In the old west every gold rush boom town had its queen. And the queen of Canyon City in its heyday was Mary St. Clair. By all accounts, she was one of the most remarkable persons in an era filled with extraordinary characters.
Here is a quote from someone who was a child in gold rush Canyon City and saw Mary in action: "Perhaps the most noted hell-raiser in the history of Canyon City was Marie St. Claire. The wildest, toughest and most beautiful light woman the houses there ever had. Marie was kind and generous to everyone. If crossed, though, she could draw and plug her man with the best of them. I remember that she would go horseback riding in men's clothes, something no lady, scarcely a light one, would do. When she dressed in her gorgeous velvet dresses she could dazzle anyone. Marie lived extravagantly. Her home had every luxury known to the world at that time. Her silver service was particularly beautiful. Wild, beautiful, dangerous Marie St. Claire had the secret admiration of everyone, despite her profession."
From the reminiscences of a contemporary who saw her in both the Dalles and Canyon City: "Mary St. Clair, who was known from British Columbia to Old Mexico, was one of the famous characters of The Dalles in those days. She would charge you $20 a bottle for champagne, but she would hand the money over to anyone who needed it just as cheerfully as she took it. She had a heart as big as an ox, and if anyone was sick, she was the first one to offer help and the last one to leave."
An old timer testified that she could ride with the best of them: "She was expert with horses which led to her filing on a homestead in Bear Valley." (Bear Valley is a vast and remote valley in the mountains southwest of Canyon City.)
The daughter of one of Canyon City's original families relates a story her mother told her: "Word got around the Indians were after Papa's cattle. My brother Ernest, was about three or four. She decided they would walk from the house down to Canyon City. There was this lady who was the most notorious lady in Canyon City. She had diamond shoe buttons. Mama said she was very cultivated. She was beautiful. Anyway, Mama was walking along and saw her coming. Mama asked the what in the world she was up there for and she said, "I came to get you." So she put them on the horse and Mama asked her how she happened to know about that. She said "I asked all the men in Canyon City and they seemed to know what was going on. I asked them why someone wasn't coming up here to get you. They said, 'she's all right.' It made me mad so I decided I'd come for you." Mama said, "How'd you happen to feel that way?" She said, "Because you're the only woman in Canyon City who doesn't switch her skirt when you walk by me."
Joaquin Miller had this to say: "There were but two things in the world worth looking upon. One of these was all-glorious Mt Shasta in her sheen of silver at night and mantle of purple and gold by day; the other was queer, dear, delightful Mary St. Clair."
Another pioneer reminisces: "Two young fellows who were cabining together fell out over grub matters and fought a duel with knives. One received several stabs in the chest, the lungs being severely slashed. It was thought that he deserved all he got for he bore a low character, mean & quarrelsome. Notwithstanding all this, the saloon men & gamblers, as well as others, chipped in & hired a man to nurse him through to health. Old Mary St. Clair, a famous keeper of a house of ill fame took a prominent part in helping the poor fellow, declaring all the time that the son-of-a-- was too mean to live and wished the other fellow had finished him outright, but as it was she couldn't bear to see him suffer."
She evidently was an astute businesswoman because when Canyon City burned August 12 1870 Mary St. Clair's saloon and contents were valued at $20,000. The only larger claims were McCollough & Hellman's storehouse and goods at $100,000 and the county courthouse and jail at $40,000.
At her death in 1876 the estate was valued at $40,000. She left bequests in her will to a sister in New York and for the education of a nephew.
And that little bit is basically everything I have been able to find about a woman who in her day was "known from British Columbia to Old Mexico". I will leave you with one last tidbit, you can make of it what you will. In 1854 a California newspaper announced: "The Enchantress, Miss Mary St Clair the female necromancer, has gone to Stockton."
Wild Beautiful and Dangerous, The Story of Mary St. Clair
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