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Rugged Days Of Yore

“Life is cheap up here on the Canadian,” is a line from Lonesome Dove that has stuck with me. When something goes even moderately wrong at the ranch I sometimes say, “Life sure is rough up along the Albion.”

Injuries and sudden accidental death still happen from time to time in these parts, but when I read about them from a century or more ago, those bygone incidents somehow carry a more gruesome flavor. In no small part that's due to the lack of workplace safety rules and the main reason we know so much about the deadly occurrences in days of yore stemmed from a lack of regulation regarding medical confidentiality. If a hunting, logging, or fishing accident happened in the late 1800s, readers of coastal newspapers could count on physicians like McCornack, Smith, or Milliken to tell every bloody detail to the local editor.

A case in mild point from March of 1886: Charles McCarty, a workman employed in the Caspar woods, was walking along the track of the Caspar and Hare Creek Railroad after dark, on his way out to one of the camps. While crossing the bridge at Mitchell Creek he missed a step and fell between the ties to the bottom of the gulch. The bridge at that crossing was approximately ninety feet high, McCarty thus fell the entirety of that distance. He was knocked senseless by the landing, but after some time recovered consciousness and discovered he'd broken one of his legs. Realizing that no one would reach him until well past daylight the following morn, he resolved to reach, if possible, the nearest house and obtain the aid and relief his injuries necessitated. Splinting his broken leg the best he could, he dragged himself up the long, steep hill from the bottom of the gulch. He then crawled along the railroad track at least a mile to the home of George Smith. There, every effort was made to reduce and relieve his sufferings until the following morning when Dr. Milliken was called from Mendocino to attend to McCarty's injuries.

Employ in the mill rather than the railroad or the woods meant you never knew when one false step could be your last. Less than a week before McCarty's fall through the Mitchell Creek bridge a young man named William McPherson was working at Clow's mill in Anderson Valley. He was standing on the carriage, which was not in motion, with his back to the saw. How he came to fall no one knows, but fall he did, over backward onto the saw, which cut him from under the left arm across to the right shoulder. This completely severed his head, shoulders and left arm from his body.  The unfortunate Mr. McPherson perished in his twenty-fifth year. He was born in New York of Scots parentage. At the time of his demise McPherson's mother and father resided at Charlotte Harbor, Florida. He had been in California for two years and was a member in good standing in the I.O.O.F. (Odd Fellows). His remains were buried in Boonville on the first Saturday in March.

Ernest Hemingway, and others before him, have been credited with summing up a tragedy in six words. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Sometimes, however, it requires a full paragraph.

Working in the woods was fraught with dangers even when one simply went for a walk during time off, as in this February, 1893 account. “A Russian Finn by the name of Mike Katala was found dead Friday morning between the new and old tie camps at Little Valley. When found, he was in a pond of water, face downward, the supposition being that he was struck in the face by a projecting tree limb, as there was quite a scar on his face, and knocked senseless. Among his effects was found a handsome medal, which was presented to him by the Czar of Russia for gallantry in the Russian-Turkish war [of 1877-78 or 93 Harbi to Islamic Turks who marked the time as the year 1293 on their calendar]. He was buried at the old tie camp at Little Valley. He leaves a wife and five children in the old country.”

(Life and death tales reasonably priced at:

One Comment

  1. George Hollister May 13, 2018

    Life was cheap, relatively speaking anyway, compared to today. That in itself is more important than an upgrade in safety rules from 100 + years ago. There was no workers compensation insurance back then. No expensive, complicated medical procedures, either. No trauma centers. The money and risk was in industrial equipment. Cheap, untrained, willing to work laborers were readily available, from many faraway places overseas. Men died gruesome deaths, and were disabled as well. There was grieving, just as today, but the monetary cost was minimal.

    Today, work related injuries cost employers big money. The jobs that were the highest risk, were eliminated and mechanized where ever possible. Not just around here, but everywhere. The railroads used to have brakeman. Now there was a hazardous job. Drinking alcohol when working 100 years ago was tolerated, and often accepted in the work place. Boy, now to have a job at a mill one has to pass periodic drug and alcohol screenings. Same to have a class A truck driving license. Life in the USA is not cheap anymore.

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