Mountain Charlie

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Although not the first settler, McKiernan was unquestionably the second person to live and work in the Summit area. Arriving in the mountains almost penniless in 1851, he built up a ranch and lumber business, and in later years was sought after by small children, asking him to tell them about his many experiences when the bears roamed the mountains.

Charles Henry McKiernan was born on March 22, 1830, (some accounts list 1825), in the province of Connaught, County Leitrium (or County Caven), Ireland. As a young man he joined the British Army to escape the famine of 1848 and went to Australia as a quartermaster. In 1849 McKiernan heard of the Gold Rush in California and, determined to make his fortune, signed up on the sailing ship, El Dorado, bound for San Francisco.

When the ship anchored on January 15, 1850, “runners,” who worked for the gold mining companies, met the sailors and induced them to leave the ship and work in the gold fields. Little persuasion was needed as the “runners” offered the men $20 a day. As McKiernan had been paid only four pounds, about twenty U.S. dollars, a year by the British Army, he quickly jumped ship without his pay and left for the gold fields.

McKiernan traveled to Trinidad in Humboldt County, and started panning for gold at Rose’s Bar on the Yuba River in the summer of 1850. He quickly amassed $12,000 in gold dust. Rather than try his luck further, he decided to go into the business of supplying the miners with provisions, a venture that promised to be a sure thing.

McKiernan bought fifteen pack mules and purchased sugar, bacon, coffee, flour, beans, etc., in the Trinity area of Humboldt County and set off to make his fortune. Upon reaching the mines, McKiernan was able to sell his goods at $1.00 a pound. Making a quick profit, he returned to Marysville, bought ten more mules and hired three helpers to assist him in the three-day journey to the mines.

This trip resulted in tragedy rather than profit. Indians attacked the pack train, killed two of McKiernan’s helpers, and drove off the mules with the supplies. After searching the area McKiernan was able to round up the mules, but the merchandise was gone. McKiernan and the surviving helper drove the mules to Weaverville, on the Trinity River, and sold the mules. McKiernan then decided to try his luck once more in the diggings. He journeyed to Riche’s and Smith’s Bar on the Feather River. Not having any luck, McKiernan, now “strapped,” left the mines in the company of a man named Page.

The two disillusioned gold seekers traveled to the Santa Clara Valley to buy a ranch and settle down to farm. But, finding land titles in the valley hopelessly complicated, with squatters and several claimants to each parcel of land, McKiernan and Page set off for Santa Cruz over the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Upon reaching the summit of the mountains at Laguna Sarjento, McKiernan decided that he would settle there. Page went on to Santa Cruz. In 1851, McKiernan claimed what he thought was government land near the home of Daniel Post, the first settler in the Summit area.

For the first seven months in the mountains McKiernan lived in a hollow redwood tree while building a permanent log cabin. During this time he hunted for game to sell in San Jose. Since he did not make much money in his first two years in the Santa Cruz Mountains, McKiernan decided to go into partnership with William Dearing. McKiernan would hunt deer and bear, and twice a week transport the meat to Alviso. From there he shipped it to San Francisco. Dearing sold the meat when it arrived in the metropolis. In their first year of business McKiernan earned $7,000. The deer meat sold for ten cents a pound—$5.00 to $10.00 a head.

During the early years McKiernan tried raising sheep, but one night a mountain lion killed seventy and McKiernan sold the rest of his 700 head flock. McKiernan went back to hunting full time, including mountain lions that brought a bounty from the county. In the mid- 1850s McKiernan had two encounters with grizzly bears. Sometime in this early period he acquired the name “Mountain Charley.” Some accounts give credit for this designation to the Zayante Indians, while other accounts suggest that other early settlers gave him the name for history.

Along with hunting McKiernan started selling whipsawed lumber in the late 1850s, and in the early 1860s he married an Irish woman, Barbara Berricke. The McKiernans had seven children. Over the years McKiernan built a large farmhouse, a barn and outbuildings, planted fruit orchards and vineyards. In the late 1860s and 1870s, McKiernan expanded his business operations into the stagecoach business. In the 1870s McKiernan also expanded his lumbering business to include several sawmills on 3,000 acres of redwood forest.

McKiernan continued to develop his orchards and vineyards in the mountains, but the absence of a high school in the mountain area caused McKiernan to move his family into San Jose where his children could attend the local high schools. Although he moved from the mountains, McKiernan continued with his business activities in that locale. He retained about 2,000 acres of timber in the mountains and built a lumber mill at Fourth and St. John Streets in San Jose. He started several other businesses in the Santa Clara Valley, including a large berry farm on the Alviso Road and a hay and grain warehouse. He became president of the Pacific Coast Wine Company, a shareholder in the original San Jose Light and Power Company, and owned stock in the San Jose Water Company. McKiernan was also an active Mason, belonging to the Santa Cruz Masonic Lodge, 38 and the San Jose Masonic Lodge, 10.

In November 1891, McKiernan became ill with what was described as either the grip or a stomach disorder. The illness persisted until 4:00 A.M., Saturday morning, January 16, 1892, when he died.

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