Sunday, December 25, 2022

The Argonaut Mine Disaster - Part 3

Going back to the first burials of the 46 miners discovered, those burials took place at the Protestant Cemetery (Jackson Public Cemetery, as well as at St. Patrick's Cemetery (The Catholic Cemetery), and lastly at St. Sava Serbian Cemetery. Of course, when Fessel was discovered a year later, he too, was brought to the Protestant Cemetery and interred there along with his fellow mining friends.

Miners Buried in the Protestant Cemetery (Jackson City Public Cemetery):

Charles Fitzgerald, who is buried next to his best friend James Clayton, had been living a double life for some time. 

Apparently, he and his wife, Frances had been somewhat estranged for a period of time. They had two children, but at the time that he was working at the Argonaut, she had been staying in Oakland. She had their daughter, while he had their son. 

When news broke that Charles was among the trapped miners, Frances rushed to support the rescue effort and apparently when she arrived she was met by another woman who was claiming to also be Charles’ wife.  No, he wasn’t a bigamist, but he had been living with another woman, Emily Ludekins.

According to the San Francisco Call, Frances paid Emily a visit at her cottage near the Argonaut.  There was no record of what was exactly spoken between the two women, but on September 18, 1922, the newspapers claimed that Charles' wife attempted to kill herself by way of poison. The Sacramento newspaper said it was Frances who made the suicide attempt. However, the San Francisco Call states that it was actually Emily who took the poison, as she could not bear life without Charles. 

Thankfully, Amador County Physician, Edwin Eugene Endicott came to her aid early enough and successfully saved her life. Interestingly, Dr. Endicott, who was also the physician at the Preston School of Industry, is buried only feet from where Charles Fitzgerald is interred at the Public Cemetery in Jackson.

James Clayton, was a native of California and only 36 years old at the time of his death.  Not much is known about his life besides the fact that he served in World War I, and that he was engaged to a young widow, Myrtle Richards, who had just lost her 1st husband the year before in a similar mining accident. 

Elmer Lee Bacheller, was a native of California, and originally lived in Stockton. His occupation was listed as a Carpenter. A lodger at the Gallino Boarding House in Sutter Creek, and he was not even an employee of the mine. He had volunteered to work the shift of a friend (fellow lodger) who went on vacation and it just so happened the shift he filled in was the day of the mine disaster.

Ernie Miller, the Jigger Boss on shift that night, was just 37 years old. A native of Illinois, Ernie left behind a wife and 2 children. He had survived the Speculator Mine Disaster – aka Granite Mountain Mine Disaster in Butte Montana just a few years earlier.  

Charles & Arthur O'Berg, Father and son. Charles was Level Boss that night. Charles was a native of Sweden, and Arthur was born in Washington. The saddest part of their story was that both men had never worked same shift before. Charles had only arranged a few days earlier to have the same shift, as he was planning to retire in 1923. Charles and Arthur’s bodies were discovered hugging onto one another up against the wall, their bodies had been fused to one another so they were buried in the same grave.

Edward William "Bill" Fessel was just 44 years old. Fessel is the miner who was found one year after the other bodies were discovered. Fessel left behind a wife, Ruth and one son, Herbert.  He was a native of Germany. He had been an interpreter for the U.S. Government when he immigrated to the U.S. Prior to that he had worked as a chemist in Germany. He had also worked in the State Parks services (National Forestry) and later went into mining from the Kennedy to the Argonaut.

Evan Ely was 29 years old, who left behind a wife and 4 children. He was a native of Texas, and the only Mormon who died in the disaster.

Bert Seamans was a California native, former resident of Stockton, and only 38 years old. Both Seamans and Bacheller do not have a marker, and are only noted on the plaque. 

Miners Buried in St. Patrick's Cemetery (Catholic Cemetery)

Peter Bagoye, 24 years old. Native of Austria. Had only been in the U.S. for four months prior to his death. He didn't even have a chance to send for his young wife to be with him in the states.

Rafaelo Baldocchi, was 29 years old and a native of Italy.

D. Boleri, was a native of Italy.

Eugene Buscaglia, was 25 years old.  Eugene was living at the Buscaglia's Boarding House on Jackson Gate Road, so I am assuming he was related given the same surname. He was also listed as single in the census records. 

John Caminada, was 24 years old, and also a native of Italy.

Peter Cavaglieri, 40 years old, a native of Italy and he was married, with three children.

Paul De Longa, was a native of Austria and was 31 years of age.

A. Fazzina, was 37 years old and was a native of Italy.

V. Fidele, was 38 years old and a native of Italy.

Simone Francisconi, age 48, and also a native of Italy.

Battista Gamboni, a native of Switzerland, aged 33.

Timothy Garcia, 48, native of California, a widower with 2 children.

Maurice Gianetti, 44, native of Italy.

Giuseppe Giorza, aged 36, married with 5 children.

Lucio Gonzales, 28, native of Italy.

Manuel Kosta, 47, native of Portugal.

Antonio Leon, age 33, native of Spain.

Luis Leon, aged 42, native of Spain.

Battista Manachino, age 40, a native of Italy. 

Pio Oliva, native of Italy. Aged 25, his brother Luigi also worked at the mine, but played hookie that night to go to San Francisco with friends, and ultimately that saved his life. 

Emanuel Olobardi, age 27, native of Italy.  San Francisco Call dated 9/18, Emanuel's wife spoke to the newspaper reporters that her husband had a premonition prior to the accident. 

September 18, 1922 edition of the San Francisco Call states: 

"It is also reported that O. Bardi (Emmanuel Olobardi), one of the unfortunate forty-seven, expressed his belief to his wife that “something terrible was about to happen.” He had attended a celebration of the Italian Benevolent Society with his wife. Just before leaving her to take his place with the 11 o’clock shift, he said he felt as though he ought to stay home, but, like Steinman, on second thought, he determined to cast aside his fears.” 

Aldino Piagneri, 27 years old and a native of Italy.

Giovanni Ruzzo, 28 years old. Born in Sardinia.

Domenico Simonde, 47 years old, native of Italy.

George Steinman, 48 years old. Native of Michigan. Had been married twice, and had a total of 4 children. His 2nd wife, Linda had one child with him. 

The same newspaper clipping as noted above mentioning Emanuel Olobardi's premonition, also mentions the following:

“George Steinman, one of the imprisoned miners, told his wife just before descending to work that he feared something was going to happen. Before kissing her and their children goodbye, Steinman said, “I don’t want to go down for some reason tonight, but maybe it is just a bum hunch, and I guess I’d better go. He went and his premonition soon was to be realized. -- San Francisco Call, September 18, 1922

Daniele Villia, 43 years old and a native of Sardinia.

Cesare Zanardi, native of Italy.

Miner's Buried in St. Sava Serbian Cemetery 

There are not a lot of records about these fallen miners, given the fact many of them had just come over from their home countries.

Rade Begovich, 36, native of Yugoslavia.

Marko Janovich, 35, native of Serbia.

Milos Jovanovich, 36, native of Montenegro.

Jefto Kovac, 42, native of Herzegovina.

Rade Lajovich,  33, native of Montenegro.

Steve Marinovich, 46, native of Serbia.

John Maslesa, 32, native of Herzegovina.

Todore Miljanovich,  37, native of Herzegovina.

Elia Pavlovich, 40, native of  Dalmatia.

Niko Stanicich, 40, native of Serbia.

Mike Vujovich, 28, native of Herzegovina.

The Survivors

There were only 3 survivors of the Argonaut Mine Disaster, Clarence Bradshaw, Steve Pasalich and Mitchell Jogo.

Clarence Bradshaw was born in 1868, and a native of California. He lived on Stasal Avenue in Jackson near the cemetery, and was married to Sarah Bradshaw. He had been working at the Sheriff's office at one point in time. He died in 1926, around the age of 57 years old. 

According to his naturalization papers, Mitchell Jogo's last name is actually Joko. He was born in Austria on December 28, 1882. By 1911, when he was naturalized, he was living at 41 Broadway street in Jackson. Mitchell died on September 3, 1923 at the age of 39.

Steve Pasalich, is probably my favorite character in this story, not only because this story started with him, but because he is the grandfather of a dear friend, George Pasalich, and also because my parents rented the downstairs apartment (lower level) of Steve's home on Stasal Street in Jackson, many years ago, forever tying my family to the Pasalich family. 

Steve was born on March 25, 1890 in Yugoslavia.  He came over to the United States with other family members through Ellis Island. According to the ship's manifest, each of them had about $26 on them, and they were planning to come to the west coast so they had to make that money last, or work to make money to make it to California. So, Steve would shovel snow on the railroad tracks in order to make extra money. 

One of George's funny stories about his grandfather that he shared with me was that when he grandfather had made it to Chicago, he needed to purchase some food, and went into a store and wanted to get chicken but the clerk didn't understand him because he only spoke Serbian. He had to literally play charades and mimic a chicken in order to get the clerk to understand that he was asking for chicken. 

He eventually made it to California, and settled in Jackson. He started working at the Argonaut mine for many years, and later onto the Eureka Mine. He eventually passed away in 1964, and is buried at the St. Sava Serbian Church. His grave is in the front of the churchyard. 

Steve's story was very emotionally moving for me knowing that he survived such a horrific disaster. George shared a story with me a few years ago about his grandfather and his tie to the miners even in death. It was after all the miners were buried, there were little individual flags left on everyone's graves. Over time, the elements had abused the flags making them become tattered and torn, so Steve decided to remove them and took them home with him, and put them in his basement for safe keeping. (This was before he turned the basement into a second residence.) 

Soon Steve started hearing noises in the basement. The movement down there was very loud, as if someone was down there moving things around, or making loud banging sounds, even when no one was there. So he started feeling very uneasy, and he eventually he removed the flags from the basement --- and the odd occurrences suddenly stopped. 

Later on, he would turn that basement into an apartment, which my parents ended up renting years later. Of course my parents had no paranormal experience in that house, so it was safe to say that whatever paranormal occurrences that took place there were tied to the flags and stopped when the flags were removed.


When all was said and done regarding the cause of the Argonaut Mine Disaster, there were no real answers. The cause of the fire was never determined as a certainty, and it also brought up so many safety violations that had been overlooked.

The Report of Governor Stephen’s Committee of Inquiry on the Argonaut Mine Disaster, published in Volume 114 of the Engineering and Mining Journal, states:

“Origin of Fire – The evidence given regarding the cause of the fire leads to no one definite fact.

The following possibilities have all been taken into consideration:

Incendiarism; Defective electric wiring; carelessness with cigar or cigarette stub; carbide lamp or candle.

The witness Mitchell Jogo, who stepped off the skip immediately after the discovery of the fire, and remained there with the hope of being able to do something toward extinguishing it, states that while there were two sets of timber, or possibly three, burning, the larger portion of the fire seemed to be coming from the manway and spreading across the shaft from there. This would warrant the belief that the fire had started in the manway. This manway, besides carrying the ladder for the men moving up and down the shaft, when traveling without the skip, contains the electric-power wires carrying 2,400 volts, and also the electric lighting wires in the mine, as well as the telephone, compressed air-line, and water pump column. If the origin of the fire was either incendiary or caused by defective wiring, this would be the natural place for it to start.  

From all the evidence considered, your committee is unable to arrive at a definite conclusion as to the origin of the fire, which still remains in doubt. Of the possible cause, as previously stated, the first two, incendiarism, or defective wiring – seem to be the most acceptable.”

Going back to my personal connection, I will always feel tied to this story from the time my dad brought home that framed photograph and hung it on our hallway wall at our home so many years ago, down to the present day. 

That day, so many years ago, started my passion to learn about local history and it also triggered the empathy and compassion I feel for those I research and write about. I want to tell their stories for them, since they are not able to do that themselves. I feel everyone has a story to tell, and I feel honored to be the one who gets to do that for them.

This August 2022, marked the 100 year anniversary of this tragic event. Roland and I met my father at the cemetery and we paid our respects to all 47 fallen miners, and the 3 survivors who lived to tell the tale.  

Sadly, we will never truly know what or whom started the fire that killed 47 miners, and destroyed many lives that night in August of 1922. We can speculate, but we will never have a definitive answer. But we can always pay our respects and share their stories, so that they will never be forgotten.

May those who perished that day rest in peace.

(Copyright, J'aime Rubio 2022 - )

The Argonaut Mine Disaster - Part 2


Possible Staged Photograph

The photograph you see above is the "official" photograph of the final message from the miners of the Argonaut Mine that has been circulated all these years, although this is not entirely accurate. In reality, it is actually believed to be a staged photo, made after the miners bodies has been found, and done so by a photographer for the San Francisco News by photographer, W. Aird MacDonald. You see, there are two photographs, and one appears to be more authentic than the other.

How do I know this?

Well, this information comes from the research of the one and only late Amador County Historian, Larry Cenotto which was published in the Ledger-Dispatch in 1997. He happened to stumble upon an old photograph in the archives over 25 years ago, that appeared to be similar but not exact, which prompted his further investigation.  

Original Photograph

“The last message written by the entombed 47 miners” was written below the photograph, with a stamped imprint on the back that said, “Jackson Studio, Jackson, Cal.” It was believed that a local photographer had the chance to photograph the original message before MacDonald.

After carefully analyzing the photo, Cenotto determined that the photo found in Amador County archives was more than likely the original photo of the writing on the wall left by the miners, which was clearly made under duress by the look of the writing. 

The cleaner, more visibly clear writing that was circulated by the news media which spells out Fessel’s name on it, had to have been staged later and it clearly done with more precision, which would be the last thing a miner, choking on carbon monoxide gases, fearing for his life in the dark would be doing.

The photo now believed to be the original message, only states the words: “3 o’clock gas getting strong, 4 o’clock Fez,” as if the writer of the message perhaps lost consciousness prior to finishing his inscription on the wall.

But why stage the photo?

Cenotto suspected that something had happened to the original writing, which forced them to recreate it.  Another question to be asked is, how did Fessel’s body end up on the 4650 level, far away from and outside of the barricade where the other miners were discovered, if he had in fact scribbled that message on the wall?

Again, Cenotto believed that since Fessel was working alone on the 4650 level that night doing timber work, which was confirmed by those who worked at the mine that night, he would have had no idea what was going on in the other part of the mine and had no chance to make an escape before the fumes and the smoke reached him.

“The message, therefore was that “F:z” or “Fezzel” was not with them and rescuers need look for him elsewhere.”—Larry Cenotto’s quote.

Another thing I would like to point out is that I personally enlarged copies of Bill Fessel’s naturalization papers and his draft registry card, and I looked at his signature on both documents. Despite what some claim, including Fessel's son who was interviewed and claimed that Fessel signed his name with two ‘z’s is actually inaccurate. In fact, both signatures I examined, signed by Fessel, were signed in cursive, and showed the letter “s” twice, not z.

So, there were a lot of questions here. From the extra brass tag found among the 46 miners behind the barricade that didn't match any of the miners on duty that night, to the extra set of clothing discovered in the change house, and then the mystery behind the two photographs of the miner's message, it appeared that the more I dug into this story, the more questions I was coming up with, rather than answers.

Still, I kept digging....

There were inquiries & hearings, plus speculation galore. Some argued they should have went down the Muldoon shaft to reach the men in time, some argued that they should have sent the skip down to at least attempt to rescue some of the men, despite the fact that eventually the phone and bell system was disrupted by the fire, and thus the hoist man could not have known when to lift or lower the skip to and from the men, in order to provide a clean escape for them.

When it came to pointing fingers at someone, some newspapers insinuated that Fessel started the fire, as if he had conveniently snuck off into the night. Because he was German, had been an interpreter for the United States Government for a while and wasn’t always a “miner,” there was gossip that he could have been a spy. 

Others insinuated that perhaps it was the work of communists which at the time went by the name the Industrial Workers of the World. There were other insinuations that the fire could have been started by a “mystery person” who may have escaped out of a drift at the 2500 foot level that exited out near the creek. That could have very well been the case, given the extra set of clothing and "secret" brass tag that the mine company wouldn't divulge whom it belonged to.

Ben Sanguinetti claimed that there had been footprints found on a drift leading out of the mine and down to the creek, but no one ever did any further inquiry into this possible lead, and it was left to be forgotten. 

Why no one bothered to investigate that lead makes me wonder about the whole thing all together. As much as I hated to think it, it almost started sounding like an inside job. But then I found another lead that took me in another direction completely.

A New Theory

I too have another possible theory, which could be completely unfounded, yet I would still like to toss it into the ring with the others. Only 8 months earlier, the Argonaut had been robbed by red bandana wearing bandits, and only two of eight men were eventually caught. The robbers took approximately $60,000 which was in gold amalgam.  Could this fire have been related? Could someone, perhaps have come back to cause more trouble at the mine?

The reason I say that is because for one, Hiram Baker, although later acquitted could have had a score to settle with the mine, after having been through the ringer in the newspapers and in his much publicized trial. When Hiram was arrested he was with a man known only as Frank Lynch.

I find it interesting that Frank was never mentioned again in the clippings about the robbery, only Hiram. And if Hiram was acquitted, what happened to the other guy?

I couldn’t find any convictions noted for the robbery. So, I started digging deeper. It turns out that  Frank was actually Arthur Welling, of Indiana, and he was a known safe cracker and specialized in explosives. He was already on the run for robbing Western Oil Refining Company in Indiana, and was originally caught with his friend, Edward Stevens at the Omni Severin Hotel when they were found in the check room with nitroglycerin, more than likely ready to crack open the hotel’s safe.

During an escape from the County Jail on July 4, 1919, Arthur helped 24 other inmates slip away into the night, and into freedom. When he was caught in California and held on charges for the mine robbery, Sheriff Lucot kept him in the Amador County jail until he was extradited to Michigan City, Indiana where he was sentenced to 14 years in the penitentiary for his previous crimes.  Lynch a.k.a. Welling, had friends everywhere, so how do we know that one of Arthur’s buddies didn’t pay back the mine for their friend having been caught and being sent to the big house? We don’t.  This is why I wonder if possibly this fire was started by Welling's friends.

Only Known Picture of Bill Fessel
(Courtesy of the Ryan Family)
Still, no matter what theories were being thrown around, the blame kept going back to Fessel. Those who knew him, knew that wasn’t possible. That didn’t stop some law enforcement agencies to put out APB’s to be on the lookout for anyone matching Fessel’s description. Even a year to the day of the disaster, there were newspapers claiming that there were sightings of Fessel who was allegedly on the run.

Again, locals who knew him didn’t believe it one minute, and were adamant that he would eventually be found in the mine. Still, the whispers and the rumors were too much for Fessel’s wife, who basically became a hermit and moved up to live with her mother in Pine Grove, where she remained the rest of her life.

On September 31, 1923, after flushing out the mine, at the 4650 level, the remains of the 47th miner, Edward William "Bill" Fessel  was discovered and the newspapers and everyone else who had made slanderous insinuations about Fessel, had to eat crow.

Although there was no forensic way to determine for certain who it was, it was believed to be the body of Bill Fessel, given the fact he was the last miner who had not been identified with the recovered bodies, and they were one body short of the total of miners on duty that night.  

A local dentist examined the skull of the body that had been found, and he believed it was Fessel, based on the missing molars and still present wisdom teeth that he had noticed during an examination a few years prior at a dental visit.  The coroner determined it to be the remains of Edward William Fessel and he took his rightful place besides his fallen friends at the public cemetery in Jackson. 

The Grave of Bill Fessel 


(Copyright, J'aime Rubio 2022 

The Argonaut Mine Disaster - Part 1


When I was about 10 years old, my dad came home with a large framed photo, which had a copy of the Stockton Record’s front page about the Argonaut Mine Disaster of 1922. There was something different about this particular picture, as there was a super imposed photograph of the miners on the newspaper headline front page. My dad hung it in the hallway of our home in Pioneer, and every day I would walk through that hallway and stop and look at the photograph. Sometimes I would stand there and read the article, while other times I would stand there and stare at the faces in the photograph, wondering if I was looking at one of the miners who had perished in the mine disaster so many years ago.  

My dad’s sincere interest of the history of the Argonaut Mine Disaster piqued a genuine interest in local history as a whole for me, especially Amador County history. Over the years, there have been books, blogs, articles  and even some documentaries on this subject, covering the horrific event that took place in 1922. Today, I wanted to share with you my investigation into this somber event. This story is very special to me, as I feel I have a genuinely personal attachment.  

Come with me as we go back 100 years to Jackson, California, where we will take a deep dive down into the Argonaut Mine.  Let’s take a step by step look at what occurred in chronological order.

On August 27, 1922, approximately 10:00 p.m. the skip tender at the Argonaut Mine, Steve Pasalich, was working his shift for the night. Now, a skip was a metal bucket type contraption that transported rock, equipment, and the workers up and down the shaft sort of like an elevator in a way. 

Skip Tender, Steve Pasalich
Besides being the skip tender, Steve Pasalich had the duty of dropping off the lunch buckets on each level of the mine, later he would come back after the miners had eaten and retrieve their lunch buckets and bring them back up to the surface again.

The shift boss that night was Clarence Bradshaw, he was the main person in charge that night. Below him in rank would be the Jigger Boss, and below him would be the Level Boss.  That night the Jigger Boss was Ernie Miller. Just after lunch, Bradshaw asked Pasalich and another miner, Mitchell Jogo, to go with him to drop off waste from the chute and drop it to the 4,200 level. As they prepared the ore cart to go underneath the overhead chute, as they were pulling out the stopboard the falling rock pushed through and broke the stopboard. 

This was when Jogo offered to go down to the 4,600 level to pick up wood to build another stopboard for the chute before they were to go back up the skip again.  Bradshaw eventually got irritated when Jogo was taking longer than expected to come back, so he decided to walk with Pasalich back towards the main shaft when they noticed haze in the air. It was smoke!

The San Francisco Call reported Bradshaw’s experience, “By a margin of a few minutes , Shift Boss, Clarence Bradshaw, Steve Pasalich and Michael Jago escaped from the Argonaut mine before the fire made egress possible. Bradshaw says he and his two companions were at the 4200 foot level at 11:40 o’clock the night of the fire when he smelled smoke. Without an instant’s delay he called to the two miners to accompany him up the shaft. The smoke became thicker and thicker as they ascended and at the 300 {SIC: 3000} foot level they were almost overcome by heat.” – SF CALL, 9/18/1922

According to Bradshaw, the men wrapped their coats around their heads to keep the smoke from getting to their lungs while they ascended up to the fresh air from the surface which was just about at the 3000 level. You see, the fire was just below the 3000 level, and because of the ventilation system, which was a large fan installed at the head of a nearby mine shaft known as the Muldoon, which had been an old abandoned mine that the Argonaut was using, by the fan pulling the air from the Argonaut, it kept fresh air running through the mine and the drifts for the miners, moving it from the collar of the main shaft down and then back up to Muldoon. 

Because of the fire, now the smoke was being drawn down deep into the mine, instead of up. So once the men on the skip had passed the fire, they were able to breathe again, but then they realized that all of the men below them, were now going to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning due to the smokey air being drawn down the shaft into the deepest parts of the mine, where the 47 miners were working that night.

According to author, O. Henry Mace's research, Jigger Boss, Ernie Miller caught the scent of smoke at the 4800 level and quickly phoned to the Hoist house that there was smoke coming down the shaft. When Bradshaw picked up the line at the 2000 level he warned him that the shaft was on fire and they were trying to put it out. The last words they heard Ernie Miller say was “all right,” and he hung up the line.

This is where it gets tricky, we will never truly know exactly what happened after that. We can speculate all we want, but we can only base our opinions on what was found after rescuers recovered the miner’s remains. One would like to assume that Miller at least attempted to get his men out through ventilation rises in the Muldoon shaft which was supposed to be their “emergency exit” but they stopped at the 4350 level and ended up barricading themselves in a cross-cut, which leads us to believe the air was just so bad they had no other choice but to bunker down and wish for the best.

Another reason I believe this is exactly what happened is because this had all happened before to Ernie Miller. You see, he was a survivor of another horrible mine disaster only five years prior. The infamous Granite Mountain Mine disaster in Butte, Montana in 1917.  

In that experience, a fire had ignited when a miner’s carbide lamp got a little too close to a oily paraffin paper that was insulating a three ton electric cable that had been brought down the shaft to complete, of all things, a sprinkler system. When the paper ignited the fire spread quickly to the timbers of the framework in the shaft and before they knew it, it was uncontrollable.

A little over half of the miners escaped, but 168 weren’t so lucky. Most died from the carbon monoxide poisoning, not so much the fire itself, but there were two groups of men in different parts on the mine, who had built bulkheads to create a makeshift barrier between themselves and the carbon monoxide from the smoke. 

Both groups were eventually rescued. The first group after 38 hours, and the last group after 50 hours. It was said that Ernie Miller was among the men in the last group, which only 6 of the 8 survived.  According to reports from his family, it was Miller who helped his co-workers to build that bulkhead in the crosscut, something done in such a similar fashion at the Argonaut that leads me to believe it was Ernie who tried to save the men.

Going back to the story, By the time Bradshaw, Pasalich and Jogo got up the shaft of the mine, they quickly tried to think of ways to put out the fire. They told Virgilio Garbarini to let them to open the sump reservoir and dump it down the mine to extinguish the fire. He agreed and they went to work. Unfortunately the valve hadn’t been opened in a long time and it had become rusted shut, so it took a lot of muscle and help from a sledgehammer to break the valve and let the water do its job. But once the water had been poured, the makeshift rescue crew realized the fire was still burning in adjacent drifts of the mine, where the water couldn’t reach.

Different people came and tried to convince Garbarini to reverse the fan on the Muldoon shaft or turn it off completely. Garbarini tried to explain that by doing so, the fire would then burn upwards and completely decimate the main shaft itself, destroying any chance of firefighters reaching the fire deep inside the mine.  Garbarini wasn’t just the superintendent of the mine, he had been the master mechanic who designed the working mechanisms of the mine itself back in 1909. He knew the mine better than anyone.  He was adamant that the fan not be touched in anyway.

A man by the name of Byron Pickard, who worked as the district engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Mines and Fred Lowell, the Industrial Accident Commission district engineer kept on hounding Garbarini to make a rescue via the Muldoon shaft, but Garbarini continued to reason with them that the shaft was too dangerous. 

The rescue workers even at their best effort could not have enough time with the right breathing apparatuses to reach the miners in time without risking their own safety due to the overwhelming amount of smoke to the toxic carbon monoxide gases. That, and by shutting off the fan it would allow the Argonaut main shaft to completely be destroyed. 

This was when they decided to make their rescue attempt via the Kennedy Mine.

Kennedy Mine, just across from the Argonaut

You see, the Argonaut and the Kennedy mines were connected at one point up until a fire occurred in 1919, which took months to burn out. The only way the two mining companies could figure out how to stop the fire, was to flush both mines out.  After that, the two companies decided it would be better to seal off the connections to each other. Now they would need to reconnect the two mines in order to make a last-ditch rescue attempt before it was too late.

It was surveying work done years prior by Civil Engineer, Walter Ephraim Downs that directed the rescuers where to dig through to the Argonaut mine shaft in an attempt to rescue the trapped miners. (On a side note, Mr. Downs was the son of Robert Carleton Downs,’ superintendent of the Union Mine (later Lincoln Mine) in Sutter Creek and owner of the Hanford & Down’s stores which were in Sutter Creek, Jackson and Volcano.  Walter Ephraim Downs’ brother, Fred, tragically drowned in the Preston Reservoir in Ione, in 1902.)

It was decided that the rescue crew would go in through the Kennedy and reconnect the two mines via the Kennedy’s 3600 drift with the crosscut near the Argonaut’s 4200 level. Unfortunately, this would be a very difficult job as the mud, debris, and compression from the flooding of the mines just a few years before had caused much of the connecting passes to collapse. 

There were still others convinced they go through the Muldoon shaft to save the miners, which was shot down each time. 

At one point they decided to also go from the 3900 level at the Kennedy and work towards Argonaut’s 4600 level, as it appeared their first attempt via the 3600 level was not going fast enough. Many of the men working in the mines, trying to get through were relatives of the trapped miners, including other employees of the mine itself as well, one of those rescue workers was none other than Steve Pasalich, the skip tender who barely made it out alive with Bradshaw and Jogo. 

On September 18, 1922, exactly 23 days from the time of the actual fire starting in the mine, the bodies of the miners were discovered at the 4350 level. They had barricaded themselves in a crosscut using timbers and chinking the gaps with the clothes off their backs, to block the poisonous gas from seeping through. When the bodies were discovered, only 46 were found, along with a message written on the wall of the crosscut. It appeared to be a message from Bill Fessel, letting the rescuers know how long they were awake before the fumes overtook them.

“3 o’clock, gas getting strong, 4 o’clock, Fessel.” 

The rescue team now had to work at figuring out how to bring the bodies back to the surface without further damaging the remains and then work on identifying them. They brought in gurneys with rubber bags to place each miner into and they were carried up the drift and into the adjacent connecting tunnels and up the skip on the Kennedy Mine side.  Each body was transported up to the Argonaut and placed in the mill, as a makeshift mortuary until all the bodies could be recovered.

Besides discovering the bodies, they also had to bring up the belongings of the miners, such as clothing.  Some of the miners had their brass tags with their individual miner’s number on their person, but some of them did not have their tags. In fact, many of the tags were never found, leading mine employees to have to identify the bodies visually.

According to the book, "47 Down" by O. Henry Mace, there was another brass tag found that did not match any of the miners on duty. He stated that not only did the mine company never divulge the number of the tag, but they also never divulged the person whose name was assigned to that number.  If that wasn’t odd enough, Mace mentions that the rescue crew also found a ring within the belongings, but this was a personalized ring with the initials “J.S.N” which none of the miner’s names matched.

Mace also mentions in his book, that when the foreman and volunteers went to collect the miner’s effects from the change house, they discovered 48 changes of clothes hanging on hooks, not 47. 

So, who did this extra pair of clothes belong to? 

And who was this unidentified person’s tag discovered that the mine never wanted to mention?

This is where it gets interesting. --------


Copyright, J'aime Rubio 2022,

Special Thanks to George Pasalich for all your help!

***Photograph of frame photo is the actual photograph/newspaper that my father had hanging in the hallway of our house when I was growing up. Dad brought it to the Jackson Cemetery on the 100th anniversary of the Argonaut Mine Disaster, this year, and we brought it to the graves of the fallen miners to pay our respects to all 47 men. This is a photograph Roland took of that very framed picture I grew up looking at, the same picture that inspired me to have a life-long interest in this piece of Amador County history. 

Monday, July 11, 2022

Sonora's Mysterious "Red House" -- History in the Motherlode

For many years I've traveled the road through Sonora on my way up to visit Columbia State Park. My first memories of visiting that historic park was during a third grade field trip where we panned for gold, watched cowboys have a shoot out in the street, gazed upon a blacksmith making horseshoes, and where I had my very first taste of Sarsparilla. 

Another place that I recall over the years while making that trek through the gold country hills, was the sight of the big red house in Sonora, literally across the street from the big red church. I have always been drawn to its gingerbread and gabled exterior and had often wondered the history behind it. 

It has been theorized that the reason both structures, the church and the house, are painted red is because they were somehow connected, however, there's no record to prove that or not, but I have been able to track down the history of this beautiful treasure of the sierra so that the curiosity regarding this mysterious red house can be settled once and for all.

The exact date of construction is said to be "unknown," however, the approximate date is 1896. Some old timers have claimed the home was actually the Bradford-Morgan House, given the fact that Ada Bradford's father, S.S. Bradford was said to have had the home built for his daughter and her husband, Frank Wilson Street. I have yet to uncover documentation that says either way, and so just whom had the home built is still up for speculation. Nevertheless, when the home was finished, it was Ada Bradford Street and her husband, Frank Wilson Street who first lived there.

Prior the building of this majestic home, there had allegedly been a hotel on this site named "United States Hotel," that had previously burned down, was rebuilt and burned down a second time, before the structure was razed and later this exquisite Victorian home was built. 

S. S. Bradford, said to have been the person who commissioned architect Clarence Warwick Ayers to design the home, was originally a native of Maine. Ayers had also designed Bradford's home and the Curtin House in Sonora as well. 

The book, "A History of Tuolumne County," published by B.F. Alley in 1882, states this of Samuel Stillman Bradford, a.k.a. S.S. Bradford:

"Mr. Bradford is a native of the old Pine Tree State - a state that has given to California more vigorous, energetic workers and enterprising pioneers than any other section of proportionate population. His earlier years being passed in Maine, he removed westward, coming to California in the year 1850, and spent a few years in mining in various portions of this county, notably at Rattlesnake Creek, Big Oak Flat, etc. His travels led eastward again and we find him somewhat later in Maine, where he resided for several years, coming back to California in 1858 and spending a portion of the ensuing years in Columbia, but coming to Sonora in 1867, where he has resided ever since and has become an influential and most valued citizen.

Mr. Bradford has been identified with the lumber trade for many years, in which his business principles have met a suitable reward. He has been owner, in part, of the largest sawmill in the county, situated some fifteen miles east of Sonora. He has met discouragements, such as losses by fire, with the most becoming courage, always rising superior to calamity. At the present time, his business is connected with a steam planing mill in Sonora, where he manufactures all kinds of moldings, etc., does mill work in all its branches, makes sash, doors, blinds, boxes and numerous other articles and conducts a huge trade in lumber, his business extending over the entire county. Mr. Bradford married Miss Nancy P. Davis in 1849, their children being Alice (now Mrs. Street), Aida H. (wife of Frank Street, Esq.) and William Frederick, at present a student in the University of California." -- pages 397-398

Again, rumor has it that S.S. Bradford had the home built for Aida (or Ada) and her husband Frank Street. But that's basically it, a rumor. Or is it? 

According to a news clipping dated January 23, 1980, in a now defunct publication known as the Ione Valley Echo, the home was known even then as the Bradford-Morgan house, and it was being decorated in the Victorian era furnishings for special tours at that time. The point is, there must be some credence to the story, if going back a good 40 years in documentation the historians showing the home back then knew Bradford had some hand in the home's history.

Going back to the subject, Ada and Frank married on May 24, 1881 according to the May 30, 1881 edition of the Stockton Independent. The two were wed at S.S. Bradford's home with the Reverend A.J. Sturtevant officiating the ceremony.  The two went on to have three sons, Frank Jr., Clarence and Horace. Two of their children did not survive past their first birthdays. The only one of the children to grow up to be an adult was Horace, who went on to be a lawyer just like his father, Frank.

Frank Wilson Street, the patriarch of his family, was born in Illinois back in 1854. His father, Marvin Street was a very successful merchant who had stores in Illinois, New York and Arkansas. Unfortunately, Frank experienced loss early in his life. His father passed away in 1869, when Frank was only approximately 15 years old. Even earlier, his older brother, Harlow, whom I am sure Frank more than likely looked up to, was killed when Frank was only 9 years old, during the Civil War in Memphis, Tennessee on February 8, 1863. 

After the death of his father, Frank promised his mother, Elizabeth that he would always take care of her, and so, she traveled with him years later when they set out to make the long journey to California to settle in Tuolumne County where they had relatives. And so the story began for Frank and his family there in the Motherlode where he became a lawyer and ran a very successful law firm with his cousin Charles, married his beloved Ada, had three sons, and lived in that exquisite home on the hill in Sonora. 

The story didn't end there for them though. No, Frank and his son, Horace decided that the Motherlode wasn't their final chapter in life. And so, they moved the family to the bay area of the Oakland hills to start their own firm, "Street and Street," where they remained until Frank passed away at the age of 80 years, in 1935. He is buried at one of my favorite cemeteries, Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.

So what happened to the house in Sonora?

Well, at some point after the Streets moved away, the Morgan family purchased the house and truly made it their home.  

A New Chapter

Frank Albert Morgan was born on February 25, 1869 in Tuolumne County. His father, George was a mason, a saloon keeper and a hotel keeper in Columbia within the years he is listed on the Census. Frank grew up to become a traveling salesman for Sperry Flour, which was located in Stockton near the waterfront area. Morgan was the agent for Tuolumne County and over the years he is mentioned in the newspapers for his important role in the gold country. In his later years he was a life insurance agent.

Frank married Ora Moss, who was only 21 years old, on July 5, 1891, in Sonora. The couple had one son that I could find, Raymond Ritchie Morgan, on September 2, 1895. Frank's success in his work led him to purchasing a duplex on Haste Street in Berkeley.  I am not sure if that was their vacation home part of the time, or if it was a rental for investment property income.

Ora Moss Morgan and her husband, Frank were what you could consider "socialites" in one way or another, since they had a pretty significant circle of friends. In fact, in March of 1920, they hosted a huge party with friends coming up and staying from all over. They were also guests of  "Tom Mix's Company" at the Victoria Hotel (which was the Sonora Inn).  Tom Mix was one of the first Cowboy film stars in motion pictures, appearing in 291 films in his lifetime. 

In 1933, Frank passed away. Ora remained owner of both homes in Sonora and Berkeley, eventually selling the bay area home. 

Over the years, Ora began writing in journals. Whether it was originally meant to be a form of cathartic relief, she was quite a talented scribe, who penned her memories of earlier days in the gold country. I have read quite a bit of her work, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Her son, Raymond must have inherited the writing bug as well, because he grew up and headed down to Los Angeles where he began his writing career for radio shows. In fact, he co-created a radio show called, "Chandu the Magician," which did so well, a film was created for the Hollywood with Bela Lugosi starring as the villain. Ora kept a large collection of her recollections of Sonora history including photography of the area which has been preserved after her passing in 1956.

In 1959, Ora Moss Morgan's writings were published titled, "Gold Dust: A Compilation of the Writings of Ora Moss Morgan, Sonora, California 1933-1950."

The home eventually became a bakery/ice cream parlor in the 1960's according to some residents that contributed their memories on a post about the home on Facebook. Several people mentioned going after school to get ice cream or a baked good at the house. No one remembers when the house was painted red to match the church across the street, but a few people mentioned that they remembered  Virgil Gunter, a very popular realtor in Sonora having bought the building between the late 1950's -1970's and that his office was also painted the same red color. Perhaps Mr. Gunter was the one who painted it red? 

In the 1980's the house became an attorney's office, for James Boscoe, Esq., and today, the house is a dentist office for Dr. Ron Rankin, D.D.S.


This home was loved and cherished by many people over the years since the day it was constructed. It has served many purposes and yet, it still stands beautiful and majestic, even if some people do not care for the red color.  Personally, I adore this home, and I think the fact it is the "Red House" in Sonora it gives it character. I also have to wonder if whomever it was who chose to paint it red was inspired by the 1947 film, "The Red House," which was actually filmed in Sonora and Columbia. 

The movie starred Rory Calhoun, Julie London and Edward G. Robinson. I have always loved that movie, and again, something tells me someone who watched that film wanted to keep Sonora on the map and what better way to do so than to make a real-life "Red House," in the motherlode that people would see when they drove through town? Well, that's my opinion of course. Feel free to come to your own conclusions. 

Whenever I drive past this house it is usually the fall months or the summer months, but my favorite time of year is in October when the leaves are falling, the trees are all different colors, the smoke from the chimneys fills the air, pumpkins stacked on porches and the colors of autumn with all its splendor are everywhere.

Ora Moss Morgan wrote a beautiful memory that reminds me of her, possibly sitting on the porch of that house penning her thoughts during that lovely time of year, and I couldn't end this post without sharing her words with you. It speaks of better days and her memories of times long passed. Something that is but a memory today, but one that you can close your eyes and see, even if only in your imagination. 


"October days – tawny with sunshine and purple – the odor of burning leaves – how just this little thing awakens memories of childhood days – raking and burning leaves in all the yards in the old neighborhood – the air thick with smoke – it was on Saturday and the children helped.

How we loved the crackle and rustle of the leaves as we scuffed through them – playing games by burrowing into tunnels of leaves piled high – brown, red, yellow – we played we had dresses in all the shades and were grown up ladies – then a cloud appeared and suddenly a few rain-drops – we lifted our little faces, the soft drops pattering down – how fresh the air seemed and what a fragrance – the first fall rain........Our parents had never heard the word “depression”, nor “income tax” nor the “high cost of living”. To talk of the “new deal” and the WPA’s and the NRA’s and XYZ’s would have made their poor heads swim with bewilderment. But – they did know honesty and sincerity – home and happiness, after all, the best things in life.

I remember the October sunsets from the old home porch – the landscape fairly ablaze with the crimson rays as the sun sank behind the hills – and "the dewey blue of twilight grew, to purple with a star or two." And the moon – how big and round and red it used to look – but when high in the sky it flooded the world with a silvery glow. I can remember how we used to make a wish and say a verse for the first full moon – dear me – we wished on the daisies and blew hard on the fluffy dandelion balls and were sure our wish would come true – and maybe it did."---  Ora Moss Morgan 

("Gold Dust: A Compilation of the Writings of Ora Moss Morgan, Sonora, California 1933-1950.")



Copyright 2022 - J'aime Rubio

DISCLAIMER:  Snippets of Ora Moss Morgan's writing was used exclusively under the FAIR USE law for educational purposes only. 


Census, Marriage, Death Records, California,

Various newspaper clippings,


 "A History of Tuolumne County," published by B.F. Alley

"Gold Dust: A Compilation of the Writings of Ora Moss Morgan, Sonora, California 1933-1950." - by Ora Moss Morgan

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Susan's Bluff - Tracking Down The Truth to the Tragedy

While meandering through some old magazines from a second hand store in Valley Springs, California, I came across an issue of Real West Magazine. This was published back in 1963, so the stories within the publication are very old, forgotten and for the most part, unknown. Noticing how rare this issue was, I decided to purchase it for possible inspiration into later investigations.  At home, as I flipped through the pages of this historical find, I stumbled upon a small article towards the back titled, "Story of Susan's Bluff." I immediately was pulled in. 

The story in the magazine tells the tale of a young lady, Susan O'Brien, (allegedly about 15 years old) who was traveling with her family in a wagon train headed west in 1849. According to the story, the party "possessed 40 wagons and 50 head of cattle," meaning it was a big wagon train, with a lot of people.

At some point the party decided to make camp at Goose Creek. The men all went out to hunt for food, while the women and children were left behind with the wagons. As the saying goes, "when the cat's away, the mice will play," and so a group of natives came into the camp, knowing the women were basically defenseless. Once in camp, they began demanding food and whiskey. Although their demands were met, Susan allegedly picked up two guns that were packed in the wagon, and pointed them at the natives, making her own demand that they leave.

Although they did leave, this story was far from over for Susan. 

As the party proceeded onward, they moved along the Humboldt River, which follows along where present day Hwy 80 runs. By the time they reached Lassen's Meadows, some of the party split up. One group decided to go north towards Oregon, while a smaller group of others were determined to head in a south-westerly direction crossing the "Forty-Mile Desert."  Eventually, the smaller wagon train approached the Carson River, and planned on following that all the way to California.

In the smaller group that was headed westward, the O'Brien family, which consisted of Susan's father, mother, her teenage brother, Michael and herself, were in the advance of the other wagons, trail blazing ahead along the river. 

By the time they reached the canyon area, where the present day Lahontan Dam is now located, the O'Brien's wagon was attacked. It was more than likely the same natives who had been to their camp demanding food and whiskey, which I believe their intent for that incident was sizing up who was there, and what supplies they had to come back later and take. 

The O'Brien family, being ahead of their party and thus isolated, were now surrounded and unable to defend themselves. The natives proceeded to attack the wagon, brutally murdering the entire family, including hacking Susan's brother to death with their weapons. Susan allegedly had hid in a trunk within the wagon itself, and only once the natives had started rummaging through the belongings to take what they could, did they discover her.

As the story goes, the natives kidnapped her and held her in a cave while they rustled up all the cattle that the O'Brien's had with them. Then allegedly, they gave her to their Chief. Waiting until the cover of darkness, she supposedly makes her escape, but while attempting her getaway, she is caught once again by the natives. Refusing to be taken alive, Susan does the unthinkable and literally jumps off the top of the cliff side where she had been held against her will, and falls to her death into the rocky ravine below. Later the party that was traveling behind, eventually caught up to the ghastly site, where they discovered the bodies of the O'Brien family, and yes, Susan's mutilated corpse at the bottom of the cliffside. 

Of course, the story sounds tragic and a bit romanticized, doesn't it? 

Well, I had a lot of questions being that some of the story seems impossible to know exact details to, since the only other people who could have known what happened would have been the murderers themselves, those among the native tribe who slaughtered the O'Brien family. 

I was determined to find some answers so I kept digging.

According to research done by a Nevada columnist for the Fernley Leader, Ms. Laura Tennant, she interviewed a member of the local Paiute tribe, who stated that their people had their own version of the tale. According to Curtis Hamar, the story about Susan that has been passed down for over 150 years was mostly correct, although Susan's demise came in a different way.  

Supposedly, she was taken to be held for ransom in order to obtain guns from the approaching party. While being held at the top of the cliff where the natives had their women cooking, Susan allegedly got into a fight with one of the Indian women. Wanting to be released, she picked up one of the grinding stones used to prepare meals with, and allegedly chucked it over the cliff. This upset on of the Indian women so much she proceeded to attack Susan, ultimately pushing her over the edge and killing her. 

Now, that is certainly a different version of the story, isn't it?  Either way, both versions end badly, and ultimately Susan dies in each telling. 

So is that why the area is known today as Susan's Bluff?  I decided to look a little further into the story and the pieces of the puzzle started to fit a little better.

According to page 217 of the "Third Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, 1911-1912," the story gets a little more clear.

The publication states, "Susan's Bluff  is located about 14  miles below Dayton, opposite Clifton. At its foot are the graves of three emigrants with a sunken wagon tire at the head of each grave. The name of one of the emigrants was Susan, hence the name of the bluff."

Very little is known about the O'Brien family and where they came from. We do not even know the names of the parents, only the children, which is also a bit odd to me. 

Do I believe that this story happened? Yes. However, I am on the fence about which version I believe, or if the truth of this tragedy can be found somewhere in the middle. In many cases, unless we have concrete primary sources from eye witnesses that were there at the time this took place, everything we believe is just conjecture.  

One thing we do know for a fact is that a girl or woman named Susan and "others" were found dead at the bottom of that cliff, and they were buried there by the passing wagon train.

I have to thank those who came before me, who were also interested in this story, so much so, that they trekked up Fort Churchill Road to take in the site of what is known today as Susan's Bluff, and then wrote what they knew about the story to keep Susan's story alive. 

Although her story is not as widely known as the stories of the Donner Party, Kit Carson or the tales of Joaquin Murietta, this tragedy is not any less important. 

One spring or summer day in the high desert terrain near present day Dayton, Nevada, in 1849, a family of settlers looking for a better life were attacked, and their lives were stripped from them. 

Whether Susan was kidnapped and committed suicide, leaping to her death to escape what awaited her, or she was thrown from the cliff -- she died.  The bodies of those victims are buried there at the bottom of the cliff, literally forgotten in time. There are no burial markers for them, no monuments, no headstones, nothing. 

There are also no photographs of them to remember them by. All we have is the story. I believe that by reading this story, and sharing it with others, we will not only honor Susan and her family, but we also honor all the settlers who lay forgotten in unmarked graves across the western lands. People who came searching for a better life, a life they would never get to experience.

(Copyright 2022 - J'aime Rubio,


"Real West Magazine," Volume 6, No.30, July 1963

"Third Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, 1911-1912," published 1913

"The Marker," (newsletter) by Trails West, Inc., published Fall 2011


Saturday, June 25, 2022

History of the Dunsmuir-Hellman Estate


This beautiful mansion located on a tranquil 50-acre lot, hidden away in the hills of Oakland, California, was designed by J. Eugene Freeman and built in the neoclassical revival architecture that had been so popular back in 1899. The history of this beautiful and palatial home is one full of twists and turns, and is shared by two distinct families of great wealth: The Dunsmuir and Hellman families.

The Dunsmuir Family

While researching the history of this property one can be overwhelmed at the enormous amount of websites share the same story verbatim. As the story usually goes, the son of a Vancouver coal magnate falls deeply in love with a married woman, and that after leaving her husband, the two planned to wed. In some versions of this story, which have even been published in print, there are claims that this coal baron’s son originally came to live with his favorite bartender, who let him stay with his family as a “boarder,” and it was there that he fell in love with the bartender’s wife, and the two basically ran off with each other.  

Other versions name the married man as being an usher at a theatre instead of as a bartender. The house comes into the picture when the story goes on that this coal magnate’s son used his own fortune to build an extravagant house for his soon-to-be bride as a wedding gift, but during their honeymoon the man fell ill and passed away. The story gets even more disturbing when it concludes with the fact that the bride died soon after as well. Thus ending the tragic love story.

Unfortunately, some of this popular story is inaccurate and this article is here to set the facts straight once and for all.

The Facts

First and foremost, Alexander Dunsmuir actually was the son of Robert Dunsmuir, one of the richest coal barons in Vancouver, British Columbia at that time, so that part of the story is correct. When he came to San Francisco in 1878, at the age of 25, he had plenty of money at his disposal to stay at the best hotels in town so it is highly unlikely that he took up as a boarder, living with the family of a bartender or usher.

Alexander Dunsmuir did in fact fall in love with a woman known as Josephine Wallace, and she had been married to a Waller Wallace, and even had two children.  The 1880 Census puts both he and his wife, Josephine living at 428 Eddy Street, cites Waller as being an “Attorney” and not a bartender at all. It also cites the family of four as having a servant working and living with them, Mary Sullivan.

Upon further research, Waller Wallace turned out to be one of the fathers of baseball on the west coast. In fact, his obituary stated that he was a "well known baseball scorer, writer and ex-manager"... who was "prominently identified with the national game."  It also states that he pitched and managed for the "California Theatre," which was a baseball team. 

Although I didn't find a divorce decree during my research, Wallace's obituary shows that he remarried later on, and then died in 1891, meaning that divorce or not, the marriage ended between the two, and at some point Josephine began her relationship with Alexander around 1882. 

The newspapers also announced that Alexander “secretly” married his love Josephine many years prior, but never furnished the documents proving so.

The biggest secret or scandal was the fact that Alexander and Josephine “played house” for nearly 18 years, (married or not) keeping their relationship secret from his family for fear that he would be disinherited from his family fortune. 

Whether it was the fact that Josephine may have been a divorcee (or even worse, still married to another man) or had come from a lower station in life, it was obvious that Alexander wanted to keep his family in Vancouver from discovering his secret life in San Francisco. 

After his father passed away in 1889, Alexander still tried keeping his relationship quiet for fear his matriarchal mother would cut him out of his inheritance, too. It was around the time of his investing in the construction of this house in Oakland, that gossip started going around and he knew his secret would finally be exposed.  It was then that he publicly announced they had just been married and that they were to go on their honeymoon at once.  In reality, the couple had been living as man and wife (common-law) for 18 years.  During their “official” honeymoon in Manhattan, New York, Alexander Dunsmuir fell ill and passed away on January 31, 1900.

Alexander (older)

After the death of Alexander, Mrs. Josephine Dunsmuir went back to the beautiful home her husband had constructed for her and remained there for the rest of her life.  According to the San Francisco Call dated June 23, 1901, Josephine grew critically ill with typhoid fever and despite being cared for by the best doctors and treatments available, she succumbed to her illness within a week’s time. 

Unfortunately, due to misinformation on other websites it has often been stated that she died from lung cancer, but again, according to the newspaper at the time of her death she died from typhoid fever.

It was after the death of Josephine that Alexander’s name was dragged through the mud by his step-daughter, the famous actress Edna Wallace Hopper. She filed a lawsuit contesting the will of Alexander because her mother did not inherit Alexander’s estate, meaning she wouldn’t inherit anything either besides the house.

You see, upon her husband’s death, Josephine was allowed to keep the house and receive a small fund of $25,000 a year for the rest of her life which was agreed upon while Alexander was alive and was promised to her by her brother-in-law James, who was set to inherit Alexander’s estate. Since Josephine only lived one year longer, it appears that Edna felt entitled to money and wanted to get what she could out of the Dunsmuir family, or at least attempt to anyway. 

Edna Wallace Hopper
After years of court battles, testimony trying to sully Alexander’s reputation for his excessive drinking habits and even blaming her step-father for her not being accepted at various schools due to her mother’s reputation of living with Dunsmuir, Edna did her very best to ruin what good name her step-father and mother had left. In the end she lost the court case and all appeals she attempted to file as well. The estate remained in James’ name just as Alexander had wanted.

Years later, Alexander and James’ mother, Joan Dunsmuir also filed a suit in Canada against James, her own son, claiming that both Alexander and James’ had tricked her to sell them her portion of the estate in 1889 for $400,000 when in fact it was worth about $15,000,000, but that lawsuit didn’t end well of Joan either.

By the turn of the Century, Edna Wallace Hopper rented the house out to the Hellman family, and eventually sold the property to them by 1906, thus starting a new chapter in the history of this magnificent structure.

The Hellman Family

This chapter in the history of the home would prove to be less scandalous than that of the first owners of the property. In fact, I could not find anything overly salacious written about the Hellman family who owned and occupied this stately mansion from purchasing the house in 1906 up until 1957 when Mrs. Hellman passed away.

Frances Jacobi

Isaias W. Hellman and Frances Jacobi were engaged to be married in January of 1898, and the pair married shortly thereafter at the home of the bride’s grandparents. One story that took place a year after their purchasing the home, Isaias Hellman, Jr., grew very ill and it turned out that he suffered from a ruptured appendix, nearly causing death. He was treated at Mt. Zion Hospital and he eventually made a full recovery. At that time he was VP of Union Trust Company, which later merged with Wells Fargo.

When the Hellman’s rented the house in Oakland around the turn of the century (after 1901) the couple had already begun their family with their oldest son Isaias Hellman III being one year old. During their time at the estate they had three more children, Frederick, Florence and Marion Frances.

The 1910 census shows that the family had a staff of eight living with them, (4) servants, a cook, a governess and the butler. On July 22, 1910 a terrible fire broke out in the power and engine house, and it was reported in the paper that Mrs. Hellman fought with bravery and cool-headedness to manage her workers to stifle the fire and save the estate, and the efforts proved successful.

By 1913, the Hellman family made renovations to the house and the property itself, adding more to the estate such as: a swimming pool, glass conservatory and grotto, aviary, garden maze, tennis courts and even a 9-hole golf course. Stories of the lavish parties, 4th of July celebrations and family get-togethers have circulated over the years and truly show the fun and exciting times this property has seen over the years.

Isaias Hellman

In 1920, Isaias W. Hellman Jr., passed away, after falling into a comatose state. His father had passed away only one month prior, and being that his father was president of the bank, the title was given to Isaias. He didn’t live much longer, and being that he was in a coma, he never had the chance to know of his promotion.

The house remained under the ownership of the Hellman family, and when Frances passed away in 1957, the property was eventually sold to the City of Oakland to be used for conference space. By the 1970’s a non-profit established to restore and protect the estate was co-running the property, but eventually all ownership returned to the City of Oakland as the sole proprietor.

By the summer of 1989, the non-profit took over the care of the home and renamed it "The Dunsmuir House & Gardens," to use as an educational tool for historical preservation and horticulture. The property was listed as a historic landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, and by the City of Oakland as well.


This 37-room mansion that spans over 16,000 square feet has been used in films over the years between 1976 to the present day. Such films include:  Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Partners in Crime, A View To Kill, The Vineyard, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Gloria, Case Number 13 and Clint Eastwood’s True Crime.


I felt during this research that whether it was the scandalous rumors and gossip swirling around the Dunsmuir family, or just the history of the Hellman family surrounding the property, both family's stories were just as equally important to share, because both families created the history of that home. 

The home is theirs, always, and with that thought, let us always respect and honor the history of each home, each location we visit and remember that although we might be fascinated with it, or with the stories there are to tell about it, but in the end, this was still someone's home -- their sanctuary, and in many cases, the place where they took their last breath. 

Let us always enjoy, but respect the memory of all those who walked those halls of the Dunsmuir-Hellman House.

Happy History Hunting!!

(Copyright 8/14/2018 - J'aime Rubio, www.

Photo Sources:

All photos of the house, courtesy of Roland Boulware
Photos of Isaias and Frances Hellman; Find-a-grave
Photos of Alexander Dunsmuir, Josephine and Edna Wallace Hopper; (public domain) and newspaper articles.