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Monday, October 24, 2011

Settling in Ruby Valley

Image courtesy of the Friends of the Sheridan Library

Sheridan is known as the "heart of the Ruby Valley".  This peaceful valley is surrounded by seven majestic mountain ranges (Tobacco Root, Ruby, Highland, McCartney, Pioneer, Gravelly, and Snowcrest mountain ranges).  James and Maria and their five children arrived by wagon from Salt Lake City in May 1865, and settled on a one hundred sixty acre ranch just west of town.  Two months later on July 10, their daughter Virginia was born. She was said to be one of the first white babies born in the vicinity of Sheridan.(1)

Once Orlin Gammell had learned that his father was living in Sheridan, he made plans to join him there.  James had not seen his firstborn son since the boy was four years old.  Since the death of his mother, Harriet, Orlin had lived with his uncle, John Fitzgerald, in Spring Arbor, Michigan.  At age nineteen, he was ready to strike out on his own.  First he made his way to Omaha, where the Forbes and Brown freight company hired him to drive the grub wagon.  The outfit of twenty-six wagons, each drawn by four yolk of oxen, started west on May 12, 1866.  Three hundred miles east of Salt Lake City, Orlin fell ill with mountain fever.  At that point he left the wagon train and made the rest of the journey to Salt Lake by stagecoach, and spent a few weeks in the army hospital at Camp Douglas.  On October 8, he was well enough to join another freight outfit bound for Virginia City.  When the wagon train reached its destination on November 11, Orlin walked the rest of the way to Sheridan.(2)

Map of Ruby Valley, Montana
Courtesy  of

Upon his arrival he started working with his father at the sawmill on Mill Creek, hauling logs and sawing them into lumber for the floors and interior finishes of the old Robber’s Roost building, a roadhouse between Alder and Sheridan.  That same winter (1866-67) James and Orlin built the family home with sawed square logs they had cut at the mill.  The home stood for many years on the site of the present [1976] Sheridan Gun Club.  In April, James and Maria’s daughter Alice was born in the new log house, which was located in the northern part of Sheridan.  The next year (1868) father and son sawed the lumber and built a barn not far from the log house.  It was so large that it soon became recognized as the largest barn in Montana.  When it was finished, James invited the residents of Sheridan, and all of Madison County, for that matter, to help celebrate its completion with a dance.  People came from all over Montana to help christen the "Big Red Barn".  They came from Yellowstone, Virginia City, Bannack, and other far distant points for what was considered the social event of Territorial days.(3)

Now, three years after their arrival, Maria and the children were beginning to feel comfortable in Sheridan, though, as her daughter Virginia recalled, Maria was still wary to speak about the Mormons:

Mother was reticent regarding her family possibly for the same reason in part that Uncle James [father] was.  In those days everyone seemed very diffident about speaking of their relations to the Mormons or the church. Mother never talked of her home life much or little incidents of her trip across the plains.  I don’t even know just how old she was, but conclude she must have been well in her teens for she has spoken of a man to whom she was engaged to be married when she left the east [Iowa].(4)

Maria’s children acknowledged that, in spite of her reticence to speak of her Mormon faith, “only a few days before her death, she expressed her belief in the tenets of that religion.”(5)

At the same time that his family was adjusting well to new surroundings, James was growing restless.  As he told his sister, Jane, “but times was dull here and I must have excitement.”  Maria and the children were not at all pleased with his plans to leave for Bear River.  They told him he had no need to go.  In spite of their objections, he left Sheridan in early December 1868, crossed the Continental Divide before the snow depth would close the pass for the winter, and made his way to Utah.  For the next year he worked in the lumbering business for the railroad on the Bear River near the border of Utah and Idaho.  He loved to be where the action was, and, as he had done so many times before, he chose the right location.  The eyes of the whole nation were on this out-of-the- way spot in northern Utah.

Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869
This iconic image captured by A.J. Russell is one
of the most famous photographs in American history.
from Deseret News archives

By spring the transcontinental railroad was completed with the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railways on May 10, 1869.  Most likely James was present for the simple ceremony at Promontory Summit, Utah, where dignitaries, railroad workers, and spectators celebrated this historic event.  After prayers, speeches, and the placement of the last rails, dignitaries took turns tapping four gold and silver spikes into a pre-drilled laurel wood tie specially made for the ceremony.  The crowd cheered as the news was flashed over the telegraph.  Photographer A. J. Russell captured the iconic image that has become one of the most famous photographs in American history, and the Deseret News captured the story:

The last tie has been laid; the last rail is placed in position, and the last spike driven, which binds the Atlantic and Pacific ocean with an iron band.  The electric flash has borne the tidings to the world and it now devolves upon us, the favored eye-witnesses of the momentous feat, to enter our record of the facts.  Never before has this continent disclosed anything bearing comparison with it.  The massive oaken-hued trains of the Central lies upon their iron path, confronted by the elegant coaches of the Union Pacific.  A thousand throbbing hearts impulsively beat to the motion of the trains as the front locomotives of each Company led on majestically up to the very verge of the narrow break between the lines, where, in a few moments was to be consummated the nuptial rites uniting the gorgeous east and the imperial west of America, with the indissoluble seal of inter-oceanic commerce …The excitement of this moment of victory was intense, cheers were given for the officers of the Central, followed by cheers for the officers of the Union Pacific; cheers for the Star Spangled Banner, for the President of the United States, for the engineers and contractors and for the laborers that have done the work.(6)

Drusilla Hendricks, her granddaughter
Elizabeth (Libby) Gammell, and Libby's
husband, Eli Harris.
c. 1868

During much of that year spent in Utah, James made his home in Richmond with his daughter Libby.  He had seen her but a few times in the past eighteen years.  Libby had no memory of her mother, Elizabeth Hendricks, who had died when Libby was just three months old.  In her childhood she moved with her maternal grandparents to Richmond in Cache Valley, and at age sixteen she married Eli Harris.  While lodging with his daughter and son-in-law, James especially enjoyed spending time with his first grandchild, Drusilla Elizabeth, who would be a year old in September.

James returned to Sheridan on December 31, 1869, with more than five thousand dollars to show for his labor.  In addition to the cash, he had hopes for another venture which could yield a profit: “I think yet there is some bit [of] Luck for me in store for I found a big coal bank thirty miles from the rale rode…if good will be a big fortune.  I will soon know.”(7)
  1. Obituary of Virginia Gemmell Garrity, The Montana Standard, Butte, Montana, 8 January 1942.
  2. Carey, Dorothy Ellinghouse, Pioneer Trails and Trials, p. 468, Madison County History Association, 1976.
  3. Carey, Dorothy Ellinghouse, Pioneer Trails and Trials, p. 468. “The Pioneers,” Madison County History Association. Duncan, Elaine, ”An Adventurous Pioneer”, 1926. (The barn was demolished in 1913 by the new property owner E.D. Marsh.)
  4. Virginia Garrity’s letter to R.V. Chamberlin, 1922.
  5. Obituary of Mrs. Susan M. Gemmell, The Madisonian, 8 February 1896. p. 8.
  6. Deseret News, May 19, 1869.
  7. Jim Gemmell , letter to his sister, Jane, January 1, 1870.

1 comment:

  1. Patricia Riddell LococoNovember 20, 2011 at 10:25 AM

    If James was at Promontory Point, that is something. He was a witness/participant in so much history!