Money to Throw at the Birds

Perhaps because his mansion is still tangible and visible in Washoe Meadows as a monument to departed greatness, perhaps because he was the first of the Comstock’s millionaires, and perhaps merely because he acted according to his natural inclinations and had a good time with his money while he and it lasted, Sandy Bowers is to this day one of the best remembered figures of bonanza times, the archetype of all the desert prospectors who struck it rich and cut a caper on the strength of it.

Eilley Orrum, the future Mrs. Sandy Bowers, the future Washoe Seeress, the future seeker after royal trophies in Europe, came to Nevada from Salt Lake where she had discarded two Mormon husbands, one of them a bishop of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Her Scotch ancestry made her a frugal and hard working woman and, in a region innocent of almost all traces of domesticity, she was one of the first women to hear the call of the Comstock and the very first one to set up a boarding house there. She “did” for the miners, washed their shirts, and spread a table which was celebrated all along the foothills of the Sierra for its biscuits, beans and other substantial oddments dear to the pioneer digestive tract. With such abundant recommendations, she soon boasted the cream of the Comstock as her guests, “Old Pancake” Comstock himself, “Old Virginny” Finney, Pat McLaughlin, Pete O’Riley and Sandy Bowers.

Bowers was the shrewdest of all the original discoverers of the Comstock which, in the light of his later recorded sentiments and expenditures, may not have indicated an Aristotelian sagacity, but had staked out a small footage in the very center of the lode and he stubbornly refused to part with it for the fleeting and trivial rewards which satisfied his associates. Precisely adjacent to Sandy’s ten feet along the façade of what proved to be the United States Mint were ten identical feet owned by his landlady and laundress, the peerless Eilley Orrum. Whether it was that Eilley even then had a touch of the prescience she later claimed and took a quick peek at the future, or whether it was that Sandy wanted to insure his continued association with the only cook of consequence in Nevada Territory, Eilley and Sandy were shortly married and their claims on the Lode consolidated

It wasn’t such a consolidation as that of Gould & Curry or even Hale & Norcross, but it sufficed to make the Bowers the first millionaires of the bonanza and the first of the nabobs to inaugurate the expenditure of blizzards of currency which was later to be the hallmark of the Comstock success story. In almost no time the first of the stamp mills which were being set up down in Gold Hill was crushing Sandy’s ore to the altogether enchanting tune of $100,000 a month, and Sandy and Eilley, whose rewards to date had been few and whose sacrifices many, lost no time in demonstrating that money talked, and with gratifying authority.

It wasn’t such a consolidation as that of Gould & Curry or even Hale & Norcross, but it sufficed to make the Bowers the first millionaires of the bonanza and the first of the nabobs to inaugurate the expenditure of blizzards of currency which was later to be the hallmark of the Comstock success story. In almost no time the first of the stamp mills which were being set up down in Gold Hill was crushing Sandy’s ore to the altogether enchanting tune of $100,000 a month, and Sandy and Eilley, whose rewards to date had been few and whose sacrifices many, lost no time in demonstrating that money talked, and with gratifying authority.

Innocent of the snobbishness and delusions of grandeur which prompted other Comstockers to seek homes on Nob Hill, in Fifth Avenue or the Rue Tilsit, Sandy and Eilley built a home as near the Comstock itself as was convenient, which happened to be down the hill in the pleasant valley called Washoe Meadows. When it was finished it was an amazement, even for its time, of gilt and plush, cloisonné, ormulo, pouffs, draperies and other bibelots dear to the Victorian heart. Their friends came down from Virginia City in droves and exclaimed out loud that surely no castle nor palace, royal lodge nor viceregal pavilion in all the world could hold a New Bedfor spermaceti candle to it!

The sentiment was not lost on Eilley. If this were indeed a palace then, as its occupant, she must be a queen and Eilley knew all about queens from the Old Country. They called on each other in the late afternoon and had a neighborly cup of tea while exchanging decorous but animated gossip about other queens and knowledgeable royalties.

From that day forward nothing could shake Eilley from the satisfying belief that she and Victoria and the Empress Eugenie were indeed cousins, not even the expressed disbelief of the Lord Chamberlain at the Court of St. James or the indifference to her appeal to Charles Francis Adams, the American ambassador, whom history must forever record a churl for not, somehow, having gotten her at least to a garden party at Windsor.

Sandy was easily persuaded and a grand tour of the courts of Europe was shortly announced in the columns of the Territorial Enterprise and other interested newspapers. Their departure was celebrated by a monster dinner at the International Hotel in C Street and Sandy’s speech upon this wonderful occasion must remain through the centuries a model for frankness and good humor.

Eilly and he, Sandy announced from the fragile eminence of a French gilt chair, had known some interesting people in their time in and around Washoe, Horace Greeley and Governor Nye and old Chief Winnemucca. But now they aimed to see some even more interesting people like the Queen of England on her throne and this was by way of a farewell to their old friends in the diggings. Drink hearty, everyone, because he and Eilley had money to throw at the birds and wanted everyone to have a good time.

Tradition has it that all Virginia City had itself one hell of a time and that the International Hotel still showed traces of their appreciation a week later when Sandy and Eilley actually took off for San Francisco and the steamer to England.

The chilly Charles Francis Adams might prove impervious to the qualities and assets of the Bowers, but as much could not be said for the shopkeepers of Bond Street and the Rue de la Paix, nor even for the Muse of History. Denied access to the presence of Victoria the Good by reason of Eilley’s unfortunate multiplicity of husbands, they were welcomed as only Yankee royalty could be welcomed to the ateliers of dressmakers, jewelers, furniture dealers and collectors of articles of what the age knew as virtu. The record shows them to have been the prize shoppers of the season of 1863-64 and during their stay in Paris alone their drafts against Wells Fargo back home came to more than a quarter of a million dollars. The Bowers had money to throw at the birds and the birds all wore frock coats and the reassuring manner of very upper class tradesmen.

Eilley and Sandy stayed in Europe and England for several years and their claims continued to produce fantastic sums of money to support their wildest whim and most expensive fancy. They called on Eilley’s family in Scotland who plainly didn’t believe a word either of them said and secretly harbored a suspicion that their Eilley had gone in for piracy on the high seas or, possibly, counterfeiting. Somehow – perhaps they were imposed upon, perhaps some generous person highly placed took pity on Eilley’s pathetic hunger for royal properties – they obtained cuttings from the royal ivy which overgrows the walls of Windsor Castle and, armed with this symbol of success, the Bowers returned in triumph to the Comstock.

Several hundred thousand dollars worth of French mirrors, Italian statuary, bronzes, oil paintings, crystal chandeliers, Turkey carpets, morocco-bound volumes of the classics – although Sandy never could tell whether the text was upside down or not – marble fountains and suites of bedroom furniture came with them. But long after she had tired of these rich treasures, Eilley delighted to show visitors and especially friends who had known her in the lean years the cuttings from the Windsor Castle ivy now growing luxuriously over the massive walls of her Washoe mansion. A personal gift from Victoria to Eilley, a royal token of friendship from one reigning monarch to another Very Exalted Personage.

In time, in the late sixties, Sandy died and was buried in the hillside back of his splendid home in Washoe Meadows. The Bowers’ claims ran out and Eilley was reduced to taking in picnickers at the mansion for a living and a little crystal gazing on the side. Then after years of poverty, she joined Sandy in the shadow of the guardian Sierra and under the pine trees that whisper ceaselessly of the golden and irretrievable past. But the ivy from Windsor Castle, which Eilley had tried to destroy when they took her mansion away from her and sent her to the old ladies’ home, grows strongly still, probably the only thing in Nevada which cherishes memories of two queens.


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