Updated: Mar 2, 2021
As a historian, some of my favorite fascinations are disappearing places like drowned towns beneath reservoirs, lost mines, and the almost or never was of sites on maps that dissolve with time. Also, giggle-worthy names. Therefore; the saga of Octavius Gass is one that I particularly like.
History remembers Octavius Decatur Gass as a man who was always just a little too short of something. As one wit put it, he was, “Almost at the right place at the right time, but never exactly. Opportunity knocked at his door regularly, but he was always in the bathtub.” He may not have made his fortune, but he did make history in his travels. Gass had already had a long and very adventurous life by the time he came to live in Mill Creek Canyon in the late 1890s. Born near Mansfield, Ohio, Octavius attended Ohio Wesleyan College in 1847. He left in 1849 without obtaining a degree to sail from Baltimore around Cape Horn to San Francisco. The gold rush of ’49 saw a severe housing shortage and an enterprising gentleman on board the ship was taking a cargo of portable 2-room houses to the goldfields. Gass hired on to unload the shelters for $10 a day and made his grubstake. He went to El Dorado County in the Sierra foothills to try his hand at gold mining but quickly became frustrated. By 1853, he’d drifted to Los Angeles where he spent a year as a zanjero tasked with the city’s water distribution. His first intersection with Mill Creek history came in 1858 when he partnered in the Temescal tin mines with Daniel Sexton, the Louisiana pioneer who had operated the canyon’s first sawmill. The tin mines, the only ones then known in the entire U.S., didn’t go well for either Sexton or Gass as they were snarled interminably in disputed ownership claims. Gass lost too much capital in the Temescal deal to take advantage of the Holcomb Valley gold strike in 1860. Instead, he went to prospect on the Colorado River, staking several claims in 1863.
Octavius Gass at his Las Vegas Rancho home.
The following year, the U.S. Government created the Arizona territory out of New Mexico. With partners, Gass acquired 160 acres and an abandoned Mormon fort in a large meadowland in the northwest corner of the new territory. He also invested heavily in Callville, a Colorado River port town, believing that steamship traffic on the river between Utah and California was going to be the next big thing. As postmaster of Callville and an important landowner, he was elected to the new territorial legislature. There, he lobbied for the creation of Pah Ute County, Arizona with Callville as the county seat, and won. But two years later, Nevada legislators won the annexation of Pah Ute County to Lincoln County in their state. Not only had Gass lost his bid for power, but he was also suddenly living in the state of Nevada and could no longer serve in the Arizona legislature. Moreover, the transcontinental railroad with its fast, convenient routes put paid to his dreams for steamship routes to Callville, a town that would eventually sink beneath the waters of Lake Mead.
Still, he prospered, supplying miners and travelers with equipment, food, and a place to rest on their way to California. He also began courting Mary Simpson, a niece of then-President Ulysses S. Grant, and won her hand in marriage in 1871. His business was successful enough to buy out his partners and acquire the entire 640-acre section of land that he'd developed, which would one day contain the present city of Las Vegas, Nevada. But he lost it to debt in 1879. He and Mary with their six children and 1,500 head of cattle went to California in 1881. Both parents wanted education for their children and Octavius felt that his financial success would finally come in the Golden State. Although he tried planting vineyards in Pomona, Yucaipa, and Whitewater, agriculture wasn’t kind to him. Meanwhile, he never gave up on his dreams of riches. In 1884, he patented a mineral claim where Crafton Hills College is in Yucaipa and worked a quartz vein hoping to find gold.
From the days of the Mormon settlement, people had been prospecting in Mill Creek Canyon hoping to find gold or silver, but it was a disappointing exercise. Then in October 1897, a report in the Redlands Facts said that three men had struck gold not far from Akers’ Forest Home. It was the height of the Klondyke gold rush and people were fizzing for riches. The Redlands Citrograph reported, “A landslide on the mountain on the south side of Mill Creek and about one mile south of George Jackson’s place uncovered the lode, which was first found by E. L. Allen, in August. About the middle of September, Mr. Allen, E. P. Whitney, and Mr. Porter went to the ledge. It is about fifty feet wide, but much of it is covered by dirt coming from above in the same slide which uncovered it at the point of discovery.” After pulling out ten pounds of quartz and having it crushed, the three men netted $2.65 in gold and 4.15 ounces of silver.
Octavius Gass also turned his gaze toward Mill Creek Canyon, obtaining a permit from the U.S. government for the Mountain Home Prospect gold mine. Gass, who was 71 in 1900, lived near Kate and Lue Harvey in Mountain Home Canyon and worked a quartz vein just above present-day Mountain Home Village. Notably, his wife Mary and their remaining minor children lived in Perris, California quite apart. Documentation shows that only a minuscule amount of gold was taken from the mine. Within two years he had given up. By 1907, he had set up on a ranch in Reche Canyon where he discovered a promising vein of coal. But a wildfire burned the ranch to cinders. Eventually, he moved to Barton Road in Bryn Mawr with his son Fenton and lived to the ripe old age of 96, growing oranges. He passed away on December 9, 1924.
Octavius Gass told many people during his lifetime that he aspired to be a wealthy man living in a mansion and perhaps dabbling in politics. He didn’t achieve the first part of that dream, but he was an Arizona territorial legislator whose county disappeared into another state, the postmaster of a drowned town in Nevada, the possessor of a fortune that dissolved under debt, the founder and loser of Las Vegas, an owner of gold mines that never were, who retired to Bryn Mawr; a town that has vanished beneath the wheels of progress. I like that story.