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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness
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Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Boomtowns, gambling, saloons and substandard beds

This article appeared in the New York Times on Monday, July 28, 1884
      Ed. note: Although this article was not signed by Frank Wilkeson, it is written very much in his style. Along with the other columns in this series, this story was transcribed by Patricia McAndrew in Pennsylvania, a scholar who is working on a full-scale biography of Wilkeson and his amazing family. She notes that the microfilm of the column was damaged, so there are two sections with sentences missing. Regardless, it is one of the finest columns we have read about the rigors of boomtown life on the frontier and could well have been about Hamilton or Sedro, where Wilkeson also lived. This column was written earlier than any by this writer that we have shared.

Life in a mining camp . . . An Idaho town whose streets are paved with cards . . . Whip-sawing, poker playing and thimble operating . . . where Chinamen need not apply and idlers are few
MURRAYVILLE, IDAHO, July 18.--I am in a mining camp, and a strange, curious place it is, with its crowds of sunburned, hardy men, its rows of uncouth, primitive buildings, its dilapidated streets, and its daily humdrum, monotonous life. This town is of but little more than four months' growth, but at present it is the important place of the Coeur d'Alene region. "Curry" is the name by which it is known to the postal authorities, but no one calls it such; it is far easier to call it Murrayville, the place where Murray lived and had his claim. For a town to have two names is not uncommon out here, and it just occurs to me that Belknap, a neighboring place, is officially known as "Enterprise."
      In my last letter I said that the whole Coeur d'Alene country was a dense forest, except where the hand of man had hewn out a few small clearings. Over mountains and levels alike the thick timber extends, and there are miles and miles of it. Murrayville lies in one of the little clearings, and on a level spot, narrow and hemmed in on two sides by almost perpendicular mountains. At the base of the southern mountain, which raises its broadside abruptly to the sky for fully a thousand feet, runs the clear and beautiful stream of the gulch. The almost vertical wall is covered with a thick growth of trees, many of which have loosed their hold upon the feeble soil and stand pointing sideways and outward as if ready to hurl themselves from their loftiness and plunge into the innocent and unoffending stream below. The opposite mountain is not quite so steep nor as high. From its sides the trees have already been stripped from upward of 200 feet, and in their places stand, here and there, scrubby looking little houses of unconventional shape. A steep, narrow path rises to each of them, but the ascent once made, a view of the town and gulch is had well worth the exertion.

Lumber for homes very expensive, mostly shake roofs
      Murrayville has one main street, from which, at intervals, are offshoots in the shape of side streets. It is about 75 feet wide, and is full of the stumps of the trees cut to make room for the town site. On either side of this main street, for perhaps an eighth of a mile, are ranged the stores. They are of every conceivable kind and shape. There are a few log houses, more tents and tent houses, but one-story frame buildings abound. A tent house is half log or frame house and half tent; it is simply a shell of logs or boards with a canvas roof. This kind of building is very plentiful in the West, and particularly popular in new towns. The canvas is not made specially for the houses; it is an ordinary tent adapted to the purpose. Their size is often considerable. I have seen them 90 by 30 feet, but the average are from 60 by 20 to 40 by 20. They are plentiful because they are cheap, lumber being an expensive article in a new country, but they are more comfortable than a tent. Anything covered with canvas is damp in rainy weather, and insufferably hot when the sun pours down upon it; besides light canvas is not waterproof, and here eight-ounce or bucking is used almost exclusively.
      There is no seasoned lumber in the town, and promises not to be for some time owing to the limited capacity of the sawmills of the gulch. Everything has been built of green material, and for a long time lumber was worked into houses the same day it was sawed. It sells now for $35 per 1000 feet, and before any sawmills were put in it was at one time as high as $300 per 1,000 feet. At that time every plank was whip sawed, the amount made was small, and the demand was very great. Many thousands of feet were sold at $300, $275, $250 per 1,000 feet, and most of it was sold before it was cut. The sawmills, of course, hurt the tremendous profit of the business, but for a long time both they and the whip sawyers coined money. They have held prices up most persistently, but $35 per 1,000 feet is a high figure, and ought to satisfy them. The whip sawyers have not given up; they are still working and making sales.
      For the benefit of those who know little of lumber I will say that whip-sawing is done by two men. The log is placed on two uprights. One man stands above on the log; the other is below. They have a long thin saw, with handles on either end. One man is continually pushing the saw, while the other is pulling it. The man below usually wears goggles to keep the sawdust from his eyes; whip sawing is hard work and slow work, but it pays, because running expenses are almost nothing. The freshness of the timber is seen most plainly in the frame houses. From those recently erected the pitch can be seen oozing in quantities. Besides this habit of oozing, the pitch has an extremely rude and unmannerly way of dropping constantly. When the inhabitants are not kept busy dodging the glistening balls, they have lively times making a general clean-up.
      It is most unhealthy for the clothes to lean up against any portion of a newly built house in a mining camp, but I know of no way in which one can so easily and with so little trouble and expense experience the delightful sensation of having been in a mucilage pot. Those buildings which were erected two months or more ago are now almost open to the weather, for the boards in their drying have shrunk apart and made gaps in many places an inch wide. The floors, too, have curled up in a wonderful way, and are anything but handsome. Sidewalks are too luxurious for Murrayville or any town in the young Coeur d'Alene section, but there are in front of the stores little platforms for the benefit of those who may wish to enter. No two of these are the same height, and jumping off places are frequent. Rather than disjoint themselves the people use the dusty or muddy street. In speaking of the houses I forgot to mention those made of "shakes." A "shake" is a piece of cedar about three feet long and six inches wide. It is intended to take the place of a shingle, but is considerably thicker. Cedar is very straight grained, and the "shakes" are easily split out with a heavy steel-pointed knife specially made for the purpose. There are few buildings in Murrayville which have not "shake" roofs, and there are many structures in which they are used instead of boards.

Saloons are most popular business
      Saloons fill more than half of all the buildings in a mining camp. The lodging houses come next in number, and the balance are restaurants, stores, and shops of various kinds. The lodging houses are really half saloons, for most of them contain bars. Drinking and smoking are unquestionably the most active employments. The whisky and other liquors dealt out are bad--dreadful; the price, 2 "bits," (25 cents), for a single drink is simply outrageous. Beer and all other drinks, likewise cigars, are the same price. There seems to be an objection to using any smaller change for those luxuries, though ten-cent pieces are to be had in the country. There are two kinds of "bits," the long and the short. They are very familiar to those who have lived or traveled on the Pacific slope. The long "bit" is 15 cents, the short bit 10 cents. If one buys an article worth one "bit" and gives 25 cents to pay for it, he gets back only 10 cents. It seems to be an arrangement in favor of the seller, and its origin is due to the scarcity of small change in the West years ago.
      The saloons of the Coeur d'Alene are not handsome. Many of them are in tent houses and have only a cheap bar, a dirty wooden floor, and a few chairs. Some have stoves, and some are without any bottom but the bare earth, but all have the same array of cheap liquor behind the bar. A peculiar feature of the Western saloon is that each one contains one or more gambling tables. No saloon is complete without at least one gambling table, and most of them have one or more "faro" tables, and in addition a "stud-horse poker" table. "Stud-horse poker" is like other "poker," but the cards are dealt out by a gambler, who sits on the inside of a semicircular table. On the outside sit the players, who bet among themselves according to the nature of their hands, the gambler simply dealing the cards as they are asked for, and taking a certain percentage of such a "pot" from the one who wins. The game is a sure thing for the dealer, for he takes no hand, and no matter who wins he is bound to get his percentage.

Gamblers follow from strike to strike
      The gamblers in these saloons are not their own masters. They are paid to run the games by the owner of the tables; sometimes the saloon keeper owns both saloon and games, but it is more often the case that the games are run by an outside party. The usual pay of these gamblers or dealers is [$25 or $35] a week, and in addition they are entitled to supper, all the cigars they can smoke, and all the whisky they can drink. The gamblers change off with one another as a rest, and often play against the game themselves. There is no particular time for the opening of the game. From early in the morning until late in the evening, in fact all night long, if there are any players, the game goes on, but the bulk of the playing is in the evening. In this region, and throughout the West, every gambling game is open to the public. Anyone can go in and look on who likes, and be welcome to put his money on the table if he wants to play. In most places there is a limit, but it rises or falls according to the solidity of the bank or the character of the town.
      Helena, the capital of the territory, is an old mining town, and it always has been a great gambling town. Gambling is going there at a great rate today in many saloons, and it is all open and in plain sight from the streets. There is not the slightest pretense of concealment. The doors of every saloon are as wide open as if in New-York, and there is a constant stream of men, moving in and out. They look at the game a few moments and, perhaps, leave, but the chances are that they will throw down a dollar or half a dollar carelessly and watch indifferently for the result If it is swept from the board, perchance they try again, but it is probable they will walk out and down street, step into another saloon, and put the same amount on a table there. If a winning is made a chair is apt to be secured and a stay made until their money is either gone or its pile sensibly increased.
      To gamble or to indulge in anything a man has a fancy for is no crime, nor even vice, in this country. If he does not steal, play the sneak, or impose upon another, nothing the worse is thought of him. Clustered around a gambling table, either playing or looking on, can be seen any evening, in any of these Western towns, a specimen from almost every class of people in the country. Tradesmen, clerks, miners, laboring men of all kinds, all indulge at times. But in the larger and more established towns, and, as a rule, throughout the country, the better class does not indulge in play--at least not before the public.
      The success of the gambling tables depends considerably on circumstances. The game is more lively on some days than on others because of the changing condition of the pockets of the players. The workingmen are their chief supporters, and on days when they are paid off the tables fairly ring with the sound of coin. When the Northern Pacific Railroad was under construction the gamblers made quantities of money. They followed along as it was completed, and kept their hold upon the workingmen.
      With them, too, went the loose women, who have since scattered themselves all over the country and been reinforced by numbers of their kind from either coast. There is a fraternity between them and the gamblers: where one is the other is sure to be; both are here in plenty. Confidence men are also numerous in the Coeur d'Alene country, and the tricks and devices to catch people are many. The weakest game I have seen is that in which one draws conditional prizes. A man bets three times on the running of a ball into a slot. He usually wins twice, but he wins what he has made only on condition of his winning the third time also. He never wins the third time and loses everything.
      What's called the "thimble game" and "three-card monte" are also common. It requires considerable skill to be successful at the "thimble game." The operator puts three shells on his upper leg as he sits with them crossed, pushes a pea under them all in turn, and then gets someone to bet which one it is under. He always finds some smart man who can surely tell, and who readily loses his money. This is a great country for betting, and for getting things by taking all kinds of chances. People are constantly trading horses, exchanging watches for pistols, or blankets, rifles, and anything they may own for something they want more. Dice shaking for liquor or cigars is as natural to a Western man as to eat his meals. If one shakes dice for a cigar he shakes not for one cigar, but for one for himself and one for the proprietor. If he loses he simply has to pay double for one cigar. "Shaking" is profitable for the seller.

Currency and the definition of "two bits"
      Twenty-five and fifty-cent pieces are getting more plenty in the country of late; for a long time there was a great scarcity of them. Bank notes of large denominations frequently could not be broken without great difficulty. Bank notes of small denominations are very scarce. One does not see one once a month, but the country is flooded with silver dollars. People [in the] East dislike the silver dollar, and I do not doubt that they are purposely shipped West. I know they are very plenty even in St. Paul. Anything passes out here without a question. Trade dollars, coin with holes or other mutilation, are given their par value. Canadian twenty-five-cent and fifty-cent pieces, which are discounted in value East, pass here the same as our own money. One often sees Canadian bank bills and money of foreign countries, besides an occasional shinplaster. I presume the immigrants put the foreign coin in circulation. [Ed. note: a shinplaster was originally paper money of small value that the U.S. government printed and circulated from 1862-78. By the time of the article, currency called shinplasters was issued privately and was considerably devalued because of inflation or questionable source.]
      The sale of playing cards is a very large item in this region today. Everybody, even Indians and Chinamen, play. The Indians usually play for cartridges, but sometimes for horses and other of their possessions. It is hard to walk a block in any street in one of these new towns without finding half a dozen cards in the dust or mud. Often one comes on whole packs. And not alone are they found in the towns; the whole country is strewn with them. You see them in the roadside as you ride through in the cars [railroad]; you see them in the rivers as they hurl their waters by; they are in wagons, in the woods near towns, and on the trails miles and miles from any habitation. They turn up in most lonely and unexpected places, and it is hard to find any piece of ground where a camp has been pitched for the night without at least a scattering of them. The amusements in this country are absolutely none. I believe that gambling, card playing, (of course for money,) and the other vices are indulged in largely because there is nothing else to do.

Miners are nomadic and beds are miserable
      The life is nomadic in the extreme. Men do their day's work or tramp their day's journey. There is nothing to amuse or elevate them after sundown; they must have a change, and they resort to these things to pass their time and to temper existence with some excitement. Life in this country is demoralizing in the extreme for him who is weak-minded.
      The lodging houses are a curious feature of the section. They are of various kinds and differently fitted up. Some contain cots, a few have old beds, but the majority have bunks ranged in tiers above one another. They resemble very much in appearance those [that are] furnished emigrants in the steerage of ocean steamships, but many are no better than those of the same character I once saw in a ten-cent lodging house in the top of a five-story Fourth Ward building. They are made of rough pine, and usually contain a very hard and roughly made mattress, a pillow covered with unbleached cotton, a pair of sheets of the same material, and a pair of blankets. The cots sometimes have sheets, a pillow, and blankets, but often one gets only blankets. The beds are grander in appearance, but I cannot speak enthusiastically of a night's rest in them. To say that all are old is enough of a description. Sometimes the sleeping apartment is in the rear of the building, and a store or restaurant in the front, but usually the whole building is given up to the bunks, cots, or beds. A cot or bed lodging house resembles very much, except in neatness and brightness, the ward of an Eastern hospital, and the rows of strangers asleep throughout it look for all the world like patients in the same hospital. Except in a few houses there are no partitions, or even screens, between the cots; one sleeps in the midst of strangers, and relies on the community at large to protect him from theft or danger.
      I have so far not heard of anyone's having been robbed while asleep; theft is the most serious offense in the mines, and everyone knows it. No office is connected with these lodging houses, nor is there any place in which one can read and write. It is possible only to wander about aimlessly until confirmed absence of anything to do compels one to turn in. The only luxuries thrown in with the night's rest are a stove, a tin wash basin and a pail of water, a towel, a worn-out comb and brush, and perhaps a few cheap chromos on the walls. Fortunately, one is too tired when traveling to object to anything. After a day or two it becomes a matter of pure indifference what he sleeps in, or where he sleeps, so long as it is in doors. He sleeps soundly and well always; it does not matter to him who occupied the bunk, cot, or bed before him, nor does he investigate its merits too closely, or question the proprietor as to the length of time since the sheets were changed.
      To secure custom all lodging houses advertise outside on a grand scale. The many prominent signs announce "mattresses of wool," "spring beds of the newest pattern," "clean and comfortable cots," "the best and cheapest beds in the country," etc. And then to catch the eye of the newcomer, and to perhaps assure him that he is apt to find within some one who is at least acquainted in the town from which he came, taking names are given to the houses, such as "The Gold Dust," "Coeur d'Alene," "The Placer," "Oro Fino," "Black Hills," "Golden Gate," "Denver," and a hundred other names, chiefly of Western cities. If one stays in any of the new towns in this section and does not own a building of his own he can only live in a lodging house. The pleasure of such an existence can be easily seen.
      I slept in a tent-roofed lodging house in this place a few night ago, and I shall not forget the experience of one poor man who happened to have a cot in the middle of the building, and just beneath the joining of the two large pieces of canvas. It rained very hard all night and the drops of water trickled down on every cot. They fell on my pillow, and I had to dodge my head, but they did not wet through the blankets. The man of whom I speak was well soaked. The water rushed down upon him in quantities; but he was an old miner, and, supposing that everybody was getting the same dose, would not make complaint. He quietly curled in his blankets and made the best of it. When he saw the opening of the canvas in the morning he was disgusted. Every man in the place took a look at his cot and the water spout above, and there was much laughter at his expense. He said he had just come into town, and thought perhaps to get such baths was a regular thing in the country. I always examine the roof now before I lie down.
      Of the stores in the place I need only say that they are like any in a new Western town, and are filled with material most adapted to the country. "General merchandise" is the best represented; the hardware stores come next, and then follow one or more of every kind, down to the barber's shop. Prices are high in them all, but not extortionate, considering the trouble and expense of packing the goods in and risk run. The days of giving things away are going by. One can now get a good meal at the restaurants for 75 and 50 cents, and there are one or two places which carry good liquors. Lodgings and meals six weeks ago cost $1 each; lodging can now be got anywhere for 50 cents, and in some places for 25 cents. Everything is getting more reasonable, and I expect before long that a good hotel will be erected.

Life is often empty, boring and depressing. Rx: the great outdoors
      Owing to its situation in the gulch and in the woods Murrayville is, or has been, very damp, and considerable sickness has resulted from it. There has been some business for the physicians who haunt the country in numbers, but there have been few deaths in the place, and these were more from the wasted condition of the person than from the dampness. The atmosphere of the country round about is beautiful and very invigorating, and people seem to thrive on it even with little food. To live in a mining country and to travel through it are two different things. One gets used to the country very soon and does not mind it. It is perfectly safe for everybody, and I should as soon think of making a trip to this section and not seeing the mines as of going to Italy without seeing Rome.
      The life of a mining camp is in the morning or evening. At these times the streets are full of men dressed in all kinds of garments. Style, cut, or shape is not considered: everyone dresses for warmth and comfort. Flannel shirts, buck coats and trousers, leather trousers for riding, overalls, top boots, rubber boots, and hats of all kinds except "the stovepipe" are seen. I presume a "stovepipe" hat would soon be knocked in. The men stand about in knots and smoke and talk or wander about aimlessly. At these two times can be seen the pack mules going out empty or coming in with their cargoes, the leader always wearing a cow bell, which causes the others to follow.
      A favorite amusement of the inhabitants is in betting what the various boxes on the mules contain. It is wonderful how quiet and docile these pack animals are, for their burdens are heavy, and they are "sinched" on in a way that fairly makes them groan. To "cinch" them so hard is a necessity, for otherwise the loads would sag to one side. Along the narrow trails they go steadily, following the tinkle of the bell, and hurried on by the packers if they move too slowly. The average load carried by the mules here is between 200 and 300 pounds, but they do not load them often with 400 pounds. Horses are used in many instances, and one sees a few "burros," but mules are considered the best. They are no surer footed than the others, but are tougher than horses, and their backs do not so easily chafe. They are more desirable than a "burro," because they are larger and can carry more.
      The real life of a mining camp is after dark, when the lights are lit and the music begins in the shape of banjo, fiddle, or accordion. It is then that the people move about and the crude free-and-easy existence is best seen. Murrayville has not as many idlers now as it had. That the streets are more deserted in the daytime and full as lively at night shows that work is being done on claims, and that things are getting into organized condition. One does not see any Chinamen in these Coeur d'Alene camps. They have been prohibited from entering and a promise of death for the first one who sets his foot across the mountain. The Chinamen understand the case and make no effort to get in.

Links to more reading:
      This is the focal story about James F. Wardner, who boomed towns in Idaho, British Columbia and Washington territory and state. These Wardner stories were all featured in Issue 15 of the optional Subscribers Edition. See a list of links to all of Frank Wilkeson's columns on our site. And read about Patricia N. McAndrew's new book, The Old Soldier Goes Fishing — planned for publication in winter 2005, a collection of his columns and a biography of Frank and his family.

Story posted on August 19, 2003
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