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#285: EILLEY ORRUM: CRYSTAL BALL ON THE COMSTOCK

When Alison (Eilley) Orrum was a young girl growing up in the Highlands of Scotland during the 1830s, she already sensed she was destined for more than the dreary life of farming. Born in Sept. 1826, Eilley was bright-eyed, spirited and had an enthusiastic zeal for life.

As itinerant farmers the Orrum family moved frequently, but Eilley was optimistic about her own fate. She had a secret “peep stone” that she believed could tell her the future. And the future looked bright indeed to this passionate and adventuresome teenager. When she looked into her crystal ball it prophesied great wealth and life in a mansion, but little else. No solutions were forthcoming on how to acquire that promised fortune.

The first step came when 15-year-old Eilley married Stephen Hunter with a ceremony in the Church of Scotland. Hunter was four years older than Eilley, but did not seem like an adventurer and he certainly wasn’t rich. Six years later though, he met Mormon missionaries who were proselytizing for their faith. Hunter became an ardent believer and was baptized into the new Church of Latter Day Saints.

When her husband decided to immigrate to America, Ellie agreed to travel with him and several hundred other converts who were sailing for the rapidly growing Mormon enclave of Nauvoo, Illinois. When Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in 1844, virtually all the religious followers fled for the safe haven of Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, led by the Church's new president, Brigham Young. By the time the Hunter’s reached Utah in 1849 their relationship was on the rocks. The couple had no children and after eight years of marriage they divorced in 1850.

In 1853, Eilley married Alexander Cowan, a devout Mormon farmer also born in Scotland. Mission work took them to remote Mormon Station (present-day Genoa, Nevada, just east of Lake Tahoe) before they relocated to Franktown in nearby Washoe Valley. This area was the far western frontier of the proposed State of Deseret that the Mormon Church hoped to settle. 

The couple purchased 320 acres of good farm land that included a house and corral. In 1857, the U.S. Federal Government sent troops to Salt Lake City in a conflict known as the Utah War. To protect his acolytes, Brigham Young recalled all the church’s colonist’s back to defend the core community at Salt Lake City. Alex Cowan heeded Young’s command to return, but Eilley refused. She divorced Cowan and headed for a small mining camp in Gold Canyon (near present-day Virginia City) where she opened a boarding house for prospectors and miners.

In 1858, Ellie ordered a crystal ball from San Francisco, which was delivered by none other than the legendary skiing mailman John "Snowshoe" Thompson. Soon she was making money as a psychic and fortune teller in Virginia City in addition to her boarding house enterprise.

In boom-and-bust Comstock towns like Virginia City, Silver City and Gold Hill, fortunes could be made and lost in a matter of days. Getting a hint on what the future may hold was a popular pastime for those hoping to strike it rich and fortune telling was big business around the mining camps.

According to local lore, Ellie was given 10 feet of mineral vein by an impoverished miner who couldn’t pay for his room and board. The claim was right next to one owned by Lemuel Sanford “Sandy” Bowers, a hardworking, but illiterate and unrefined mule skinner from Missouri. 

Ellie and Sandy ended up getting married and very rich when they combined their two claims. Ellie was 33 years old and Sandy 29. They erected a stamp mill to extract silver and gold from the bulk ore and soon realized $500,000 in profit. At times the mine was paying $18,000 per week. Ultimately the couple’s fortune peaked at $4 million.

Beginning in 1861 Sandy and Eilley built their Bowers Mansion in Washoe Valley south of Carson City for $400,000. Doorknobs were made of solid gold. They hosted a public banquet at the International Hotel of Virginia City where fine food and champagne were given away in abundance. In his toast, Sandy Bowers said, “I’ve been in this country amongst the first that came here. I’ve had powerful good luck, and I’ve got money to throw at the birds.”