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GRAND PRIX driver Innes Ireland could be something of a historian. His R&T Formula One reports were always entertaining and accurate. And when he wrote off the beaten track, his stories were equally delightful. An example of this is when Innes toured California’s Gold Country with Wife Dottie and me back in the late 1980s.
Innes had told us of his long-standing ambition to visit the California redwoods, a side trip we added to our Gold Country itinerary. He wrote, “There was still light enough for us to drive through the Avenue of the Giants, a special, narrow winding road through the big trees. I stood among the redwoods for the first time. I was completely awed by their majesty, to say nothing of their height and girth, for no photograph I’d ever seen conveyed the sheer size and bulk of these magnificent trees.”
The northern extremity of our travels was Miranda, where Miranda Gardens Resort is set in a redwood grove. Then we traveled south and east to pick up California Route 49, named for 1849, when, as Innes noted, “the whole mad gold rush started, a phenomenon that changed the history of the nation with a billion dollars’ worth of gold being extracted from the Sierra foothills before it was over.”
Innes enjoyed the history of Placerville: “In the good old bad days, Placerville was named Hangtown, for the locals were quick to string up the badmen who inevitably followed the gold rush. But there were good and industrious citizens as well, some of whom became household names.
“Philip Armour left New York and hiked all the way to Placerville, where he later opened a modest butcher shop with the money he made in the gold fields. Such were the humble beginnings of the vast Armour meat packing company.
“Mark Hopkins came to the town with a wagon load of supplies and opened a grocery store. Later, in partnership with Collis Huntington, he sold shovels to the miners at inflated prices. This was the starting point for the Central Pacific Railroad Co. of which Hopkins was the treasurer.
“Another name to become famous was that of John Studebaker. Leaving his brother’s wagon-making business in Indiana, he drove one of them westward where he took a job making wheelbarrows—another item in great demand that commanded a high price. In five years, Studebaker had saved sufficient money to return home and enlarge the family wagon business which would become a motorcar manufacturer.”
Innes took delight in Gold Country rascals too: “Another similar town to be sought out is Murphys, named after the two young brothers who first found gold here. The native inhabitants were Indians who had no use for gold, so the Murphy brothers decided it was easier to trade with the Indians than dig for it themselves.
“Once in a flush of overwhelming generosity, the Murphys gave one Indian a blanket in exchange for a 5-lb. gold nugget. With gold $16/oz. then, the blanket cost $1280, perhaps the most expensive in the world.”
In a hotel visitor’s book, Innes read the name “C.E. Bolton” and expanded, “He later became the notorious outlaw Black Bart. He was a gentle soul… never known to have fired his gun at anyone. Instead, when the gold box was empty, he would leave one of his poems in it addressed to Well Fargo.”
Innes’s favorite bit of Black Bart poetics: “I’ve labored long and hard for bread,/ for honor and for riches./ But on my corns too long you’ve trod,/ you fine-haired sons of bitches.”
Innes’s scholarship reached a height in describing Hildreth’s Diggins, on a hillside near Columbia where “Hildreth and his chums” gathered “a pile of nuggets in about ten minutes.” Within a month, population mushroomed to 5000 and Hildreth’s Diggins was established. Before long, 20,000 people lived there and supported “150 gambling dens, 40 saloons, 4 banks, 8 hotels, 3 theaters and a dozen fandango parlors. There was also an outpost of the Sons of Temperance, but with all those gambling, drinking and fandango places, I doubt they had much of a following.”
Innes ended the article with, “And still, there were the redwoods to remind us of our insignificance in this world.”
Travels with Innes were not without their profound moments. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017