Of Mount Lola and Lotta Crabtree’s San Francisco Fountain

At 9,148 feet, Mount Lola is the highest point in Nevada County.

It’s located north of Donner Pass and Interstate-80.

The peak’s namesake is Lola Montez, baroness, collector of men, shrewd entertainer and embellisher of stories, many of which involving her life

lola_montezMontez portrayed herself as Spanish dancer Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez:

Lola for short.

Except she was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Grange, County Sligo, Ireland on February 17, 1821. She said she was born in Limerick.

From 1853 to 1855, Montez was a resident of Grass Valley where she met – and befriended — 6-year-old Lotta Crabtree, encouraging her to become an entertainer.

The bawdy, cigar-smoking Crabtree went on to become a nationally known star who was advertised in 1859 as “Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite.”

After her family moved to England when she was 16, Montez eloped with a British Army lieutenant, subsequently assigned to service in India. They divorced in 1842 in Calcutta.

Montez began her posing as a Spanish dancer when she returned to England. She then took her act to the Continent where she was known, politely put, as more of a courtesan than a dancer.

Her signature performance is most commonly called the “Spider Dance,” although some sources refer to it as the “Tarantula Dance.”

The central feature was the shaking of her skirts and subsequent lifting of them in order to allegedly rid herself of the offending arachnids.

In the process, by moral standards of the time, an indecorous – although apparently alluring — swath of leg was shown.

Montez had an affair with Franz Liszt, the composer, became part of Parisian literary society and then moved to Munich.

She became the lover of Ludwig I of Bavaria but her sharp tongue and autocratic personality wonder her no favor among the populace.

Nonetheless, Ludwig made Montez the Countessa of Landsfeld.

For one year Montez was on top of the world. Then, in 1848, somewhat like the Middle East today, the desire for revolution swept Europe.

Ludwig abdicated. Montez removed herself to Switzerland, waiting for him to join her.

He didn’t. She went to London and married again.

As might be predicted by previous experience, the marriage didn’t take. And, in 1851, Montez decided to start anew in the United States.

After performing on the East Coast, she saw more opportunity in California, relocating to San Francisco. She married a local newspaperman and they relocated to the boomtown of Grass Valley.220px-Lola_montez

The marriage ended swiftly but Montez stayed longer. She cared for, among other things, a pet bear cub she kept tethered in her yard.

There are varying accounts of the relationship between Lotta Crabtree and Montez.

All agree that Crabtree was the daughter of a couple that ran a boarding house in town.

Several histories, including the Sierra Nevada Virtual Museum, assert that Montez taught the 6-year-old Crabtree to dance and sing a few Irish songs. Others suggest this was an invention of Crabtree when she – or her bossy stage manager mother – saw enhanced marketability through a link with the scandalous Montez.

The Troupers of the Gold Coast or the Rise of Lotta Crabtree by Constance Rourke was written four years after Crabtree’s death in 1924.

In the somewhat florid prose of the time, the book says Montez taught Crabtree to horseback ride and, on one occasion, stood her on a blacksmith’s anvil in Rough & Ready, bade her dance and pronounced she should perform in Paris.

In 1855, Montez tried to revive her career by journeying to Australia’s gold fields and regaling Down Under miners with her “Spider Dance.” One account has her asking Crabtree’s mother, Mary Ann, to allow her daughter to go with her.

Montez returned to the United States in 1856 and moved to New York, spending some of her time performing rescue work for women.

She suffered a stroke, partially recovered, went for a walk in chill weather, contracted pneumonia and died a few months shy of her 40th birthday.

Crabtree, chaperoned by her controlling mother, toured the Gold Country. She danced, sang and played the banjo.

lottaIn 1863, she embarked on an East Coast tour, performing in various plays. Eventually, she became so successful she was able to finance her own troupe, an uncommon luxury at the time.

In one play, The Little Detectives, Crabtree impersonated six characters. Mostly the plays were vehicles to showcase her singing, dancing and somewhat salty asides.

By 27, Crabtree was one of the highest paid actresses in America. Her mother invested her money in a variety of areas but primarily real estate

In 1875, Crabtree donated money to erect a fountain at the intersection of Montgomery, Geary and Kearny in San Francisco’s Financial District. An animal lover, Crabtree insisted the fountain slake the thirst of human and horse. At her death, she gave $300,000 to the Lotta Dumb Animal Fund.

The fountain, shown at right in 1885, was a gathering point for survivors after the 1906 earthquake.geary_kerny_1885_thumb

It still stands.

Crabtree never married and retired from show business in 1892, age 45.

She moved to the East Coast but returned to San Francisco in 1915 for “Lotta Crabtree Day” at the Panama Pacific International Exposition.

Crabtree died in 1924 at age 77. Her mother’s investments paid off – Crabtree’s estate totaled $4 million of which she left the bulk to charities benefiting war veterans, aging actors, animals and public education.


Filed under: California History

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