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Tragedy haunted youthful artist in Depression

The Union StaffThe Grass Valley Highs School student body officers are shown circa 1930. Muriel Branegan is on the far right.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

November 1934 – Muriel Branegan was on her way back to school in New York City when she was received shocking news. She had left friends and family only a few days earlier after a brief holiday visit home and had traveled east as far as Rawlins, Wyo., on the “Pacific Greyhound Stage” before the sad news reached her.

When she last saw her father, James C. Branegan, he was in the best of health. Branegan, a well-known and highly respected millman at the Empire Mine, was said to have never been sick or missed a shift at the mine. His family had arrived in Nevada City in 1850 as miners. He followed them into mining ventures until the day of his death, when he suddenly became ill at work.

Branegan and his wife – the former Mary Mitchell, from another pioneering Nevada County family – had two children. Muriel and her older sister Zoe attended local schools until Zoe graduated from Grass Valley High School in 1921. Muriel Branegan came back to Grass Valley to teach after attending San Jose Teachers College, doing post-graduate work at Sanford University and receiving her master’s degree from Sacramento State College.



Muriel, bright and popular, was active throughout her high school years. She was involved in drama, student government, dance and art. Graduating in 1928, she first left home to attend the California School of Fine Arts. By 1934, the year of her father’s death, she was one of the nation’s rising Western sculptors and portrait students.

November 1935 – One year later, tragedy struck the Branegan family again while Muriel was returning East after a holiday visit at home. Her mother died unexpectedly after a brief illness. This time, Muriel would travel home by air after a long delay in Chicago due to a snowstorm.




Her work became recognized and when the new International Child’s Art Center opened in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco in the 1970s, the acquisition committee decided to hang “Child with Fish,” by the then-Muriel Branegan Bacon, near the entrance.

October 2002 – Muriel was again trying to return home for what would be her final time. She died in August in Sonoma County.

An official from the Public Administrator and Guardian’s office is trying to fulfill Muriel’s last request: to be buried in Nevada County, possibly in the family plot thought to be in Nevada City. Nevada County’s mortuary records for the 1930s have been lost due to fire or water damage. The plot is believed to be at St. Canice, but it has not been located at this time.

Maria E. Brower is a member of the Nevada County Genealogical Society and the Nevada County Historical Society, and works at the Doris Foley Historical Research Library in Nevada City.


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