By Mark McLaughlin ·
Lower Lola Montez Lake
At Donner Pass, fascinating history and stunning scenery combine to provide some of the most awe-inspiring walks and hikes in the United States. Several years ago the Donner Summit Historical Society began installing informative plaques as it established the 20 Mile Museum along Donner Pass Road from Donner Lake west to Cisco. The recent purchases of Summit Canyon east of Donner Pass and the Royal Gorge tract west of the Pacific Divide, and the conversion to public trust land, has added even more jewels to this region.
One relatively easy hike in the Donner Pass area is the 6- to 7-mile roundtrip excursion to Lower Lola Montez Lake. This picturesque alpine lake is named for the most famous woman to visit California during the gold rush. Montez, an internationally known, Irish-born dancer and stage actress, had previously shocked critics and audiences in Europe with her risqué personal behavior and seductive stage performances. She was beautiful, sexy and liberated, and therefore highly controversial.
There was no doubt that when Lola stepped onto a San Francisco wharf in May 1853 that wild excitement would soon follow. Montez had just finished a successful, albeit controversial tour in the eastern United States, but she arrived in the Golden State with virtually no notice and no advance theater bookings or promotional advertisements. In fact, only a few lines in the local newspapers noted her arrival, but that didn’t matter. Glamorous and boldly unconventional, Montez had a special quality about her that attracted an ardent following based more on her persona and beauty than on her talent.
Only 30-years-old, Lola had already been married three times and had had numerous and often scandalous public affairs, including a tryst with the king of Bavaria. But the young, sophisticated population of San Francisco couldn’t be bothered with that. When she began performing at the American Theater, spectators packed the house, despite seat tickets as high as $5, about 10 times the price of her East Coast engagements. Montez’s signature stage move was her Italian-style Spider Dance, during which she frequently pulled up the folds of her skirt as if she had just discovered imaginary spiders in her dress. Under her multi-colored petticoats were flesh-colored tights and when she lifted her skirt it exposed her shapely legs to the delight of the mostly male audience.
In keeping with her spontaneous nature, two months after she arrived in California Lola married Patrick Hull, a 32-year-old San Francisco journalist whom she had just met in Panama while making the final leg of the journey from New Orleans to San Francisco. She married Hull in a Catholic ceremony at a local church, despite the fact that she had not yet divorced her two previous husbands. That afternoon, the couple sailed for Sacramento to begin Lola’s tour of the California mining camps in the Sierra foothills. The couple seemed happy in San Francisco, but shortly after they began to tour the California interior the marriage fell apart. One month later, Montez initiated divorce proceedings against Hull claiming incompatibility. After well-attended performances in Marysville, Grass Valley and Nevada City, Lola decided to quit the stage and return to Grass Valley where she purchased a small cottage. Apparently, Lola needed a break from her fast-paced career. The actress spent several years in Grass Valley hunting, exploring mines and entertaining visitors while writing her memoirs. One observer noted that she was sometimes seen riding her pony “puffing her cigar with as much gusto as a Broadway dandy.”
Even in retirement, the eccentric actress continued to draw media attention. She had always loved animals and at the cottage she established a menagerie that included a dozen dogs and cats, pet birds, goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and even a young male grizzly bear cub. She also had a greenhouse built where she grew exotic plants and flowers. In July 1854, Montez joined an extended horseback excursion up and over the summit of the Sierra Nevada. The group explored Donner Lake and camped near the abandoned cabins of the Donner Party, pioneers who had been trapped there by snow just seven years before. Intrigued by the historic event, Lola collected as souvenirs a few of the human bones that still lay around the area. One result of this packing trip into the Sierra was the naming of topographical features for her, including 9,148-foot high Mount Lola north of Donner Pass, as well as upper and lower Lola Montez lakes.
Lola had stormed into the Golden State and then quickly retired in the Sierra foothills, but by 1855 she had either renewed her love for performance or was running out of money. Due to high interest rates, political corruption and the increasing difficulty in extracting gold from the earth, California was suffering from its first economic recession and financial institutions were failing. But gold had been discovered in Australia and Lola decided that a tour down under would refill her coffers.
She left for San Francisco where she rounded up a troupe of performers to join her. Despite her loose moral code, many residents in Grass Valley were sorry to see her go, attesting to her intellect and kindly nature. Once in Australia, however, Lola’s temper tantrums and dysfunctional love affairs broke up the troupe. While returning to California, her agent and current lover, Noel Follin, angry with Lola for cheating on him, committed suicide at sea. Depressed herself, Montez performed a few more times in San Francisco and Sacramento before selling her properties and jewelry collection and moving to New York City.
In New York, Lola became an avid fan of Spiritualism, whose followers held séances to converse with the dead. In June 1860, she suffered a major stroke and was partially paralyzed for some time. In mid-December, she had recovered enough strength to begin walking again, but that winter she contracted pneumonia and died on Jan. 17, 1861, at the age of 42.
Lola Montez was a troubled woman who lived a wild life, but along the way she had helped many others who were less fortunate than her. During her stay in Grass Valley, she taught performance art to Lotta Crabtree, a talented 8-year-old girl who went on to become the highest paid actress in America. But, that’s a story for another day.
Weather historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com.