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The Loyalton Fire started near her mountain, but who is Ina Coolbrith?

By Debra Moore

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Ina Coolbrith

The Loyalton Fire originated east of Loyalton and southwest of Mount Ina Coolbrith on Aug. 14, destroying homes, forcing evacuations and charring more than 44,000 acres to date. We imagine that was the first time that many people had heard of the mountain, and it also begs the questions who is Ina Coolbrith?

Turns out that she was quite an impressive lady who worked as a journalist, mentored Jack London, became California’s first poet laureate, and was the first female member of the San Francisco Bohemian Club. She was also the niece of the founder of the Mormon Church and traveled into the area on horseback with Jim Beckwourth. In an ironic twist, her own home burned during the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.

According to information found through the California State Library and the other sources, here’s a brief bio on the remarkable woman.

Ina Coolbrith was born Josephine Donna Smith (niece of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith), in Nauvoo, Illinois on March 10, 1841.

Her father died of pneumonia five months later, and after her uncle’s murder, which coincided with the Mormons’ expulsion from Illinois, Josephine’s mother took her to St. Louis and married William Pickett.

In 1851 the family traveled overland to California, during which Josephine, then 10, entered the new state on horseback with famed scout Jim Beckwourth.

Settling in Los Angeles, Josephine began writing poetry and, after a short marriage, moved to the San Francisco area. There, she shortened her first name to Ina, and took her mother’s maiden name.

Ina became associate editor of the Overland Monthly, wrote more poetry, and became acquainted with many of the leading literary figures of the day. Some of those she corresponded regularly with included Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Gertrude Atherton, Joaquin Miller and Charles Warren Stoddard. Jack London called her his “literary mother” and Isadora Duncan recalled in her memoirs “the beauty and fire of the poet’s eyes.”

At the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915 she was appointed President of the Congress of Authors and Journalists. While arranging for the event she wrote over 4,000 letters to the leading writers and journalists in every country, including Tennyson, Whittier, and Longfellow.

Coolbrith also worked as head librarian in Oakland for many years, and in 1915 was named the first Poet Laureate of California. The president of the University of California and the Board of Regents presented her with the title “California’s loved, laurel-wreathed poet,” and the California state legislator confirmed her position as (California’s first Poet Laureate) — the first in the United States—in 1918. She bore the honor until her death. Ina Coolbrith died on Feb. 29, 1928.

On the day of her funeral the Legislature adjourned in her memory and soon afterward named a 7,900 foot peak near Beckworth Pass “Mount Ina Coolbrith.”


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