If you’ve ever traveled California’s lonely Highway 4, you may have seen these mysterious stone ruins. They’re one of the few tangible remains of Silver Mountain City, Alpine County’s original county seat. This was the county’s jail, built in 1867 and built to last! Eighteen-inch outer walls were hewn from the volcanic cliff east of town, and the jail’s two interior cells were fabricated of solid iron plate. The grated cell doors alone weighed an astonishing 500 pounds apiece!
The jail’s construction faced a few stumbling blocks along the way. Malcontents in nearby Markleeville held meetings to protest the jail project, noting correctly that the county’s Building Fund did not contain funds enough to cover the edifice’s $4,000 contract price.
Advertisement for bids featured a typo in the date. And when the structure was finally completed around December of 1867, months later than projected, the total price tag came to $7,000 – nearly twice the original bid. Even when completed, the jail was a source of local grumbling. It was “ill advised and uncalled for,” the local newspaper concluded: “If the county comes out, the jail is too small; and if the county don’t come out, it’s too large.” During its first five years of operation the jail would house a mere four criminals — at a cost to the county averaging a whopping $2,000 per prisoner.
One infamous inhabitant of the old stone jail was a fellow named Ernst Reusch, who took justice into his own hands on the cold, dark night of December 17, 1872. Incensed that his wife had taken up with local saloon owner Erick Errickson, Reusch procured a shotgun, loaded it with buckshot, and proceeded to discharge both barrels into the unsuspecting Errickson through the window of his saloon.
Reusch was taken into custody and languished in the cold stone jail for the next year and a half. Finally, on April 17, 1874, while supposedly being transported to Mono County for his “fair” trial, Reusch was ambushed by a group of masked men, attached to a rope, and pitched over the side of a bridge near Markleeville — a site still known today as Hangman’s Bridge.
In 1875, Alpine County’s seat was officially moved from Silver Mountain City to Markleeville, and the old stone jail saw its last. A wall was demolished in the summer of 1876 and the expensive iron jail cells were hauled by wagon to Markleeville, where they were incorporated into a new log jail building.
Visitors to Markleeville today can still walk inside this same log jail and stand inside one of its early iron jail cells at the Alpine Museum — perhaps the very cell that once held ill-fated Ernst Reusch! For information on visiting, call the Museum at (530) 694-2317.
To read more about Silver Mountain City, see https://clairitagecom.wpengine.com/books.html and http://www.karendustman.com/AboutSilverMountain.aspx
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