Martin Kingman Harkness: Man of the Mines
“He was the most jovial of men; his fund of humor and humorous stories was inexhaustible and what ever heart aches came to him he locked them in his breast, never troubling his friends with them. He was most intense in his likes and dislikes, a shrewd judge of men and their motives. In this state he was a pronounced Liberal in the old days, a pronounced American since that party was formed. His brain was clear to the last; his eulogies of friends and denunciation of those whom he did not admire were as crisp and hearty as ever. We are glad that when the final messenger came he touched his lips so gently that he sank painlessly to his final sleep.”
So, the Salt Lake Telegram eulogized one of the Gold Rush’s colorful characters when he died in 1910 at the age of 79.
Like his older brother, Harvey Willson Harkness, Martin was born on a farm in Pelham, Massachusetts to John Harkness, Jr. and his wife, the former Esther Willson. At his death, newspapers gave his birth date as November 19, 1831. At age 17, he left New England with his brother for Chicago and it was there that the two caught wind of the tales of great wealth being dug from the ground in California. They traveled overland from Rock Island, Illinois to St. Joseph, Missouri and then west, passing Salt Lake City, on down the Humboldt River to Goose Lake and the Sacramento River. The trip took four months; they arrived in California in October of 1849.
The brothers split up at Bidwell’s Bar, Harvey heading for the city of Sacramento and Martin remaining in the mining regions of northern California for about eleven years. In 1860, with the discovery of the Comstock Lode, he went to Nevada and mined at Aurora and elsewhere for nine years. Then, he headed for the Puget Sound region for a year. In 1870, he returned to Salt Lake City, through which he had passed twenty-one years earlier, and settled for good. He was “one of the first Gentiles in the city.” One report said that he “tried mining in all its forms and by study, observation and a natural intuition became a real mining expert.” He was for awhile in charge of the mines at Alta, Utah. He was prominent in Salt Lake City — a man about town. In the year before he died, the Salt Lake Telegram paid tribute to his earlier exploits with the following:
“Martin cannot ride as well now as he did sixty years ago, but he can tell a good rider just as well now as then.
One of his favorite stories would be of a ride when he left Stockton. He would point out the very spot. He rode to Sacramento, fifty miles; then to Marysville, forty-five; then to Potter’s ranch on the Rio de Los Plumas—which is the picturesque name for Feather river — twenty-seven miles—122 miles in a little over twenty-four hours; the objective point being to find a gentleman whom, it was said, had a chest of gold dust so heavy that two men could not lift one end of it, and an eighteen year-old daughter. Martin had a friend with him who had an eye for some of that gold dust. Martin had an eye for all that girl, and a 122-mile horseback ride in twenty-four hours seemed to him in those halcyon days a journey of pleasure.
It is a lasting pity that he could not be in Stockton now to tell the younger generation there that while they imitate the old boys pretty well, the old, irrepressible, never-to-be-tired-out spirit is lacking, that among all the native sons there is not one of them who would find a gold mine; not one of them could find a man who had a chest of gold dust which two men could not lift one end of, and a daughter. But then, even Martin will cringe a little when it comes to that daughter, because she was not quite what he anticipated, or more properly speaking, she was more than he expected, and it took him three days to ride home. And the girl did not go with him.”
The same article included this pearl, which no doubt was written with Martin Harkness in mind:
“But we are not sure that they have any better times now than they had then. There is not half so much to hope for, and about all there is in this life is the hope of what is going to be tomorrow or [the] next day; that is, that is about all there is ahead of men. And there are not so many memories that they care to recall, but there are very bright memories around ‘49, and those that still live and recall those days are, while they recall them, in another world, and the innumerable hands that have gone back to dust are once more clasped, the voices that were a delight to them and which long ago grew still, are once more heard, and the mysteries that slept under the blue Sierras yet to be explored—all come back to them, and for a time they think that even the youth that they lost on the trail has returned to them…”
“Martin Harkness,” Salt Lake Telegram, 16 August 1910.
“Martin Harkness Better,” Salt Lake Telegram, 8 June 1910.
“Martin K. Harkness, Forty-Niner, Dies Here of Old Age,” Salt Lake Telegram, 15 August 1910.
“Mining Expert is Stricken,” Salt Lake Telegram, 4 June 1903.
“Pelham and the California Gold Rush: Selected Sources,” notes prepared for the author by Robert Lord Keyes, 21 July 2008.
“The Stockton, Cal. Celebration,” Salt Lake Telegram, 29 October 1909.