For certain, the Indians knew a good thing when they saw it, but their collective footprint was light.
We’ll never know what they called the woodsy creekside rest stop that would one day be known as Jackson, but the Miwok found it a great place to hunt, fish and gather grass. Bigger, far more lucrative opportunities awaited the Indians, but that was a long way down the road, somewhere far beyond their wildest dreams. If the Great Spirit was talking, no one read the signs.
Jackson’s first recorded history has Gold Rush roots that reach no farther than 1848. In those days, the wide spot on the road was known as Bottilleas—Spanish for “place of bottles”—because of the whiskey jugs tossed there by passing travelers. Prospectors stopped to camp at a rushing spring where two forks of a small stream came together near the sight of the present day National Hotel.
Bottilleas seemed as good a moniker as any until a year later when Col. Alden Apollo Jackson found a few gold nuggets in that stream and decided to camp there. Modestly, he named the site for himself and the title stuck.
By the end of 1849, the little knoll above the creek was entirely covered by white tents. A year later, there were 100 houses.
They were houses, but not necessarily homes.
A MAN’S WORLD
A few Eastern women had been persuaded to join their husbands, fathers or brothers to make the dangerous trek by covered wagon from east to west. To do so meant taking one’s chances against hostile Indians, cholera, rockslides and quicksand. Many Argonauts died of drowning or starvation as well. This trip through hell could take as long as six months. The alternative route—round the Horn by sailing ship—was just as dicey.
The audacious and resilient woman who made the perilous journey across the plains and mountains to Jackson was plunged immediately into a man’s world. Her protector during the crossing might suddenly die before her eyes in a gun fight, be killed by a wild animal or hanged for claim jumping. What was a woman alone to do? Clearly, she had to make ends meet somehow.
The female population quickly swelled with the arrival of professionals, women who had previously worked the bordellos of New Orleans, Paris, Mexico or Hong Kong. They, too, had heard the clarion cry of “Gold!” and wanted a piece of the action.
By the early 1850s, an enterprising group of women had taken up residence on the notorious “Scarlet Row.” (Now the point where Highway 88 intersects Highway 49 and heads east.)
A girl’s room was her home as well as her place of employment. About the size of a modern bathroom, it barely had room for a bed, a dresser and a washbasin.
Beginning in the late afternoon, a prospective customer would stroll the dirt street in front of the building searching for the girl of his choice—assuming that she wasn’t already busy.
Work on Scarlet Row was by no means a dead end. Jackson was a prosperous town. Many prostitutes moved on and bought bordellos or bars of their own. Many more married and settled down. Be careful who you talk “old family” to in Jackson.
A NOTORIOUS MAN
By 1851, Placer gold mining dwindled down but quartz mining quickly took its place. Jackson continued to prosper. Soon the town was linked to Sacramento by two stagecoaches a day, one via Ione Valley, the other through Drytown. Jackson became the county seat. Law was enforced with aid of a nearby hanging tree. Frontier justice was swift.
The most notorious of the many desperados who preyed on Jackson was Joaquin Murieta. For some, Murieta remains a kind of cause célèbre. They liken him to Robin Hood and say, “He only turned bad because white men killed his wife and jumped his claim.” More believe the bandito to have been “an ornery cuss, a killer through and through.” Yet some die-hards insist that Murieta never even existed.
John Bigler, California’s governor in 1852, believed in Murieta enough to post a reward of $5,000 for his capture, dead or alive.
Just as the deputy sheriff of Stockton was tacking up a placard announcing the reward, the bandit is said to have pushed his way through the crowd. Seizing the poster, he wrote at the bottom: “I will pay $1,000 myself.” Boldly, he signed it “J Murieta,” and rode off unharmed.
From there, the bandito led lawmen in a merry chase across Ione Valley to the Cosumnes River at Big Bar, then on through to Drytown and finally to Jackson Gate, where, according to the story, he spent the night dealing monte in a Mexican saloon. Not surprisingly, no one challenged Murieta’s lucky streak.
Murieta rode out the next morning a much richer man, but Harry Love, yet another deputy sheriff, followed hot on his heels leading a posse of 25 men. The chase led through Sutter Creek, Cook’s Creek, Fiddletown, Campo Seco and Mokelumne Hill, where Murieta’s sister was said to live.
The desperado gang evened the playing field more than a little by stealing fresh horses along the way. Love and his posse followed on and on and on, never able to change their mounts.
It is said that on July 25, 1853, Love’s band killed eight Mexicans as they sat about a campfire near Tulare Lake. The dead are supposed to have included the 21-year-old Murieta along with his sidekick, Three-Fingered Jack.
Love collected his $5,000. Joaquin’s head and Jack’s hand became the centerpiece of a traveling exhibit viewed for a fee throughout California. The macabre display continued to draw crowds for more than 50 years, ending only with its disappearance during the San Francisco earthquake.
Don’t feel too bad if you missed show. Many people believed at the time that the head and hand belonged to someone else and that a very wealthy Joaquin Murieta rode home to Sonora where he lived to be an old man.
THE PERILS OF MINING
Jackson continued as a mining town for nearly 100 years. The 12-mile strip from the Zeila Mine, just south of Jackson and north to Plymouth, produced more than $160 million in gold.
In 19th century dollars, it amounted to $16 an ounce. (Today, gold brings in $1,735 an ounce.) The $16 ounce sum also doesn’t include the gold that miners are known to have stolen.
When people say there’s gold in them thar hills, they’re telling it like it still is.
Jackson’s Argonaut and Kennedy mines both played key roles in the economic development of California. The Kennedy’s 5,912-foot vertical shaft is known to have been the deepest in the United States.
Together, the two mines brought in $105 million in gold. Each dating from the 1850s, the two mining companies were bitter rivals until Aug. 28, 1922 around midnight when a fire erupted deep inside the Argonaut.
Men hurried down the shaft in hope of rescuing the miners working at 4,650- and 4,800-foot levels only to be turned back by impassable barriers of smoke and fire. Forty-seven men were trapped below.
News of the disaster didn’t reach Jackson until the day shift reported for work the next morning. The wives and children of the trapped miners were first on the scene. Sobbing mingled with voices crying out in many languages. More than half of the trapped miners were foreign born—Slavic, Italian, Irish, Polish and Cornish. Guards had to be stationed to hold the frantic families back.
A crew returned to the surface after battling the fire for five hours. They reported hearing explosions below and saw that the shaft was filled with tons of rock and timbers. All hope of reaching the men from the top of the Argonaut shaft was abandoned. The only other alternative was to dig through the adjoining Kennedy Mine.
For 22 days, family, friends and coworkers waited anxiously while rescuers tunneled from the Kennedy Mine to the Argonaut. Reporters and film crews descended on tiny Jackson as the worst gold mining disaster in U.S. history became front-page news.
When at last a rescue party broke through into the Argonaut Mine, searchers were devastated to find that the trapped minors had succumbed to gas only a few hours after the fire began. The men were in orderly rows where they had lain down to die—father, son, brothers.
Forty-six bodies were found, and one year later yet another corpse was discovered.
It’s a stark story, a grim strand in a small town’s tempestuous history. Jackson has from the beginning been a live-hard, die-hard kind of place. Shootouts, hangings and murders were once daily occurrences. Arson was epidemic. People took their gold very seriously.
In the old days, even if no one was currently gunning for you, there were still deadly epidemics. Women died in childbirth, men fell down mine shafts, children caught deadly infections. Around Jackson, just being alive was hazardous to one’s health.
Maybe that’s why Jackson has always taken its fun and games seriously, too. The wild times rolled for nearly a century. Jackson was a 24-hour town. Old-timers still talk about the state legislators who flocked there for party girls and poker games. The National Hotel was the town’s hub.
Built originally as the Louisiana House in 1852, the hotel has a rowdy history that dates from the days when Jackson was a mecca of gambling halls and bordellos. In fact, for a time, the Louisiana House was itself a bordello.
Maybe the establishment was too hot not to cool down, because the Louisiana House burned to the ground in 1860. Two years later, the hostelry rose from its ashes, bigger and badder than ever. By this time, the Civil War was blazing and California’s sympathies hotly divided. The hotel’s canny owners were businessmen first, southern second.
Travelers from the north might be damn Yankees but their money was good enough. Why antagonize them? The newly rebuilt inn was christened The National Hotel and has remained so ever since.
Over the years, Mark Twain stayed at the National and so did John Wayne. Wayne’s nonstop poker game was legendary. There’s also talk of conga lines winding their way throughout the hotel, in and out of rooms and into the bar where a bucket was suspended. Patrons tossed their money into the bucket. Lucky throwers got free drinks. The missed bills were the bar’s to keep.
Then along came Jerry Brown’s killjoy daddy, “Pat,” then attorney general of the state. Brown senior put a lid on things. Jackson fought hard. Other California towns accepted the attorney general’s ban on gambling and prostitution. Bowing to the inevitable, they closed themselves down. Jackson wouldn’t do that. The state attorney general had to come in himself and do it with numerous arrests and unsavory court battles that drew worldwide attention.
From then on, The National Hotel— and one might say Jackson itself— slumbered for more than 50 years.
It took a kind of fairy godperson in the guise of Sacramento pawnbroker Stan Lukowicz to change things. Lukowicz’s dream has been to transform the National (and Jackson itself) back to its former glory days. His newly reopened and refurbished 36-room National is crammed with antiques and marvelous Victorian art, much of it dating from the hotel’s heyday.
Stanley’s Steakhouse, an excellent restaurant, is part of the $4 million renovation project undertaken by Lukowicz. Seems like anyone would agree that it takes real cojones to risk that kind of money on a dilapidated hotel. A risk-taker like Stan would have been right at home during the Gold Rush days.
JACKSON RANCHERIA’S ROOTS
Margaret Dalton, who founded the modern-day Jackson Rancheria just outside town was also a risk-taker. The daughter of a Native American, Margaret left Calaveras High to marry her school sweetheart, Earl Dalton, in 1956. She was 16 and had completed ninth grade.
The couple moved onto the Jackson Rancheria, had four children and also raised four of Margaret’s siblings. Their one rule was that each child must graduate from high school. They all did.
In 1979, the Miwok tribe established a formal government and elected Margaret Tribal Chairperson, a position she held for 25 years. The next year, Earl died in a logging accident leaving her to go it alone.
A true gambler, Margaret opened a small bingo parlor in her house. It failed. She tried again. And again. Impressed by Margaret’s spirit, the Tribal Government agreed to back a fourth try.
Twenty years later, Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort employs more than 1,700 people and is the largest employer in Amador County. Luck was a lady to Margaret but it was courage and determination that really won the jackpot.
Jackson is betting that Lukowicz will be a winner, too. It’s time for the good times to roll!