The Mountain Charlie Story

Mountain Charlie McKiernan 1890

Portrait of Mountain Charlie McKiernan by Andrew P. Hill - 1890

Victorian Bar

The Mountain Charlie Story

Mountain Charlie was a legendary figure of the Los Gatos mountains. The stories range from fierce bear fighter (Charlie lost the battle... notice the wide brim hat that was used to cover the metal plate that was put in his head after his bear fight); to mountain top settler, eventually to become a toll collector. His very first toll road fare was unfortunately, the "poor" Circus on its way to Santa Cruz to perform. Not having the money to pass, Charlie had a stand off with the owners and eventually was threatened by their two circus elephants named Queen Elizabeth and Prince Albert. Eventually, Charlie was convinced to let them pass (for free), before being thrown over a steep cliff by a trained pachyderm.

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

The first white settler 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," is 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 McKiernan 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 Leitrlm, 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 whisky 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 his 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 Weavervllle). 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. Here he found that Spanish grants, squatters titles, and overlapping land claims to the pueblo properties made investment inadvisable at the time.

With a friend named Page, McKiernan set out for the Santa Cruz mountains early in 1850 to view the government lands. Following the old Indian trail from what is now Los Gatos. They stopped at the Laguna del Sargento, a beautiful lake which was a favorite camping place for Indian and Spanish travelers over the mountains, as was testified by the quantity of mortars, pestles and flint arrowheads found thereabouts.

Page continued on his way to Santa Cruz, but McKiernan had found the spot for which he had been searching, and there he settled, 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 the Skyline boulevard, and where a plaque now marks the location of his first cabin.

The 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 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, Grizzy (sic) bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and eagles made short work of his sheep flock. 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 blunderbuss. McKiernan made two trips a week to Alvlso 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 1852, when the 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 Sequel Road joins the Santa Cruz highway at Woodwardia now.

There were no roads west of The Alameda 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 1800 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. The grizzly was always treated with respect, and the best shot was a downhill shot with a fast horse for a quick get-away if necessary.

Encounters A She Grizzly
On May 8, 1851, McKiernan and a friend named Taylor from Santa Cruz started out for a gulch about a mile south-west of the McKiernan 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 near the bottom. As both were dead 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. McKiernan 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.

Bear Fight

Wounded Bear Attacks
McKiernan fired instantly, with the muzzle of his gun against her chest, while Taylor fired over Me Klernan's shoulder into the bear's face.

McKiernan 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 McKiernan 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 waist 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 leaving him his loaded rifle for protection, 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 half dollars 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.

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.

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.

But before he retired to San Jose in 1884 and his fine home on San Augustine Street, 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.

The Robbers
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 County was then a common hideout for robbers, criminals and banditos. One day Mountain Charlie 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. Charley told them of his suspicions and then lead then 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.

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 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 an obscure stomach ailment. He died on January 18. 1892, thirty-eight years after the bear fight that made him famous.

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 on private property 300 feet from the highway at Big Redwood Park subdivision, a half mile north of Glenwood on the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz highway.

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

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 on the private property of McKiernan's son, James V. McKiernan of San Jose.

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 subsequently became part of the Santa Cruz County road system on August 27, 1878 when the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors issued a warrant for $600 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.

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. He was buried on the North-West corner of Section-Q (San Jose Avenue and Machpelah Avenue) inside Oak Hill Memorial Park. 300 Curtner Ave. San Jose, CA. 95125

GPS: WGS84 Datum
N.  37.29924°
W. 121.86301°

Use the main entrance at Curtner Avenue and Little Orchard Street.
Map and directions to his and other 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 amended in 2014 by XNGH Jack "Jackrabbit" Furlow.

Clyde Arbuckle
"Charles McKiernan Home Notes"

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

Lawrence Bullmore
"Mountain Man"

Peggy Conaway
"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"

Patricia Loomis
"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.

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

John V. Young
"Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains"
Western Tanager Press, 1979, 1984.
Originally published in San Jose Mercury Herald, April 22, 1934.

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

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