‘Desperate End of a Desperate Life’

From a short visit to Virginia City, Nevada, in The Last Summer Before the Pandemic. (Caution: the following contains explicit details of gruesome Gold Rush-era saloon violence. )

We spent a couple minutes on the main street, but when I spotted the cemeteries on the north end of town, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. The carving on this monument drew my eye — it’s exquisite but restrained. I was slow to appreciate the inverted torches at the four corners. The inverted torch, a common motif on cemetery monuments, is said to symbolize death; the flame, eternal life.

As to Major George E. Ferrend: Who was he?

Below is an account of his passing, drawn from a January 1875 number of the London Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. The LIS&DN, which neglects to mention that Ferrend died in Virginia City, was republishing an account carried in a newspaper called the Pall Mall Gazette. The Gazette, in turn, appears to have borrowed its story from a somewhat more detailed account published Dec. 9, 1874, the day after Ferrend’s death, in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. None of the stories I’ve found mention his wife, who according to the monument died two months after her husband.

Among incidents not recounted here is Ferrend’s role as a second in an 1863 duel between the editor of the Territorial Enterprise and the editor of a rival publication. The Enterprise employed Mark Twain at the time.

Here’s the story recounting Major Ferrend’s life and demise:


The death of an Englishman in California is reported by the San Francisco Call. On the morning of the 26th ult., Major George E. Ferrend, a well-known citizen of San Francisco and famous everywhere or the Pacific coast, shot himself in the head, and thus put an end to an eventful career.

Major Ferrend was born in Lancashire and was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He entered the Army, but owing to trouble of some kind sold out. He then went to Buenos Ayres, where he was the leading spirit in a revolution which was successful, but was subsequently driven out of the country, and came to California.

In June 1853, he left Sacramento with a company he had raised and joined General Walker in his Nicaragua expedition. With Walker, whose chief of artillery he was, he performed prodigies of valour, particularly distinguishing himself at the battle of Rivas, where at times he was a host in himself, loading and firing a gun which sent scores of the enemy to the ground at each discharge. During the Nicaragua campaign he was wounded 13 times, but these wounds were but a few of many others, for on his body there were 48 scars of wounds received in battles and personal conflicts at various times.

He had especially one terrible personal encounter in Camptonville, California, about the year 1858 with a man of desperate character, during which he received a most serious wound with an axe. He had previously had some trouble with this man, and it was understood that when they again met, they should “meet fighting.”

The desperado shortly after came into a saloon, armed with an axe, where he saw the major pleasantly sitting in his shirt sleeves with a large knife in his hand. As the desperado advanced, the major rose and stood warily watching his foe and perfectly motionless, save that he constantly turned the wrist of the hand that held the knife, so that the weapon disagreeably flashed in the eyes of his opponent.

All of a sudden, as the desperado’s eye was fixed on the knife, the major sprang forward with the leap of a tiger and drove the knife not through the heart but through the whole body of his foe, the point projecting at his back. At the same moment, the blade point projecting the axe was buried in the small of the major’s back. Both fell on the floor together.

The desperado was dead, but the major, contrary to expectation, recovered, and was as ready as ever for fresh exploits and adventures. His numerous deeds of daring would fill a volume. He ultimately settled in San Francisco, where he accumulated a considerable amount of property.

After shooting himself in the head, he lingered for a few hours and assigned as a reason for the act he had committed that he feared he would ultimately become insane owing to one of the wounds he had received which affected his head.

The major was proprietor of a well-known saloon bearing his name, he was much esteemed by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance, and his death has greatly shocked the whole community of San Francisco. The only wish he expressed in his last moments was that “he might die a man.” He need hardly have troubled himself on this score, for whatever may have been his errors there was certainly nothing feminine in his nature. — Pall Mall Gazette

Road Blog: Lee Vining to Ely

A pyrocumulus cloud rises above the Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe — 85 miles from this vantage point at Panum Crater and Mono Lake.

I started out last night with a mini-exploration of the names of the towns where we started and ended, Berkeley and Lee Vining.

Lee Vining is known to lovers of the eastern Sierra and habitues of the greater Yosemite region as the town that’s perched just above the shore of Mono Lake and at the foot of the road across Tioga Pass, the highest highway route across the Sierra. According to one local account, the name Lee Vining had its origins in real estate marketing. A landowner in the area was subdividing his property for home lots and didn’t think the existing name of the place, Poverty Flat, would do much for his venture’s prospect. He wanted to call the community Lakeview, but the Post Office informed him the name was already in use. His next choice was Lee Vining, a Gold Rush-era prospector who had operated in the area.

I’m recapitulating all of that just to say there is no neatly tied-up story to explain the name of Ely, Nevada, where I am tonight. “Ely,” pronounced “EE-lee,” not “EE-lie,” could refer to any number of men who had some influence hereabouts in the late 19th century. It’s late, and I’m not up to weighing in on who might have had the strongest claim. The rest of what I can tell you about Ely is that it’s a mining town — copper mining has been its mainstay since the first decade of the 20th century, and one of the landmarks you encounter as you approach town on U.S. 50/The Loneliest Road in America from the west is a series of immense man-made mountains consisting of mine spoils. They suggest the bases of incomprehensibly large, unfinished pyramids, mostly dun-colored but with variations in the shading of the earth packed into the towering, symmetrical slopes. Somehow, those gigantic, well-sculpted features had not made an impression on me during past trips through the area. They did today.


The daily highlight: John and I ate breakfast at the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining — it’s a well-known destination for trans-Sierra travelers — then spent a couple hours hiking around Panum Crater, near the south shore of Mono Lake. The landscape is austere and exciting, and for John, who is a glass blower by profession and vocation, it was extra-cool to see the all the obsidian, black volcanic glass, strewn in huge masses in the crater’s center.

One startling sighting was a rapidly growing mass of pyrocumulus generated by the Caldor Fire, a good 85 miles away near Lake Tahoe. We didn’t encounter smoke ourselves until we were well on the way to Tonopah. From there, we drove up Highway 376 through the Big Smoky Valley, which was too socked in by wildfire smoke to see more than the dim silhouettes of mountains on either side of us.

Tomorrow, maybe: Golden Spike.

Road Blog: Shoe Tree

A beautiful old (and immense) cottonwood east of Fallon, Nevada, that became The Shoe Tree.

On U.S. 50, between Fallon and Austin, Nevada. I noticed a couple cars pulled off the north side of the road; and then I saw why. Thousands of shoes hanging in a big cottonwood. Mostly running and gym-type shoes. A few pairs of work boots. At least one pair of cowboy boots. They’re hung from some of the highest branches, so a lot of climbing goes into this project.

We stopped. There was a couple in an older minivan headed west and a woman in a sedan with New Mexico plates. I asked whether anyone knew the story behind the shoes. The couple shrugged. The New Mexico woman said, “I do.” The legend, as she called it, is that a newlywed couple had a fight and flung their shoes into the tree. “Where did you hear the legend?” I asked. “I’m a tourist,” she said — on her way back to New Mexico after a month on the road. “I found the story in a brochure back in Fernley — this passport thing I got.”

The passport thing turned out to be “The Official Hwy. 50 Survival Guide: The Loneliest Road in America,” a production of the Nevada Commission on Tourism. The guide is an attempt to turn lonely U.S. 50 into a tourist route; you can get a copy at stores along the route, and collect stamps at each of the major towns along U.S. 50’s “loneliest” stretch: from west to east, Fernley, Fallon, Austin, Eureka, and Ely. Kate got one in Austin, and we stopped throughout the afternoon and early evening getting it stamped. Now she can send in a postcard from the guide and get a lovely parting gift from the state tourist people.

Unusual day along 50, by the way: It rained about halfway across the state; at one stop, Cold Springs, the bar/restaurant/motel/RV park proprietor said it was the first rain in four months. And further east, we encountered a road crew cleaning up rock slides on a canyon section of the highway. We wound up in Wendover, Utah, a couple blocks east of the Nevada state line (and a couple blocks into Mountain Time). Left Berkeley at 9:30 this morning, got here at 10:30 (our time). Rain notwithstanding, we drove 650 miles in those 13 hours.


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