In 1972 my father, Gordon Lancaster, sat down to write both an accounting of his own life experiences and a family history, which encompassed a period dating from the California Gold Rush up until 1964. Dad, whose own father was born in Gold Hill in 1880, grew up listening to stories about his father’s childhood on the Comstock and about the lives of his forefathers who had made the move west from Milford, New Hampshire in the 1860’s and 1870’s. He was very proud of his Western heritage, and as he passed his account down to his own sons charged us “to add to this account and pass it on to future generations”.
In 2006, my sister-in-law, Judy (Heyes) Lancaster, took up the challenge, having previously researched and written about her father’s ancestors and their journey over the Oregon trail in 1852. A great deal of time and effort was spent surfing the internet and traveling to various sites in both New England and Nevada. With help from Federal and State Census records and historic records found at the Storey County Courthouse, the Nevada State Archives and even the Gold Hill Hotel, she validated many of Dad’s recollections and added greatly to our knowledge of those who came before us.
The accompanying photo was taken around 1895 at the home of my great-great-grandparents, William and Adaline Hall. The home was located in a section of Gold Hill known as Nob Hill. Standing second from the right, among her three siblings, is Ellen (Hall) Lancaster. An album of blue tinted photos taken in the 1890’s by my great-grandfather, Henry Lancaster, provided another valuable aid in learning about the lives that these Nevada pioneers led. The mines may have been in decline during these years, but the images of mines, railroad trestles, homes, businesses and patriotic parades would be quite unimaginable to the traveler passing through Gold Hill today.
The Lancaster and Hall families were among the early settlers in the Massachusetts Colony. And perhaps the earliest of these was also named Henry Lancaster. Born in Lancashire, England in 1605 he arrived in the colonies in 1631. With over two hundred years of history in New England, we can only speculate why portions of these families pulled up stakes there and resettled in Nevada. They were friends whose homes and businesses were in close proximity to one another in Milford. A successful grocer and grain merchant, Joseph Lancaster was teaching this trade to his son, Henry. William Hall followed in the footsteps of his father as owner and operator of a flourishing blacksmith shop. They were both active and respected members of the community. The grand New England style home built by Joseph in 1854 still stands today. And the many fine furnishings that came with William Hall around the Horn by ship to San Francisco and then by wagon to Gold Hill also gives testimony to the fact that both families had the means to live somewhat comfortably. Certainly the spirit of adventure that had spurred many Easterners to move out West in the 19th century played as much a role in the move as did the thought of vast fortunes to be made.
William Hall was not unaccustomed to traveling vast distances by sea. We know that he traveled to South America in 1854, and it is entirely possible that he went as far as the California gold fields during that same voyage. But even if the lure of relocating at that time seemed good, he had to consider the hardships that his young family would face. Ships sailing around the Horn of South America often faced treacherous conditions. My father’s maternal grandmother caught Yellow Fever, crossing the Isthmus of Panama by mule back, and was shipwrecked off the coast south of San Francisco trying to reach the gold fields. When in 1864, at age 38, William finally left New Hampshire for Gold Hill, he wanted to firmly establish his home and business before bringing the family out.
Adaline (b. 1829) and the younger son, Ernest (b. 1856) probably came out after the Civil War had ended but before the 1870 census, in which they are listed. The eldest boy, George (b. 1849), was attending school in the East. Ellen (b. 1851) along with Hattie Belle (b. 1862) were in the capable care of Adaline’s family. Ellen was married to Henry Lancaster in 1869. After their marriage they stayed with and cared for Joseph Lancaster until his death in 1871. It is thought that Henry, Ellen, George and Hattie came to Nevada on the Transcontinental Railroad which was completed in 1869. At any rate, they were all living in Nevada by 1875.
William’s blacksmith enjoyed a thriving business providing the brake shoes for the wagons that hauled the ore from the mines in Virginia City and Gold Hill to the mills down below – wearing out a set of brake shoes on each trip. According to the Gold Hill Business Directory of 1873-74, he also owned and operated the Capital Lodging House, which for many years stood directly across Main Street from Vesey’s Hotel, and of course still exists today as the Gold Hill Hotel. William may also have had interest in similar lodging houses both in Virginia City and in Carson City, and they too would have catered to the miners of the day. Great-Great-Grandfather Hall remained active in community affairs and served in the Nevada State Assembly in 1895, being the elected representative from Storey County.
Ernest Hall was apparently important enough to have a short biographical sketch written in “The History of Nevada”. In it he is said to have received his education from the Gold Hill public schools and Santa Clara College. He married Sallie Louise Williams in 1883 and held several positions, including those of a ticket agent for the V & T Railroad and a dispatcher with the Hobart Mills Lumber Co. He and Sallie both worked for the Nevada Telegraph and Telephone Company in Manhattan, being listed there in the 1910 census. But his main mark was made as a musician on the Comstock, where he played bass fiddle for the Piper Opera House orchestra between 1878 and 1888. He was multi-talented and played several different instruments. Ernest also had his own band and was very much in demand at various social engagements and public dances. His brother, George, was a percussionist in the orchestra, and had a listing in the Gold Hill Business Directory of 1878 for “GW Hall & Co., news and music”. That same year he married Kate Fitzgerald. He also had an occupation as a druggist, and my father recalled that he had been a bookkeeper for a mine until it closed.
The youngest of the Hall children was Hattie Belle. As was the case with her brothers, she lived at various times in both Virginia City and Gold Hill. She married Stan Wright in or about 1885, and together they had three daughters, Leslie, Clarissa, and Belle. Stan worked as a gold and silver miner and later as a foreman in a quartz mine. Later on he became an engineer for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad on the Virginia City to Carson City Route and still later, as my father recalled, was an engineer on the train which hauled lumber from Hobart Mills to Truckee.
Hobart Mills, which is situated just north of Truckee, was established in 1897 and named in honor of Walter Hobart Sr. Although he held a vast amount of timber in this area of California, his influence on Nevada’s history was enormous. He was a miner, a lumber man and a political figure who was credited with providing much of the timber for the mines and for the building of the Comstock. He also provided much needed water from the Carson Range to Virginia City and Gold Hill. I mention this only because there may be link between the Hobart family and the Hall family that had it’s roots in Milford, New Hampshire. A George and Lucy Hobart were listed as living with Martin Hall, William’s brother, in both the 1850 and 1860 censuses for Milford. In the 1880 census, an 83 year old Sarah Sawtelle was living with the Hobarts. She was both their mother-in-law and perhaps an older relation of Adaline Hall, whose maiden name was Sawtelle. There was a picture labeled “The Hobart Children” in the old album previously mentioned. Along with the fact that both Ernest Hall and Stan Wright both worked for the mills in the early 1900’s, I recall my father telling me that one of my grandfather’s favorite fishing spots in the Sierra was Prosser Creek – only a stone’s throw away from Hobart Mills.
By now the reader of this story is probably yawning, and the writer is getting cramped fingers. I’ve mentioned very little about the Lancasters, my grandfather’s childhood in Gold Hill and what ultimately became of both families. Those subjects will be covered, hopefully with more brevity, in Part Two.