"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

"Old Block" Was Always a Shining Light

by Don Baumgart

Today nobody would recognize his name, but when Alanzo Delano died in 1878 Grass Valley's flags were lowered to half mast, businesses closed, and tributes came pouring in.

Early in the Gold Rush, Hamilton Hall, Beatty Hotel, Judge Walsh's Mill and Wells Fargo lined the town's streets, and down one of them came a dapper man in a frock coat, a man known to most of the men and women in California in 1850.

"He saved our town when faith and hope were lost," wrote Elmer Stevens in the 1948 Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin.

Delano, called Old Block by his multitude of friends, left South Bend, Indiana, where he was a dealer in flour, silk, lard, whiskey, and bank stocks. His doctor recommended a change of climate and word was coming from California about the discovery of gold. In 1849 Delano headed west, where he would spend the next 25 years.

Coming overland Delano ended up in San Francisco, where he secured a job as correspondent for the Pacific News. It was his words, as much as his deeds, that would make him a well-known western hero...and not just in the Golden State. Forty-niners hoping to give the folks back home in the eastern United States a glimpse of the Gold Rush sent back hundreds of copies of the papers containing his accounts of life in the gold fields. It's said by some that Delano's humorous writings were an inspiration to both Bret Harte and Mark Twain.

His "Pen Knife Sketches" were picked up by a dozen California newspapers. He described himself in his writings as honest, "...for others were so much smarter than I, there wasn't a chance to steal. Only alternative was to dig or starve. I did both." In another candid admission, reported by Elmer Stevens, Delano, writing as "Old Block" (as in chip off the old block) said, "I owned one-sixth of the Massachusetts Hill, a splendid quartz lode which paid the workers admirably, the owners nothing."

He suggested in print that, because so many gold seekers were grass widowers -- those separated from their wives by circumstances other than death -- the name Grass Valley was a natural.

Along with his search for the yellow, Delano became a Wells Fargo express agent and banker. In 1855 a bank panic struck Grass Valley. Much like Jimmy Stewart's character in the motion picture, "It's a Wonderful Life," Delano jumped up on the counter of his bank and told depositors he would pay every dollar, selling all his personal property to do so. The promise quelled what might have become a riot.

On the heels of that averted disaster, another struck as Grass Valley was swept by fire. Sunrise revealed more than thirty acres of ashes where three hundred of the town's buildings had stood. Down the street came Alanzo Delano carrying a ten foot sign, "Wells Fargo Open for Business."

Renowned for his written words, Old Block was loved by his fellow townspeople for his spirit that just wouldn't give up.


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2005

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