From the 1870s to the turn of the century, while countless men gambled their fortunes in Death Valley’s mines, many bold women capitalized on the boom-and-bust lifestyle and established saloons and brothels. These lively ladies were clever entrepreneurs and fearless adventurers but also mothers, wives, and respected members of their communities. Madam Lola Travis was one of the wealthiest single women in Inyo County in the 1870s. Known as “Diamond Tooth Lil,” Evelyn Hildegard was a poor immigrant girl who became a western legend. Local author and historian Robin Flinchum chronicles the lives of these women and many others who were unafraid to live outside the bounds of polite society and risk everything for a better future in the forbidding Death Valley desert.
“Flinchum’s lively prose and detailed descriptions bring these women into focus, and provide a historically accurate and interesting overview of Death Valley’s pioneering mining era.” —Sierra Wave Media
“A thoroughly entertaining and highly enlightening account of the wild Death Valley boom camps’ daring red light ladies . . . A very enjoyable and engaging book. A great read!” —Richard Lingenfelter, author of Death Valley & the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion
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RESPECT AND RESPECTABILITY
Inyo County, the Early Years
In the summer of 1871, a clerk at the county courthouse in Independence, California, opened a massive leather-bound book and dipped his pen in ink. Under the watchful eye of the dark-haired woman before him, he carefully copied the brands that marked a string of mules she had just purchased for $450 in gold. In thickly accented English, she gave her name for the record. He spelled it wrong, but neither of them knew the difference. Satisfied, she made her mark on the line he indicated.
It was the only entry of its kind that would appear in a volume meant to record only land transactions, but she had insisted it be made, for it proclaimed, in official ink, that the mules now belonged to her. That she couldn't read the entry was irrelevant, for she understood that it wasn't really the words that mattered; it was the official power they gave her, the power to protect her holdings and the small empire she had created.
It had been over twenty years since she came out of Chihuahua, Mexico, and into the California gold rush. In that time, she had learned to gauge the changing tides of mining camp fortunes, to read the miners — their politics, their prejudices and their weaknesses. In those years, she had watched men labor, suffer and even die as they worked to wrest their gold and silver from the earth. She had made her fortune by convincing them to put it willingly in the palm of her hand. And she had kept her fortune by understanding, in her sharp-eyed, hard-nosed way, that the Anglos revered their record books, their seals, documents, judges and officials. So she swept into the county courthouse in her fancy silk dresses, adorned with heavy gold rings and chains, to leave her mark whenever the opportunity arose.
She came quarterly to renew her liquor license, every December to pay her tax bill, every time she bought or sold a piece of property, every time she was called as a witness when another shooting occurred in one of her saloons. At thirty-four, she was one of the richest single women in Inyo County, and with her wealth she had fed and clothed, housed and educated a family dependent on her for their survival. For although she was a Mexican woman in a white man's world, she had a keen business mind, a tenacious will and a backbone of solid steel that gave her an extraordinary edge.
Her insistence on having her business transactions set down in ink not only secured her interests in an insecure world but also left a lasting and unusual record of the life of a Death Valley mining camp madam. Her name would appear in a variety of forms over the years, but she ultimately became known as Lola Travis, and that's how she has been remembered in the stories and legends of Inyo County for over 150 years.
The New California, 1850
Shortly after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, word of the gold rush drew hopeful immigrants from Sonora and Chihuahua across the newly created border to Alta California. The territory might now technically belong to Americans, but it was still populated by Mexicans, and its wealth held the promise of a better life.
Among the hopefuls was thirteen-year-old Delores Treviso. In those days, her official footprint was indistinct, blurred by the vagaries and transience of mining camp life. The record shows a brief glimpse of her in 1850, living with two small brothers as their sole support and protection in a boardinghouse in a rough mud hole of a mining camp called Sonora in Tuolumne County. They were poor and scrambling to survive, still learning to speak English. Washing clothes on the rocks in the cold-water streams, cooking meals over an open fire — these were the things a woman could do to earn her keep. Or she could work in one of the many fandango halls where everyone — men and what few women there were — gathered in the evenings to drink, to dance and to find company.
In the early days of the California Republic, men often outnumbered women by as much as one hundred to one. Many of the Mexican women in those camps would succumb to the harsh conditions; others would find they had traded poverty and desperation at home for more of the same in a land where they were now strangers and despised by the victorious Americans. Only a few would stride into the fray, competing for resources and control of their own destinies in an arena where they were severely handicapped by their race, gender and class.
In 1851, while Lola was still struggling to survive her first years in Sonora Camp — slogging through the ankle-deep mud, dodging brawls verging on gang warfare between Anglos and Mexicans and getting used to the endless leering of lonely men — another Mexican woman named Josefa fatally stabbed a white man in the nearby town of Downieville. She had acted to defend her honor, she said, when he crashed into her shanty amid the drunken revelry of a Fourth of July celebration. The next morning, despite her desperate plea of self-defense and witnesses who were hissed off the stand during a hastily conducted lynch mob trial, she was marched to the makeshift gallows at a local bridge. There, Josefa barely had time to clear her long black hair from under the rope noose before the supports were kicked out from under her feet and she was hanged to death while a crowd of Anglos cheered.
Racial tensions were high in the days to come as Anglo and Mexican cultures clashed and more and more Anglos swelled the populations of what had been largely Mexican communities. New laws enacted by the Anglo government, including the Foreign Miners Tax, would soon marginalize the Mexican residents of California into a clearly second-class status. Coming of age in these volatile and chaotic times, Lola would hear the legends of folk heroes such as the bandits Joaquin Murietta and Tiburcio Vasquez, who mocked the interlopers and stole their gold.
In Sonora, she went to work in the fandango halls to support herself and the little boys Florentino and Martin, and she watched and learned. Her footprint remained indistinct as she grew into womanhood and romance and children occupied her thoughts. At sixteen, she became a mother, and the little girl, called Eugenia, was soon followed by a boy named Gregorio and another girl named Victoria.
Little trace of Lola appears in any official record of that time, but she continued to watch and learn and to protect and provide for her family. Then the children's father, a Mexican miner named Granillo, died, and Lola gathered her brothers, her children, her mother (who had come up from Chihuahua), her hard-earned knowledge and her innate courage and herded them all to the greener pastures of Inyo.
Death Valley, 1867
Inyo County, California, was new in 1867, having been just carved out of the edges of Mono and Tulare Counties the year before. It was composed of staggering Sierra peaks as well as the lowest, hottest, driest desert in North America. The sink of Death Valley lay not far to the east of the little foothill town of Lone Pine, a sleepy supply stop for ranchers and miners on their way to diggings elsewhere. Like most of the rest of California, it had been inhabited by Mexicans and Paiute and Shoshone Indians long before the Anglos discovered it in 1849. But unlike the gold country around Tuolumne and Sacramento, it was a somewhat forbidding land, hard to prospect, hard to work, hard to settle.
Near Lone Pine, a high mountain overlooked the Owens Lake on the very edge of the desert country. Not long after the end of the Mexican-American War, someone had named this mountain Cerro Gordo (Fat Hill), and Mexican miners had been working silver claims there on a small scale for years. But in 1865, when a man named Pablo Flores struck an unusually rich vein of silver ore, life in Inyo County, and especially on Cerro Gordo, changed forever.
Anglos came into the county in droves then, buying up Mexican diggings and staking claims of their own. In 1867, two men named Mortimer Belshaw and Victor Beaudry set up large-scale mining operations and began shipping bullion to Los Angeles, transforming that small port village into a major metropolis. At Cerro Gordo, a town sprang up around their operations, where tall smelters belched thick black smoke day and night.
Now, halfway up the steep road into town, anyone wanting admittance to that unlikely promised land was required to pay a toll. For a lone horse and rider, the outrageous fee was twenty-five cents. For a loaded wagon, the fare was one dollar.
Lola's younger brother Florentino Treviso, now a grown man, bought a mining claim and joined in the rush of hopefuls there. Since the early days in Sonora Camp, the fabric of the Treviso family had remained a tightly woven net, binding the siblings together. Now, with her own children to provide for, Lola bought a lot in Lone Pine on the rutted dirt Main Street and built a saloon. Here, as she watched over her business, shopped in the mercantile next door for whiskey and cigars and made sure her children went to school and her family was fed, she was accepted into the local community. And as she galloped down Main Street in a pair of men's pants, kicking up dust as she won a $100 horse race riding astride, the fierce and formidable Lola began to earn respect.
On another lot removed from the main thoroughfare, she established her children in a small house. Lone Pine was a relatively quiet town with a strong Hispanic community and a social hall where the important holidays of old Mexico were celebrated with all the color, noise and tradition that sojourners far from a beloved homeland could muster. It was a fine place for her family, but it was not where the real money was to be made.
In search of a more lively investment, Lola bought a lot in the new camp of Sageland in Kern County, a direct stop on the stage route from Cerro Gordo and Lone Pine to Los Angeles. She filed a homestead claim there on Main Street in 1868, but despite its robust beginnings, Sageland soon faltered. When the mines played out the following year, most of the business owners pulled up stakes and moved on. Although the Sageland venture didn't pay off, it did bring her romance in the form of a young New Englander named George Snow who kept a saloon and billiard hall near her place.
When the town died, George moved on to Cerro Gordo, and a pregnant Lola returned to Lone Pine, where she gave birth to their child, a light-skinned baby girl called Pablita who soon became the pet of her older siblings Victoria and Gregorio. That same year, at thirty-two, Lola also became a grandmother when a baby boy was born to sixteen-year-old Eugenia, who had married a miner in Havilah.
Meanwhile, Cerro Gordo was not only keeping its promise but surpassing expectations as the camp continued to grow. Sometime in 1870, Lola made her way up the Cerro Gordo Road. The tri-weekly stage from Lone Pine went at a comfortable and steady pace, but Lola, a skilled rider who always kept good stock, could easily conquer the Fat Hill grade on horseback.
Cerro Gordo wasn't a venture for the faint of heart. The steeply sloping, terraced streets were dusty in summer and muddy or snow packed in winter. Water was scarce, and hauling in materials up Belshaw's sharply pitched toll road was so expensive that the best hotel in town was constructed of flimsy frame and board. Even oxygen was scarce at such an altitude. But the landscape was not as intimidating as the men who inhabited it. The camp had quickly earned a reputation, in its remoteness, as a hideout for cutthroats and thieves. Its miners had only whiskey to console them and fistfights to relieve their tensions. Cerro Gordo was rough, violent and no place for a delicate nature, but it seemed made to order for Lola Travis.
She set up a saloon on the Main Street property claimed by George Snow, near the entrance to the big mines of Cerro Gordo. At the bottom of Main Street, a woman named Petra Romero ran a rough bordello called Waterfall's. Their two facilities stood like bookends of revelry and mayhem between which the business of a town was carried on day in and day out. Victor Beaudry's general store, claimed as payment for a debt from one of the early Mexicans on the ground, stood a stone's throw from Lola's place and offered dry goods and groceries to sober townspeople by day. Mary Morales operated a rowdy saloon across the street, and Brigida Mojardin cooked for the hungry, weary miners in her small restaurant next door. The Diaz brothers operated a billiard hall nearby, and Rosalie Salmon clanged his heavy hammer against a long succession of horseshoes in the blacksmith shop three doors down.
Early in 1871, Lola bought out George Snow's interest in the property as well as the lot next door. Here in this milieu, Lola Travis came into her own. After dark at the top of the hill, Lola's fandango hall, which included a saloon and a string of cribs out back where the prostitutes worked, presided over the camp, spilling loud music and boisterous revelers into the street at all hours of the night. Women cavorted on the dance floor and in the cribs with a steady stream of men, Hispanic and Anglo alike, who worked long, hard hours in the mines and often arrived at Lola's thirsty, lonely and unwashed, as soon as their weekly pay was in hand. But while they all came together under Lola's roof, the racial prejudice and territorial strife that had colored the new California did not recede even in this remote place, where something akin to street rumbles took place regularly between Anglos and Mexicans, usually erupting in either Lola's or Waterfall's and sometimes lasting for days.
Lola was a flamboyant woman, stylishly dressed, adorned with gold jewelry and armed with a pistol. She became so well known to the inhabitants of Cerro Gordo, and of Inyo County in general, that they referred to her only by her first name. When she did climb up on the more sedate stagecoach headed for the little house in Lone Pine, the driver jotted only "Lola" in his passenger log. When William Chalfant chronicled the goings-on in Cerro Gordo in his Inyo Independent newspaper, he frequently lamented that another shooting had occurred at "Lola's place."
Cerro Gordo was, the Inyo Independent declared, a "prolific source of the 'man for breakfast' order of items." Gunfire was frequent at Lola's; stray bullets nicked one of her brothers in the leg and one of her workers in the stomach and killed an old man who sat outside the saloon on a bench, minding his own business. When one of the women who earned her living in Lola's dance hall was badly beaten by a customer, the woman's boyfriend soon arrived seeking vengeance, and guns were quickly drawn and fired. A bullet "struck the woman beater in the temple, but the ball ploughed around the skull and inflicted no particular lasting damage," the Independent's Chalfant reported.
On another occasion, a man "commenced to amuse himself by shooting out the lights in Lola's saloon," according to the Independent. Another of her customers objected to this breach of manners, drew his gun and began shooting at the first, "who returned shot for shot until both pistols were empty."
These, too, were the days when the Mexican bandit Tiburcio Vazquez rode into Inyo County and captured its imagination along with an illicit portion of its wealth. Included among the treasures he amassed were Mortimer Belshaw's pocket watch, taken in a daring 1874 stagecoach robbery not far from Cerro Gordo, as well as the boots off Belshaw's feet.
While Lola was shrewd enough to capitalize on the weaknesses of men, she was not one to give them free reign. After a particularly bloody round of gunfights in Cerro Gordo, when a civic-minded citizen visited all the businesses in town and took up a collection to build a jail, Lola and the proprietress of Waterfall's (a madam named Petra Romero, also known as Mrs. Moore) dug into their purses and handed over their contributions.
That Lola Travis and Mrs. Moore operated rival businesses seemed to create no animosity between them since, perhaps, each understood that the other walked a hard road. And despite the ongoing racial tensions, and despite her own fierce temper, Lola had taken her place and maintained good working relationships with the other businesses on Main Street. In 1872, when Inyo County imposed a Sunday blue law on its saloons, Lola and Mrs. Moore banded together with John Hughes of the Cosmopolitan and K.C. Jones of the Cuckoo to buck the law and open their doors in solidarity. But by then, the long arm of the law reached all the way to Cerro Gordo, and they were hauled into court and fined between ten and fifteen dollars each.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Red Light Women of Death Valley"
Copyright © 2015 Robin Flinchum.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Lola Travis: Respect and Respectability,
2. Cerro Gordo's Main Street After Dark,
3. Murder, Mayhem and Martha Camp,
4. A Tale of Two Featherlegs,
5. Daughters of the Sun: Chinese Women in Darwin,
6. Amargosa Street, 1905–1910: The Rise and Fall of Rhyolite's Red-Light District,
7. The Life and Death of Mona Bell,
8. Diamond Tooth Lil: The Most Reckless Girl There Ever Was,
9. A Rendezvous for Low-Grade Characters,
About the Author,