When I was in the eighth grade at Margaret Keating School, I wrote this story and have since added information and material and re-edited it a time or five. I left it in the original third-person form rather than edit it into the first-person format like I generally do for most of my stories. I hope the remainder of my family doesn’t ex-communicate me for revealing this conversation I had with my Grandma Leola — one of G.W.’s daughters.
“Those years must have been pretty hard on your father,” the 13-year old boy said as he helped his Grandma dry the dinner plates. She was telling him about difficulties her father had before they moved to what was now known as Fortuna.
“Yes, it was Tommy,” she answered. Then she added, “I’m surprised he even lived through some of that stuff.”
Her father, G.W. had taken on a job as a teamster. He was not quite 30 years old but could handle a line of six horses better than most men in the Humboldt County area.
Though he wasn’t a drinking man or a gambler, G.W. did on one occasion bet brothers Andrew and Jacob Starar, who were the proprietors of the Star Hotel in Rohnerville that he could drive a jerk-line of horses all the way around the block that their business sat on.
Their wager was one drink.
Soon horses from all over southern Humboldt were being lined up tail-to-nose to see if it could be done. G.W. lined out the horses with the lead horse right behind his wagon.
With a flick of his wrist, the wagon jumped forward and minutes later G.W. was circling the block. For show, he drove the wagon around twice more without a tangle or foul in the leathers.
G.W. mostly worked alone as he drove the large wagons back and forth from Bridgeville to the town of Springville or Slide. There he would stop by his brother’s home and his sister-in-law would fix him something to eat, then he’d retire to the barn for a few hours of sleep.
Before the U.S. Postal service established itself in rural Northern California, locals called the Fortuna area, Slide. This was on the account of a large slide south of Eureka always hindering travelers to the town.
Later it was renamed Springville but the post office said the town couldn’t have the name because a Springville was already established in California. So the town-fathers chose to stick with the name “Slide.”
It would be years later that Slide or Springville, would be changed to Fortuna, meaning ‘Fortune.’ No one knows how the name Fortuna was come-upon in the first place, but for years there after mail to the town had to be addressed “Slide” in order for it to arrive.
If G.W. wasn’t at his brother’s home in Springville, he would stay at the home of Salmon Brown in Rohnerville, just south-east of Springville. Brown was one of the sons of Abolitionist John Brown. He was only 22 when his father was hanged for his attack on Harper’s Ferry.
He lived next door to his step-mother Anne Brown on Church and Brown streets as did his two sisters. Brown also had 3 thousand acres of land in Bridgeville, where he raised sheep. It would be years later that one of Brown’s nephews would marry one of G.W. daughters.
Most often though G.W. could be found walking beside a wagon, jerk-line in hand, hauling supplies over the hillside through Springville, Newburg, Rohnerville, Hydesville and onto Bridgeville, or dragging massive loads of split redwood planks back into the town. He was known as a hard work man.
“It was early morning in late September as I recall,” Tommy’s Grandma said, “One of the worst rainy season people could remember and the land was saturated and very muddy.”
G.W. was loaded down with over 15-thousand feet of cut redwood as he came to the northern side of Bridgeville. It was there that the road started up a steep grade that few men would want to walk let alone take a team of horse up. These included places like Goat Rock, Petty Flat, Swains Flat, Woenne Flat and the infamous Devil’s Elbow.
But G.W. had made the journey several time and thought nothing of the potential hazards as he commanded the draught horses forward and onto the southern slope. It took them about four-hours to complete the climb through the mud and rocks washed up by the rain.
He decided to rest the team for half an hour at the little village of Hydesville and eat his dinner before heading down the north face of the rutted hill. As he sat on the heavy stack of redwood planks he thought about the decent into Springville.
“I think it would be best to go to the west of the roadway,” he said to himself as he chewed the remainder of his beef steak sandwich. G.W. knew that the trail west of the main road to the settlement of Alton was not often used. He figured that it wouldn’t be as rutted and muddied either.
G.W. turned the team just south of Wolverton Gulch. He slapped the lead horse with the left rein and the large draft animal pulled the team to that side. G.W. stepped off to the left and remained in back of the wagon while the horses worked the wagon onto the trail.
As he stood there watching and directing, the lead’s harness line failed. The leather made a small popping noise that startled the horse, causing it to rear slightly then step backwards.
When it stepped backwards it faltered and fell onto its left side, then was stepped on by the off-side lead horse. G.W. realized at that moment he was in for a wreck and there was no way to control the oncoming accident.
The load shifted to the right side as the wagon rolled backward and over a large rock that protruded from the ground on the left side. Without warning the timber’s strappings gave way and the redwood planks tumbled off the wagon in a thunderous roar.
G.W. was helpless to stop what was happening and he did his best to get out-of-the-way. However one of the planks slid downward at him and slammed him to the wet earth. The blow was just above the right knee and he felt the bone of that leg shatter under the weight of the wood.
“As Papa used to tell it,” Grandma said, “He was blessed to have gone unconscious from the pain.”
By the time G.W. awakened it was nearly dark. He felt sick to his stomach and his head throbbed. The broken leg was still trapped under the planking and the pain was enough to drive him wild.
He saw that one of the horse’s had been killed when the lumber fell on it and the other five animals had wandered away. The rain was still falling when he lost consciousness again.
The next time G.W. awoke, he was engulfed in complete darkness. He could not see much but he could feel the tremendous pain from his injured leg. All he could do was hope and pray someone would come to look for him.
As he lay, broken and hurting, G.W. thought about the last time he had wrecked. In that one he was fortunate enough to have escaped with a bruised shoulder and broken hand.
He had just come to Humboldt County, settling first in the Orick area near his older brother, David. When he came to the region he was said to be wearing an old beat-up beaver-felt hat and carried a large pistol in his waist band.
Upon seeing this, many of the residents thought he was a wild one. It had been rumored that he was a gunfighter and had even been on the lam from the law. None of it was true, but it didn’t hurt G.W.’s reputation any.
“The only gun play I was involved in,” he told his children, “was the time I used a plank to try to stop a fellow from shooting someone up.”
According to his memory, G.W. and a friend rode to a ranch near Blue Creek where a man who had reportedly slandered the friend’s wife was working. The friend was intent on confronting the man and ending the gossip. He took G.W. along as a witness.
When they arrived, the friend and the other man started out just talking. The two men were civil to each other for a few minutes, then the yelling and shouting commenced.
Without warning the man shouted, “You want to end this, well let’s end it.” He pulled out a large pistol he had stuffed behind him in his waistband. There was a thunderous roar and all the ranch hands and residents came to see what the commotion was all about.
G.W.’s friend was sitting on the ground with a bloodied thigh and the man who fired the shot was laying facedown in the yard. It was G.W. who had ended the gunfight. He was standing behind the man with the pistol, holding a large stick of wood.
“I clubbed him as soon as I saw him going for that old hog leg,” G.W. told the gathering onlookers. He knew his friend was unarmed.
Soon G.W. found himself a job as a butcher. It was solid work and it didn’t pay as much as the young man had hoped. He wanted to be in business for himself.
“That’s how a man makes a name for himself,” he told his daughter, Leola. She knew he was right because that is just how he had done it. G.W. was a well-known man in southern Humboldt in his later years.
G.W. learned the way of business quickly. He was young but had an eye for studying how things were done. Soon he found himself the owner of a barrel-making factory and employer to his two brothers.
Between the packing house and the barrel making venture, G.W. was able to start buying cattle and stocking his 160-acres in Ferndale, which was just east of Springville. Before long he was butchering his own beef and started his own packing plant.
G.W. had seen how to corner a market. He owned barrels in which to pack meat that he was butchering. By the time he was 23, G.W. was fairly wealthy according to the standards of the times. He was nearly as well-to-do as William Carson of Eureka, some said.
Carson was a lumber magnate, who had jumped into the timber business long before anyone else realized the importance of wood for a growing nation. They lived in style and even built a mansion near Humboldt Bay so the old man could watch his profits go to sea.
It was during these years that G.W. decided to get into the teamster business. He was not one for sitting around.
“Hard work is what builds character,” he was often heard telling his children.
His desire to work and add to this wealth was a driving force when he signed on to drive the Bridgeville to Springville Overland Express. It was simply an open air wagon with a six-horse team that raced over the hill from Bridgeville to Springville twice a day.
G.W had been employed for four-months when tragedy occurred. The wagon was filled with six passengers. Some were regular riders, who had business in both towns and some where fresh to the Humboldt County area.
“I pushed the team around the bend, near Devil’s Elbow when for some reason the second horse at my on-side fell dead,” he recalled as he sat in his favorite rocker puffing on a pipe.
The horse had dropped so quickly and without any warning. The horse behind it tripped and that started the string of misfortune. Suddenly all the horses were down and the wagon was pitching skyward.
It rolled over to the left then tumbled down the hillside into a raven filled with deadfall trees and rock outcropping. G.W. was able to jump to his right and get clear of the accident before it dropped into the ravine.
So were most of the other passengers. Only one, a young woman up from Sacramento, remained with the doomed wagon.
“She fell to her death or was crushed,” G.W. told his listeners. He said he couldn’t remember what exactly killed her.
The five remaining passengers and G.W. gathered themselves up and with G.W. appointing one man to stay with the dead woman; they walked back down the hill to Bridgeville. The town gathered to see the survivors of the first ever accident of an express in the area. They were horrified to learn an innocent woman had died as a result of the accident.
He tried to get the image of that day out of his head and focus on the situation he found himself in. Still his mind drifted back and forth as he struggled against the pain, the cold and the rain.
“It seemed like hours had come and gone,” G.W. had told his children, “Before I heard someone calling my name.”
He had been trapped for so long and was in so much pain that G.W. thought he was dreaming. But he wasn’t a small rescue party had set out just after dark to look for him when he didn’t arrive at his brother’s house that afternoon.
It took an hour for the party to lift the slab off him, load G.W. up in a small buckboard wagon and head down the hill to Bridgeville. And even though it was a rough and bumpy ride, his broken leg being jostled back and forth, G.W. refused to complain.
Someone had thought to send a rider ahead to notify the doctor that they were bringing an injured man into town. They were met on the road near Rohnerville by Doctor Delamere, who undoubtedly doubled asFerndale’s dentist and barber.
“Doctor Delamere was able to save your great-grandpa’s leg,” Grandma said, “but he always walked with a slight limp from then on.”
She paused for a few seconds then said, “It’s kind of ironic to know that your great-grandpa ended up buying that express line a couple of years later, running it successfully for over a decade and he never had an accident on that road again in all those years.”
Tommy looked at her and asked, “So what became of the stage-line?”
She smiled and answered, “I think Papa sold it to theU.S.government after he blazed a roadway to Crescent City, besides the car was becoming popular.”
According to Tommy’s Grandma, G.W.’s health took a turn for the worse shortly after his wife, Jenny Mae Babcock died. They had met just after the turn of the century. She came from Redding and had been a seamstress in Springville when they got married.
Jenny Mae died as a result of a blow to her head, though the official word from Doctor Beckwell was that she passed away from a brain tumor. She had been sick for many months because of the tumor and was not expected to live long.
The doctor said that she had fallen from the top of the stairs and struck her head, which killed her. But G.W. was suspicious of the circumstances. He couldn’t find the leather satchel that Jenny Mae usually wore around her neck.
“I can still remember the large black stain in the wood,” Grandma said. “Papa tried everything to get it out, but he finally had to tacked down a piece of rug to hide it.”
She looked out the window above the sink at the old two-story house across the field. It was the home she grew up in and where that terrible memory still haunted the old woman.
G.W. had the house built just before he sold the express line. He had decided that it would be better to raise his family in town rather than deny them of the luxury of a gentler life. Even Jenny Mae appreciated moving into the large, new home along Rhonerville Road.
Jenny Mae had grown up in the rough and wild town of Shasta. She was the product of a father who, though he worked very hard, didn’t have a head for business. Her father had lost a number of enterprises over the years.
She eventually saved up enough money to move to Redding, which was less than five miles south of her current home. It was while living in Redding that she purchased a small coin purse, which she called her satchel, which she wore around her neck.
It was also in Redding where she met G.W. for the first time. She would move to Eureka shortly thereafter and the couple would happen upon one another again, though nobody know exactly how that meeting occurred.
The satchel contained several pieces of gold and now it was missing. It would be weeks before G.W. found it. The gold was missing.
It was rumored that the old man had found the satchel stuffed under William’s cotton batten mattress. He had also reportedly discovered blood on the bed stead in Jenny Mae and his room.
“He never spoke to Billy again after that October night,” Grandma Leola said. “He kicked my brother out of the house and that was that.”
This led family members to speculate that William may have hit his mother in the head, stole the gold and left her dying in the front parlor of their home. After the boy left home, he moved back east and ended up dying in a Ohio prison, so nobody ever really knew all the facts.
Then there was the strange story that G.W. had taken an Indian bride when he first arrived in Humboldt County. It had been a common practice for single men living out on the edges of the frontier to take a wife from the local Native American tribes.
And family members recalled a teenaged native girl by the name of Catherine being spoken of a couple of times by G.W. in his later years. And though her last name was the same as G.W.’s, nobody could remember where she had come from, only that she had died before the century at 16 years old.
The rumor could never be founded. But oddly enough, some of G.W. and Jenny Mae’s children appeared on the official registry for the Hupa Tribe before Jenny Mae’s death at the age of 47.
“But you have to know, your great-grandpa was full of tales,” Grandma said, changing the subject. “He used to talk about being held up by Black Bart near Horseshoe Rock.”
Tommy smiled, having heard the story before. But he listened anyway, hoping to find some detail he had never heard before.
According to G.W., the express was carrying a shipment of cash headed for San Francisco. Only three people knew that it was supposed to be on the wagon that day and G.W. was one of them.
All was going well that sunny day, until the empty stage started around the bend at Horseshoe Rock. G.W. saw the man step out into the roadway with a shotgun in hand. He wore a white bag over his head and was well dress.
“Toss down the box,” the man shouted.
G.W. looked around and saw three rifles leveled at him. They were high in the crags of Horseshoe Rock. He pulled the box out from under his seat and dropped it to the ground.
“Get out of here,” the gun-toting bandit ordered.
G.W. shook the reins and the wagon lurched forward and down the hillside towards town. He didn’t even bother to look back.
When he arrived in Bridgeville, the sheriff mounted a posse to go search for the stage robbers. At the sight of hold-up, Horseshoe Rock, they found the empty strong box and three tree branches poking out of the rocky hillside.
An alarm went out to the neighboring communities to look for strangers as the posse searched for signs of the robbers. They never found their trail and it is said that they made off with over $100 thousand dollars in cash.
“Later, “Grandma added, “we would find out that Black Bart couldn’t have been the bandit as he was in prison when Papa was born.” She chuckled a tiny bit, and then said, “I never understood how we lived so well off.”
Suddenly Tommy realized that his image of his great-grandpa wasn’t as perfect as he had originally been lead to believe. He could see what his grandma was saying and it was just the kind of detail he had never heard or would have thought of himself.
Tommy’s great-grandfather had come to the Humboldt County area as a young man. He had been a drifting cowboy then and with hard work and imagination became a respected business man.
He looked at the old and faded photograph of his great-grandparents, as it hung in the hallway and thought out loud, “You even had help from Black Bart.” The irony wasn’t lost on Tommy that the old man in the picture even resembled the famed highwayman.