Monday, April 1, 2013

What about those western towns?

Some towns we know by heart. Dodge, Kansas. Tombstone, Arizona. Abilene. Deadwood. Virginia City. Alder's Gulch.

Question is, can you bring any of them up into your mind's eye when you're writing. Or when you're reading, for that matter.

There's a town named Bodie located about fifty miles from Lake Tahoe, CA.William S. Body (the town name is spelled Bodie so no one will mispronounce it) discovered gold there in 1859. And miners crossing the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, charging to "see the elephant" in Bodie, found the Mother Lode at Virginia City.

Bodie boomed from 1879, they say, and the population jumped to around 10,000, with 2,000 buildings in town. It also had its share of "wicked bad men" and one little girl wrote in her diary, "Good-bye God I'm going to Bodie."

The material I have says: Killings occurred with monotonous regularity, sometimes becoming almost daily events. The fire bell, which tolled the ages of the deceased when they were buried, rang often and long. Robberies, stage holdups, and street fights provided variety, and the town's 65 saloons offered many opportunities for relaxation after hard days of work in the mines. The Reverend F.M. Warrington saw it in 1881 as "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempest of lust and passion."

So, looking for a place for a good story, Bodie caught my eye. 

Many buildings remain in the ruins of Bodie, the town's boom lasted for only four years. From then on, everything slipped downhill.

Still, as my research says: The town became more known for its wild living than for its big gold resources. Every other building on the mile long main street was a saloon. Seven breweries were working day and night. The whiskey was brought in by horse carriages, 100 barrels at a time.

Here's how I worked with Bodie, though I turned the gold into silver and named the town Mother Lode: 

            “The vein’s getting thin, Mr. McKendrick,” Axel Swain said. “Silver content is down to fifty ounces a ton. If it keeps on like this, we’ll be paying out of pocket to dig Dominion ore.”
“You don’t see the situation improving, then?” Rod McKendrick frowned and ran a hand through his mane of reddish hair.
“No, sir. Were it me, I’d cut and run while there’s still a bit of silver left.”
“Thank you, Axel. Excellent information, as always.”
“Do we keep digging?”
“For the moment. For the moment.”
“Yes, sir.” Swain stood to leave.
“Keep this to yourself, Axel,” McKendrick said.
“Yes, sir.” Swain clapped a cloth cap on his head, knuckled his forehead in salute, and left the office, trailing the scent of old cigars.
McKendrick turned in his swivel chair, laced his fingers behind a thick neck, and stared out the window at bustling Glory Road, the main street of the mining town everyone called Mother Lode.
He cursed his luck. Dominion had been putting out a solid 60 ounces a ton when he bought the mine from Stanford Ruggart and Milford Flake back in ’75. True, Ruggart kept a quarter share in the enterprise, but promised to stay out of day-to-day operations. McKendrick paid Ruggart twenty-five percent of Consolidation Mine’s profits every three months. Sent the money, such as it was after all the costs and hints of costs were removed, to a bank in Prescott, Arizona.
McKendrick took out a five-year note from a bank in San Francisco to pay for the mine. The note fell due at the beginning of the year. Best find a buyer for the Dominion, quick.
Two weeks passed and the grade of Dominion ore stayed above fifty ounces to the ton. Then the lower southeast shaft ran dry. The miners hacked solid rock from the shaft for three days, but the spoil showed only the barest trace of silver.
“Keep a shift working that shaft,” McKendrick ordered.
“Yes, sir,” said Swain, “but there ain’t no silver down there.”
“Just keep them working.”
“Yes, sir.”
McKendrick again turned his gaze to the bustle on Glory Road, watching the flood of wagons, men, and some women as he considered the dry shaft. Although Mother Lode’s silver was discovered nearly five years ago, the town still felt like a boom camp.

Things go downhill from there. But the hero, Matthew Stryker, is a marshal in another dying town called Rimrock. But to keep a promise he made to the town drunk, Stryker must go to Prescott. Naturally, I looked on the 'Net to see what Prescott looked like in those days.

A winter shot, as you can see but still, a picture of a thriving capital of Arizona in 1880. 

Stryker made his way to Prescott from the Mogollon Rim country, and to enter the town, he had to pass Fort Whipple, which is also known as Whipple Barracks. You'll see the name in a number of Elmore Leonard's stories and books. 

Of course Fort Whipple is famous not be cause of my ancestor, because Amiel Whipple, head of the U.S. Army survey team that found the path for the railway across northern Arizona, is not related to me. General Whipple (he died a general during the Civil War) was a Massachusetts Whipple. I'm a Providence RI Whipple. 

This photo from the Sharlot Hall Museum archives shows Fort Whipple as it probably was when Matt Stryker and his party rode by in 1880.

I find that I need to get a look at the country or the towns I'm writing about unless everything is fictitious. I also find that the setting takes on more of a reality when the writer uses a real place. But then, you're probably tired of hearing me say that. 

Oh. Prescott. 
The Prescott Regulars regularly shoot it up on Whiskey Row, which is today much as it was yesterday. Matt Stryker was ambushed here, shot from across the street. Even today, it looks a bit dangerous. Still, it's good to know whatof you write when action takes place in a real town, even in the past.


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  3. Got to love Bodie. I pulled off the road on the way there and stumbled across some barb wire that must have been 100 years old. I'd never seen the pattern before. Bodie, and the surroundings, are well worth the vist. As usual, you're right on about all and this is a fascinating look at the "old towns." I've always found the nearby White Mountains to be spooky, one of thos do do do places that can send chills up your backbone. A friend and I have been hunting for Fremont's canon for years, which his party dumped on that side of the Sierras.

  4. Charlie,
    As always, a great post! I enjoyed this so much. Wonderful excerpt, too--I need to take a week (or two) and just sit down and READ. I've always loved old towns, and old cemeteries. Never been out this way as an adult and would love to just make a ghost town tour--I know they have things like that now. I think that's one reason I loved working at the National Cowboy Museum so much.

  5. Great post, Charlie. Really informative and useful and I enjoyed the excerpt.

    The name Bodie immediately grabbed my attention, since Dr Walford Bodie, the Electrical Wizard, was a famous Victorian-Edwardian Music Hall (Vaudeville) performer. He had a large stage show with batteries, electric arcs and a replica of the electric chair at Sing Sing, which he used to 'shock' volunteers at his shows. His good friend, Harry Houdini, the great escapologist, bought the original one for him in 1920.

    The point of my comment is simply that I think associations are also a good hook for a reader. A name, an image, something that is evocative of a place or a time may be enough to grab attention. It is the writing that is most important, of course, but these subliminal hooks also have their uses.

  6. Great post, Charlie. The setting in your stories is always solid--a character, nearly.

    I wasn't aware that Bodie's run was so short, but it's great that all those buildings are still in decent shape. I love visiting ghost towns and old towns. Haven't been to this one, but have visited several in the PNW.

  7. As a town, Bodie lasted until 1940 or so. But as a boom town, it's life was very short. It just wouldn't die.

  8. Truly enjoyed the post, I also love ghost towns (of which we have many here in Colorado also) and visit them whenever I can. Some like Cripple Creek have re-emerged and others like it's sister town Victor are barely holding on or are gone. Still the stories and histories both fiction and non-fiction are such great reads.

    I also enjoyed your excerpt, but the love of Prescott was what really came through in the post.

  9. Talk about deja vu. Went looking for a friend's home in Prescott and happened upon a street named Coyote Lane. I reckon the coyotes knew it was their territory because two of the critters stood right there and watched me drive by. Only in Prescott.