As mentioned in Part One of this story my father, Gordon Lancaster, wrote his account of the Lancaster and Hall families and their time in Nevada all from memory. He was 58 years of age when he wrote this portion of the family history from his home in Piedmont, California. But he clearly had a vision of mining towns and deserts when he sat at the typewriter. He wrote “The Sutro Tunnel, the mine accidents and rescues and like stories were told and retold in family gatherings during my youth. To me it seemed like the grand adventure.”
Gold Hill in the 1870’s was the classic Western town with very little to offer in the way of Eastern comforts. Our ancestors had deep roots and many friends and family members in New England and in Milford, New Hampshire in particular. So, whether it was for economic reasons or simply to join the William Hall family in this “grand adventure,” Henry and Ellen Lancaster arrived in Gold Hill sometime prior to 1875. The first of their two children, William, was born in 1877. My grandfather, Clarence Henry Lancaster, came along in November of 1880. At this time they were living next door to the Halls on Nob Hill. Their father, Henry Kent Lancaster (b. 1848,) served the community as Assistant Postmaster, and in ensuing years would own and operate the Gold Hill General Store (pictured.) He was an Odd Fellow, as was his father-in-law, William Hall. He was also a member of the Gold Hill Gun Club which apparently held its meetings at the Capital Lodging House when it was under my great-great grandfather’s ownership. An avid outdoorsman, many of Henry’s blue tinted photographs are of family hunting and camping expeditions.
In Dad’s writings there are several colorful anecdotes which provide glimpses into the daily life that the Lancasters led in Gold Hill. In his words, with a little editing, here are just a few:
“Ellen had the help of local Piute women to help with the housework and the laundry. She recounted how one day the woman doing the laundry disappeared for about an hour only to reappear from the sagebrush in back of the home carrying a baby she had just delivered. She had the baby wrapped in a blanket and was going to resume her chores, but Ellen made her take the rest of the day off! Apparently the Lancasters got along well with the local Native Americans and the large Chinese population simply because they treated them fairly and without prejudice.”
“My father recalled many incidents of playing with the native boys in the hills in back of the house. Noting that his father, Henry, had a fine horse “Jack” that served as a saddle animal and also was broken to harness, the Piutes trapped and gave to my father a wild pony, which turned into a fine spirited riding animal. The trapping was done by chasing the wild horses in the desert country east of Virginia City. They would spread out in the desert in relays then single out and chase a horse from one post to another, until it was winded and captured. It was left tied down until hunger, thirst and general weariness made it docile enough to bring into camp and train.”
Again referring to the “grand adventure” that was brought on by living on the Comstock, he went on to say “The Lancasters and Halls were intimately involved in all that went on. There was lots of work, but certainly a great deal of social activity. And for a growing boy with a horse and American Indians for playmates there was plenty of adventure and sport and the great outdoors which was the catalyst of my father’s life style. Dad was given a gun at a very early age and trained to use it. He was the nemesis of the tasty rabbits that inhabited the sagebrush covered hills. In the winter there was sleighing and tobogganing. The two boys had the fastest two man bobsled in town – handmade by a loving father and blacksmith grandfather Apparently, a ride down the icy street from Virginia City through town was a wild and hairy experience. Perhaps my father’s most memorable experience came when he fell from the top of a cut along the Virginia and Truckee Railroad to the roadbed below. The fall rendered him unconscious and a large piece of the flesh was torn off his forehead. Some section hands, summoned by his playmates carried him home on a door removed from a tool shed. A doctor had been summoned in advance of the rescue party, and when he saw the injury, he sent someone back to hunt for the scalp. When this was brought to the house, he washed it in a saltwater solution and tamped it back on the forehead. It required some fifty stitches, but fortunately it grew back. It was an excellent job considering it was done on the kitchen table.”
The mines in Virginia City and Gold Hill died out when the workings got so deep that it was impracticable to bring out the ore. Much of the population of these once bustling towns had already moved on, and by the mid 1890’s it was evident that no new engineering breakthroughs that would allow for new strikes were close at hand. The Lancasters moved and settled in Oakland, California around 1896. Henry found work in a store almost immediately, but tragedy struck a year later when he was killed trying to stop a runaway team of horses near his place of work. To support their mother and themselves, Will, who was always skillful with his hands, found work in the machine shop of the Southern Pacific Railroad. My grandfather, while finishing high school, worked in various capacities for Pierce Hardware in Oakland. In 1905 the two brothers opened the town’s first complete sporting goods store on San Pablo Avenue. Uncle Will was the gunsmith and Clarence was the chief buyer and salesman. Naturally, the business was named “Lancaster and Lancaster.”
William and Adaline Hall also moved to Oakland shortly after 1900, and were living with Ellen at the time of William’s death in 1911. The other Hall siblings moved on to other towns and occupations as described in Part One. Sadly, the two families were drifting apart and not a great deal more information about the Halls has come to light. My father recalled his great uncle, Ernest Hall, coming to Oakland in the latter part of Prohibition seeking Clarence’s help in getting a job. He had held various sales jobs and may have spent time as a musician in Chicago. Ellen Hall Lancaster lived the remainder of her days with Will and his wife Emma.
Clare and Will’s sporting goods store closed for various reasons in 1911. Although it had been financially successful, it did not survive some unscrupulous competition and the heartache caused by the death of my grandfather’s first wife, Bertha Bouterous. Will went back to work as a foreman in a machine shop until his death in 1944. My grandfather married my grandmother, Daisy Le Prince in 1912. He went to work for other sporting goods and hardware stores in Oakland after my father, Gordon, was born in 1914.
The outdoor skills and the passion for the sporting life acquired by my grandfather as a boy growing up onthe Comstock carried over to the rest of his life. Because of his ability with horses he was picked to be the colonel’s orderly and dispatch rider at the National Guard Armory in Oakland; but when the Spanish American War broke out in 1898, and his unit was called up, he was not allowed to go to war as he was notyet 18. As a Deputy Sheriff for Alameda County, he was among the first responders to cross the Bay to “keep the peace” in the streets of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. He knew how to handle his Colt 44, to defend himself and to “persuade” others, and he taught the Oakland and Piedmont police officers to do the same. He supplied the guns and ammunition to Buffalo Bill for his “Wild West Show” when it came to town. Over the years Clare competed in and won numerous live bird and clay target competitions as a member of the Golden Gate Gun Club. Family camping and fishing outings were a way of life. Never forgetting his roots, such outings to the Eastern Sierra invariably included visits to Virginia City and Gold Hill.
Home has meant Nevada to me since 1978. I can’t imagine living elsewhere, and to seal the deal I married a wonderful native Nevadan. I was 14 years old when my grandfather died peacefully on Thanksgiving Eve of 1961. These stories I too heard as a youth. One last thing that I recall is that Clare Lancaster was a prolific walker and would sometimes get up early in the morning and walk from his home to the top of the Oakland Hills. Occasionally he would see the flash from the above ground testing in the Southern Nevada desert.. But I have a hunch that he was looking more towards the northeast – towards Gold Hill and to where that “grand adventure” all began.