few feet was difficult at best to see. A pert buckboard masked by a velvet coat of white rested close to the stall. The wagon wheels, loosing their shape in the colorless onslaught, gave the wagon a more than odd shape.
I turned my head the other way, towards the snap of a door and the hustle of boots on a wooden porch. A young man and his father stepped out under the cover of a short overhang and waved when they saw me coming. “ Miserable out ain’t it?” My brother stated the obvious. “ Yep”. I offered, frost coated my beard and moustache causing ice to form under my nose. I patted the sturdy shoulders of his son, Adam, who smiled and looked up catching my weary eyes. “Miserable for man or beast.” I added smiling a little. Adam just nodded and pulled his hat down and his collar up.
We three men of the west, tough and hardened by the land and circumstance walked towards the wood shed out back behind the white painted two story Victorian. My brother reached behind the shed and pulled out a sparse tree, shaking it firmly freeing the branches of snow. “ Kinda skinny ain’t it?” I grinned. “ T’ain’t much on the bone, much like you.” My brother drew a heavy hand and smacked it across my back, sending me into fits of coughing and gasping. Only months before I had a bout of influenza and fever losing considerable weight in the battle. I was recovering but still only fit into my pants with the aid of a tightened belt, more than four notches pulled in.
We stood on the porch, the tree twixed us grinning like Cheshire cats. My brother’s wife, Amanda, came to the door, a pretty woman, even with a hardened face and motioned us in. “ The girls are upstairs.” She whispered as we stole into the house like thieves, not to steal but to offer. It was after all, Christmas Eve.
In a quick motion my brother brought the scrawny sapling to the far corner of the room and set it on the plate of wood he already had in place. “ How have you been Charles?” She asked, genuine concern in her voice as she took my coat and stared at my skinny frame. “ You’re not much more than that twig.” “ Hey.” My brother snorted in protest. She smiled and winked, it was all that was needed between the two of them. How I envied their relationship.
From overhead I heard the patter of little feet then the quick decent down the stairs. Around the banister popped six wide eyes with a collective giggle that only children could illicit. It swelled my heart to see these beautiful children. Months back, when sweat and fever claimed me I feared for a time I would not be present to celebrate the birth of our Lord Christ in this little town on the edge of the Sierra Nevadas. But faith and an inbred tenacity brought me here, on this blustery day, to breath in the excitement Christmas brings to a child and the warmth and comfort it brings to a family.
“ Uncle Charlie!” They whooped and dove at me, almost knocking my bag of bones over. If it weren’t for the strong arms of my brother I surely would have collapsed under the collective force of gangly arms and legs. Tears welled then rolled freely down my face as little hands and arms gripped my sleeves and hands. I hugged each young child then held them collectively, feeling their breath, smelling their skin and hair. I had almost lost them. I was for a time, short for this earth and knew all I experienced from these days forward were gifts to be savored, to be enjoyed.
Tears cleared and I sat heavily in a chair and watched as the children of my brother circled the tree we brought in. Such joy, such unbridled affection, such happiness from children sheltered from the reality of the difficulties of life in Eagle Valley and the Washoe. My brother and his wife had done an admirable job of bringing these children into the world but they too knew that as the years passed all they could do was offer their unconditional love and provide what harbor they could from the storms and ill winds that may blow their way.
I vowed that day, as I watched with a bursting heart, that I would do all I could for these children, my brother and his wife.
It was later in the afternoon. The house smelled of wonderful meats, venison and vegetables, of bread and cinnamon. Amanda spent hours baking beans, salt pork and creating an amazing dry apple pie. It was truly a wonder what could be accomplished with what little stores available. She was a marvel to watch as she handled all three girls, Adam and her husband without missing a moment to stir, shake or adjust items in her kitchen.
Every door frames held bows of evergreen. Pine cones, nuts and holly branches lay on a corner table, a small bowl held a delightful treat of dried berries and nuts. This was bliss. A tiny harvest while the anger of winter battered the boards outside that held us all together. From the door came a knock and I stood, believing it my duty to answer since all were bustling about assigned their selective tasks. Out on the porch stood the stout pastor of our little church covered head to foot in a cloud of crystal snow. “ Please, please come in.” I beckoned. “ For just a moment.” He stood by the door and offered a strong handshake. “Merry Christmas Charles. You are looking much better.” “ Feeling much better thank you.” “ Father.” My brother walked up behind me and offered a strong hand and in the other, a cup of hot coffee spiked with a sizable splash of liqueur, as was the custom. “ Thank you and just a moment to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas. We expect to see you all for mass tomorrow morning.” He sipped at the misting concoction, nodding to my brother’s wife and towards the small children who hid behind her apron. He blew into the cup twice, tipped the brew and emptied the stiff drink before stepping back into the shelter of the overhanging porch. “ We’ll be there Father. Mind where you step, the cold and snow have covered the ruts.” My brother warned the portly minister “ I will. Enjoy the evening and Charles, try and stay well.” I nodded and stepped back inside.
The home was warm and cozy. A fire crackled and popped while a black pot hanging from a steal arm bubbled and hissed over the open flames. The smell of venison and spices drifted lazily through the air, adding to the delightful giggles and laughter of children. By this time the scrawny tree had been transformed into the most rich and becoming Christmas tree I had ever seen. Paper garland had been cut out and hung with great care. Each branch held strings of cookies and small brightly colored strips of paper. At the tips, very carefully affixed, were specially made cups that held candles settled into each bowl. They would be lit and carefully watched just before the children would be ready for bed.
Could there be a better time than this?
I perked up my ears and could hear off in the muted distance song. No, it couldn’t be. I recall in my youth a special Christmas when carolers strolled down the main streets of Philadelphia singing songs that came from home; from England, Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland. I stood and strained and couldn’t believe my ears.
Very quickly we all stopped, trained, then ran and opened the front door. There, to our great surprise, through the swirling snow, a small but hardy group stood and sang up a storm. I smile at the recollection for none among the hearty bunch really knew all the words. Give credit where it be due, they did make a grand effort of it but I also fear that if not careful, the compact choir might very well have found themselves fallen to the cold hard ground, grinning from ear to ear staring straight up at the cold dark sky. The attempt was there, their hearts were indeed in the right place and truth be told, they were all better folks for braving the weather and if bravery came in a bottle, who were we to judge. Bravo to all, we wished and a hearty send off we offered as they stepped sluggishly to the next house along their meandering path.
As we all settled in to enjoy a grand diner I pulled from my pocket hidden gifts I was careful not to show. For the girls I had managed to purchase peppermint candies and added a small collection of coins I had carefully saved. These were to be given with direct orders the money was to be spent on trivial nonsense. An argument I knew would ensue with their parents but I would hold my ground. Children should be children and should be given quarter to indulge while they were still young. The hardness of life would come fast enough. I could only offer them these few trivial moments and hope that in those fleeting moments they enjoy the innocence of youth.
For young Adam I found a smithy who had taken an old and trusty blade I owned and had him fashion a new leather sheath, engraving his name on the inside and on the steel blade. It wasn’t much but it was all I could offer. For Amanda I found a pair of warm gloves purchased from Indians who often came into Fort Churchill to trade and for my brother, who stood by me during those weeks and months of illness I could only offer a leather sack I had also negotiated from the same Indians. It was pitifully little for what they had brought for me. An exchange nowhere near fair but it was what it was. I had a home and I was not alone out here in barren west and for that I was humbly thankful and grateful.
I stood by the window looking out at Carson City, our little haven in the west. A small, shallow bowl on the lee side of the mountains that held the souls of men and women who came along deadly trails in the hopes of a better life, in the hopes of finding what was lost in the harsh, cold, violence of the east. The wide-open west held promise, but that promise did not come cheap. Some paid dearly with their lives while others prospered and yet others scratched by. Virginia City mining, the lumber business and talk of the railroad all made Carson City very appealing and I had great hope for the years ahead.
I smiled at the neat collection of homes lining Curry. A horse drawn sled pushed through, a bundled driver cracked a small whip as he negotiated the street. My breath clouded the glass that separated me from the cold, I touched it just to feel the frost. A hand came to me with a cup of steaming coffee laced with enough alcohol that if left by the wall might begin to peal Amanda’s new wallpaper. I cupped the hot cup and give humble thanks that I was alive, and here, in this place, at this time.
Carson City, Christmas, 1860.
George W. Gussak
Uncle John and the Sage Hens
When it came his turn at the regular called session of the Sazerac Lying Club last night, Uncle John Gibbons stated the circumstances that caused the detention of the Carson and Silver Springs stage the other day.
He said that while crossing Carson Plains, a short distance this side of the salt-marsh, he observed what he at first supposed to be a heavy bank of dark clouds descended on the valley. A phenomenon by no means unusual in this section and termed by the Shoshone Indians "Pogonip."
As the stage approached nearer to the object, however, he became convinced that the mass was composed of living creatures. From here we will tell the story in his own words:
“The team was gittin' kind of scary, but I held 'em level, and as I kept gittin' nearer I saw the thing warn't nothin' but a flock of sage-hen ; so I jest threw the silk at the leaders, and yelled fire and brimstone to the wheelers, calk'latin' to slash the team squar' through the flock without any trouble. But, boys, thar' was more sage-hen obstructin' of that road than I had reckoned on; and when them thar leaders struck into them thar sage-lien they was throwed back on their ha'nches jest as if they had butted clean up ag'in a stun' wall. As far's you could see there warn't nothin' but sage-hen ; you could about see the top of the pile of 'em ; but there was no more estimatin' how thick it was through than estimatin' how old a hoss is by twistin' its tail. Thar I was banked up by a lot of insignificant sage-hen, and the United States mail detained in the big road by feathers—as you might remark. Wal, to make a long story short, I unhitched one of the wheelers and straddled him and rode back to the station for help.
"Thar was a feller from town doin' some prospectin' on one of the hills near the station, and when I got to the house this here prospector was sittin' by the fire, hevin' come down to borrow some matches. I stated the situation in a hurry, and the hostler and the cook they saddled up some of the stage stock and got a couple of axes, intendin' to go back with me and chop a road through the sage-hen. But this here prospector he spoke up and says he:
"See here, boys, says he, "don't you think we could blast 'em out quicker'n we could chop through em ?"
"And the hostler and the cook spoke up and said they thought so, too.
"And then this here prospector he went up on the hill and got his drills and his sledges and a lot of giant-powder cartridges and some fuse, and the rest of the blastin' apparatus, and then the whole raft of us started back for the place where the stage was; and when we got thar—well I wish I may be runned over by a two-horse jerk-water if there was a sage-hen in sight as far's a man could see with a spy-glass.
“I hope you fellers is contented now you know what kept the stage late the other night."