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Roosevelt just missed the lion

For The Madera Tribune

S.S. Anderson poses with the mountain lion he killed in a grove of trees near Berenda’s Vignolo Hotel in 1903.


It is a well-known fact that President Teddy Roosevelt loved to hunt big game. It is also a well-known fact that he visited Berenda in 1903 on his way to Yosemite. What may not be so well known is, if he just been a few days earlier in coming to the Valley, he might have had a chance to bag a huge California mountain lion.

The appearance of big game on the floor of the San Joaquin Valley was not an unusual sight during the 19th century. Bears, mountain lions, deer and antelope were often found along the waterways that coursed across the plains.

By the turn of the century, however, only the ubiquitous jackrabbit was left. Civilization had eliminated the herds of antelope and had driven the deer, bear, and California lions back to their mountain habitat. Memories of the free running wildlife in what is now Madera County had faded, and by 1903, one could reasonably expect to be able to lie down under the eucalyptus trees near the southern Pacific depot at Brenda and not be bothered by “panthers,” at least so thought one man.

Claude Bradley was known to Maderans as a “tramper.” He had trouble hanging on to long-term employment. The temperature was rising quickly on that day in early May, and Bradley, who had been without luck in finding a job, spotted the grove of trees that stood south of the depot. This seemed like the perfect refuge from the toil of searching for work, so the young man nestled up around the trunk of one of the trees and fell asleep.

At 2 p.m., the Southern Pacific passenger train came steaming into Berenda and woke Bradley. As the man sat up and opened his eyes, he was astonished at what he saw; a huge mountain lion was perched just a short distance from him and appeared ready to move in his direction.

Bradley jumped up, grabbed a handful of stones and began to pelt the animal, who in turn growled, bared its teeth, and jumped up into one of the trees. Relinquishing possession of the eucalyptus refuge, Bradley ran to the nearby Vignolo Hotel where he found several men conversing on the porch. As he strained to relate the events of the past few moments, the patrons of the hotel were tempted to pass Bradley off as a lunatic. No one could remember a mountain lion ever having made its way to Berenda before. Two of the group, however, decided to have a look before dismissing the story as the product of an overwrought mind.

John Vignolo, and S.S. Anderson, followed Bradley back to the eucalyptus grove, and, sure enough, there in the trees was the huge cat. Anderson, who was carrying his shotgun with him, took aim and fired. The animal fell to the ground.

The lion measured eight feet from the nose to the tip of the tail and weighed 200 pounds. Anderson loaded the carcass onto his wagon and proceeded to Madera. He was going to save this moment for posterity. Making his way to the photographic gallery on D Street, Anderson had his picture taken with his prize. Within a short time, a large crowd of Maderans gathered around the shop to catch a glimpse of the animal.

Speculation as to the reason for the lion’s presence in Berenda began to run rampant. One observer noted the animal’s coat did not appear as tawny as those normally seen in the mountains. This led to the conjecture that the animal had recently escaped from the circus, which had just passed through town.

Another of the local wags proffered the suggestion someone was planning a surprise for President Roosevelt when he arrived at Berenda a few days hence, on his way to Yosemite. It was reasoned since it was well known that the President relished the thrill of a big game hunt, Madera County would accommodate him by providing the prey.

Others in the crowd, however, rejected this hypothesis as pure balderdash, asserting the lion had simply followed the sheep down from the mountains. This guess was soon put to rest, though, when it was pointed out the sheep at the present time were moving toward the mountains, not away from them. In the end, no one could offer a completely acceptable explanation for the appearance of the mountain lion in Berenda. What was established, however, was the fact that in bygone days the presence of wildlife in Madera County was more the rule than the exception.

Memories were stimulated; stories proliferated. It was recalled that in 1876, the year of Madera’s birth, a huge herd of antelope had been seen crossing the tracks near the Fresno River. Someone remembered that James Kenny had come very near losing his life in a personal encounter with a bear in the early 1870’s. In 1886 there had been the much publicized “lion drive” on the Tuolumne River to rout out the lions that had been nesting there. As recently as 1899, James Brusie had shot a lion, which his dogs had cornered, north of the Chowchilla River.

Very soon came the realization that no matter how Anderson’s lion got to Berenda, there had once been a time when big game roamed unmolested along the rivers of what is now Madera County. In 1903, the area was not that far removed from the pristine environment that had once nurtured nature’s wildlife. S.S. Anderson’s mountain lion, stuffed and on display in Madera, poignantly brought the point home.


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