The year was 1864. William A. Johnson, road superintendent for Carr & Co., was building a new toll road from Markleeville to the booming mining camp of Silver Mountain. There was just one obstacle in his way: Captain Jim, a Washo Chief. The new toll road, it seems, was passing too close for comfort to a cave long used by the tribe as a shelter in winter, and as a ceremonial spot for their medicine man.
Superintendent Johnson was impatient to finish his wagon road, but the Washo chief knew the value of the location and demanded a stiff price for the site: fifty dollars. And on that point he was adamant: “No pay, no road.”
According to the local newspaper, Captain Jim laid in an abundant supply of pine nuts, acorns, and grasshoppers, and took up residence at the cave. He painted his face and chest with red and black paint, kept his bow at the ready, and slug a fox-skin bag filled with arrows across his back.
Finally, the road superintendent brokered a meeting, and a pipe of peace was smoked. The agreed-upon purchase price was handed over, and a large plug of tobacco thrown in to sweeten the deal. Capt. Jim would permit the new road to be built.
Johnson departed for Markleeville to write up their agreement. But as it turned out, he wasn’t going to acquire such an important right-of-way quite so cheaply. As a contemporary news account explained: “During his absence, Captain Jim distrained and disappeared — and so did Johnson’s overcoat valued at $25.”
This historic Washo Cave is still visible today, along with traces of Johnson’s original old wagon road. To reach it, follow Highway 89 about 1.3 miles beyond the bridge at Markleeville and park at the pull-off before Hangman’s Bridge. The trail to your right leads the short distance to the cave.
According to one long-time local, this cave also saw more recent use: located out of sight and a convenient distance from town, it housed a temporary bar during Prohibition days. The cave also briefly sheltered at least one run-away prisoner from the Markleeville jail. The fast-thinking inmate had engineered his escape by pulling the door of his cell closed and the jailor simply forgot to lock it.
NANCY C THORNBURG
Very interesting article … as always! Keep up the good work!
William A Johnson is my gg grandfather. I can provide a photo
Hi, Linda, thanks so much — I would love, love, love a photo of William A. Johnson!!! There’s a “contact” link on the website that will connect you to my email. I’m so excited to see this! Also I have a bunch of information on him I am happy to share.