Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The lost children of Placer’s White House

Placer County's "White House"  - located in Auburn

By: J'aime Rubio

Located directly across the street from Auburn’s grand historic courthouse, the towering Victorian known as the White House continues to stir mysteries. The house has had many lives over the years, including being used as a residence, a law office and several restaurants. The plaque outside the White House states it was built in 1870, though county records suggest it may have actually been built a decade before that.

Its first owner, Walter B. Lyon was a Placer County Recorder as well as the Editor and Business Manager of the Placer Weekly Argus newspaper. He was also the Grand Secretary for the California Lodge of Odd Fellows. He was a true pioneer of the county. In 1875 Lyon’s stately abode had passed into the hands of John White, earning its lasting moniker. But surviving archives show the house had already experienced a string of tragedies before White came to own it.

Walter B. Lyon and his wife Mary had seven children, though only two survived into adulthood. Placer County death records indicate that between February and March of 1866, the Lyon’s 7-year-old son William, 3-year-old son Charlie and 1-year-old infant George, all passed away. The family devastation continued when on May 2, 1874 – just one year prior to John White taking over the family home – Lyon’s 7-year-old daughter Mary Helena also died after a lingering illness.

Archives of the Placer Weekly Argus noted, “Nearly every girl and boy and lady and gentleman in the town of Auburn and vicinity attended the funeral service and burial of the daughter of W.B. Lyon. The Band of Hope, composed of the little juveniles of our town, marched in twos to the graveyard.”

The newspaper added that many of the young girl’s classmates “wept unremittingly” during her funeral and that “at the grave the soft and gentle voices of the children echoed through the still woods as they sang ‘Beautiful River.’”

Other interesting history about the history of the home reported to the Auburn Journal by former restaurant owner, Pete Enoch, spoke of a mystery tunnel that connected under the Courthouse to the basement of the White House.  Said to have been used as a holding cell for inmates due for court appearances, the secret passageway was a means of transporting prisoners away from the public view.  If those stories are true, the area facing Maple Street bears only remnants of the old archway that has long since been sealed off, leaving only an old brick retaining wall visible from the exterior of the home.
Maria Helena Lyon's Grave

After visiting the White House, a trip to the Old Auburn Cemetery was next on my list. Having never been there, and solely relying on my GPS, I found myself wandering around the final resting place of many of the old pioneers of Auburn. As I walked the spacious grounds, I came upon a name I recognized, Walter B. Lyon, and sure enough, right there in the family plot I found little Mary Helena’s small obelisk. The tiny, stone monument that sits peacefully with her siblings and parent’s graves, remains a physical remembrance of young, forgotten lives lost in Placer County long ago, contributing to the questions we feel today about the region’s haunting history. 

The Lyon Family Plot, Auburn Cemetery

(Originally published as one of three stories on October 29, 2015 in the Placer Herald)
Updated/edited October 21, 2017
Photo of White House/Lyon House: Roland Boulware
Photo of graves: J’aime Rubio

Publisher/Editor's Notes: This is one of a series of articles that I wrote for the Roseville Press-Tribune/Placer Herald several years back when I used to write the historical articles for them.  According to my old editor, since I wrote the content I can repost the articles. I have also obtained permission by Gold Country Media a few years back to republish my stories, too. 

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