The Mountain Charlie Story ©

Mountain Charlie Portrait by Andrew Hill - 1890

Mountain Charlie portrait by Andrew P. Hill - 1890


The most colorful of all characters in Santa Cruz mountain history was "the man with the silver skull, " - "Mountain Charlie" McKiernan.

One of the first settlers in the Santa Cruz mountain section, a pioneer hunter, rancher, teamster and road-builder, McKiernan was the idol of every small boy in the mountains and the friend and counselor of all. His motto was "Right wrongs nobody. "

The simple statement, "I knew Mountain Charlie, " was the proud boast of many an old mountain man, while tales of this half-legendary figure are rampant in the region. Disfigured by an encounter with a wounded grizzly bear, it was said of McKieran that a grizzly meeting him on trail would be first to give way - a typical mountain yarn that in no manner detracted from the sterling reputation of the man.

Lured By Gold

Charles Henry (Mountain Charlie, as the Zayante Indians chose to call him) McKiernan was born in 1825 in County Leitrim Ireland, and reared in County Cavan. As a quartermaster In the British army, he traveled in Australia and New Zealand, where he was stationed, when word of the California gold strike came in 1848.

His enlistment having expired, he signed as a sailor on a ship, the "El Dorado." Arriving in San Francisco in the spring of 1849, not waiting for their pay, the sailors at once joined runners who met them at the ship with bottles of whiskey for inducement, and set out for the mines at wages of $20 a day. as compared to the $20 a year, which had been the prevailing wage when McKiernan left Ireland.

With his savings from the wages as a miner for a short period, McKiernan started a pack train, carrying supplies to the Trinity County mines. He bought a string of 15 pack mules, and opened up a freighting business between Trinidad, on the Humboldt County coast, and the mines (apparently those in the vicinity of Weaverville). After his first trip, which was highly successful, he added ten more mules to his train. The second trip was disastrous; Indians stampeded his whole train, and he considered himself lucky to escape with his life.

Returning to the Trinity mines, McKiernan again accumulated a small stake and set out for the Santa Clara Valley. There, they found that Spanish grants, squatters titles, and overlapping land claims to the pueblo properties made investment inadvisable at the time.

Page continued on his way to Santa Cruz, but McKiernan found the spot for which he had been searching, and there he settled alone, establishing a homestead at the highest point on the ridge where the southwest corner of Redwood Estates now joins Summit Road, soon to become part of Skyline Boulevard, and where a plaque now marks the location of his first cabin.

First Mountain House

Near a spring, McKiernan erected the first house in the Santa Cruz mountains, built from whip-sawed lumber split from the nearby redwood groves. Whip-sawing, a crude form of lumbering performed by two men; one in a pit under the log and the other above, cost about $100 a thousand board-feet in those days, it is recorded.

His home and corrals completed, McKiernan started to raise sheep and cattle, and to hunt for the market. Grizzly bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and eagles, who made short work of his sheep flock. Longhorn Steers, less vulnerable to natural enemies, were worth from $6 to $8 a head, sold principally for their hides and tallow.

Deer meat was worth 10 cents a pound, and was easy to obtain at first, since the deer had never heard the sound of a gun, were day feeders, and would stand and stare when one of their number grazing openly in a flock would fall before Mountain Charlie's crude old muzzle-loading blunder-buss. McKiernan made two trips a week to Alviso with a pack-train of deer meat to be shipped by boat to San Francisco. (Without refrigeration, we can surmize that the game reached the city "well hung. ")

McKiernan was alone in the entire Santa Cruz mountain region until the latter part of 1853, when the Lyman John Burrell family settled above what is now Wrights, and a man named John Bean settled near the present town of Glenwood, where Bean Creek was named for him. In the following year Charles C. Martin came to Glenwood and the Schultheis family arrived near where Soquel-San Jose Road joins the Old Santa Cruz Highway at Woodwardia now.

There were no roads west of The Almeda in San Jose at the time McKiernan came to the mountains, and no fences. An Indian trail wandering from the mission was followed by Padres, Indians, Mexicans, and early settlers alike until ox-teams following the same route blazed a way by sheer, brute force through the dense undergrowth to provide passage later for stages and horse teams.

Staked A Mining Claim

Mountain Charlie built roads all through his property, including a cut-off trail from Los Gatos creek up through the Moody Gulch country near Holy City, and across the present Redwood Estates holdings to the old Indian trail near McKiernan's home.

That McKiernan, along with hundreds of others engaged in an early gold mine venture on his property near the summit is revealed in a mining claim filed for record in the Santa Cruz County Courthouse December 1, 1864, by the Peterson Summit Lodge Company, claiming 1,800 feet of a ledge for mining purposes. Partners in the venture were McKiernan, Peter Peterson, Alexander Leich, D. H. Haslam and Robert Byers. The claim apparently didn't amount to much, for nothing more was heard of It.

"The Bear Fight "

Even for a region as rich in lore as the Santa Cruz mountains, the story of Mountain Charlie McKiernan's fight with a grizzly bear is outstanding as a typically heroic tale, sufficiently colorful to remain in the minds of men without the necessity for embellishment.

One of the most famous of all the legends of the country, the story in its present form, as told by McKiernan's son, James V. McKiernan, who lived on the old home place near the summit, is as nearly correct as the passage of a few weeks less than 80 years will permit and is unadorned.

Grizzly bears in the early 1850's were plentiful, killing off the stock with abandon, and were hunted down relentlessly by the ranchers of the region. who also derived a profit from the hunting by selling the bear hides and meat. McKiernan had often shot grizzly bears. In fact, he was one of the best known bear hunters in the mountains. They were great shaggy creatures weighing from 800 to 1400 pounds, the only bear found in the mountains here. But always the Grizzly was treated with respect, and the best shot was a downhill shot with a fast horse for a quick get-away if necessary.

Charlie's Bear Fight

Encounters A She Grizzly

On May 8, 1854, McKiernan and a friend named Taylor from Santa Cruz, started out for a gulch about a mile southwest of the McKienan home, where Taylor was planning to take up some land.

After shooting a couple of deer near the top of the gulch, Taylor and McKiernan spotted a she-grizzly and two cubs. As both men were excellent shots, the two decided to get the bear, and set out for the head of the gulch to approach the bear from above on the far side of the canyon for the customary downhill shot.

However, when they arrived at their designated spot, they found the bear out of sight, and followed down a deer trail in pursuit. McKienan, in the lead, swung around a bend to find the mother grizzly standing on her hind legs within six feet of him, her forepaws outstretched for a raking hug.

Wounded Bear Attacks

McKienan fired instantly, with the muzzle of his gun against her chest, while Taylor fired over McKiernan's shoulder into the bear's face.

McKienan clubbed the grizzly with the stock of his gun, but the bear beat down the weapon and seized him in her powerful forearms, crushed the front of his skull in her paws, then tossed him aside and started for Taylor.

Meanwhile, Taylor's small dog had attacked the cubs, whose squalling attracted the mother and she turned to the dog, while Taylor escaped to the top of the ridge, thinking KcKiernan had been killed instantly.

The bear chased the dog away, returned to McKiernan and dragged him to the end of a clearing under an oak tree, and after pawing over him in curiosity, left him. Taylor, his rifle reloaded, returned to the gulch to find McKiernan sitting up and conscious, but paralyzed from the neck down from shock. While the fight had been only a matter of seconds, Mountain Charlie said he remained conscious throughout, and remembered every act of his life to date while it was passing. The bear was not seen again.

Taylor bound up McKiernan's head with his shirt, and left him his loaded rifle for protection, and went to bring a horse to carry the wounded man home.

The Silver Skull

A Dr. Bell, of San Jose, manufactured a silver plate out of two Mexican coins to fit in the broken portion of his skull, where the bear had bitten through the frontal bone, and the top of his skull over his left eye. Mrs. Schultheis was his nurse.

Within three weeks the plate had corroded and had to be taken out, to be replaced later with another plate. Without the use of anesthetics. McKiernan suffered without complaint through the ordeal. His wound healed, but he became subject to severe headaches, which continued for two years until he went to a Dr. Spencer in Redwood City, who, after consultation with specialists, reopened his skull and took out a lock of hair. This operation was performed with an anesthetic, the use of which had just been discovered.

Mountain Charley's pain was relieved, and except for a terrible and permanent disfigurement, he was ready for an additional 39 years of active life.

Charlie In The News

An early newspaper article told about one of Mountain Charlie's visitors: Sacramento Daily Union Vol 7, No. 1000 Wednesday June 7, 1854 page 3.
"Our California Dames - The following is an extract from a letter received from a fair friend at Santa Cruz by the editor of the Golden Era: We are a smart people down here, physically, though not perhaps mentally. One of our old ladies, (she has seen seventy-three summers,) jumped on her horse the other day, and rode to the top of the mountain pass, midway between this place and San Jose, to see 'Mountain Charlie,' who, was sick, having had his frontal bone, or a good part of it taken out by a bear, while he (Charlie), was out on a hunting excursion.

Dr. Ball, of San Jose, attended the patient, who is doing well, having the lost bone supplied by a silver plate. He was a good looking young man before the accident, and well liked by travelers too." "

In 1862, he married Barbara Berricke Kelly, the Irish nurse who cared for him after his third operation and long recovery, and was the father of seven children (Unfortunately, one son died at age 9 in a shooting accident) who were later to become prominent and respected citizens.

In the 1870s, McKiernan started a stage coach business and later became one of the most successful businessmen in the area. McKiernan's cabin near the summit was often a stopping spot and became known as Halfway House or Station Ranch.

Barbara cooked meals for the stage coach passengers while Charlie helped change horses on the wagons. After the new railroad diverted the toll road's business, Charles and Barbara moved to San Jose in 1884.

McKiernan had now accumulated 3,000 acres of prime redwood forest in the Glenwood area. He also owned a large berry farm on the Alviso road. His main interests were in lumbering, and he established a mill and yards in San Jose to serve the thriving Valley.

Before he retired to his fine home in 1884 on San Augustine Street in San Jose, he had one last role to play; the leading man in a true "mountain western. " In 1875, there was a series of stage holdups and robberies above Los Gatos and Lexington, the last, a village now covered by the dam of that name.


Life in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1800s was very wild. Small time bandits used the area as hideouts - picking on travellers as well as making forays into the 'big' towns. Local historian James Addicott records: "McIntyre, who raised cattle on the Zayante Creek Flats, was murdered by two men frenzied by drink who went after McIntyre's hidden treasure [money]. He was mercilessly butchered and his body burned in his pioneer mountain cabin... but they were chased and caught on Mt. Charley road by a San Francisco posse who hung them on the little old Los Gatos wooden bridge on Main Street."
- Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 17, 1950.

This section of the Santa Cruz mountains was then a common hideout for robbers, criminals, and bandits. One day, McKiernan spied two men near his cabin, and thinking that they were neighbors, he hailed them. Their furtive and quick disappearance gave him stage-robber suspicions. About that time, the County Sheriff and a posse on the hunt arrived. McKiernan told them of his suspicions and then lead them to a distant cabin which he thought a likely hiding place.

The scene was set, and although without camera and director, this real life drama unfolded. Cinema like, there was the fusillade of rifle fire and then quiet, broken only by whispered consultation. It was not explained why, but maybe just because he was Charlie McKiernan, our mountain man was first to kick in the cabin door. He got off two quick rifle shots and without bringing the gun to his shoulder. (Yes, critical reader, the Winchester Model 73 was then available.) He broke one bandit's arm and nicked the arm of his partner. A San Jose Judge dealt them out ten years sentences, giving partial lull to highway robbery in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Charlies Big Tree

The "Big Tree"

One of the present-day landmarks of the mountains is the "Mountain Charlie Big Tree," named for McKiernan after loggers had ceased their operations.
A Sequoia Sempervirens, originally over 300 feet high, the tree stands today 260 feet to its tip, broken off in a storm years ago. It Is located up a trail 300 feet North of Glenwood Drive and Main Blvd at the Big Redwood Park subdivision, a half mile north of Glenwood on Glenwood Drive.

GPS: WGS84 Datum.
   37.11700° N.
-121.98753° W.

One of the largest trees of its species in California, the tree is 20 feet in diameter at its base, 63 feet in circumference, and over five feet in diameter at the top. Because of its immense size and the difficulty presented in hauling out timber of its diameter in the rugged region where it grows, the tree was spared by woodsmen.

A second tree may be seen growing out of a broken branch more than 100 feet from the ground, itself a good-sized tree over two feet in diameter. It is now the property of McKiernan's Son, James V. McKiernan of San Jose.

Mountain Charlie Road

The Mountain Charlie Road Plaque

In 1982 a plaque was installed at the northern most end of
Mountain Charlie Road (near the Summit Road Overpass) stating:

Mountain Charlie Road

In 1858 the Santa Cruz Turnpike
Company issued a contract in the
amount of $6,000 to Charles Henry
"Mountain Charlie" McKiernan and
Hiram Scott for the construction
of a road. The road from the Scott
House, located in what is now Scotts
Valley, to the Summit was later known
as the McKiernan Toll Road. It sub-
sequently became part of the Santa Cruz
County road system on August 27, 1878
when the Santa Cruz Board of Super-
visors issued a warrant for $600.00
to Charles McKiernan in consideration
of such abandonment by him."

Dedicated October 9, 1982
Mountain Charlie Chapter No. 1850
E Clampus Vitus
"Right Wrongs Nobody "

Just west of Highway 17, off Summit Road, Mountain Charlie Road was once part of the McKiernan Toll Road from Scotts Valley to the summit. What remains of that original road, built in 1868, is now officially called Mountain Charlie Road. All that is left of Mountain Charlie Road is a 5.2 mile section of a beautiful narrow road that goes from the Summit to Glenwood Highway, and a 2 mile section that goes north from the Summit to the old Santa Cruz Highway.

A staunch Democrat in politics, he took an intelligent interest in public affairs, but was never an aspirant for official honors. He was much interested in the Masonic fraternity, and belonged to San Jose Lodge No.10, F. & A. M. and to the Santa Cruz Lodge No.38, R. A. M.

Although terribly disfigured (he wore a hat low over his left eye the rest of his life), McKiernan enjoyed full health until 1890, when he became ill with stomach cancer. He died at age 67 on January 16. 1892, forty-one years after the bear fight that made him famous.

Victorian Bar

Charlie's Grave

Charlie's Head Stone

He was buried in
Oak Hill Memorial Park.
300 Curtner Ave. San Jose, CA. 95125

On the North-West corner of Section-Q
(San Jose Avenue and Machpelah Avenue).
Block 121, Lot 2, Grave 4.

WGS84 Datum
   37.29924° N.
-121.86301° W.

Use the main entrance at Curtner Avenue and Little Orchard Street.
Map and directions to his, and other interesting historic gravesites are available at the cemetery office.

Victorian Bar


This biography was originally compiled in 1974 by
XNGH Jim "Boom-Boom" Arbuckle and XNGH Ed "Possum" Pearson.
Digitally transcribed and ammended in 2019 by XNGH Jack "Jackrabbit" Furlow.
© Copyright 2019 ECV1850. All Rights Reserved.

Arbuckle, Clyde
"Charles McKiernan Home Notes "

Beal, Richard A.
"Highway 17 - The Road to Santa Cruz "
The Pacific Group - 1991- (second edition)
Aptos, CA
ISBN 0-9629974-0-4

Bullmore, Lawrence
"Mountain Man "

Conaway, Peggy
"Images of America - Los Gatos "
Arcadia Publishing. 2004
San Francisco, CA
ISBN 0-7385-2903-6
Lib Congress: 2004104891

Prof. J.M. Guinn. A. M
"History of the State of California and Biographical Record of Coast Counties, California. 1904 "

O'Hare, Shiela and Berry, Irene
"Images of America - Santa Cruz California "
Arcadia Publishing. 2002
San Francisco, CA
ISBN 0-7385-2081-0
Lib Congress: 20002110144

Loomis, Patricia
"A Walk Through The Past - San Jose's Oak Hill Memorial Park "
The Argonauts Society Publication - The Press - 1998
76 Notre Dame Avenue
San Jose, CA. 95110
ISBN 0-9662244-0-X

Sacramento Daily Union
Vol 7, No.1000 Wednesday June 7, 1854 page 3.

Young, John V.
"Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains "
Western Tanger Press. 1984
Santa Cruz, CA.
Originally published in San Jose Mercury Herald, April 22, 1934.

Victorian Bar

For a virtual tour of Mountain Charlie-related historical sites including his
grave, road, cabin, bear fight, and big tree, please visit our website at:

Victorian Bar

The fine print:

Mountain Charlie No.1850 is a California non-profit Historical
Educational Corporation, registered with the State of Calfornia.

® "E Clampus Vitus" and "ECV" are registered trademarks of
E Clampus Vitus, Inc. and are used by expressed permission.
All Rights are reserved.
Revised and Expanded: 02-25-2019

Please use your BACK button to return whence ye came.

hand pointing left Return to MAIN MENU.