This is a tale about adventure. A search for gold. A family divided. A murder. ¿A suicide? And a 150 year old mystery.
It’s true story starts in the year 1853 with my great great great great grandfather, Albert Annibal. Like many men of his time, Albert was a dreamer and wanted to make his family proud.
After hearing reports of gold spilling from the hills of California, Albert wasn’t content to let other men scoop up all the wealth without getting a piece for himself. So, he decided to move his family out West to stake a claim. He packed up his wife, two children, and a healthy loan from his brother in law. Then, armed with several months of provisions, he hit the
road trail in early 1853.
While we might complain when it takes more than 6 hours to get from coast to coast, theirs was a grueling 6 month journey. They often only covered 8 miles in an entire day, and were constantly dealing with mud, overrun creeks, and “thievish indians” (their words) who raided their camps and stole the oxen.
If that wasn’t hard enough, Albert’s wife ended up dying shortly before they reached their final destination. But this was a different era – things like this happened all the time. So, Albert and his children put on a brave face, and trudged on. Once in their new home of Eureka, they spent a hard year trying to get on with their lives, and make a new home for themselves.
If you’ve been keeping track, you may have realized the year is now 1854. And you may also be thinking to yourself “Self, didn’t the Gold Rush start in 1849? Isn’t five years is a little late to join the ‘rush’ out West?”.
Look at you, remembering your American History and stuff (gold star for you). And, you’re totally right.
The Annibals made their move well after the boom started. And during those 5 years, the “Wild West” had certainly earned its reputation as being a dangerous place – thieves, murderers, mimes1, and other scoundrels were around every turn.
On top of that, it was actually kind of hard to find gold. For most prospectors, finding a notable amount was more like winning the lottery than earning it based on their skills.
So, after a year of failing to provide for his family, and constantly fearing for their safety, Albert decided to send the children back to his sister in Ohio2.
Over the following years, Albert was… wellllllllll… pretty terrible at keeping in touch with them. They longed for news of his return, but he hardly wrote to them at all. When he did, it was clear he was ashamed he hadn’t made his fortune yet, and was determined not to come home until he had.
To this end, he had moved to Rocky Bar, Idaho, where there was said to be both gold and silver in the hills. There, he also became somewhat of a renaissance man – working as a Chef, Blacksmith, Miner, and even a Territorial Judge. However, he continued to be flummoxed with the success of everyone around him – he just could not understand why he was still poor when his intellectual inferiors3 were going home with loads of loot.
Ten years went by.
Ten. Freaking. Years!
And then he had good news to share – he finally wrote to say that he had struck it rich, and his children could now be proud of their father. He was excited to be rejoining them soon.
Unfortunately, this would be the last they heard from him. Shortly after reading this news, they started getting their replies returned to sender. They didn’t know what to make of it, until one day they received one that simply had “He’s dead” scrawled across the front4.
They were devastated, but had no idea what happened. Eventually a family friend was dispatched to investigate. He returned months later and told them what he learned – that Albert had indeed found a fortune in the hills of Idaho, but his partner had murdered him to take it all for himself.
After having waited ten years for Albert to come home, this was hard news for the family to hear. But, again, this was a different time, so they got on with their lives. His daughter married, had kids of her own, and the story was passed down from generation to generation until it ended up with me…
Fast forward 150 years, and we’ve got this nifty thing called “the internet” (maybe you’ve heard of it?). Millions of historical documents have been planted into it, letting ancestrally-inclined-individuals go climbing up new branches of their family trees.
And what my family found was that the story about old Albert Annibal being killed by his partner may have actually been a big fat fib. My aunt and father ended up coming across a newspaper clipping5 that said he poisoned himself because he didn’t want to settle a gambling debt.
It’s an interesting example of conflicting truths. Which do you believe? The story passed down within the family? Or the one written in the paper at the time?
Could the person bringing the news back to the family have lied to spare them any embarrassment? Or maybe it was recorded as a suicide because the police had no time to investigate and that was the default option on the form? Or perhaps it was run-of-the-mill journalistic laziness in a time when things like this happened all the time? Or maybe (!) there was an elaborate cover-up with a staged crime scene, bribes, and… an alien abduction!?!
At this point (and as much as I like the last theory), I’m not sure we have any hope of knowing for sure. But it makes for an interesting bit of family lore nonetheless. And, as it turns out, the town of Rocky Bar still exists – so I decided to stop there as I was driving through Idaho.
Rocky Bar, Idaho
To get there in modern times, you drive about three hours from Boise, work your way around a giant reservoir, then slowly bump and crawl your way up an unpaved dirt road for 10 miles.
On the day I arrived, the sky was a a glorious blue. It was about 90 degrees – and it certainly felt like it. The only sound was the wind whispering to the trees, the water gurgling in the creek, and the bugs buzzing about… whatever bugs buzz about.
Standing in the middle of the town, it truly feels like you’ve driven backwards in time. There is no cell phone reception. No electricity. No running water. No Starbucks.
And 150 years after its heyday, nature is reclaiming the town. The buildings are being brought down by the elements. The population has dwindled from hundreds of grimy miners down to a semi-permanent population of four – two old people with guns, a grumpy cat, and a silly dog.
While there, I had secretly hoped that I would stumble upon some relic that would shed some light on the family story, so I tracked down the residents. This ended up not being terribly hard, considering there are only about six building still standing.
Turns out they’re delightful people (by the names of Steve and Glen Anne), and have been living here for quite some time. During their own lives here, they have built up a nice collection of artifacts from Rocky Bar’s history.
This included photos showing life in the early 1900’s.
As well as a number of nails, coins, keys, and opium vials (no Starbucks, remember?).
Alas, the photos were all taken at least 40 years after Albert died, and I didn’t notice anything of note in the surviving documents.
So, I have to reluctantly concede that the mystery of Albert’s death is still unsolved. Maybe one day we’ll figure it out, but it’s going to take more than an hour walking around a ghost town to do it.
Craters Of The Moon
Idaho has proven to be one unexpected experience after another. A few hours after leaving the time warp of Rocky Bar, it felt like I landed on another planet entirely at Craters Of The Moon National Park.
When you drive into the park, you end up on a paved road that winds its way through these ancient lava flows. You can hop out and take pictures that look like you’re faking the moon landing.
Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can get a permit from the park rangers and actually go down into some of the lava tubes. They’re creepy, but super cool. Literally. It can be 100+ degrees up top, but there is actually ice in some of the tubes. So, during a particularly hot day, it can be refreshing to go down into one for a bit6.
I was originally planning on pushing through, and driving out to Yellowstone after stopping for a little while. However, it was so quiet, serene, and unexpectedly beautiful that I ended up camping there for the night. And the campground was easily the most interesting I’ve seen so far, as the individual sites are interspersed through the ancient lava flows.
Note to self: Seriously, get some propane for the lantern already. Even your silly drawings are in the dark at this point.
All in all, a pretty awesome park to spend a day exploring. And such an unexpectedly interesting state.
Up next… Wyoming.
Footnotes and junk.
1. I have no idea if there were mimes in this hills of California at the time. But I do know they should never be trusted.
2. Keep in mind that about this time, the Transcontinental Railroad wasn’t a thing yet, the Wright Brothers wouldn’t be born for another 20-something years, and the Panama Canal was about three decades away from even being started. So, their travel options were pretty limited. In this case, the Annibal children were put on a boat that took them down the West Coast to the place where the Panama Canal would eventually be cut. After crossing by land, they took another boat up the East Coast, finishing their journey by taking a train back over to Ohio. All in all, a 6 week trip. (American Airlines’ three-layover-cross-country-flights don’t sound so bad anymore, huh?)
3. Seriously, he said as much in one of his letters. Makes you wonder how smart he actually was.
4. How’s this for a double dose of tragedy… Albert’s son had fallen from a hay loft and broken his neck just a few weeks before Albert died. But Albert never received the news. How do we know? That was one of the letters returned to sender.
5. Did you notice the name of the judge he replaced? Judge Law. Greatest name for a judge, ever.
6. Truth be told, when you’re totally alone in the caves it’s fucking terrifying. They make all sorts of noises, water drips from the ceiling, and you can hear bats fluttering in the distance. I didn’t make it too far into the caves, as I didn’t want a semi-true horror movie being written about me.