By Cory Peterman
While casually browsing through some old newspapers not long ago, I came across a remarkable photo that is said to depict Madam Romargi, the keeper of the infamous roadhouse known as the Sierra-Nevada House. For those of you not familiar with the story of Madam Romargi and her wayside inn, you can find my series on it online. The place was said to be “sinister, undesirable, and rugged” and “was known as the resort of the worst band of desperadoes in the country” according to early newspapers. It is written that everyone passing by the Sierra-Nevada House “was expected to stop and patronize their bar. Indeed they found it safer to do so. If Madam Romargi was not pleased with anyone, she would take a shot at him – a ‘gentle’ reminder to do better by them” and that “several miners, who had been known to be ‘headed’ for this place, rather well supplied with ‘dust’ or coin, had mysteriously ‘disappeared,’ but probably, having no relatives, nothing was ever done about it.” Madam Romargi was known to carry “in the folds of her dress, an ancient dagger and also a fully-loaded six-shooter.” So considering the fear people had of Jane Romargi, how did someone manage to capture her on camera?
The Marysville Appeal-Democrat of April 15, 1941 printed the attached photo, taken presumably sometime in the 1890s, with the following caption which I have censored: “‘Lady of Ni**er Tent’, Notorious Yuba Resort, Preserved in Photo.” The article states “This is believed to have been the only time the mistress of the notorious Yuba [sic] county mountain road house was ever photographed… With the madam is seen Harry Wyrick, one of the old time stage drivers…” The unsavory history of the Sierra-Nevada House is made clear in the article, it being stated that many “who stopped there on their way down to Marysville from the mines, were never seen again. Still others were seen but as dead bodies hidden away in the brush or left on the highway.”
The photo was taken by a young Jeanette Heintzen Lawrence (1869-1960), a native of Forest City who later found success as a writer and lecturer. Decades after taking the photo, having seen it reprinted in the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Mrs. Lawrence wrote to The Mountain Messenger about the photograph. She wrote that in her opinion, Madame Romargi “was always kind, because she considered my father, Charles Heintzen, had ‘never cheated her.’ But to have a picture taken was out! Decidedly out, and the owner of the camera usually went out, too.
With my brand new camera, on my way back to school below, I was most eager to get her picture, but of course did not mention it. She did not recognize the small black box as anything but a small black box, so had no thought concerning it.
She came out on the porch as was her custom, to see the stage start and as she talked with Harry Wyrick I snapped the picture, which turned out well. As far as I know it is the only one ever taken of her: the only one in existence, and I am quite sure she never knew it had been taken.”
The Sierra-Nevada House was destroyed by fire in 1888 then rebuilt. Madam Romargi died in the county hospital in Downieville on January 16, 1899, thus ending the reign of the Romargi clan. In August 1904, a forest fire consumed the newer Sierra-Nevada House and surrounding outbuildings, and today nothing remains of the former settlement.
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