Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 8/1989
No! There is absolutely no evidence Jesse James was ever even close to our Mountain. But many of his gang were. Here’s what happened. At the gang’s core sat Jesse and Frank James, and Cole, Bob and Jim Younger. Cole was #2 in rank. Cole and Frank met in the Civil War as early members of the 400 man, Missouri based, “Quantrill’s Raiders” – the most infamous and bloodthirsty of all southern gorilla war-fare groups. Eventually Jesse and the younger Younger joined too. As the south failed, and with a long list of criminal charges heaped on top of military ones, they all took to hiding. Jesse and Frank James hid alternately between Tennessee and Texas, while the Youngers alternated between Texas and California – all of them, regularly meeting in the Missouri-Kansas area for robberies.
Cole Younger was a cold-blooded murderer, capable of turning terror on and off like we might a water faucet – on women, children and helpless men, both during and after the war. He was rarely in a “fair fight”, but he was smart and capable of abiding the law when he wanted to – primarily in his safe havens here and in Texas. He also alternated between roles as the southern gent and the wild womanizer. In Texas he relieved the future “outlaw queen” Belle Starr of her virginity and over several years fathered a daughter by her (Pearl Younger), whom he later denied. Just a great guy! In 1864, as the south decayed, Cole led his-brothers, and six “Raiders” to La Honda, where his cousin, Richard Ray had two ranch sites – one, 750 acres north of La Honda at the Mountain’s base, and the other, 350 acres higher up, straddling Starr’s Hill Road, right next to M.M. Starr’s Ranch. As discussed in an earlier blog, what is now Star Hill Road then ran all the way through to San Gregorio and connected to La Honda as part of the Redwood City and San Gregorio Turnpike (RC & SGT), which, via its link to what is now Kings Mountain Road was the main and best route tying Redwood City and the south San Mateo Coastside.
In those days the Mountain top was primarily mill men and a sprinkling of hermits. Around the north, south and west edges, as elevations fell, there were mainly dairy ranchers. These woodsy types weren’t much concerned with life east of the Bay, and were emotionally distant from the all consuming north-south tensions choking the Eastern United States. To Kings Mountain the Civil War was less a passion, than a nation of crazies on virtually the other side of the world. That was all great for the Youngers. Remaining anonymous, while adopting the “Ray” name, Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger, and various others came and went at length until the day they rode from here to meet Jesse James en-route to the ill fated 1876 Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery, where most of them were captured. The attached pictures are from Northfield, and show what a great looking bunch they were.
In this area they lived both by La Honda and off of Starr’s Hill Road. They are known to have worked in the lumber mills, but it isn’t certain which ones. Fellow gangster, John Jarret clearly worked in Tunitas Canyon for a season, but of the Youngers less is known. Interestingly, the Youngsters and Jarret were also among the “carpenters” in the building of what is now the store in La Honda. They probably worked primarily to provide social “cover” – to seem just like everyone else out in the woods. They probably provided their cousin with financial assistance in exchange for their cover. What most intrigues me is the Redwood City connection. Redwood City was the mill-men’s town-of-trade. As in every 19th century mill town, the mill-mens’ main concerns were the three “Ls” – lumber, liquor, and ladies. Most of their earnings from the lumber they spent later on the latter two. Jim Younger actually spent 1875 cavorting in Redwood City, one block from the Court House, adopting the name “Joe Hardin”. Cole and Bob went back and forth, from hiding in the hills, to town to blow a little steam. While a rough road ran about where highway 84 runs now, it was bad at best, and often completely impassable. The main route was the RC & SGT – up Starr’s Hill Road, to Froment Road (now Tunitas Creek), to what is now King’s Mountain Road.
En-route, as one of the Mountain’s typical hard living hermits or mill-men you might pass and converse with the Youngers on the roads, without ever knowing you were in the presence of a man like Cole Younger who had committed more than 100 ruthless murders. As Bob Younger calmly remarked at the time of their capture, regarding brother Cole’s nine bullet wounds: “We are rough men and used to rough ways.” The reason they fit in well was that most everyone else in the Sierra Morena mountains and foothills fit the same description – rough. For example, a little later George Harkins was shot by a robber (his cabin still stands just west off Skyline – the first house south of the MROSD north parking lot). Tough as a hawk, Harkins apprehended his armed assailant and delivered him to the sheriff. Harkins finally died of an insect that bored through his ear into his brain. Rough. As described in my article, Purdy “The Shingle King” Pharis died of a bullet, probably murdered by Hiram Haskins. There were several more murders, and while most folks’ lives were less dramatic, no one here had it easy, or clean. Philip and Maggie Kreiss raised kids in a tiny shack with a hand dug well and no indoor plumbing (where Filbert and County Roads meet). He cut oak and “ate dust” to town to sell it as firewood. Nathan Comstock hunted for a living his whole life. At age 90, he was pinned outside for days under a small oak that fell in a November storm – until rescued by Steve Perkins. Comstock survived. Rough. Because fires regularly burned the Mountain and the mills, some men, rather than building cabins, economized by putting boards over the top of 12-14 foot diameter burned-out, old-growth redwood stumps – and lived inside. Rough. Speaking of rough, after Northfield, the Youngers spent a quarter century in prison – and never saw our beautiful Sierra Morena mountains again.