Of Old West Towns

I just returned from a week’s trip to Coronado Island at San Diego. The occasion was an all-too-brief writers retreat with three very good friends: Lynn Kerstan, Alicia Rasley and Carol Prescott. The stated reason was brainstorming our current and future books, but somewhere along the line we found time to watch the Oscars (none of us had seen any of them), eat, drink, watch Navy Seals train up and down the beach and take a day trip up to Julian, a historic gold-mining town located one hour east of San Diego.

I love old western towns. If one is within hours of wherever I might be, I head that way: Georgetown, Colorado; Virginia City, Nevada; Bisbee, Arizona.

They all have their own personality and I always love every moment exploring their streets.

I was quite fascinated with seeing the toilet Mark Twain used when he was editor of the paper in Virginia City. I visited the cell once occupied by Butch Cassidy in Wyoming, and slept in the hotel room frequently occupied by John Wayne in Bisbee.  I always buy whatever books and phamphlets I can find.   Someday, I know, I’ll use that place in a book.

Sure enough, I found a great book, “Julian City And Cuyamaca Country,” a treasure about the town’s past.  

So on the trip home, I eagerly turned to my newest edition to my already overloaded western library. One chapter particularly fascinated me. I’m a great devotee of old westerns, including the old black and white “B” movies. One frequent plot was the land grab by claim jumpers. So I was enthralled with a chapter that involved claim jumping.

“There probably has never been a more troubling chapter in the history of any young town than that which befell Julian City in its infancy,” reported Author Charles LeManager.

“The boom was no sooner in full swing in the spring of 1870 when a dark cloud descended over that rag-town. It took form as a “grab for the mines and the land upon which the settlers had built their hopes and dreams.”  Four men, who had already purchased a grant in the area, learned of the discovery of lucrative gold fields in the area and decided to claim that land as their own.  Years of skullduggery, including bribery and forgery, followed.

Several had already gained reputations at scoundrels. “This was not the first time they had been involved in attempted landjumping,” according to the local history, and they were pretty blatant about it. They forged the signature of the governor along with the state seal. They bribed a surveyor to change the grant boundaries to increase their land from 12,000 to 30,000 acres to include the lands of some 100 settlers and several gold mines.

There was talk of “Judge Lynch” to assist, but instead the settlers and miners took their case to court. It took three and a half years with many ups and downs, but they won.

Soon after the victory, the gold started to pan out, Except for a few mines, the business of taking gold from the mountains around Julian was not especially lucrative. When compared with the Mother Lode country of northern California, Julian’s total production of about five million dollars was a drop in the bucket and settlers looked elsewhere for sustenance.   They found the land was particularly fine for growing apples, and Julian went from a gold past to an apple-filled future. The town’s apple pie is now its main claim to fame.

Now how can you make up good stuff like that?  Whenever anyone asks where I get my ideas, I point to a history shelf.  History has always been more fascinating than fiction. 

I might add that there’s a store named Pistols & Petticoats in Julian so maybe I’m prejudiced.   Of course, I paid a visit and bought souvenirs.

So now Julian City has become one of my favorite old western towns and some day, some time, it will be the locale of a book. It gives me an excuse to return and relish even more local history.

Do you have a favorite old west town? Has one ever inspired a book?

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And a shameless promotion note: My newest book, “Catch A Shadow,” will be on the stands this week. It’s romantic suspense and, although not a western, part of the book takes place in Texas. Romantic Times said it was “not to be missed.”

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15 thoughts on “Of Old West Towns”

  1. It’s not exactly a town any more but I love Holcomb Valley in Big Bear, California, SoCal’s most lucrative goldfield in 1860’s. But my far and away favorite is Virginia City! Wonderful post, Pat.

  2. I was just researching a Virginia City in Montana. How strange that you’ve just looked at one in Nevada. Do you suppose there are lots of Virginia City’s? Mine was a main stop over on the Bozeman Trail, which I’m having my fictional town of Divide, Montana be near. The Bozeman was a short cut to the gold fields of Montana and now Virginia City in Montana is a living ghost town. That’s what it proclaims itself to be on it’s website. Sounds really cool, huh?

    >>>The very much alive ghost town, Virginia City, Montana, is frozen in time. It is a remarkably well preserved old west Victorian gold mining town just 20 miles west of Yellowstone National Park (90 miles by road).<<< My Virginia City was quite a boomtown for a while now it's population is 130. Anyway, it's all so interesting, I think.

  3. The really old people living near me talk about old towns that aren’t here anymore.
    There’s Bertha, and there are still buildings there.
    Oh drat, I can’t remember the name of the one near me…keep in mind it is completely gone. Not a single building or anything to recall it’s presents but someone will say, “Oh, that family grew up near…aaaaack!!! I’ll think of it later and it doesn’t matter anyway.

    But these little towns are gone and now bigger little towns struggle to survive. All part of the evolution of America. I’ve written a short, fun three book series of cozy mysteries that will start releasing this fall and I considered using one of these ‘ghost towns’ as my towns names. I ended up not doing it but someday I might.

  4. Hi Pat, my favorite old historical town is Deadwood, South Dakota. It seems there are ghosts around every corner just waiting to tell a story. So much happened there. I love when a town still has an amazing spirit about it. Your Julian City sounds like one of those places that everyone needs to experience. I’d love to go there one day. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  5. Hi Pat – I’m a Virgina City lover myself. I’ve visited 3 times and have set two books there. I’ve never been to Julian, but I must go, I’m only a few hours away. Thanks for sharing. You’re right, truth is stranger (and more exciting) than fiction!!

  6. Now, Pat, we all know there’s no such thing as shameless promotion! Congratulations on your new release.
    I grew up an hour from Butch Cassidy’s birthplace, Circleville, Utah. My sister married a man from that town. The old homestead where he lived was still there last time I looked, although I suspect it’s been turned into a tourist stop. Sigh. Great blog!

  7. My late mother was born in a little mining town
    in New Mexico,called Gibbs, in 1918. I’m told that the town itself is gone now, only bits and pieces of the buildings are all that is left. I’ve always wanted to visit the area and I still have plans to do so someday!

    P.S. One of my best friends in junior and senior
    high school, here in Houston, was name “Patricia Potter”!!

    Pat Cochran

  8. My favorite old west town is Joseph, Oregon. I don’t think any movies have been made about it.

  9. I think Linda Broday and I found a “new” favorite old west town while on booksigning tour. Calvert, Texas. If a town could talk, this one would have one heck of a tale. She and I both felt it. There are stories there for sure. We spent one evening roaming around and taking pictures and had to go back the next day to see more, including the cemetery. It’s an old cotton plantation town in East Texas an hour or so from Waco. Talk about muse. So don’t be surprised to see it pop up in one of our stories someday. Right Linda? Phyliss

  10. We’ve got an old country cemetary about a mile away from us as the crow flies. Very cool. Lots of my husband’s ancestors buried there. It’s so interesting that it’s a kind of inspiration.

  11. Pat, I’ve been wanting to get to Deadwood for a couple of years now. I wonder if it’s just too touristy these days, tho.

    And CONGRATS on your new release! Hope it flies off the shelves for you!

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