Hideaway in Plain Sight
In the 1850s the Mountaineer House was a well-known tavern and busy stage stop where multiple stagecoach lines rolled in daily to change their teams. Other travelers delivering wagonloads of goods passed by too, often stopping in for liquid refreshment. Set in a semi-wooded landscape, it was the only tavern and stage station on the dusty, winding road between Folsom and Auburn.
And, unbeknownst to most, the Mountaineer House was also an outlaw’s hideout and rendezvous.
The establishment’s owner was Englishman Jack Phillips, a former inmate of England’s penal colony in Sydney, Australia. Jack’s earlier criminal activities in California, if any, are unknown; but in 1856 he gave sanctuary to a local horse thief named Richard Barter, better known as “Rattlesnake Dick.” That same spring and summer, Phillips aided and abetted the notorious Tom Bell gang, who frequently met at the Mountaineer House between lawless sprees, to camp out and hide in a ravine behind the two-story inn. He also “spotted” for the gang, tipping them off when a traveler carrying a fat purse came by, so they could follow and rob the victim a few miles down the road.
Acting on such a tip in June 1856, the Bell gang accosted and robbed Samuel Rosenthal, a merchant who had stopped in for a drink at the Mountaineer House on his way south to Folsom. They tied Rosenthal to a tree in the surrounding woods, took $1,250 from his clothing, and left the victim to die. Some days later, they returned to the Mountaineer House to give Jack Phillips $150, his share of the loot. Months later, a couple out for an evening stroll found Rosenthal’s remains.
In August 1856 the Bell gang boldly attempted to hold up the Camptonville stage—which they knew from an informant was carrying a treasure box containing $100,000 in gold—as it was en route to Marysville. This was the first attempt in California to rob a moving stagecoach, and might have succeeded, had the Bell gang also known an armed guard would be aboard; but the planned robbery was a fiasco for the outlaws. A barrage of gunshots erupted, the stage driver was injured and a passenger was killed, and the surprised highwaymen fled in different directions. The stagecoach, with its gold intact, sped onward to Marysville where a posse was immediately formed.
When Tom Bell’s right-hand-man Bill Gristy was captured in Stanislaus County, he confessed to the Camptonville stage holdup and other crimes. Hoping to save himself from a longer prison term, Gristy quickly told all about his fellow thugs, including Jack Phillips. The other gang members were rounded up, or shot while trying to escape. Tom Bell was arrested at his hideout 120 miles south of Stockton, and on September 29, Phillips was arrested at his tavern.
A month prior to his trial on February 19, 1857—where he was sentenced to two years in San Quentin—Jack Phillips sold the Mountaineer House to real estate speculator Henry William Hook. In July 1857, the six mile section of road between Auburn and the Mountaineer House became part of the Auburn Ravine Turnpike toll road. Whereupon, Mr. Hook put the 160-acre property up for sale.
A subsequent owner built a ranch house on the foundations of the original inn, after the Mountaineer House burned to the ground in 1860.