Project Canterbury

My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter IV. A Mining-Camp in Idaho

AS Bishop of Wyoming and Idaho my Sundays during the summer months were usually passed in the mining-camps of Idaho. At Chalice, Bay Horse, Clayton, Silver City, Idaho City, Placerville, Murray, Wallace, Wardner, and many others, services were held annually, and in some of these places churches were erected and clergymen maintained. In those days the visit of a bishop was an occasion of unusual interest. The camps, as a rule, were far from a railroad, and the annual visit of the bishop brought into the life of the place a new interest which, for the time being, was all absorbing. Especially was this the case where, as often happened, the bishop was the only minister of any religious body who visited the settlement from year to year. If any of the young people were looking forward to being married, the important question was, "When is the Bishop coming?" He could not be expected to make so long a journey simply to perform the ceremony, but it was often possible to so time the event as to have it coincide with his visit, and hence it was desirable that the date of his coming should be widely published in the local papers some months in advance. Then there were the children to be baptized, when a feast was generally given and the neighbors invited to be present.

I recall very vividly my first visit to a certain mining-camp. It involved a stage-ride of seventy-five miles over a rough mountain-road. I reached the place about sundown on Friday evening. As I alighted from the stage-coach in front of the hotel a little man demurely presented himself. He extended his hand and asked:

"Is this the Bishop?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Well, Bishop, I am Brother May, the new minister. I arrived only yesterday. I am so glad to see you, Bishop; for this is the most God-forsaken hole I ever struck."

"Oh, well, do not be discouraged, my good brother," I answered, "for, if it is such a place as you describe, you and I are much needed here, and we shall find plenty of work to do. I shall see you a little later, and we shall have a good talk."

So I passed on into the hotel. As I registered my name I noticed behind the counter all the attractive paraphernalia of a first-class saloon. I was dusty and tired and hungry. After having made myself somewThat presentable, I was soon eagerly paying my respects to the various dishes set before me in the dining-room. Hunger is, indeed, the best sauce, and how I did relish the food in the mining-camps after those stage-rides over the mountains! Dinner over, I returned to the hotel office. There I found Brother May awaiting me. I offered him a cigar, but he declined, with a look of some surprise that a bishop should be addicted to such a vice. I proposed a stroll up the canon, for, after sitting on the stage-coach all day, I felt the need of a walk. Brother May was very communicative. He proceeded to tell me the story of his life. He said he had been living in San Francisco; that as a boy he had been apprenticed to a printer, and had learned to set type, and might have done well, but had fallen into bad company and acquired the habit of drink; that he had also been addicted to gambling; that he had gone from bad to worse, until finally he had lost his position and his friends, and was an outcast. About that time there was a great revival in the city. He dropped in one night and became interested. He was gradually led to see the evil of his way, and determined, with God's help, to lead a new life. His conversion was so unmistakably the work of the spirit of God that he felt he must consecrate the remainder of his days to the preaching of the Gospel. He was over thirty years of age. He had no time to lose. The authorities of his church advised him to go to some theological seminary and prepare himself; but he told them that he knew the story of the cross, and the love of God, and felt eager to proclaim the message to men. He asked for no large place, no important church. Indeed, he begged them to send him to the most neglected and sinful place to be found. "And so, Bishop," he said, "they sent me here. I came only yesterday. This is my first charge, and my church has certainly sent me to the most God-forsaken hole it could find."

I again tried to reassure him, and suggested that while, as he said, there were many saloons in the camp, it was not strange that such a situation should obtain, as there was no church and no minister before he came. I also expressed the hope that he would find the people kindly and warmhearted and ready to co-operate with him in his efforts to do them good. But he evidently considered the prospect almost hopeless. We arranged that I should preach in the dance-hall on the morning and evening of the approaching Sunday, and that he should hold forth at four o'clock in the afternoon. I told him that at my eleven-o'clock service I should take pleasure in announcing his appointment, and also formally introduce him to his new flock, and ask him to say a word to them. This conversation took place Friday evening.

After enjoying a good, refreshing night's sleep, I found myself ready on Saturday morning to prepare for my Sunday duties. First of all, it was important to make sure of my congregation. I had come so far that I did not like the idea of a mere handful of women and children. I longed to get hold of the men. The main street seemed full of miners. It was pay-day, and the place presented a sort of holiday appearance. It occurred to me that it was a good opportunity to become acquainted. As I walked down the street I saw advancing towards me an elegantly dressed gentleman with large diamonds shining upon his spotless linen. There were seven saloons in a row. As I drew near my handsome young friend, and was about to extend my hand, he surveyed me, concluded I was a parson, and might wish to interview him on some subject with which he was not familiar, and suddenly disappeared into one of the saloons. The experience was a little discomfiting, but I summoned up courage and determined to try again. The next man was in his shirt-sleeves, but had an open, frank countenance. I assumed as gracious and friendly an aspect as I could command, and was about to greet him, when he, too, darted into a saloon.

Twice defeated, I went back to the hotel, and asked Colonel Burns, the proprietor, to let me have some large writing-paper. In a bold hand I wrote out a few notices. I announced that, as Bishop of Idaho, I had come to the camp, and would preach the next morning, Sunday, at eleven o'clock, and in the evening at eight; that both services would be in the dance-hall. All were cordially invited to attend. Then the colonel let me have some tacks. I put up a notice at the hotel, at the post-office, at the large store, and at the black-smith's shop. I then stood off and looked to see if any one would read my notices. But, alas, there were already so many notices ahead of mine! One announced an exciting horse-race Sunday afternoon, a second a mine to be sold, a third a ranch to be rented, etc. I soon discovered that my method of advertising was not likely to be successful. What more could I do?

As I walked by the saloons I observed that they were full of men. If only I had not been a bishop, I reflected, the problem would have been easy of solution; for then I could have gone in the saloons where the men were, and delivered my invitation in person. But how would it look for a bishop to visit such places even with the best of motives. At last I became desperate. I selected the first saloon in the row. I went in. I introduced myself to the proprietor. I told him I was the Bishop of Idaho, and had come in to pay my respects to him. He met me very cordially. "Why, Bishop, I am proud to know you. What will you have?"

I thanked him and told him I should be greatly indebted to him if he would kindly introduce me to those gentlemen, pointing to a large room back of the saloon, where the men were gathered.

"Do you mean the boys in the pool-room?" he asked.

"Yes, I presume I do."

Thereupon he came out from behind the counter, put his arm in mine in a familiar way, as though we had been boon companions all our lives, and escorted me to the open doorway of the pool-room.

"Boys," he cried out, "hold up the game. Put up the chips just a minute. This is the Bishop right among us, and he wants to be introduced."

With a politeness and courtesy which would have done credit to any drawing-room in New York or Boston or Philadelphia, the men rose from their seats and welcomed me. I said, briefly:

"Excuse me, gentlemen, I do not wish to interfere with your pleasure or your amusement. I have just come in to pay my respects to you. I am the Bishop, and am going to hold services in the dance-hall to-morrow morning at eleven and in the evening at eight, and I shall be very glad to see you there."

I remember that one of them, evidently speaking in a representative capacity, thanked me for letting them know, and asked me again the hour, and assured me they would all be present. In this way I visited all the seven saloons in the row. Everywhere I was treated with the most respectful consideration, and I did not hear one word that could have offended the most delicate conscience. When I had completed the round I felt that I was reasonably sure of a goodly number of men as my hearers.

Coming out of one of the saloons I suddenly encountered on the street my little friend, Brother May, the new minister. He gave me a look of commingled surprise and pity, and with it a slight touch of scorn; but no words were exchanged between us. When, after my visitation of the saloons, I returned to my hotel, I found Brother May with his face buried in a newspaper. He hardly deigned to speak to me. I asked him some question. He hardly vouchsafed a reply. I tried him again. At last he put down his paper, and, looking at me with a much aggrieved expression, said:

"Look here, Bishop, didn't I see you coming out of a saloon?"

"Yes, Brother May, you did, and if you had watched me you would have seen me coming out of seven."

"Well," he continued, "all I have to say is I am sadly disappointed in you. My heart had gone out to you, and I was thanking God for sending you to this awful place, and now to think of a bishop going into one of those hells."

I tried to explain to my reverend little brother that I had visited more saloons that day than in all of the days of my life before; that I was not a drinking man, and regretted the evils of strong drink as much as he or any man could, but that I had come to get hold of those men; that I only visited the camp one Sunday a year, while he would have an opportunity every week to talk to them. Gradually it dawned upon him that my act was, after all, susceptible of a charitable interpretation, though he could not justify it; nor could he agree with me in thinking that my efforts to secure the presence of the men would prove successful, but felt sure they would not come out, no matter what they promised--in short, that I had hopelessly impaired my influence with them. I could only ask him to wait and see. It was clearly evident that Brother May's faith in me had been subjected to a severe test, and had almost reached the breaking point. His ideals of the episcopal office had received a terrible blow.

That evening we gathered together a few good people, and practised some familiar hymns. A young woman was found who played the little organ. The morrow came, a bright and beautiful Sunday. As the hour of service approached, I could see that a great crowd was gathering. I had already put on my robes, and was seated on the platform of the dance-hall, where also the organ and the choir were placed. As the men filed in, they occupied every available space. I invited some to sit on the edge of the high platform. Others took advantage of the fact that the windows were opened, and stationed themselves there. A large number had to stand near the doorway; but from the beginning to the close of the service a hushed and entirely reverential demeanor characterized the assembly. They listened most patiently to all I had to say. There was something peculiarly solemnizing and inspiring in those manly and earnest faces as they seemed to respond to the appeal I was making.

After I had finished the sermon I introduced Brother May. I told the men that while the church I had the honor to represent had not yet seen its way to send them a minister, yet I rejoiced that Brother May, representing another religious body, had come; that he was present in the congregation, and I was glad to introduce him; that he was to preach that afternoon at four. Then Brother May arose. He was extremely short of stature, and had a long black mustache, curled up at the ends. He wore a bright-green cutaway coat, a blue waistcoat, and red necktie. His boots had high heels, tapered after the cow-boy fashion. All eyes were instantly fastened upon him. A stillness that was painful fell upon the scene. Brother May stood near the platform. Instead of turning around and facing the people he stood sidewise, looking at them over his shoulder.

"Yes, brethren, as the Bishop has said, I am here, and I am here to stay. I have come to preach the Gospel, and my first sermon will be at four o'clock, here in this place. I want you all to be on hand, for God knows you need the Gospel. Just think of it, ybu have seven saloons here in this camp! Seven dens of hell! The fact is, this is the most God-forsaken hole I ever struck."

He sat down. There was no audible expression of dissent, but I could feel that my little brother had forfeited his opportunity to commend himself to the people. I was sorry.

Another hymn was given out, and I was about to dismiss the congregation with my blessing when Colonel Burns, my landlord, stepped forward, and in a low but distinct voice said:

"Bishop, haven't you forgot something?"

"What do you mean?" said I.

"Why, the hat," replied the colonel.

"Excuse me," I answered, "you are right. I had quite forgotten the collection."

"I thought so," said the colonel. "It won't do to forget the hat, for yesterday was pay-day, and these boys have a lot of money, and if you don't get it the saloons will, and it is much better for you to have it. Now, Bishop, if you will allow me, I will run that part of the business myself."

"Very good," I said. "Have you any suggestions, colonel?"

"Only this, Bishop: I wish you would give us about five hymns."

"Five!" I exclaimed. "You surely do not mean five hymns."

"Yes, Bishop," he replied, "I want plenty of time. I do not want to be crowded. The boys are a little slow on collections."

I stepped over to the organ, and arranged with the young woman who was playing for us to give us five familiar hymns. We started in. The colonel presented the hat to the man immediately on my left. He was sitting on the edge of the platform. He brought out a silver dollar, called a "wheel" in the language of the camp. The second and third men to whom the hat was passed followed the example of the first, each giving a dollar; but the fourth man seemed nervous, and hesitated while he fumbled in his pocket. After considerable delay he brought out a quarter.

"Oh, put that back. Come, now, Bill," said the colonel, "the Bishop is not after small game to-day. White chips don't go here. He wants a wheel out of you. Hurry up."

"But, colonel," said the man, "I hain't got no wheel; I am busted."

"Oh, what you givin' us?" said the colonel. "Borrow one from Jack. Jack will loan you one." I was not supposed to hear this dialogue, but the colonel evidently took no pains to conceal what was going on. After some little parleying Jack loaned his neighbor a "wheel," and the hat passed on. I can remember the colonel, when he reached the crowd standing at the door, held out the hat with one hand, while with the other he expostulated with the men. The hymns were being rapidly used up, and at last the colonel returned to the platform with the hat. His face beamed with satisfaction. After the service I asked him why it took him so long. "Oh," he replied, "Bishop, you see, I charge up every feller accordin' to his pile. I know these boys. Most on 'em grub with me. I made one feller cough up a ten-dollar gold-piece, and you will find a good many fives in the hat. Let's count it."

I need not say that the collection was a generous one.

At four o'clock I went to the hall to help and hear Brother May. As yet no one had come. At length a few women and children and one old man straggled in. Brother May preached on the "Rose of Sharon." It was his maiden effort. The afternoon was very warm, and the perspiration poured forth as my little friend labored with the text. He was thoroughly discouraged, and could not understand why the hall was not full. I ventured to suggest that I feared he had not been very tactful in the morning when he told them that their town was the most "God-forsaken hole" he had ever seen.

I learned afterwards that Brother May remained at the camp only about three weeks. At the end of that time a committee waited on him. The spokesman said:

"Brother May, we understand you don't like our camp."

"No," said Brother May, "it is the worst I ever struck."

"Well, Brother May, would you like to shake off the dust of our camp and leave us for better dig-gin's?"

"You bet I would," was the reply.

"Well, will you leave if we give you seventy-five dollars?"

"Sure I will."

"Will you leave by to-morrow's stage?"

"I certainly will."

"Then here's your money." And Brother May departed to parts unknown.

To return to our Sunday's work. That evening there was another service, and another great crowd. I begged the men to do something towards securing a minister and building a church. I reminded them that they had had no one to bury their dead, minister to their sick and wounded, baptize their children, administer the holy communion, and preach the Gospel. I told them I would be glad to cooperate with them in any effort they might make. When Monday morning came a committee waited on me with a petition signed by nearly a hundred miners begging me to stay over and give them another talk that night. I consented, and the dance-hall was again completely filled. Tuesday morning, just before I took the stage, a committee came to me from a neighboring saloon with a subscription-paper. One of the committee said:

"Now, Bishop, you have been going for us about not having a preacher. Here is a proposition. If you will stay here, and rustle up this preachin' business, and be our parson, we will stand by you to the tune of two thousand dollars a year. Here it is down in black and white. This is all gilt-edge."

Of course I was surprised and gratified. I replied that, while I felt much complimented by their offer, it was evident they did not understand the nature of my office; that I was a Bishop, and had to go from place to place, and could tarry nowhere long; that I was on my way to the next camp; but I added:

"With this liberal offer of two thousand dollars a year I can send you a first-class man."

They hesitated and seemed a little embarrassed. After some consultation one of them said:

"Bishop, that was not the deal. The boys subscribed this for you. If you can't come we will have to make a new deal."

With that they again disappeared in the saloon. Returning in a few moments, the spokesman said:

"Bishop, here is a new list. If you will send us a first-rate man, a good talker and a good mixer, we will guarantee him at least one thousand dollars a year. Tell him, Bishop, there will be no trouble about money. He sha'n't be allowed to suffer. We boys will treat him white. Only, please remember," he added, with a twinkle in his eye, "don't send us no stick."

They had not forgotten Brother May's rebuke, and were not willing to take any chances. The term "good mixer" was new to me then, but I learned that it meant the qualities of good-fellowship and sympathy and fraternity. The successful man of God in the mining-camp need not lose his dignity or self-respect, but it is of vital importance that he be a man among men, and, above all, possess the capacity of loving men, and with the aid of that gift know how to reach their hearts.

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