Sierra County History

Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Early Schools of Downieville

With graduation right around the corner, perhaps it’s time for the Downieville High School Graduates to learn about the early history of their school, if they have not done so already. The sign above the entryway to the school says “Est. 1884”, though this date could be debated.

In the Fall 1982 issue of The Sierran published by the Sierra County Historical Society, Downieville’s early schools are discussed, the publication stating that “Sierra County’s first school was a private one, started in Downieville in the spring of 1853. The finances necessary were raised by subscription from the few families who had children. Since teaching was not a very lucrative profession, each of the first three men who tried his hand at it soon resigned. In the fall of 1853, a Mrs. Schoemaker established a school in a town building with a succession of men following her as teachers.”

In 1856, George Hardy, an early pioneer and father of numerous children upon which he wished a good education, started a subscription to raise money to build a schoolhouse (the Hardy Ranch is now home to the Lure Resort). It is stated Hardy “raised $800 and the contract was let to George Webber and another party for $780. At this time, the public also owed a considerable amount of money to the former teachers. To defray this debt, a theatrical performance was given in the Downieville Theater. The play was a huge success, netting about $700.” The Placer Herald of May 3, 1856 comically reported “Speaking of a squabble in Downieville about a school house, in which it seems the members of the different churches are taking stock pro and con, [the editor of the Sierra Citizen] remarked quite pithily, that ‘a number here are just about far enough advanced in christianity to be jealous of each other, and for this reason the school should be a separate and distinct institution.’”

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Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Webber Lake Guests

In 2018, thanks to the wonderful efforts of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, Corri Jimenez (current Vice-President of the Sierra County Historical Society and expert in historic preservation) and others, Sierra County became home to another building listed on the National Register of Historic Places – the Webber Lake Hotel constructed in 1860.

Once a key stop on Henness Pass Road, the hotel was constructed by Dr. David Gould Webber, who also constructed the original county courthouse earlier in 1854 (this beautiful structure burned down in 1947). Webber Lake has been a recreational haven for decades, and many people have visited the Webber Lake Hotel, including quite a few well-known characters.

The Truckee Donner Land Trust states that actress Lola Montez (1821-1861) was once a guest at the hotel. However, I do not find this claim accurate (Ms. Jimenez also questioned the veracity of this statement as well in her historic structures report). I invite my readers to refer to my article from March of this year entitled “The Elusive Lola Montez.” Frankly, I believe it is impossible Lola Montez stayed at the Webber Lake Hotel, as she left California in 1856, spent some time in Britain, and soon after returned to the East Coast, where by 1860, she was withering away from the effects of tertiary syphilis. She died the following year in New York City. Considering the Webber Lake Hotel was built in 1860, a stay from Lola Montez seems implausible – though she quite likely passed by the lake on her earlier journey to nearby Independence Lake in 1853.

Continue reading “Cory’s Historical Corner”

Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Familial Ties to Sierra County

Over two years ago, I wrote an article about well-known people that once called Sierra County home. However, there are several other well-known figures that have familial ties to Sierra County, and though I do not have the space to include all of these people in this article, I’ll include a few below.

The American Broadway musical composer Cole Porter (1891-1964), though born in Indiana, was descended from Sierra County pioneers. His mother, Kate, was born at Brandy City in 1862. Her parents, James Omar Cole and his wife Rachel Henton Cole, had come out to Sierra County during the Gold Rush from Peru, Indiana. The elder Cole worked in various mining endeavors around Brandy City and nearby Oak Valley. After over a decade in Sierra County, the family returned to the midwest town of Peru, where James Omar Cole would later become “the richest man in Indiana.”

Another famous American composer with familial ties to Sierra County (through his second marriage) was Irving Berlin (1888-1989). In 1926, Berlin married Ellin Mackay, the granddaughter of Comstock baron John Mackay and his wife, Marie Louise Antoinette Hungerford, who came to Downieville at the age 10. Before her marriage to Mackay, Ms. Hungerford was married to Dr. Edmund G. Bryant, Sierra County’s first county physician. The couple would stay connected to various communities in Sierra County (primarily Downieville, Poverty Hill, and La Porte, which was then part of Sierra County) until the doctor’s death in 1866. The young widow then married John Mackay, himself a former Sierra County resident, the following year. Ellin Mackay Berlin, the granddaughter of the Mackays, wrote several books during her lifetime, including The Silver Platter, published in 1957, which chronicles her grandmother’s youth in Downieville.

Continue reading “Cory’s Historical Corner”

Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Warren Harding – Rock Climber

This biographical sketch focuses on Warren “Batso” Harding, a rock climber who spent the majority of his youth in Sierra County. For my readers who are unfamiliar with Harding, he was the first person to successfully climb the nose of El Capitan at Yosemite. He also completed many other first ascents at Yosemite, including the east face of Washington Column, the south face of Mount Watkins, the south face of Half Dome, the Wall of the Early Morning Light, and the Porcelain Wall; Harding was also the first to ascend California’s Keeler Needle and the West Face of Mount Conness.

Warren John Harding was born in Oakland on June 18, 1924 to William Henry Harding and his wife Agnes Berle Pursel, the couple having married in Iowa in 1922. A younger sister, Ardeth, was born in Iowa in 1929. Agnes claimed her husband’s family was related to U.S. President Warren G. Harding, stating “My late husband’s people came from the same Kansas town that President Harding’s people moved to from Ohio years back… [after the President’s death] I wrote to his widow and told her I was expecting a child.” The expectant mother stated she “received an immediate reply with a request that she name the infant, if it was a boy, after the President.” President Harding’s widow sent the newborn Warren “a sealed album with instructions that it was not be opened until his 21st birthday… but when Warren was 11 and living in Downieville, Calif., a house fire destroyed the unopened book and its contents.” Agnes stated “We never knew what was in it.”

Continue reading “Cory’s Historical Corner”

Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Loyalton Electric Light Company

I was recently contacted by Bob Feeny, who reached out recently to me and those who read the Sierra Booster for information regarding the Loyalton Electric Light Company. He wrote “Tom Dotta’s grandfather, Antone Dotta, operated a hydroelectric generating plant from 1900 to 1915. It was called ‘Loyalton Electric Light Company’ and supplied electricity to Loyalton and to the California Pine Box & Lumber Company. Thanks to Tony Finder, we believe we have found the remaining foundation or ruins on Smithneck Creek just south of Sierra Brooks Campground. We are hoping someone has knowledge or photographs of the actual site and route of the original transmission lines.

The 1912 Sanborn map of Loyalton, which can be found on the Library of Congress website, shows the Loyalton Electric Light Company plant located at the south end of Railroad Avenue at the edge of town, just north of the Roberts Lumber Comany’s lumber yard (in the vicinity of the present-day cogeneration plant). A note stated the electric light plant “runs night only. Man in charge at night. Steam power from Plumas Box & Lumber Co.

The Sacramento Bee of June 16, 1904 states “George Taylor, cashier of the Bank of Nevada, of Reno, has come into control of the Loyalton Electric Light Works. The plant is now out of commission, owing to the fire which destroyed the power house in March last, but the damage is being repaired and the 1st of July promises to see the lights on again.

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