In 1853 San Francisco
was strutting like a peacock
in full array, its bluster brimming,
flush with wealth that had flowed
from gold fields not far to the east.
Five years previously
a rascal named Sam Brannan
let the cat out of the bag,
left Sutter’s Fort,
spread word from there
along the way and into San Francisco
of the gold discovery in Coloma,
this to drum up prospectors
who would purchase goods aplenty
at his well-stocked general store.
The success of Brannan’s campaign
meant ruin to portly John Sutter
as his workers caught the fever,
abandoned him for the mountains
while his land was overrun
by rabid fortune seekers
who’d jettisoned sweet home
and struck out for gold.
Many of the early prospectors
who panned streams and rivers
brought sacks of pure gold
to San Francisco, spawning a surge
of development. By the time the ship
carrying Countess Lola Montez
and bevy of recognizable dignitaries
steamed into San Francisco harbor
after a lengthy trip from the Isthmus
the city had morphed into
California’s premiere venue
with everything from a rapacious
Barbary Coast to mansions perched
atop tall hills. Oh how they relished
their raucous cat houses
and emancipated theater scene!
Into this miasma of enthusiasm
Lola dipped her toe. Everybody knew
about the universally famous danseuse,
alleged mistress to Ludwig of Bavaria,
siren, and paramour of many a lothario,
or so they claimed. Peerless as a dancer
and an accomplished actress
Lola had performed for royalty,
at many a European court.
She’d dazzled our eastern seaboard
of late, also New Orleans, then made
her way to California, eventually
settling in the rugged boomtown
Grass Valley, perhaps the last place
you’d expect a Countess to embrace.
After a strong run in San Francisco
Lola hit the road. She went east,
sold out theaters in Sacramento,
then headed north, performing
in Marysville to packed houses.
But her heart was with the gold.
She lusted for the thrill of it, maybe
dreamed of miners tossing nuggets
rather than bouquets onto the stage.
Lola boarded a coach for Grass Valley.
The road out of Marysville bearable,
but once they entered hill country
the trail became rutted, stippled
with boulders and loose stones.
The stage’s wheels pounded,
shook, jolted its passengers
while the team of stout horses
whinnied and snorted.
A perilous passage across edges
of deep canyons overlooking
steep cliffs, hooves clacking,
was nerve-wracking for Lola
and the entourage. There were
river ravines to slip into as well,
Indians on the loose, and perhaps
a grizzly looming around the bend.
The press hot on Lola’s heels
had published accounts
of her appearances in most
periodicals of note. The residents
about Grass Valley amply prepped,
appraised of Lola’s latest scandals.
How in San Francisco in broad daylight
she horsewhipped an innocent actor
simply because he was starring
in a hit burlesque that had taken the city
by storm, burlesque wherein
Lola was lampooned. And then
while in Marysville how she launched
one of her well-chronicled rages
and threw the puppy dog husband’s
luggage out a hotel window.
By the time Lola Montez had arrived
in Grass Valley its nearby gulches
and rippling rivers no longer yielded
much gold, having been stripped
by countless predecessors, worthless
except to the insufferable Chinese.
They had to bore into the mountains
and underground following quartz,
extract solid rock by the ton in order
to get at the gold. They dug, blasted
miles and miles of dank shafts,
the work much like slave labor.
Month after month the miners
toiled in those miserable caverns.
So it came as no surprise
that they filled local theaters
to experience ethereal
Lola Montez, whose act
was utterly spellbinding.
To watch Lola perform
her international sensation
the Spider Dance,
witness it in the flesh
worth more than a stash of gold.
Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly . His poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous literary journals internationally.