A Sierra Sojourn

Once known as “Big Meadows” for it’s fertile and open grazing land, the Bridgeport Valley was long the domain of Paiute Indians, peaceful hunter-gatherers who lived mainly near the valley’s various hot springs and along the shores of Mono Lake. That all began to change in 1827 when legendary trapper and guide Jedediah Smith became the first white man to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains from the west.

The Walker expedition followed, traveling through the Bridgeport Valley and the Mono Basin in 1833. In 1841 the Bidwell-Bartleson party was the first wagon train of immigrants to cross the Sierras near Sonora Pass. John C. Fremont and his guide Kit Carson explored the area in 1844 and camped in the Bridgeport Valley.

And then, in 1857 gold was discovered at Dogtown, about 7 miles south of Bridgeport, leading to the mining boom that inspired thousands of gold seekers to invade the Eastern Sierras. In the late 1850’s, rich gold and silver deposits were also discovered in nearby Bodie, Masonic and Aurora. The town of Bridgeport was settled in 1859 and with its agriculture and sawmills, became the supply hub for the surrounding mining camps.

One hundred and fifty odd years later, an invasion of another sort took place. From all over California, and from as far away as the United Kingdom, dedicated and like-minded men and women once again descended upon this High Sierra valley. The California Cornish Cousins were gathering.

The old saying about a hole in the ground and a Cornishman held true during the mining boom in Mono County and for this reason the area was chosen for the 21st annual Gathering of the CCC. The Cousins began arriving on Friday, the 8th of June, a clear blue cloudless day, the surrounding mountain peaks still capped with snow, the sweeping meadows lushly green, the springtime’s wild-flowers still in abundance at this high elevation.

Old friends greeted one another in the Bridgeport Memorial Hall during the sign-in and social hours, catching up on news and enjoying appetizers and frosty beverages. The Gathering was officially opened with a rousing rendition of Trelawney followed by a fine dinner of stuffed pork and grilled halibut. Feeling well-fed and relaxed, the group welcomed our guests from Redruth, Mike Kiernan and his wife Juliet. Mike is the Director of the Cornish Global Migration Programme, headquartered at the Murdoch House in Redruth and had graciously accepted our invitation to join us and further our understanding of the Programme and the Cornish diaspora, of which we are all a part.

Bridgeport, California

Mike has a “thing” for cemeteries. With the way the miners moved around often, following strikes and booms, these emigrants were easily lost track of, but in cemeteries, one can often find out where they finally ended up. So Mike goes about the world recording the Cornish he finds in their final resting places and adds them to his extensive database, maybe matching someone already there or someone a family member is searching for. He had been wanting to come to California, he told me, a place high on his list of Cornish “hot spots”, and when I mentioned that we would be going to Bodie (a visit to a real ghost town was also high on his list), a deal was struck and now here he was, explaining the Programme, and its importance, to us. The Programme is a fantastic undertaking and I hope anyone reading this has already sent their family’s information to CGMP and if not, will do so now.

On Saturday the Cousins rendezvoused at noon at the picnic area within Bodie State Park for a pasty lunch. The day was again brilliantly clear and sunny, but a bit breezy. Quite a bit breezy. Bodie sits in a hollow surrounded by hills at 8,375′ elevation which means it is above timberline and while the atmospheric and ubiquitous sagebrush is wonderfully aromatic, it does nothing to hinder the relentless wind. We were joined for lunch by our interpretive guide, Chris Spiller of the Bodie Foundation, who was to lead us on our two-hour guided tour of Bodie. She informed us that this is but a gentle breeze, compared to the bitter gales that frequently howl through the town.

Bodie, California

We began our tour on the main street of Bodie in front of the Methodist church, a fitting start for a bunch of Cornish folk, I thought. Chris gave us a bit of general history of the town, including the fact that the Methodist church was one of three churches originally in town. There had been, however, 60 saloons. The churches and the upstanding citizens resided in the south part of town, while the saloons, soiled doves and sinners lived in the north end. The wild north end of town supplied many, but not all, of the residents of the cemetery, where Chris took us first, showing us the granite and marble monuments to the dear departed and explaining that many unmarked graves lay outside the fence, as the town’s murderers, thieves and whores where not allowed to keep company with their betters in death any more than they could in life. Mike was busily photographing and scribbling into his notebook the Cornish residents (inside the fence, of course). There is only one headstone or memorial outside the fence and it is to honor the memory of Rosa May, a prostitute with a kind heart who is said to have tended to sick miners.

Interpretive guide, Chris Spiller of the Bodie Foundation

Back on Main Street, Chris told us of the gunfights and uproarious behavior that took place on Saturday nights when the miners had money in their pockets and the next day off. Wouldn’t seem to bode well for church attendance on a Sunday morn. We heard about the bitter winters when deep snow cut off the supply roads, of the rampant illnesses that so often took the youngest and weakest. We had seen the children’s headstones on the hill. We heard about the swift decline of the town as the mines played out and news of newer, richer strikes elsewhere lured the men to another mine, another town, a new start somewhere else. Between the late 1870’s and the late 1880’s, the population of Bodie was about 10,000. By 1910 it was down to 700 and by 1920, a mere 120. Folks just walked away, leaving behind anything they no longer wanted or couldn’t fit into their wagons. One man, Mr. Cain, began buying up the abandoned homes and businesses for the back taxes and soon owned much of the town. A fire in 1932 destroyed much of the downtown and by the 1940’s Cain had hired caretakers to live in the nearly empty town to “discourage” squatters and thieves and that action is what saved Bodie.

Bodie became a California State Historic Park in 1962 and is maintained in a state of “arrested decay”, which means the structures will be maintained, but only to the extent that they will not be allowed to fall over or otherwise deteriorate in a major way. All the items left in the homes and businesses are authentic and original – nothing has been brought in and nothing may be taken out. This is not a Hollywood ghost town, it’s the real deal. Adding to the Wild West atmosphere, four cowboys came riding through town on their way to their camp up in a side canyon. They were friendly cowpokes and stopped to visit with us for a while.

A break between the first and second parts of our tour gave us some time to wander at will, entering such buildings as we were allowed access to and peering through the wavy glass in the windows of the off-limits ones. The town’s undertaker, a busy man by all accounts, lived and worked in the same building. He appeared to have left most of his belongings behind from what I could see through the cloudy glass, including a number of coffins in various sizes. I managed to take one photo through the window, but when I tried to take more, my auto-focusing camera refused to focus. As I turned and walked to the next building, the camera began to function perfectly once more. True story.

Our group met up at the Standard Mine stamp mill as directed and were introduced to “Mrs. Mildred Hoover”, Chris Spiller’s alter ego for this part of the tour. Mrs. Hoover was the mine superintendent’s wife, and Chris, in full regalia, played the part to the hilt as she took us through the huge stamp mill, explaining the engine room, machine shop and stamps, ever patient and knowledgeable. Brave woman, considering that she was leading a bunch of Cornish who know a bit about mines and mining practices! By the time it ended, our two-hour tour had stretched to three and a half hours.

In the early evening we assembled once again at the Hall back in Bridgeport, freshly shined up, a bit sunburned and windburned and very ready for an ice cold pint and our barbecued dinner. Hot off the grill came the smoky, rare rib-eye steaks and the stuffed Cornish game hens, our caterer’s little joke. I have to give the caterer a shout out – if you are ever in Bridgeport, or even near Bridgeport, go to his shop, Albert’s Meat Market, an old school real-deal meat market and deli, and treat yourself to a couple of rib-eyes or one of his mile-high deli sandwiches.

After supper, the CCC’s historian, Gage McKinney, performed his Naturalization Ceremony for the few poor souls in the crowd who were not fortunate enough to have been born with Cornish blood in their veins.

After becoming a naturalized Cousin Jack, Mike proceeded to give his main presentation, the story of Cornish miners in France and how it all tied together with California. Amazing to see in the slide show a Cornish engine house in the middle of the French countryside.

The group also heard from Steve Murphy, the new CCC president who began his two-year term this weekend as I ended mine. He announced the date and location of next year’s Gathering – it’s to be held the last weekend in May 2013 in North Bloomfield, another ghost town. I’d better have my camera checked.

by Catherine ‘Kitty’ Quayle