The early years of the white man’s exploration and settlement of the Tahoe Basin provided many examples of eccentric characters. The more famous of these, such as Mark Twain and Pretty Boy Floyd, have been well-documented. I’m intrigued, however, by a lesser-known character from our neighborhood.
James Stewart — alias James McLaughlin — was well known as a timber feller in the late 1800s. It was said he could take down two trees in the time it took lesser men to fell one. He was also known to be a hot-tempered gunslinger when drinking — which he often did.
On Oct. 27, 1874, he mounted his horse at his camp at Lonely Gulch near Rubicon Peak and rode for Tahoe City to quench his thirst. Tying his horse in front of the Grand Central Hotel where Commons Beach is today, he stomped down to the Custom House bar on the wharf. Barkeep Fred A. Scott was serving a few happy regulars, but the bar became quiet at Stewart’s entrance and most patrons wandered back up to the Grand Central where they might drink in peace.
Stewart’s reputation preceded him. He was said to have served in the Civil War, though for which side is unclear. He may have developed his penchant for carrying a brace of six-shooters then, and his proclivity for getting drunk and firing those weapons was well known.
Previously, Stewart had left Glenbrook after shooting a man to death there and being released on a technicality. The 16 notches on his revolvers had earned him the moniker, “the Silent Terror.”
Sometime after leaving Glenbrook, he stopped in at Griffin’s Stables at Griff Creek (the present site of the Kings Beach fire station) to drink the dust out of his throat. After several drinks, he slammed his shot glass onto the bar, knocking the next patron’s bottle over, and spilling it. As he stormed out, he heard a rustle behind him, whirled around and drew his pistols to see the other drinker raising a 10 gauge double barrel shotgun.
Patrons and the bartender dove for the floor as both men fired. Stewart’s ball landed in his opponent’s throat, killing him. The other man’s buckshot tore through Stewart’s heavy coat and he fell in the entryway. The barkeep, Hagen, and others dragged the still-breathing Stewart into a room and tended to his wounds. John Griffin, mill and stable owner, burst into the bar and, upon finding the corpse of Stewart’s unlucky victim, shouted, “how bout Stewart, is the son of a bitch dead too!?”
Once directed into the wounded man’s room, he reached out as if to pull the gunman up from his blanket. Stewart lurched off the bed, punching Griffin square in the mouth, knocking his front teeth out. He stomped out of the bar and rode off.
John Griffin was known as the only man to survive an attack by the Silent Terror.
Back at the Custom House, Barkeep Scott knew the man and his reputation. Still, he served ’em up as Stewart downed them. The burly logger grew increasingly irate, threatening by name to kill the bar’s owner J.S. Campbell and Scott. At about 8 p.m., Stewart declared “I’ll be ready for you when I git back!” and stormed out of the bar. As the only man left in the bar, Scott was justly afraid and armed himself. No other target was present as Stewart crashed back through the doors. The slight barkeep didn’t hesitate, and let fly with his shotgun before Stewart had a chance to draw those dreaded six-guns.
The Silent Terror died on the floor of the Custom House as A.J. Bayley, the Grand Central’s owner, and others cautiously approached the scene from the hotel.
Appointed by the group as judge, Bayley interviewed all parties, assigning Jeremiah Hurley, a local fisherman and business owner, to defend Scott. After a few hours of investigation and discussion by a jury of four businessmen, Bayley stated, “The deceased met his death from something close to an act of the almighty. Bless us for timely deliverance from a mean, unscrupulous blackguard. Case closed, the drinks are on me.”
So ended the short, violent career of James Stewart. His grave can be seen under a marker placed by Constable Harry Johansen in 1953 in what is now Trails End Cemetery. It reads: “Jim Stewart-Outlaw-killed in gunfight at Tahoe City-1872.” Although the incident actually took place in 1874, according to a page from the Truckee Republican.
Next time you’re enjoying life on the North Shore, perhaps sipping an Anchor Steam California Lager, the original Boca Beer of 1875, make sure to take care of your barkeep — sometimes it’s a rough job. Rough indeed…