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Mrs. Townsend of Mammoth City


Mrs. Townsend
                  Mammoth City



Near the road on the way to Old Mammoth City, lies the lonely grave of  a woman who dared to brave the harsh Sierra winters in the old mining camp with her husband in 1881.  The story I am most familiar with is told in the Gary Caldwell's book, Mammoth Gold.  A miner, simply known as Old Charley, claimed to be an eyewitness to the events that led up to Mrs. J. E. Townsends untimely death.  Old Charley told the following story to pioneer Helen MacKnight in her autobiography A Child Went Forth, reprinted as Doctor Nellie.  Apparently his story was corroborated by family members of Mrs. Townsend, who was also known as Mary.


"There was a fellow in camp that had been kind of pardner of  mine, off an on, up around Feather River and over in Nevada, in early days on the Comstock.  He'd got married an brought his wife up to the camp at Pine City.


We thought we had a lead in a tunnel that looked as though it might break into a pocket any time, an we decided to hole in for the winter an maybe do a little work if the snow wasn't too heavy, an' be here on the job when spring broke.


He'd ought to have sent his wife out, but she was a purty thing an they was terribly in love.  She was young an strong an'  was all for stayin' an spendin' the winter with us.  We had one of the biggest storms I ever saw in these  mountains an' before it stopped the snow as six feet 'n the level and drifted over the roofs of the cabins in lots of places.  The nearest settlement was a hundred miles away an there wasn't any way to get out except by snow-shoes. 


One day my pardner and I thought we'd go out an kill some snow-shoe rabbits an have some fresh meat.  We were cleanin' our shot guns an somehow a shell got jammed in my pardners gun barrel, an' while he was tryin' to get it out the gun went off an shot his wife. 


I've been through some bad times in rip-roarin' mining camps, but never anything like that.  My pardner was beside himself.  I was afraid to leave him alone a minute.  We couldn't bury his wife.  There was no place to dig a grave.  All we could do was to make a hole in the snow an keep her there till spring. 


He wouldn't go away an leave her.  At first he raved like a maniac.  Then he took sick an I had to nurse him an keep drivin' new stakes in the snow that kept driftin', so as we could find her body in the spring before the coyotes did.


My pardner got well after a while an'  when the snow melted off on the flat down there we took his wife down and buried her.  She came back from back East an' she had always dreamed of havin' a house with a picket fence round it, so nothin'  would do but we must put a picket fence around her grave.  It took us quite a while to do it with the tools we had, but we did a good job.  I was noticin' the other day, that fence is just as strong and straight as t'was when we put it there.


My pardner an I moved into another cabin and started workin' the tunnel in the spring, but all the deserted cabins, with the dishes on the tables an maybe a baby's crib or a rag doll lyin' around, got on our nerves an we left to find new diggins.


You know, I felt mighty bad at the time all this happened but I came to see that maybe it was for the best.  That little woman was taken when she was soft an warm an carefree an gay as a kitten, dreamin' of her little home with a picket fence.


There's nothin' more forlorn than a woman in a minin' camp longin' for back home.  The mountain peaks and the forests get to be walls holdin'  'em back an keepin' 'em from gettin' where they want to go.  They just can't see a view or a beautiful sunset for the Down East frame houses an picket fences that get in their way."


Many times I have taken people to pay respects to Mary Townsend, as we have come to know her, and we always spoke of the tragic story as the miner known as Old Charley tells.  However, further research in my own library here at home, brings to light another version of the story, as told by Susan E. James in "The J. E. Townsend Grave in Old Mammoth" from The Album Volume VI, no.3.  Susan talks of Jenny Townsend, actually Julia E. Townsend, of New York, who came to the goldfields of the west with her parents sometime before she was twenty years of age.  In the mid 1860's she lived in Virginia City, Nevada and by 1868, she met and married Bryant M. Townsend, a bookkeeper originally from St.  Louis.  While in Virginia City, Bryant and Julia Townsend had a comfortable life with friendly neighbors  Julia  gave birth to her three children, Minnie, Bryant and Persia, during their time in Virginia City.  By April of 1880, however, times were hard  and the silver ore began to play out.  Bryant reportedly lost his job, and after two months of hard search for new work with no luck,, they left for the Eastern Sierras and the new strikes in Mammoth City.  There Bryant Townsend apparently found work.


In November of 1881,  most of Mammoth City was failing, and more than likely the Townsends were down on their luck as well.  Bryant's wife, Julia, died, but history according to Susan E. James, does not tell us whether she died in childbirth, sickness, infection or injury.  Perhaps she was just worn out by the rugged life on the mountain, so different than the one she had known in town in Virginia City.  As local legend tells, Julia died in November and was buried in March when the ground thawed, yet her grave marker lists her date of death as March 14th, 1882.


Susan E. James quotes Genny Shumachers The Mammoth Lakes Sierra written in 1964: 


"Since the ground was covered with deep snow when she died, her hand-made coffin was packed in snow until she could be buried the next March.  An old picket fence around the grave has been replaced by a more sturdy one.  The story goes that this young  mother of three dreamed of someday having a house with a picket fence.  Her grieving husband then gave her the only picket fence he could - around her grave. "


Visitors today can pick and choose the version of the story that they prefer.  Mrs. Townsend, be it J.E., Julia, Jenny, or Mary, is buried there her grave for all to see.  The white picket fence has not survived the still harsh Mammoth winters, and modern day vandals.  Sturdy boards have been put up instead.  The wood marker has also been preserved in concrete to prevent further decay.  The story, which ever you choose, paints a romantic picture.  At least I always thought it did, until someone amongst our group burst out in laughter as my husband told Old Charleys version while we stood around the grave.  "Yeah, right," this person laughed, "The two miners got tired of the wife's complaints and knocked her off deliberately. Who would know out in the middle of nowhere several feet high in snow, so isolated from everyone?"  Did Bryant Townsend and his partner, Old Charley, actually do the poor woman in to stop her from driving them nuts with her bitching all winter long?  Did they then make up the whole gun cleaning accident, and decide to bury her with the picket fence to cover up an actual murder?  Hmmmm.. something to speculate on, but we will never know...



    Mammoth Gold
          by Gary Caldwell
          Ginny Smith Books
          Mammoth Lakes, CA
    The Album:Times & Tales of Inyo -Mono Vol.VI,No.3
       The J. E. Townsend Grave In Old Mammoth
               by Susan E. James
        Chalfant Press,Inc. Aug. 1993