Unforgettable: Tales from San Diego's Fields of Gold

Julian freighter
  • Julian freighter

’Twas Gold that Made ’Em Do It

“Enchanting visions of the good to be accomplished,” an unnamed author wrote in Hutchings’ California Magazine (1857), “of pleasures to be enjoyed, turned [a miner’s] footsteps toward the Land of Gold.”

Noble thoughts, but for the vast majority, mining had as much luster as hard time in prison. Swinging an eight-pound hammer, mucking a ton of quartz every half hour into a bucket, or running tunnels in the “deep dark” by candlelight, the job could break a man’s back as it broke his heart — and prompted behavior in the extreme.

The Good Doctor

Lured by the prospect of pay dirt, Dr. J. Bruen Wells, a San Diego minister, followed the stampede to Julian City early in 1870. A generous man, Wells envisioned humanitarian benefits from his score.

At that time, most prospectors worked within sight, often within reach, of established claims. One day, Wells decided to wander up the eastern slope behind the camp, away from the swarm.

Eureka! He ran down the hill to proclaim his great find, which he decided to call the President Mine.

“That night,” writes Dan Forrest Taylor, “while sleeping beside his claim, some adventurers squatted on his ledge, thumbed their noses at him when he awoke, and reminded him that he had neglected to record it.”

But the laughingstock of Julian City got the last laugh. Just a few hundred yards above the mining camp, Dr. Wells, Henry C. Bickers, and J.T. Gower discovered the first important strike in the region on Sunday, February 21, 1870. Since God-fearing men didn’t do such earthly things on the Sabbath, Dr. Wells refused to look at the gold. The next day, they called their claim the George Washington Mine, in honor of the president’s birthday. Leland Fetzer: “This is where Julian mining began.”

Whiskey Row

For decades, Julian City and Banner of the mining days had an image problem: it was too clean. Compared to the 49ers up north, where “three years were equal to a century,” the camps were comparatively placid. Given the picture many painted, you’d think the miners were jocund Johnny Appleseeds who moonlighted for the occasional flake.

Part of the portrait was culled, literally. James A. Jaspar, editor of the Julian Sentinel, wrote a hard-nosed history of the region. For years after he died, no one would publish the bulky manuscript: too much honesty, too many threatened lawsuits. A version finally found a publisher with “numerous painful pages” removed, writes Helen Ellsberg. People seem determined “to have Julian go down in history as a mining town somewhat naughty but nice; its murders neatly catalogued at seven, and all reference to shady ladies and a red-light district missing.”

Over the years, a fuller portrait has emerged. “A wild town in a wild age,” wrote Alice Price Hoskings, “and 16 saloons — indeed a dubious distinction.” As an example, Hoskings recalls legendary Father Antonio Ubach asking a neighbor girl how old George Hoskings, age four, was. “I don’t know, Father,” she replied, “but he’s just learning to swear.”

Many now believe there were at least twice as many murders. And no brothels? “Ask old timers about the Queen,” an old timer recalled in the 1950s. “She didn’t keep no hotel for traveling salesmen!”

Fights were commonplace: up to six daily, many estimate, and twice that on Sundays. Rival mines had one rule: strike one of ours and expect broken bones and windows and street brawls amid clouds of dust.

Few miners were armed. “Men who carried guns were considered the biggest cowards,” writes Taylor. “Ability to use his fists gained a man more respect here than being a fast draw.”

Miners spent their earnings — up to three-fourths, claims Horace Fenton Wilcox — in local rum mills, where ten-cent glasses of firewater could wash troubles away, for a spell. They called the beverage “40 Rod Whiskey”: one swig could make you leap 40 rods — or at least consider the possibility.

The concoction “tastes like the wrath to come,” they liked to quote Irving S. Cobb. “A sudden, violent jolt has been known to stop the victim’s watch, snap his suspenders, and crack his glass eye right across.”

Entrepreneurs purchased bottles of whiskey in San Diego — allegedly of better quality (tasting a little less like sugared turpentine) — and sold it for a profit in the mountains.

One marker escaped the editor’s blue pencil. They called the first graves at Banner Cemetery “Whiskey Row,” since all seven men died from alcohol poisoning. Wilcox, a teetotaler who arrived in 1872, said at least 75 more made “the solemn change” that year.

Just Didn’t Like Those Poles

Mining crews worked in confined, dangerous spaces, where accidents and miner’s consumption were ever present — and where at least 25 earthquakes shook the depths over a ten-year period. Plus, just off the property, 10 to 20 unemployed men stood eager for your job. As a result, workers often cracked. Two got shipped in straightjackets to an asylum in Stockton.

When sober, John Evans, 33, was everyone’s friend. Drunk, he was a menace. When the Ready Relief mine fired him, he tried to dismantle everything in his path. It took a mob to corral him.

Same with S.S. Harner, 43. Bound hand and foot, he stood before Judge Bush at a hearing. The work for such a pittance, the constant stress, then a sudden lay-off, made him snap. In a heartbeat, he told the judge, he became “opposed to telegraph poles.” The “humming of the wind through the wires was very annoying.” And that’s why he decided to chop them down.

Dutch Bill Finds a Paying Profession

Like many miners, Dutch Bill probably prayed to Billiken and Hathor, a prospector’s god and goddess. To cover all bases, he may have added an occasional Orison to Santa Barbara, patron saint of engineers, miners, and those who work with explosives.

Didn’t help. Dutch Bill couldn’t make a dime. Of course, he didn’t much like crushing rock with a hand mortar or wading up to his knees for glitter in ice-cold streams. The grunts of ore-grinding arrastras and the incessant, pile-driving shonk-shonk-shonk of stamp mills annoyed his sensitive ears. Somebody was making tons of money, but it sure wasn’t Dutch. So he sought to profit not from gold, but gold seekers.

Dutch wasn’t the first. Mining towns were magnets for flimflammers. When Oliver Ridley came to Julian claiming to be a teacher, everyone gave him a hearty welcome, education being another bonanza in the budding community. Two problems: Ridley kept stealing chickens, and someone spotted him reading a newspaper upside down.

Dutch Bill envisioned a different vein. For every incoming miner with good sense and experience, there must have been five — maybe ten — times that number armed only with hope and gullibility.

Somehow Bill found samples of high-grade ore. He took them to San Diego. Like handicappers at a racetrack promising sure bets, Bill waved the lucre high and touted himself as a guide to hidden treasures. Two young men, eager for a fast buck, saw in him a faster one. They bought all the essentials, and the trio headed east, but to the Lagunas — where no one had found an ounce of gold — not the Cuyamacas. During a rainstorm, Bill snuck off with the grub, burros, and supplies. He ate the food, rode back to town, sold the equipment — and began hoodwinking anew.

They say he grew a foot-long beard so previous “clients” wouldn’t recognize him. That he never washed it aided the disguise.

Bill refined his technique. He’d draw vague squiggles and pyramids on an old piece of paper, with X marking a spot only he knew. For added authenticity, Bill folded, crumpled, and stomped the map in the dirt. A dying old prospector gave him the precious parchment, he told prospective marks. But he lacked finances for the trip, which would be costly. They say he left many a sucker on foot and hungry in the Lagunas, with murder in their hearts for the shaggy prevaricator.

If anything, Dutch Bill became too successful. He developed an unquenchable taste for 40 Rod and made the solemn change.

(San) Leandro

Leandro Woods, a native American, worked as a vaquero for the Lopez family in remote Rodriguez Canyon. Their homestead lay so far outside the Julian and Banner mining districts that no one thought to prospect there. In the summer of 1895, while punching cattle, someone made the last find in the region: the Ranchita mine. Everyone gave Woods the credit, but he said privately it was his mother (possible reason: in those days, a woman could not submit a claim).

For a about year, Woods toiled alone. Whenever he made $2000, he’d rent a suite at the Hotel del Coronado, invite all his friends, and throw a Rabelaisian bash. When the money ran out, Leandro’d go back and dig until he made enough to host his friends anew.

Half a Hanging

The first week of April 1870, several horses went missing. People immediately suspected a loner named Robert Crawford, who allegedly fled from Montana to escape charges of horse thievery. When they found Crawford with a stolen saddle, the townsfolk decided to teach him a lesson. A crowd of howling men looped a rope around his neck and flung it over a strong tree limb. A man being hung didn’t sit on a horse in those days; between 15 and 25 men tugged on the thick rope and hoisted the criminal.

But was Crawford guilty? As the men began to pull the rope taut, someone shouted, “Confess!”

Crawford wouldn’t.

The second time the crowd arched their backs and tightened their grips as if for a tug of war, Crawford opened up. Yes, he stole the horses, and the saddle. But he was part of a gang of thieves who were probably in Mexico by now.

After he swore never to return to Julian City, the posse let Crawford go. On the spot, the group passed a resolution: the first person who commits a murder in the region? They’ll hang him high. ■

Next time: They did.

— Jeff Smith


Botts, Myrtle, History of Julian, Julian, 1969.

Ellsberg, Helen, Mines of Julian, Glendale, 1972.

Fetzer, Leland, A Good Camp: Gold Mines of Julian and the Cuyamacas, San Diego, 2002.

Fowler, Susan, “Julian Timeline,” Julian Historical Museum.

Jaspar, James A., “Trail-Breakers and History-Makers,” ms. San Diego History Center, 1934.

Lewis, David, Historian of the Julian Cemetery, “Last Known Address: The History of the Julian Cemetery,” interview, San Diego, 2008.

McDonald, Dorothy, “Julian and the Gold Boom,” The Southern California Rancher, August 1948.

Sheldon, Gale W. “Julian Gold Mining Days,” Masters thesis, SDSU, 1958.

Taylor, Dan Forrest, “Julian Gold,” ms. at San Diego History Center.

Wilcox, Horace Fenton, “Memories of the Gold Stampede,” Touring Topics, February 1932.

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