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Shannon Wray


Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon

Kate Powell Harvey and her brother Robert Powell

One of the most legendary people in Mill Creek Canyon, or the San Bernardino mountains for that matter, was Kate Harvey. Known to the locals as Cactus Kate, she was larger than life. Kate could swear a blue streak when she was riled, wore holstered six-guns on her ample hips, and made many headlines. She was also known as the genial lady offering hospitality at Skinner’s Mountain Home Resort, which became Harvey’s Resort under her management. But this time, Kate doesn’t get to take the spotlight. Instead, this is a story about her younger brother, Robert Powell.

Robert Powell and Kate Harvey

In many historical stories, a person hides in the shadows of someone’s notoriety but makes startling appearances. Although he was a man who blended into the scenery, Bob Powell took center stage in his sister’s story twice – in 1910 when he shot and killed Kate’s brother-in-law, John Harvey, and again in 1919 when he shot Kate’s second husband William Howard and wounded her. Powell became a familiar figure in the headlines because of these two cases, but he remains a bit of a mystery. His sister, Kate, was so devoted to him that she stood by him against both of her husbands and Bob lived on the ranch with her for much of his adult life. The stories they told about Kate’s life with her husbands were so shocking and riveting that they won an acquittal for Powell twice. They also won public sympathy by essentially telling the same tragic tale about two different crime scenes, involving two different people eight years apart. Now, that’s a good story.

The question is, were Kate Harvey and Bob Powell reliable narrators? Through the long lens of time, patterns in information, and stories sometimes shed new light. Kate Harvey often told her friends and neighbors that Powell Street in San Francisco was named after her father. She described him as an important physician. It was a great story and perhaps one that afforded Kate and her brother a sheen of importance, but a fiction nonetheless. Their father, John Goodson Powell, was an interesting character, to be sure. Born in Tennessee, he became a dentist and abandoned a family to go to the goldfields in California where he did some mining, harness-making, and itinerant dentistry. Moreover, Powell Street was definitely not named after him. It was named for Dr. William J. Powell, a ship’s surgeon on the U.S.S. Warren, who played a key role in the Mexican-American War. Now, Kate was only three years old and Bob only a year old when their father died on July 23, 1881. To be fair, it’s possible that this was a story that they were told about their father, not one that they invented. Bob Powell, however, went a little further with his own fictions. In September of 1918, Powell’s World War I draft card (pictured below) gave his name as “Robert Wheeler Webber Powell.” Later, in April 1942 on his World War II draft card (also pictured below), he gave his name as “Robert William Windsor Powell.” Maybe he forgot what his name was? Doubtful. It was shortly after the abdication of King Edward VIII of England when the former monarch became the Duke of Windsor. Maybe Powell had delusions of grandeur. We’ll never know. Does this make Kate Harvey and Robert Powell unreliable narrators? Maybe. Even so, it demonstrates the power of a well-told tale and how legends are born.

Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.

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Shannon Wray


Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon

The 1880s were the period when real mountain tourism became the rage. Travelers journaled some exciting – and often amusing – descriptions of what it was like to be a tourist on a trip from Los Angeles to Bear Valley. Victorian gents and ladies boarded the California Central line train in Los Angeles early in the morning on a Monday or Thursday. They made the pleasant trip to the Santa Fe station in Redlands for a fare of $2.55 for the round trip ticket. Redlands, California founded in 1881, was still young but featured several livery stables. In 1889, a gentleman wrote that a liveryman named Reeves met passengers with a comfortable coach at the Redlands train station and took them to one of three destinations in Mill Creek Canyon. “Roberts' place, where the parties sometimes stop and take burros, is just at the opening of Mill Creek cañon. If one prefers to stick to the coach three miles further into the cañon, he will find the ride enjoyable, although the road is rather rough, frequently crossing a deep, roaring stream. At Thurman's place, the travelers eat dinner and take to the burros, or mules, or horses, whichever of the three are provided. Three men make a regular business of taking parties over the mountains - Roberts, Thurman, and Jackson.” The cost of the stage to Thurman's was $1.50. William Roberts was the son of Berry Roberts, who came to the area in 1857 and established a large cattle ranch in San Timoteo Canyon.

Sylvanus Thurman came to Mill Creek Canyon in 1877 to help farm his father-in-law Peter Forsee’s land. Later, he homesteaded on his own acreage just down the canyon from his in-laws. George Jackson came to the canyon with his mother, stepfather, and brothers in 1875. His stepfather, William Petty, was the first squatting homesteader with Forsee, claiming all of the lands from present-day Mountain Home Village to the east end of Mill Creek Canyon. George Jackson had his own homestead in the canyon as an adult.

Mr. and Mrs. Sylvanus Thurman George Jackson

All three of these ad hoc tour guides had strings of pack burros. The fare to travel by burro train to Bear Valley from Thurman's was $3.00. “As to the outfit, it must be such as anyone who has ever made a mountain trip will readily devise. It should, of course, be as limited as possible, and bags and bundles are more readily packed on burro-back than valises. Climbing about among rocks and brambles means boots or leggins for footwear and strong, rough clothing. One effect of the high altitudes during the first day or two is chapped lips or nostrils, and a box of cold cream is indispensable.”

A female journalist with a group of ladies making the journey kept a different pace. They took the train to Redlands’s Santa Fe station from Los Angeles, then the Redlands Loop train to Mentone’s train station. From there, they took a private stage to the Crafton Retreat, where they enjoyed lunch and dinner and stayed the night. Leaving early the next morning, they rode in a carriage to Thurman's, where they found several small buildings and a refreshing mountain spring. "Standing by this spring, under the shade of the alder trees, one of the party, a young and happy maiden, was seen to be in tears, when in answer to our inquiries she replied that she wept because her capacity for drink was no greater." The mountain spring water was an elixir of such purity that it made them marvel. The next morning, the ladies were all a-froth over the "fiery and romantic" burros. Their attire, described in detail in Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon, was elaborate, including layers of denim, large hats, and swaths of veiling. Their enormous canvas bags carried a comical array of wardrobe. The next morning when they set off, the ladies’ romance with the burros was sorely tested, and they were sure that they were risking injury on these sturdy, (frequently flatulent), little steeds. At the summit of Mountain Home Canyon, four and a half miles from Thurman's, they dismounted and had a picnic beneath the giant old-growth pines, then rested from their “weary” journey.

Scenes along the way included Peter Forsee’s ranch and apple orchard, where "the finest apples in Southern California" grew, and two other small farms. These were the Jackson ranch and Skinners in Mountain Home Canyon.

From the heights of Mountain Home Canyon to the terrifying descent, travelers described half a dozen ranches and camps along the Santa Ana River. Regardless of who told the tale, everyone's next stop was Matthew Lewis's hostelry in Seven Oaks. Tired and awe-struck tourists often opted to stay for several days, or even weeks, at Seven Oaks, where there were eight or nine cabins and six large, comfortable tents to rent. More hearty travelers pushed their horses, mules, or donkeys to make the trip all the way to Bear Valley in one day, which was regarded as a very rough adventure. In Bear Valley, a young Gus Knight and his partner, Metcalf, provided “crude but comfortable” accommodations and “plain but appetizing” fare only a mile from the lake. Both Lewis in Seven Oaks and Knight in Bear Valley charged $10.00 per week per person to stay at their rough and tumble “hotels.”

Horses for touring around the valley could be rented at a rate of fifty cents or a dollar per day. Ultimately, Thurman cornered the tourism market when he anchored both ends of the journey by hosting guests on his Mill Creek Canyon ranch and at his 120 acres at Bluff Lake, which he received a state land patent for in 1899.

Whomever they traveled with, or wherever they stayed, guests considered the arduous trip to Bear Valley and the rustic comforts along the way worth it for the “pure mountain air, the cool, invigorating climate and the smell of the pine woods.”

Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.

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Shannon Wray


Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon

James McHaney and four of his siblings arrived in Mill Creek Canyon from Missouri in February 1878. Their mother, Martha McHaney, had just married Peter Forsee, one of the canyon’s first homesteaders. Jim was eighteen at the time. Although he did try some legitimate work as a mountain guide and a laborer on the Bear Valley Dam, Jim and his older brother, Bill, 21, became better known as the leaders of the McHaney Gang, a rough and tumble group of murdering, thieving, cattle rustling, claim jumping outlaws who had their headquarters for a time out at the Heart Bar Ranch. A complete story about the McHaney Gang is in Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon ( However, one of the lesser-known aspects of Jim McHaney’s life is that strange things seemed to follow him around, and he was at the center of some very bizarre stories.

In January of 1895, an old prospector walked into Tingman’s grocery store in Indio. He asked Mr. Tingman, “What’ll ye give me fur that ere outfit?” The prospector was stooped by the obvious weight of haversacks filled with something heavy, his pockets all bulging, too. Mr. Tingman scratched his chin, considering. The old miner had two burros. Tingman’s corral was full up with burros. His storeroom was packed full of prospectors’ outfits that needed only grub to complete them. He was hesitant to buy this man’s gear.

Albert G. Tingman

“What do you want to sell for?” Tingman asked. “You going to quit prospecting?” e He

“Yes, sir,” the old prospector answered. I’m done prospecting now or hereafter. Want to buy that outfit? I’ll sell the whole business for $20.”

Tingman was a little shocked. From what he could see of it, the old man’s goods were easily worth $100, if not more. But the miner was very persistent, and they made the deal; then the prospector ordered something to eat and sat talking while he waited for the train to Arizona to arrive.

“I told you I had quit prospectin’ and mining, and I have. I’ll show you why and then tell you about it.” The old man dumped out his haversacks onto the counter, and there lay twenty bars of pure gold, obviously shaped into that form many years before. Tingman estimated that each bar had to be worth at least $1,000. When he looked more closely at them, he noticed that the bars had some sort of strange hieroglyphic stamped into them. Now, Tingman was a Spanish scholar and also well acquainted with the dialects of the Southern California Native tribes. But he could make nothing out that made any sense to him in the markings. The old man continued his story. “I got these bars less than sixty miles from where we stand in a canyon where there are ledges containing millions of dollars’ worth of gold, millions of dollars’ worth, I tell you, and it’s sticking up out of the ground. My burros took me to the place hunting for water. They went down on an old trail to a spring where water was plenty, and I camped there. It is a shut-in canyon, and I think I am the first white man who has set foot in the place for years, God knows how many. The Indians are afraid of the place and never go there. After I had grubbed, I started to look around, and I found the place full of caves, evidently made by hand, and I began exploring them. My first find was ghastly enough to suit anybody.” The old man shuddered. “I stumbled into a pile of bones, men dead long ago. Around there were arms, baskets, and other things apparently all right, but when you touched them, they crumbled into dust. I didn’t care to stay in the caves, but as I was going out, I saw the shine of something, and I went to it. It was one of these gold bricks. Before night I had gathered from the cave the gold bricks I’ve got in my haversack, and as it was growing dark, I thought I would wait until morning before making another search of the caves. It was plain to me that an old race of people had been mining in the canyon, and in the failing light, I began to look around for the ledges and old drifts. I found them and mister, as I hope someday to get to a better country than this by the memory of my good old mother, I swear to you the rocks were seamed with gold, seamed with gold! I went back and camped, intending to the next morning to stake out my claims, put up my monuments and sneak out of the canyon and go and record them providing I could make evidences of work, but I changed my mind before morning. If you was to fill that box with gold bricks like these,” the old man said, point to a packing crate, “I wouldn’t stay another night in that canyon. Why, sir, to think of the sights I saw there makes me shiver now. I’ve been prospecting many years. I’ve fought white men and red men and floods and forest fires. I’ve been rich and poor, but never, never since I’ve been born have I had a night like that!” The old man began to quake, and his voice shake as he told the next part of his story. “The dead men were all around me. I wasn’t asleep, and I hadn’t tasted a drop of liquor for weeks. I was wide awake, and the dead men came out of the caves wailing and a shrieking and drove me out of the canyon. That they did. I wouldn’t go back there for $20,000,000. The burros I got out in daylight. Where is the canyon? Well, pardner, you find it if you can. Mebbe I might change my mind about it and come back someday,” and with that, the old man walked over to the depot and ten minutes later took the train to Arizona.

Now, like most men in the 1890s hereabouts, Tingman wasn’t just a grocer. He and a partner named Holland had a claim called the Lost Horse mine in the Morongo Mountains, where they operated a three-stamp mill. Tingman went up to his mine the next day and told Holland the story the old prospector told him. But Holland wasn’t the only one there. Jim and Bill McHaney and their nephew Willie Ball were there, too, and listening intently. Scores of men went hunting for the mysterious canyon filled with dead men and gold bars but to no avail. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. “One day, Jim McHaney was riding through the hills about sundown hunting a spring where he could camp when his horse struck an old Indian trail and followed it. McHaney knew there was water near from the way his horse acted and gave the animal free rein. Bye, and bye, the horse turned through a mass of brush and down a deep declivity, at the bottom of which there was a spring. McHaney camped there and, in ten minutes, realized he had found the canyon that fifty men had been hunting for five long weeks. There were the caves, the skeletons and the ledges rich beyond comprehension with virgin gold.”

The Desert Queen Mine

Bill and Jim McHaney made haste and recorded the claim in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. They called their El Dorado the Desert Queen Mine. She paid out handsomely for a time but then proved to be Jim’s undoing. But that’s a story for another day.

Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.

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