Tag Archives: Western history

“Water! Water!”

Virginia City had a water problem. You might not think that would be the case, considering that Bill Fairweather, Henry Cover, and their friends discovered gold right in Alder Creek on May 26, 1863. Within days a gold rush was on. A gold camp sprang up on its banks, and within a few months became a town.
The building boom and the gold rush, though, had competing interests in the water. Both brought in scores of people. Although they all came for the gold, they had opposite goals. Settlers built the town, and those who had brought their families made their homes there. Miners appear mostly to have wanted to dig the gold and take it home. Or they tried to, during the era of the Plummer Gang.
During 1863, few people appear to have thought about the necessity for clean water for drinking and cooking. (At least I haven’t found references to it in letters and diaries of the Montana Gold Rush.)
Early in 1864, however, a typhus epidemic struck. It was not generally known at the time that overcrowding, malnutrition, and foul water caused (and do cause) typhus. (In my novel God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, Martha McDowell and her friends Lydia Hudson and Berry Woman fight the typhus epidemic.)

God's Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winnerl

God’s Thunderbolt, 2009 Spur winner


Nor did they generally know that the ultimate cause was explained by “germ theory,” now a central tenet of modern medicine.
Germ theory states that specific microscopic organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye invading and reproducing in humans and animals can cause disease. Although germs had long been suspected as the causes of disease, germ theory was as debatable in the nineteenth century as are the causes of climate change now. That changed after Louis Pasteur, the French microbiologist, proved it correct between 1860-1864 by identifying the cause (germs) of puerperal fever that killed so many women after childbirth.
The general public, including doctors, did not realize that bites from fleas, mites (chiggers), lice, and ticks transmit typhus bacteria. Or that unclean medical implements carry the germs, too. Symptoms of typhus include fever of 102˚or higher, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Other causes allow the disease to spread: overcrowding, poor diet, poor sanitation, and crowding. Those same conditions exist in war, and in areas of poverty.
And they existed in the Alder Gulch mining camps.
By the summer of 1864, an estimated 20,000 people lived in the “14-mile city” along Alder Creek, the primary stream, and along its tributary creeks, such as Daylight Creek that flows through Virginia City into Alder Creek.
The pressure on these sources of water must have been intense. Between the height of spring run-off and low water in the later summer and fall, miners claimed the water as their own.
Then came The Montana Post. It began publication on August 27, 1864, under the ownership of John Buchanan (no relation), who had brought his printing press to Virginia City. The September 8, 1864, issue announced the change of ownership and a new editorial direction – toward the Union. Daniel Webster Tilton had bought the paper and very soon installed Thomas J. Dimsdale as editor.
After publishing a puff piece about Virginia City on September 17 that mentioned “water good and wholesome” as one of the city’s attractive features, Dimsdale apparently changed his mind. Also, during this time, a group of men formed a water company and began to dig a ditch for laying pipes from a spring about a mile and a half up in the mountains.
On October 15, 1864, Dimsdale wrote an article headlined simply “The Waterworks.”
“Good water, and plenty of it, is a necessity as well as a luxury, and the most unthinking will prefer water conveyed in pipes, to the same fluid mixed with all the various and horrible impurities that the most casual inspection cannot fail to detect in the branch which is the main source of supply to the inhabitants of Virginia City.” (p. 2)
He continued, “The works are progressing rapidly. Four augers are at work boring the logs, and the ditch will be ere long completed. There seems to be a prejudice on the part of some of the miners against the undertaking, but a little reflection will … show it to be groundless….”
Miners considered that they owned the water in the streams, and said so plainly in the “Fairweather Mining District Laws,” which Dimsdale printed in the Post, October 22, 1864.
“Section 16: The water in any creek or gulch shall belong exclusively to the miners of the creek or gulch.”
If that weren’t strong enough, the miners backed up their claim to possession in Section 18:
“The interest of the holder or holders, of any creek or gulch claim is hereby declared to be a chattle (sic) interest, consisting of the right to the possession of the land and the water thereupon, inseparable and indivisible except by the consent of the party or parties in interest, made in due form of law, and then only to such an extent, as shall not impair or infringe the rights of others.”***
And finally, Section 19:
“No person, or persons or company shall have the right by pre-emption, or otherwise to claim and hold an exclusive right or privilege in or to any portion of the water in any creek or gulch in the district, except as herein provided, and any ditch, pipe, channel flume or other means of conveyance … which may hereafter be made by which the water in any creek or gulch in the district shall be diverted from its original channel … without leaving in the creek or gulch the quantity of water belonging to each claim, is hereby declared to be a public nuisance….”****
Dimsdale also came down hard on the necessity of water to put out fires “in our town of wood,” as he wrote on November 12, 1864.
“Without this (water) being on hand in quantity, buckets are about as useful as thimbles to thirsty men.” He goes on to advocate several other modes of dousing fires, all of which sound not much more useful than buckets, but would only work even marginally if the water source were not close by.***** (p. 2)
The Montana Territorial Legislative Assembly would not meet until December 12, 1864, and there were no laws in effect in the territory. Created on May 26, 1864, from Idaho and Dakota Territories, Montana had no laws of its own because Congress did not stipulate that Idaho law passed down to Montana Territory. The only effective law in the Territory that pertained to the Alder Gulch region was this mining code.
Nonetheless, the water company pressed on.
In a lengthy article on November 19, Dimsdale reported, “The water is now brought close to the Shakespeare restaurant on Idaho Street.”
He describes the necessity for good water as a public health measure:
“We are firmly of opinion that more than half of the sickness in this town is traceable to carelessness in the selection of water for drinking and culinary purposes. Any person may satisfy himself of the correctness of our ideas on the subject, who will take a walk around the town and examine the condition of the pools and streams from which a large number of our citizens are in the habit of obtaining their daily supply. The water is not in a condition for any human being to drink. Regard to health being thrown out of the account, pleasure and taste must be both out-voted, or no one could think of imbibing the turbid and impure element.”
On November 26, he reported,
“The pipes for the supply of water are now being laid in Main street, and another week’s labor will see the whole city supplied. Any one wishing to have the water conducted into his or her house, can have it done by applying to the proprietors of the water works.”
The cost for having water brought into one’s house was $2.00 per month, which Dimsdale considered reasonable, although a high wage for the time was $30 per month.
In addition, he noted that having an adequate water supply in town would be a benefit in case of fire.
The miners did not give up. They petitioned the legislature on December 10 to grant no charter to the water company. Dimsdale lapsed into editorializing when he wrote,
“…the opponents … are actuated by a desire to run their own grindstone at the expense of the health of the entire body of the citizens.” (Montana Post, December 10, 1864)
The petition failed, and Virginia City soon had a water company.
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In March I’ll publish part 2, of this “Water” story. In 1890 a remarkable person became owner and manager of the Virginia City Water Company.
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Notes
*“Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” So goes a famous line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1789 as one of the Lyrical Ballads, which changed English literary history.

**The tree line in that high desert country is the reverse of what it is in wetter places. In a desert country, trees do not grow on hillsides lower than a few thousand feet above sea level, where they can get enough moisture. The trees around Virginia City are of the shorter varieties, juniper. Hardly trees at all (at least compared to the towering pines at higher elevations).

***Chattel (not chattle) property is any property, whether movable or immovable, except real estate and the buildings on it. (Its use in this context separates a mining claim form real estate. Later on, a dispute arose in the Legislature over whether or not to consider claims as real estate. The implications of that aren’t clear to me. Yet.)

****Pre-emption is the right of ownership to a piece of land by virtue of being the first to claim it. After the Civil War, and into the 20th century, people often moved onto a piece of land and build shacks or houses on it, claiming ownership to it by right of pre-emption, or being the first to live on it. Many of them later filed for ownership on the land as theirs under the Homestead Act of 1862, and the courts in the local areas upheld their claims. (It’s now spelled preemption.)

*****Those of you who are acquainted with Virginia City, can imagine putting out a fire anywhere above Wallace or Idaho streets along Jackson or Van Buren streets. Picture passing buckets up the hill from either Daylight creek or Alder creek. By the time the first bucket had reached the fire, the building might well have burned to the ground.

History vs Myth in the Western

Cover for The Devil in the Bottle

The Devil in the Bottle

Willy was a cowboy. His mother, Lou, homesteaded two half sections. His older brother, Steve, worked in a gold stamp mill, where their stepfather was foreman. His uncle Tom drove cattle up from Texas, established a ranch, and married Willy’s aunt Kitty, who had divorced her first husband for gambling.

One bright July morning in 1901, Lou cooked breakfast for a stranger riding by. Not liking him much, Willy took his .22 rifle off the wall. He showed the stranger what a good gun it was and bragged that he could shoot the eye out of a jackrabbit at a hundred yards. Both he and Lou breathed easier when the stranger left. A few weeks later they learned they had entertained the Sundance Kid, Harry Longabaugh.

Willy, who grew up to be called Bill, was my father. Those two paragraphs combine the Western myth and Western history. The cowboy, the homesteader, the rancher, the outlaw, the lady — were the stuff of myth. They were also real people. Industrial workers like Steve in the stamp mill were real, too, though they didn’t capture anyone’s imagination like the cowboy and gunslinger myth.

Perhaps that’s because Steve worked in a confined space, while Bill and Sundance worked outside, under the limitless sky, free to move around.

Through Bill’s stories, Sundance became part of my own history. For me, Western history and Western myth meld into flesh and blood, and Western history becomes far more than an academic exercise. It is the story of people, my own ancestors, both men and women.

Writing about Jack Slade in my novel, The Devil in the Bottle, I became fascinated with him. The man was a mass of contradictions. He is at once historical and mythical. He was a gunslinger who became the subject of myth, a tragic figure whose flaw, alcoholism, destroyed his many gifts. The man who might have been an architect of the West became an uncontrollable drunk, whose contemporaries referred to him as a “demon.”

In the Western myth the cowboy and the outlaw are types. People, on the other hand, are incredibly complex even when they’re not Jack Slade. Their inherent contradictions – good and evil, strengths and weaknesses – reside in the same person. The real cowboy historically did and does a necessary, difficult, dirty job for 30 a month and found (board and room). Bill talked about herding cattle in a rainstorm, water seeping down the insides of his boots and puddling in his saddle, his hands numb, to drive animals away from a rising river. He dismounted to carry sheep out of buffalo wallows so they would not drown, and decades later his frustration with animals so stupid would surface in his face and his voice.

People who do that sort of work are heroic, and have no need of a gun to enhance their heroism.

But along with that heroism come the ordinary flaws of being human. Tempers rise, and frustration erupts against other people and animals.

Somehow, from this mix of heroism and anger and cruelty as well as kindness and love, people made a country.

Between history and myth, it seems to me, there is a space, and from that space my stories come. History melds with myth in the story of Slade, in the stories of people doing the best they can to survive in difficult situations.