Beekman’s pony express
Most everyone around here, at one time or another, has heard about Jacksonville’s pioneer banker Cornelius Beekman, and perhaps have even visited his historic bank that still sits along California Street.
Some may know of those early days when he sloshed through the frigid river waters of Northern California searching for gold, or perhaps have heard stories of his express office and the packing business he started, carrying gold and supplies between California and Southern Oregon.
Not many know of his days as a local “pony express” rider and “war correspondent,” while riding express for the Cram, Rogers & Co. that was based in Yreka. For nearly a decade, Beekman made two round trips a week over the Siskiyou summit between Yreka and Jacksonville, across the years carrying over $15 million worth of gold dust.
When Cram and Rogers went out of business in 1856, Beekman continued on independently.
While on these trips, he also carried mail and copied telegraph news in Yreka, the end of the telegraph wire at the time. Jacksonville wouldn’t be connected to the wire until 1864.
Beekman had a contract with the Oregonian newspaper to carry all telegraphic news dispatches to Jacksonville and forward them to Portland by courier.
“It was Mr. Beekman who carried the Civil War news dispatches,” an Oregonian reporter said, “from the end of the telegraph wire at Yreka to Jacksonville, on their way to The Oregonian. The dispatches which reached Portland in this circuitous manner, when published, gave the entire Northwest the first intelligence of the battles and campaigns of the war.”
When there was trouble with the local Indians, Beekman traveled at night and was never bothered. Asked how he could safely negotiate the rugged Siskiyou Pass during a dark night and still find his way without falling off a cliff, he said his mules were familiar with the trail and, without fail, kept their noses to the ground and followed the trail.
The horses and mules he used were large and chosen for their ability to speedily carry a heavy load. To keep to his scheduled two roundtrips a week, Beekman would ride three different animals and make the 65 miles between Jacksonville and Yreka in a single day. He might be carrying 75 pounds of gold dust, but he only weighed 125 pounds, so the animals’ burden wasn’t severe.
In 1861, tired of receiving “unimportant news” and unaware that the Civil War had already begun, the Oregonian was just six days away from ending Beekman’s contract. That’s when Beekman rushed over the mountain from Yreka with the news that the war was underway. “War events came thick and fast after that,” a reporter said, “and The Oregonian succeeded in renewing the contract.”
Beekman received $30 each month from the paper for copying the dispatches and sending them on. His contract also allowed him to read the dispatches to others. By providing the latest news of the conflict, Beekman became a valuable visitor in Southern Oregon homes and businesses. In a sense, he was the Twitter or Instagram of his day.
Later, the telegraph company discovered what Beekman was doing — breaking the company’s rules. They fired him and sued for damages. By then, the telegraph had reached Portland.
Not long after the Jacksonville arrival of regular stagecoach service, Beekman became company agent for Wells, Fargo & Co., a position he held for 43 years.
No longer did he have to make those exhausting trips to Yreka. With a quick stroke of his pen, he could send and receive more gold and other goods than that 20-something-year-old “pony express rider” could ever imagine.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com.