A couple of days ago, my husband, Bob Schulenberg and I went for a hike through a South Dakota ghost town called Spokane. It was founded in 1890 to extract precious gold, the mine proved richer in silver, copper, zinc, mica and graphite. The town hit its stride in 1927 with its biggest year ever totaling $144,742 in profits which helped fund the school building whose bones can still be seen, at least for now. The tow is rapidly deteriorating, so they won’t be around much longer. By 1940, the mine and town were all but abandoned. The town limped along, with the manager’s house being the last one to be abandoned in the 1970s. The Spokane Mine was discovered in 1889 by Sylvester Judd more or less by accident. As the story goes, “he had placed a rock (likely galena or cerussite) from the outcrop on his wooden stove. He was amazed when he found molten lead coming from the mineral.” The town was formed the same year the mine began operations, in 1890, but it was not the town or it’s dilapidated buildings, but rather the tragic history of the place that caught my attention.
A man named James Shepard, or Jim as he was know to family and friends in Spokane, heard about the gold rush in the Black Hills and decided to take his family from North Carolina, to the town of Spokane to stake his claim. A local man named Frank Cox had not kept up assessment work on the Spokane Mine, which he himself had “jumped” when it had been neglected by someone else. It isn’t the best way to stake a claim, but it is legal apparently. Jim had enough to stake his claim to the mine, so he claimed it and on June 21, 1908, when he drove his stake at the site. Jim was well liked and since he did things right, people respected him and his family.
Frank Cox’s wife, the Sunday school teacher, observed the staking of the claim by Shepard while riding to the schoolhouse and informed her husband. Then the real trouble began. That evening, Jim rode his horse to bring his free-roaming milk cow back to the house. According to his account, when he had his guard down, Frank and his son Henry stepped out from behind some trees. Frank yelled, “You son-of-a-bitch, you have driven your last stake!” and shot Jim with a shotgun. He was able to ride home, where his wife, Jessie, frantically helped him into bed and rode for help.
Jessie went to the Hoffman home and told them that Jim had been shot. Edgar H. Hoffman, who was 12 years old, never forgot that night. “Mrs. Shepard was a tall, dark mountain woman. Her clothes and the saddle were soaked and spotted with blood,” he said. A neighbor rode to the nearest doctor, but that was 17 miles away in Custer. It was an awful stormy night with heavy rain and lightning flashes. Not an easy way to make such an important trip. The next morning, the doctor and sheriff arrived to just in time to hear hear Jim’s dying words…words that incriminated Frank and Henry. The town was horribly shaken by the murder. The crowd could only be described as “angry and hostile” at Jim’s funeral.
“In order to prevent violence, the minister had the congregation point the finger of guilt at whoever they felt had committed the murder. Everyone pointed the finger at the Cox house. From then on, the Coxes were ostracized by the Spokane community and they sent their son away to relatives,” wrote Inez Shepard Shafer, Jim Shepard’s only surviving child.
In the July 10, 1909 edition of the Keystone Record, it was stated that the trial was “one of the longest and hardest fought preliminary hearings ever held in Custer County. It was thought at first by friends of Cox that he would have no trouble in proving an alibi, as he was at the Ideal [mine] all day Sunday and slept there that night. This is true, but there was about an hour and a half in the evening he was unable to account for, and about the time the shooting was supposed to have taken place. It is unfortunate for all concerned, and if Cox proves his innocence, and many believe he will, the chances are we will never know who killed James Shepard.”
My Aunt Ruth Wolfe was the youngest of the four children of my grandparents, Allen and Anna Spencer. She was born on November 9, 1925 in Duluth, Minnesota. Strange to think that 31 years later, she would get a niece…me, who would be so much like her…in some ways that is. My Aunt Ruth was a very talented woman. She could play any instrument that was set before her, she could paint and do crafts, she loved horses and even raced them, and of course, she was an animal lover…all animals.
Aunt Ruth was never really one to want to settle in one place for very long…until she and Uncle Jim moved to the Spokane area, that is. Once they bought their mountain top outside of Newport, Washington, she knew she was home. The family built three cabins on the mountain top, one for Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim; one for their daughter Shirley Cameron and her husband Shorty; and one for their son, Terry Wolfe. The beauty of the mountain lulled them into a quiet, peaceful life, far away from the hustle and bustle of the California area they had left behind after losing their son, Larry Wolfe to an accidental explosion. Nothing would bring him back, of course, but the peace of the mountain top helped to heal their wounded hearts.
Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim, while very much at home on their mountain top, never lost their love of the open road, and often took trips to several location, including Casper, Wyoming to visit my family, her brother, Allen Spencer; sister-in-law, Collene; and daughters, Cheryl Masterson, Caryn Schulenberg, Caryl Reed, Alena Stevens, and Allyn Hadlock. We loved those visits. Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim were always lots of fun, and having them in town again was a great treat. They had lived in the Casper area years before, and we were all very sad to see them move away. Those wonderful visits were cut short when Aunt Ruth became ill, and she passed away on May 11, 1992 of Cancer. Today would have been Aunt Ruth’s 94th birthday. Happy birthday in Heaven Aunt Ruth, I know you’re having a great celebration with all the loved ones who have now joined you there. We love and miss you very much.
With the eruption and possible explosion of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, my thoughts are drawn back 38 years to another mountain…Mount Saint Helens. The scientists said that an explosive eruption was imminent. The mountain had been swelling up with internal pressure from the gasses deep in the earth. Still, some people didn’t believe the mountain would ever hurt them, and many just couldn’t wrap their head around the possibility that it might explode. So, some people stayed in their homes in the area. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
It’s strange that we are able to associate things in life with major events in recent history. Many of us can say where we were when we learned of President Kennedy’s assassination, or when 9-11 took place. It is a moment that is embedded in our memories for all time. That morning as the ash rolled into our area, I was getting into my car to go to town. It looked like dust on my car, a very thick layer of dust. Of course, it wasn’t dust, it was volcanic ash. It had never occurred to me that volcanic ash might affect me, but here I was, needing to wash the ash off of my car, so it was not damaged.
My cousin, Shirley, who lives in Washington, said she and her family were in Spokane. She saw a black cloud coming their way, and so she turned on the radio, to see what was going on. She immediately started yelling to the teachers and students from Saint Matthews school, who were at an end of the year baseball game. Every one scrambled to get their belongings, and headed back to the Church, before heading for home. Navigation became difficult. They had to watch the curb on the side of the streets to know where they were. It was a long drive home. They held their breath from the truck to the house, to protect their lungs, and watched the street lights come on. Shirley went out on the front porch and took pictures, before retreating back to the safety of her house. They were forced to stay in the house for about a week, before it was safe to out again. Many safety precautions were in place, and people were told not to breathe the ash because of the glass in it.
Mount Saint Helens is located in the Cascade Range. On May 18, 1980, at 8:32am Pacific Standard Time, it erupted and blasted 1,300 feet off of its top, sending hot mud, gas, and ash running down its slopes. Approximately 57 people were killed directly from the blast, while 200 houses, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed. Two people were killed indirectly in accidents that resulted from poor visibility, and two more suffered fatal heart attacks from shoveling ash. The explosion sent plumes of dark gray ash some 60,000 feet in the air which blocked out the rays from the sun making it seem like night over eastern Washington. So…where were you when Mount Saint Helens blew?