Steve Cottrell: Echoes from our past — Recalling history writer Robert Organ
For more than a century, The Union readers have enjoyed accounts of Nevada County’s amazing history and the men and women who lived here during and after the gold rush. When I moved to Nevada City in 1977, history columns by Bob Paine drew my attention. Later, Bob Wyckoff became a regular contributor.
More recently, Gage McKinney, Linda Jack, Maria Brower, Gary Noy and others have provided us with a better understanding of our past — as did the late Brad Prowse, who spent years researching and assembling his 100 Years Ago column.
None of us, however, could complete our research without occasional help from the Searls Historical Library, headed by Pat Chesnut. Missing from the 2021 Searls research team, however, is Wally Hagaman, whose death last December was a big loss for anyone interested in local history, and a deep personal loss for those of us who knew him.
In 1921, The Union (then called The Morning Union) featured a writer named Robert Organ, a Nevada City native son. He began submitting history articles in January and continued to do so until a few days before his death that fall. Organ was 53 when he wrote his first Nevada County Annals column, but his health had been in decline for more than two years and it seems he wanted to share what he knew while he still could.
He also wrote several articles about 1921 community life, reminding city and county leaders to respect the past but look to the future. He was an old-fashioned “booster,” a one-man chamber of commerce — civic-minded with unbridled enthusiasm for Nevada County.
Organ had been a miner, just like his father, working several California claims as well as mines in Utah, Nevada and Colorado. Then, in 1914, he married Teresa “Tessie” Glunz from Pennsylvania, and they settled on Walrath Avenue in Nevada City.
Organ’s first article was published Jan. 28, 1921, and for the next eight months, as he chronicled county history and commented on current events, his words served as a link between the 19th and 20th centuries. He wrote about droughts and floods, and urged support for what became the Nevada Irrigation District. He wrote about gunslingers and lawmen, clergymen and gamblers.
He was an entertaining writer and The Morning Union always ran his history articles and commentaries on the front page, above the fold. He explained how early quartz mines became successful only after Cornish tin miners arrived here with hands-on experience at underground mining. He wrote about the incredible wealth some local gold mines produced. He described what it was like to work 2,000 feet below the earth’s surface. He provided readers with biographical sketches of mine owners — their successes and their failures. And he recalled the early churches, social clubs, courtroom orations, saloons, duels, and rudimentary theaters where notable performers gave entertainment-starved miners an evening to remember.
Between history pieces, Organ offered his views on a variety of community issues, including his vision for the Downieville Highway (now Old Downieville Highway) as it entered Nevada City. In 1921, the road into town skirted American Hill, then followed Spring Street to South Pine and directed motorists over the Gault Bridge and on to Grass Valley. There were no signs directing travelers to Broad Street.
Organ urged construction of a one-block connector street bringing southbound Downieville Highway motorists to Broad just below the Y, then routing them through the business district hoping they would park and shop, and maybe even book a hotel room. Although it didn’t happen in his lifetime, the one-block street Organ proposed was punched through in 1925 and named for former Nevada City Mayor Richard Bennetts.
Organ believed the key to being a desirable tourist destination was to provide amenities for visitors. He proposed formation of what he suggested be called Nevada County Tourist Hotels, Inc., “for the purpose of building and operating or leasing hotels, inns and roadhouses; health resorts; rest camps; ice cream parlors; poolrooms and cigar stands; movie theaters; and amusement parks and swimming pools.” He had an ambitious vision for Nevada County, and in his final months created an important record of our past. For that, history writers like me owe Bob Organ a debt of gratitude.
Robert Hunt Organ, born in Nevada City in 1866, died Sept. 1, 1921, and his final history article was published a week later. Tessie, born in 1882, died Jan. 2, 1970. Both were interred at St. Canice Cemetery.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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