Who's in the Marble Orchard
Calaveras Enterprise 10/28/03


By Antoinette May Herndon


Everybody knows that Mokelumne Hill was the biggest, baddest, most important mining camp in Calaveras County (records claim 17 people killed there in 17 weeks, then five more shot the following weekend). With such a riotous history, it doesn't take much imagination to conjure up a legion of restless spirits.

I looked for them the other day at the town's two graveyards, set at either ends of Center Street. You'd think at least one would have a Boot Hill. But perhaps the bad guys, transplants from who knows where, had no one to mourn them. No one to put up wooden markers, let alone stone ones. Perhaps gunslingers and claim jumpers are buried beneath other more solid citizens, good and bad slumbering in tiers through all eternity.

They're quiet now (except for George and Louisa Leger who're said to haunt their hotel up the street) but that doesn't mean there aren't stories to tell. Consider Elizabeth Markwood in the Catholic Cemetery on East Center. Her marker merely says "wife of George," but consider the dates. George's wife, (1834-1885) lived the Gold Rush, arguably the most electrifying period in history. She saw it all.

The tomb of William Beals suggests some risks involved. Thirty-one years old, Beals died July 15, 1859 of burns sustained when the Poland Hotel burned down.

The most ironic tale is that of the Mayer family. When approached by the Jewish community to contribute to a small private cemetery adjoining the Protestant one, Frederick Mayer refused. He'd come to Mokelumne Hill to seek his fortune but didn't plan to stay. What did a rolling stone need with a cemetery plot?

But a year later when his baby daughter fell ill and died, Mayer begged to have her interred. The Jewish leaders said no. A sad story, but not the end. Within six months the other Mayer child was stricken, her body, too, refused. Frederick and Margaret Mayer lived out their lives in Mokelumne Hill and are buried beside their daughters in the Protestant Cemetery.

Samuel Pearsall was the first to find gold in Mok Hill proper. A decorated Mexican War vet, he was credited with heading a rescue party that saved the lives stranded comrades. With money from his gold strike, Pearsall bought a saloon said to have netted up to $500 a day.

Edith Irvine was also brave but not so lucky. Born in 1884, to a prominent mining family, Irvine developed a penchant for photography. In an era when women photographers were rare, she was the best. Shortly after graduating from high school Irvine was hired to photograph the Electra Project, PG&E's forerunner. Her pictures, taken over a two year period, demonstrate artistry as well as technical know-how. Some were shot from precipitous heights.

Irvine was nothing if not daring. She rode horses at breakneck speed, long red hair flying, and was among the first in town to drive a model T. Unfortunately, that independence didn't translate to more personal choices. It's said Edith's mother thwarted a promising romance. Mrs. Irvine didn't think the young man good enough. (Apparently, no one was good enough for either of her two children. Edith's brother didn't "elope" until he was 60.)

Edith's highpoint came at 22. Her father was fighting a lawsuit to establish ownership of his mines. Edith, on her way to join him, stepped off the packet boat from Stockton early on the morning of April 18, 1906

Yes, the earth moved for her! And she moved with it. Jamming her equipment into an abandoned baby buggy, Irvine set off to photograph a city collapsing about her. When night fell she took her earthquake shots back to Stockton to develop, grabbed a few hours sleep and was back at dawn.

She returned three times to the crumbling, burning city. Guards, attempting to conceal the magnitude of the disaster, were everywhere. Somehow she eluded them, capturing 60 powerful images, a monument to her ingenuity and skill. Ironically, the same fire consumed City Hall, destroying the records verifying her family's mining claims.

Now, unable to afford the more advanced equipment coming on the market, she couldn't compete as a photographer. Returning to Mokelumne Hill, Irvine became a teacher. Over medicated for pain, she slipped into alcoholism and committed suicide in 1949. Edith's mother survived her, dying at 95. Both are buried in the Protestant Cemetery.

A colorful neighbor is Malcolm Lockheed, inventor of the four-wheel hydraulic brake universally used for automobiles and co-founder of the Lockheed Corporation. At twenty-five Malcolm, hired by a Chinese warlord to build and fly airplanes, ended up in a Hong Kong jail. Two years later-during the revolution-he became the Mexican Air Force's chief engineer-one plane involved.

In 1917, Malcolm and his brother, Allan, founded the aviation firm that still bears their name. The following year they built the world's largest passenger plane. The brothers sold their interests in the company in 1930 so that Malcolm could satisfy a lifelong dream of prospecting for gold in Mokelumne Hill.

It was not a smart career move. He died a pauper, but, oh, the memories. .