Robert Chalmers' life ended in mystery

Written by Joanne Burkett from research taken from Paolo Sioli's History of El Dorado County California, from El Dorado Co. birth, marriage, death and land records and often from interviews.

Robert Chalmers was born in Scotland on May 24, 1820, the firstborn child of William Chalmers and Elizabeth Templeton, who married in the town of Kilmarnock, south of Glasgow. When young Robert was 14 years old, his family moved to Haldeman County, Canada. The next five years were spent helping his father on the family farm until, at age 19, he married his first of three wives, another Scotland native, Katie Ferrier. They would have six children.

Wishing for independence, Chalmers took up the rope making trade as well as serving as a fireman on a steamer that plied the waters of Lake Erie. With the money he earned, he was able, in a couple years, to purchase a farm of his own. It was located in a forest setting, so Chalmers spent a good deal of time with his axe and an ox team, clearing space for a home. Ambitious and hard-working, he also soon had a good portion of his heavily-timbered land under cultivation.

One day, while operating his new threshing machine, the first in the county, Chalmers suffered a terrible injury that would have devastated many other men. His right hand became caught in the thresher and was crushed so badly that it had to be amputated. Within 24 hours, the determined man was back at work.

When news of the California Gold Rush reached Chalmers, he wasted no time selling his farm and moving his family close to his parents. In May, 1850, he boarded a steamer traveling up the Missouri River, on the first leg of his trip to the gold fields of California. However, disaster struck and the ship caught fire. Chalmers escaped with his life, but all his belongings were lost. Showing his determination and grit once again, he didn't let the loss deter him and, instead, continued on, arriving in Coloma that fall.

After trying his hand at various mining ventures, he went to work in a bakery and store owned by a man named Holmes, and subsequently stashed away some $2,500 before he made the return trip in January, 1852, to Canada and his family. This move apparently didn't satisfy him, though, because the following September he packed up his family and took them across the plains, back to Coloma. However, Katie would be gone within five years, dead of consumption.

His savings enabled him to soon purchase the Sierra Nevada Hotel, which he enlarged and improved, continuing as proprietor until 1865. However, in 1857, he lost Katie to consumption. Within two years he had a new wife, Delia Kneeland.

At the General Election, held Nov. 6, 1860, El Dorado County gave the Independent Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas, 2,697 votes against the Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln's 2,119. Chalmers was on the sorry end of his own bid for county treasurer, losing by 69 votes to J. L. Perkins.

During this same period, he served as Coloma postmaster from April, 1862, to August of the following year. For some time, he worked as a collector of foreign miners taxes, too. By 1867, Chalmers had gained clout, but just barely, winning the treasurer spot against John Theisen by only 44 votes. The following year, he lost in his bid for sheriff to J. B. Hume, but from 1871 to 1873, he realized his political ambitions by serving as a member of the California State Assemblyís 15th District.

On the local front, he was a member of several fraternal organizations. Although not a charter member of the Masonic Lodge, he was a member of Colomaís Acacia Chapter No. 92, which was chartered by the Grand Lodge in Sacramento on May 8, 1856. Chalmers was a lodge Master from 1864 to 1868, as well as a member of the International Order of Odd Fellows.

Sometime during this period, Delia died and, in 1870, he married Martin Allhoff's widow, Louisa and they had three children, two sons who died young and a girl, Louisa.

The farmers of El Dorado County organized a club and at a meeting held at Placerville on Sept. 7, 1872, the organization became known as the El Dorado County Farmers' Club, No. 1. The club elected Chalmers and G. G. Blanchard to represent it at the Farmers' State Club Convention meeting at Sacramento during the State Fair, which was in its 18th year. He was also a member of Coloma's Sutter Mill Grange, No. 179. Ultimately, though, Chalmers returned to his farming roots, letting his earlier political ambitions die. Over the next years, he developed his property and added to the vineyards started by Louisaís late former husband.

The Vineyard House, a large three-story structure was erected across from the Sierra Nevada House. It would serve as both a hotel and his family home. Actually, it became the town's social center. Dinners and balls were regularly on the agenda. He also developed the Coloma Winery on the property.

Although his formal education had ended at age 12, Chalmers was an intelligent and successful businessman, whose interests were varied. Music was always very important to him, so besides being a long-time member of the Coloma band, he taught music to the town's youngsters. But, by the time he died, on June 2, 1881, life had dealt Robert Chalmers some harsh blows. He had lost his sight and suffered from memory loss. Rumors began to circulate that he had lost his mind. Some even said that he had become so mad that Louisa had to lock him in a cell in the basement, which was built from bricks taken from an old jail.

It's been said that Chalmers finally died by starving himself to death, out of a paranoid fear that Louisa was trying to poison him. He was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery, across from Vineyard House, which, although no longer open, still stands, and even today, rumors abound. Some involve hauntings, apparitions, reports of ghost sightings and strange crying sounds in the night.

What do you think?

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