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  Lost Cities: Deadwood

There are lonely places in this vast county marked by stones with the names of long-dead towns and people. The stones tell of events that no one living remembers except by tales told over dinner tables and campfires, or stories set down in print and guarded in libraries and museums. Deadwood ... Tailholt ... Klamathon ... picturesque names of thriving business centers that exist now only in memory.

Drive to Scott Valley, and find Deadwood's marker --- aside from the sentinel stone, there is only dry snow blowing amid tailings and bare little trees. The stinging wind turns the blacktail deer grazing in pastures near the road, but there is no hint that here, once, thousands of ambitious young men came to dig their fortunes and sift it from the stubborn waters of Cherry and Deadwood Creeks.

Desolate though it is now, Deadwood was once a crowded, smoky, smelly tent city filled with people and commerce and hope. Imagine it.... churned mud paths between canvas cabins that lent little shelter and less privacy. The smells of woodsmoke, burned camp coffee, frying bacon, and inadequate sanitary arrangements overlaid dreams seductive enough to lure sensible people from their comfortable former lives.

As mining towns went, Deadwood was prosperous. From 1851, when the first miners arrived, the little camp grew and attracted every stripe of entrepreneur and business. The shining yellow metal that drew the dreamers also funded Siskiyou County's first bank. The first real cabin in the tent city was erected by men named Brown and Kelly, at the junction of Moffett and McAdams creeks. No doubt it was the envy of the rest of the population, especially the women who had followed promises across six months of unforgiving trails. Before long, the town was rich and influential enough to challenge Yreka for the position of county seat. Yreka prevailed, but only by one vote.

Miners could grub the gold, but they couldn't eat it. When their tools broke and their trousers split, replacements had to be found. Stores sprouted to fill these voids, three of them, selling necessities and luxuries alike for inflated prices, including meal, sugar, canvas, whetstones, harness; salt and gunpowder, rope and beans; laying hens sold briskly for $5 each, and a cat could be had for $6. The price of cats says a great deal about the abundance of vermin. Mice and rats ate into profits ---literally--- and carried disease. A cat was a blessing in such a place, and kittens were frequent imports from the Eastern states, sometimes travelling by rail so long that they were nearly grown when they were finally sold.

Naturally, amid such an influx of young men and money, three saloons opened to separate the two as quickly as possible. Liquor and lots of free time led inevitably to fights and legal disputes. Such squabbles were dealt with swiftly, and often lethally, by the Miners Court. This system was so effective that Deadwood was recognized as the place where a miner could leave the day's take of gold dust unattended in his tent, without fear of thievery. Of course, it was also a system that recognized flight as an admission of guilt , so that a fearful suspect frequently became a dead one. In the interest of fairness, it must be noted that not all wrongdoers were hanged; some were only flogged, or tarred and feathered.

Tragedies and hardships haunted the hustling miners. Fires broke out, sparked by tallow candles and kerosene lamps, fed by wood and canvas. In 1854, smallpox burned through the camp, leaving death and disfigurement in its wake. Such obstacles were considered unfortunate, but common, and the hard work of life went on despite them.

Still, not every note of Deadwood's past is harsh. Joaquin Miller wrote his first poem there. A tantalizing rumor of buried treasure lingers near Cherry Creek, gold hidden for safekeeping by a miner who never remembered the right landmark to dig it up again. And when Judge James M. Allen dedicated Deadwood's marker, he quoted a miner and journalist named Bacon, who wrote, "I have never lived in any community where there was less crime, or where people were more charitable. No one was ever allowed to suffer for the necessities of life, and nowhere were the sick neglected. I remember many instances where a miner with a broken constitution who had become discouraged and unable to work , and desired to return to his family was sent home by the miners, and in addition given $1000 or $2000 as a home stake." Deadwood burned down the day after Christmas, 1861. The few remaining structures burned in smaller fires that followed like aftershocks.

Besides the historical marker, Deadwood is now known mostly for a conservation camp where willing and trustworthy inmates are trained to fight wildland fires. It's a fitting end for the tent city.

by Kathy Dias, publisher in their Siskiyou Yearbook 2002 insert
Reprinted with permission from the Pioneer Press, Fort Jones, CA

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