“Mountain Charley” McKiernan had finally met his match. Face to face with a 1,000 pound grizzly bear, standing almost ten feet tall on her haunches, McKiernan was acutely aware of his mortality. Her paws were raised in preparation for a deadly bear hug, and she was so close he could feel and smell her hot, fishy breath.
Two painfully long seconds passed and McKiernan raised his gun, aiming and firing shakily at the bear’s chest. The bullet found its mark but the bear was only momentarily stunned. Without enough time to reload his rifle, McKiernan beat the bear over the head with it until it broke, but this only enraged her. Lunging at McKiernan, she sunk her teeth into his skull. When the bear released her grip, he reached up to cover his face with his hands and the mother bear’s massive mouth closed around both his arms.
McKiernan’s 26 years flashed before his eyes and then the bear turned and left, as quickly as it appeared, lumbering quickly toward her cubs who were being attacked by the dogs of McKiernan’s hunting partner, Taylor. McKiernan was somehow still conscious but couldn’t move his legs. There was nothing for him to do but to sit and wait for help.
Mountain Charley McKiernan’s legendary fight with a California grizzly bear in 1854 made his name famous throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains. McKiernan was already respected for his bear hunting skills, and even though he lost this fight, it was said that after this encounter the grizzlies let him pass through their territory in peace.
Patched up with Pesos
Charley might have survived the bear attack, but he was left disfigured. The bear’s teeth chewed away his skull above the left eye up to the top of the frontal bone. The doctor hammered together two Mexican pesos to make a silver plate used to fill in the gap in his skull where the bear had exposed his brain. The makeshift plate began to corrode within three weeks and had to be replaced. McKiernan suffered through both procedures without anesthetics which were not yet readily available.
After suffering severe headaches, the second plate was removed two years later. McKiernan was put under with chloroform, the first known use of the new anesthetic in that region, and the doctors removed an abscess that had formed around a wad of hair left in the wound. His pounding headaches subsided after the surgery and the wound properly healed, but he began to always wear a hat low over his left eye to hide the disfigurement.
The First House in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Besides the bear fight, McKiernan was known as the first white man to permanently settle in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A plaque on the summit at Mt Charlie Road off the Old Santa Cruz Highway still marks the site of his simple log cabin. In the 1850s and ’60s, it was a popular place for stagecoach passengers travelling from Santa Cruz to Santa Clara to stop for dinner. It was also a county landmark for many years until it burned down in 1899.
What brought “Mountain Charley” McKiernan to the Santa Cruz Mountains in the first place? Born in Ireland in 1825, McKiernan traveled to Australia and New Zealand as a quartermaster in the British Army before coming to California in 1848 when he caught wind of the gold strike. He worked in the mines, somewhere near San Francisco, for $20 a day. McKiernan had never dreamed of making so much back home in Ireland where mining wages were $20 a year.
After saving up his wages for a year, McKiernan ventured into the Santa Cruz Mountains, where land was plentiful, to look for a place to stake his claim. He found it up on the summit at a spot once popular with the area’s native peoples. He began building his cabin on a site littered with mortars, pestles, and flint arrowheads. He later built some of the first roads through theses mountains, including Mt Charlie Road, several miles of which are still in use today.
When Lions, Bears, and Wildcats Ruled the Summit
Back in the 1800s, the land was still wild up on the summit. McKiernan soon found out the hard way that raising sheep on land shared by mountain lions, wildcats, and grizzly bears was not such a profitable business venture. Spanish explorers in the mid-1700s made the first written accounts of the area and one padre beautifully captured its rugged wilderness (misspellings are in the original text):
“The adjecent mountains were wild and rugged, the canyons deep and dark with the shadows of the forest. Coyotes broke the stillness with their dismal howls, and herds of deer slacked their thirst in the clear waters of the San Lorenzo. Grizzly bears were numerous, prowling about in herds, like hogs on a farm.”
McKiernan lived alone in these wild mountains for three years. He gave up on sheep and, instead, raised long-horned steer and hunted grizzlies and wild deer. It is said that the deer were still so unaccustomed to humans that one could be shot while grazing in the middle of a herd and the rest of the deer would only raise their heads for a moment before continuing their deliberate munching.
Near Death by Grizzly: Just Another Day in the Life of a Santa Cruz Mountain Settler
The mountain man had his first neighbors, the Burrell family, in 1853. This family and other settlers also had frightening encounters with grizzlies.
While out building a fence for his pigs, Lyman Burrell heard his pigs making strange noises so he went over to investigate. There on the trail was a mother bear and her cub running straight towards him. Burrell began to run as fast as he could but he tripped and fell flat on the ground. The mother bear came upon Burrell and took his leg in her jaws, biting down with her huge incisors. Luckily, she only took one bite and then continued running down the trail with her cub. Burrell survived and his leg healed after six months.
A Frenchman living in the nearby town of Lexington was not so lucky.
The Frenchman encountered a bear while out hunting and when he missed his shot, the bear bit his left hand and then took his left arm in its paws. With his free right hand, the Frenchman began pummeling the bear with his fists, eventually hassling the bear enough to cause it to let go and lumber off. He lost his left arm but, as the story goes, the bear was found dead in the woods from the man’s mighty blows.
Grizzly Cubs Make Poor Pets
It’s difficult to say how true these tales are, but what is certain is that grizzlies were a common sight in the 1800s. Sadly, the large number of settlers drawn to California by the promise of gold led to the extinction of the California grizzly by 1924.
McKiernan certainly played his part in the bear’s extinction. He was one of the best-known bear hunters in the Santa Cruz mountains although there’s no record of how many bears died by his hand. Another one of his encounters with a California grizzly bear ended in the mother bear’s death, leaving behind two cubs. McKiernan took the cubs home and kept them for a while until they killed one too many hogs and had to be destroyed.
Mountain Charley lived the exciting life of a homesteader and bear hunter in the Santa Cruz Mountains until his death in 1892 at age 67. His close calls with grizzly bears (and those of his neighbors) are reminders of how truly wild these mountains once were.
Please note that Mountain Charley is not to be confused with Charlie Parkhurst, another famous character from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
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- Evening Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) Thu, Jun 1, 1899. Newspapers.com. Downloaded on Feb 3, 2015. http://www.newspapers.com/image/50301192
- Evening Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) Tue, Sept 26, 1899. Newspapers.com. Downloaded on Feb 3, 2015. http://www.newspapers.com/image/50301600
- Evening Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) Fri, April 27, 1934. Newspapers.com. Downloaded on Feb 3, 2015. http://www.newspapers.com/image/51358019
- Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V. Young. Western Tanager Press, c1979, c1984.
- Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz. Richard A. Beal. The Pacific Group; 1991.
- Payne, Stephen Michael. A Howling Wilderness: a History of the Summit Road Area of the Santa Cruz Mountains 1850-1906. Santa Cruz, Loma Prieta Publishing Co., 1978.