There were men who traveled to mining camps primarily to experience the atmosphere of it all. This was a phenomenon well enough known that there was a term for it- “going to see the elephant” (Dick Pace’s “Golden Gulch,” p.25). My favorite source describing the circus-like atmosphere in frontier Montana is “The Exploits of Ben Arnold,” edited by Lewis F. Crawford (p. 91). Mr. Arnold (his real name was Benjamin M. Connor; the alias was because he deserted from the army) was not himself one of those who was there just to “see the elephant,” but he gives a vivid description of Alder Gulch in the fall of the year following the Canary family’s arrival:
“I had never been in a mining country or a mining town, and was not a little anxious to see the sights. On the corner of one of the main streets stood a man preaching the gospel with much fervor to a small audience, and I listened to him for a while. He was the first preacher I had heard, or had the opportunity of hearing in over a year. On the opposite side of the street, crying his wares in opposition to the preacher, stood a Jewish peddler selling red flannel shirts. Up and down the middle of the street rode a man on a poor shaggy little pony, seeking to auction him off by extolling his gentleness, endurance, swiftness and easy keeping qualities. In the back yard behind one of the saloons a fist fight was going on, with much noise and some bloodshed. Most of the buildings were saloons – all wide open doors through which could be heard loud singing, the click of poker chips, and the clinking of glasses at the bar.”
Shortly after that day he went to work on a claim for the owner, a local doctor whom he does not name.
Molly Sheehan, a child of twelve or less at the time, gives a colorful description of life in Alder shortly after the town was established, in “Girl from the Gulches,” edited by Ellen Baumler (pp. 31-32):
“Hundreds of tents, brush wickiups, log cabins, even houses of stone quarried from the hills were springing up daily in the windings of Alder Creek and Daylight Gulch, in the hollows of the hills and the ramblings of Alder Gulch and the Stinking Water. Soon over a stretch of fifteen miles a cluster of towns had assumed the importance of names- Junction, Adobetown, Nevada, Virginia City, Pine Grove and Summit. In a few weeks the population numbered into the thousands. Every foot of earth in the gulches was being turned upside down. Rough-clad men in long hair and flowing beards swarmed everywhere. Some were digging for bedrock, others were bent over barrow loads of pay-dirt, which they were wheeling to the sluice-boxes, and into these boxes still others were shoveling the dirt. Up and down the narrow streets labored bull trains of sixteen- and twenty horse teams pulling three and four wagons lashed together, and long strings of pack horses, mules or donkeys. Loafers lolled at the doors or slouched in and out of saloons and hurdy-gurdy houses too numerous to mention. Frequently the sounds of brawling, insults, oaths echoed through the gulch. When my stepmother sent me down the street on errands she often said, ‘Now run Mollie, but don’t be afraid.’ I was never spoken to in any but a kindly way by those men.
“Our surroundings I took quite for granted as the way of all places in which little girls lived. Nevada, Central City, Denver and Virginia City and were much alike. Here, as in those other towns was a certain class of women whom I heard called ‘fancy ladies’ due to their gaudy dress, so different from the dress of the ladies who were our friends. They were always to be seen either walking up and down or clattering along on horseback or in hacks. Sometimes one was to be glimpsed through a window lounging in a gown and puffing on a cigarette. They were so in evidence that I felt no curiosity about them. I knew that they were not ‘good women’ and I did not analyze why.”
Junction, Adobetown, Nevada, Virginia City, Pine Grove and Summit are named in sequence from the mouth of Alder Creek towards its source in the mountains. The Canary’s lived in Adobetown, less than a mile downstream from Virginia City, where Martha Canary/Calamity Jane took her siblings begging in December, 1864. That evening her father was said to be gambling in Nevada (City).
If you have not read it already, please read the essay on this website entitled, “Jane Begs in the Streets” for that description.