The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised

The Nature of History

How Legends Arise

    I grew up in Surprise Valley, one of the loveliest valleys of California, in the extreme northeastern corner of Modoc County. Eastward were low, barren hills, with a sparse covering of sagebrush and juniper, and beyond them the arid wastes of northwestern Nevada. To the westward towered the lofty summits of the Warner Range, a northern spur of the Sierras, their summits covered with perpetual ice and snow, their flanks heavily draped with conifers.
    A few venturesome pines wandered down curiously from the lonely forests of the upper heights, along the clear and sparkling streams that watered lush meadows and gardens and orchards to lose themselves at last in the three alkaline lakes that served no purpose save to beautify the landscape.
    The largest and most northerly was Lake Marilla, blue as the mild and gentle eyes of Marilla Bissell Woods, wife of one of the first settlers, for whom it was named. They tell me the lakes have been dry for years except in seasons of the heaviest rainfall when a bare trickle reaches them, and what we used to call "the flats" are now covered by emerald fields of alfalfa grown chiefly for its seed, which is said to be of the finest quality.
    Twenty miles or so south of the northern end of the valley where Ft. Bidwell, long since abandoned, guarded the settlers from the vengeful destruction of the rightful owners of the land and warned them continually through
"The sunrise gun with its hollow roar
and echoes repeated o'er and o'er"
a huge and peculiarly-shaped rock juts out from the western foothills on the northern side of Rulliford Canyon, a mile or two south of the little village of Lake City. The early settlers named it "Steamboat Rock" because of its resemblance to the hull of a gigantic steamboat. The rock itself is composed of puddingstone, sand mixed with gravel, and containing many almond-shaped pebbles like raisins in a plum pudding. It obviously formed part of some ancient beach when the valley was a great lake.
    As I recall, it is probably more than a quarter-mile in length, and another proof of its origin lies in a great arch supported by lofty buttresses of rock near the rear, on the southern side, an arch worn by the waves of that prehistoric lake. The rock, because of its composition, weathers easily and caves abound, chiefly shallow ones near the foot, although probably some higher up are deeper. Some were said to have been used as aeries by eagles and other birds, also others were believed to be the lairs of mountain lions, although, owing to the bulge, the climb would have been difficult even for a lion. In the lower caves, protected from the weather by overhanging rock, we youngsters were fond of inscribing our names.
    One day when I was perhaps fourteen years old, our good teacher, Clarence Pease, once well known to most people in Siskiyou and Modoc counties, set us the task of writing compositions, allowing us to choose our own subjects. A "composition" was a veritable nightmare to me, but a story was a labor of love! I asked the teacher if I could not write a story instead. He smiled understandingly and gave me permission.
    Surprise Valley, like the section of Nevada adjoining on the east, is subject to heavy cloudbursts. From the time I was a child of nine or ten, I had lived in sight of the rock. Every time we looked from our windows we glimpsed its frowning, mysterious and at times seemingly sinister bulk. I had made many pilgrimages there alone. Now in my story, I made another such trip, after a heavy cloudburst. The deluge had moved a good-sized rock that had stood frighteningly near the edge of the Steamboat, a few feet from its original position. It revealed a rock with a roughly hewn handhold that fitted an opening in the rock. I inserted the end of a stout juniper branch in the handhold and pried with all my strength. The rock came up!
    I saw steps gouged from the puddingstone, descending into Stygian darkness. A pile of pitch pine splinters lay on the top step. I lighted several and threw them gently down into the yawning abyss having read that that was the best method of inducing a current of fresh air that would eliminate dangerous dead air in a cave or mine working. For a moment I hesitated.
    "Perhaps I should go home and get someone to go down with me," Caution advised. Recollections of the "Forty Thieves" and stories of rustlers' hideouts in thrillers I had read came to mind (although we had never had any rustlers in our peaceful valley as far as I knew! ), but the adventurous spirit of pioneer forebears for two hundred and fifty years overcame my fears and I descended the steps, slowly and shakily, often looking back over my shoulders, a lighted pitch torch in my hand.
    The air was dank and musty and filled with nauseating odors. I could hear faint rustlings and imagined I could see ghostly figures in the shadows outside the faint circle of illumination made by my torch. I had to exercise all my willpower to keep from throwing down the torch and fleeing in terror from the cave. In fact, if the expression had been coined at the time I should have described my emotions at the
time as a bad case of the jitters.
    However, clenching my teeth and no doubt as pale as a tanned and freckled youngster could get, who lived outdoors most of the year, and with my hair seeming to be rising on end, I kept on.
    I was in a huge cave which proved to be an ancient Indian burial vault. Ranged around the sides of the cave were the petrified bodies of Indian chieftains, some of them hundreds of years old, perhaps, buried in all the panoply of war, feathered headdresses, bows and arrows and quivers, beaded moccasins and buckskin tunics, embroidered with brightly dyed porcupine quills and elk teeth: AND AMONGST THEM WERE THE MOST RECENT ADDITIONS--AN OFFICER OF THE UNITED STATES ARMY AND A BEAUTIFUL INDIAN MAIDEN, THEIR BODIES PETRIFIED LIKE THE OTHERS! Near the officer was his empty canteen. As I picked it up fearfully and tremblingly, I heard something rattle inside. It was a brief letter he had somehow managed to write.
    He had been captured by the Piutes. The Indian girl had aided him to escape. Both had been recaptured and imprisoned in the burial vault. I said that I had taken the letter with me, later mailing it to the address given but had never received a reply.
    After hard tugging and pulling, I had managed to replace the stone above the entrance and had left the chiefs and officer and Indian maiden to their eternal vigil.
    As I read my story I was greatly amused to observe the tense expressions of the older pupils and see how the eyes of the younger ones "bugged out" as they listened to that weird tale.
    Of course I knew nothing of stalagmites or stalactites or the properties of different kinds of rock. I had no suspicion that it was highly improbable that bodies entombed in a puddingstone cave would have petrified even in the course of a thousand years. If good Clarence Pease, my teacher, were amused his handsome, classic features betrayed not the slightest indication of the fact.
    Now comes the payoff, as the radio announcers say:
    Many years after I had left the lovely valley forever, as they passed the huge bulk of the Steamboat on their way to school, the grandson of one of my former schoolmates said to his companion, a newcomer in the district:
    "You know, there's a big cave some place in the Steamboat. There's a lot of petrified bodies in it, too, Injun chiefs that lived maybe a thousand years ago and the bodies of a white soldier that the Piutes had captured and an Injun girl that helped him escape. The Injuns captured both of them and imprisoned them in the cave and closed the opening so they could never get out.
    "The entrance to the cave was found by a girl that used to go to school here with my grandpa but she covered it up so no one could ever find it again and she never would tell anyone where it was."
Siskiyou Pioneer, Siskiyou County Historical Society, August 1948, pages 32-34

Last revised September 27, 2021