Article Written by Faith Bennett
Petra Romero was born in Mexico around 1838 and joined the global migration to the North American West.1 Not much is known about Romero’s early life, but the nineteenth-century mining boom created the business opportunity that made her locally famous. Re-naming herself “Maggie Moore,” she became the owner and operator of a dance hall in Death Valley called Waterfall Dance House or “Madam Moore’s.”2
In 1864 silver ore was discovered in the hills of Inyo County. Pablo Flores, who is said to have made the first silver claim, named the town near Buena Vista Peak, Cerro Gordo (“fat hill”) signifying its promise to prospectors and prompting many Mexican and Anglo-American migrants to move to Inyo.3 By the 1870s, immigrants and migrants drastically outnumbered native populations.4 The recent migrants hoping to strike it rich mining the fat hill for silver were almost entirely male. Establishments such as Romero’s dance hall and another owned by Lola Travis, who also immigrated from Mexico, sought profits by offering these lone men food, drink, lodging, and sex.5
Romero purchased her establishment in 1871 for one hundred and fifty dollars and operated it as a dance hall and saloon for the next four years.6 Although at times Romero was recorded as “Mrs. Moore,” there is no conclusive evidence that she was married when she changed her name.7 Instead, it is likely that she, like other female proprietors of businesses catering to transient men in the West, chose a name that would attract customers. Some have theorized that the saloon-keeper may have selected the alliterative name for herself in reference to the popular Western stage actress Maggie Moore, a glamorous San Francisco-born Irish American performer then at the height of her popularity.8
Newspaper accounts and personal histories make frequent mention of Inyo County and its town of Cerro Gordo as being places that “had a man for breakfast” nearly every day, referring to the frequency of finding dead bodies in the morning.9 The saloons run by women like Travis and Romero were frequent sites of armed conflict. In January 1872, a reportedly drunken Sabine “Albino” Alvarez belligerently attempted to enter Romero’s business in order to obtain more liquor.10 He allegedly broke through a window, sending glass and debris onto her bed—a bed she shared with Rosales Garcia, according to the local newspaper.11 Garcia fatally shot Alvarez.12 Following a coroner’s inquest into the incident, authorities concluded that in truth, this was not a case of self-defense; rather, Garcia had broken the window himself in order to justify his killing of Alvarez by implying the dead man was the violent instigator.13
Romero was surrounded by violence as she operated what the Inyo Independent called a “dead-fall dance house.” In the so-called “Waterfall Incident,” one man tried to shoot another point-blank in the skull at Waterfall’s, prompting a “general” shootout in the establishment as well as a few days’ worth of retaliative shootings in town.14 Perhaps the stress became too much for Romero in 1874.15 After hosting one final dance at her establishment for a Fourth of July celebration, Romero sold the Waterfall to Concepión Flores for a sum of $3000.16
After the sale of her saloon, Romero fades from the historical record and there is no conclusive evidence to describe her next place of residence or her death. Records indicate that the Waterfall Dance House met its demise in 1880 when it caught fire.17
This project was made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation.
This project was conducted in Partnership with the University of California Davis History Department through the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, CA# P20AC00946
1 Year: 1870; Census Place: Cerro Gordo, Inyo, California; Roll: M593_73; Page: 318B; Family History Library Film: 545572. Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=try&db=1870usfedcen&h=14265374.
2 “Local Affairs,” Inyo Independent, February 15, 1873.
3 Robert C. Likes, Looking Back at Cerro Gordo (Pittsburgh, PA: RoseDog Books, 2010), 2.
4 Hank Thayer, “A Man For Breakfast: Crime and Violence in INYO County during the 1870s,” California Supreme Court Historic Society Yearbook 4, 1998, 43.
5 Likes, Looking Back, 25.
6 Robin Flinchum, Red Light Women of Death Valley (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015), 30, 32.
7 “Local Affairs,” Inyo Independent, January 27, 1872.
8 Likes, Looking Back, 159; Laura MacDonald and William A. Everett, The Palgrave Handbook of Musical Theatre Producers (Palgrave MacMillan, Portsmouth, United Kingdom, 2017), 137.
9 Thayer, “A Man for Breakfast,” 23.
10 “The Garcia-Alvarez Affair-Coroner's Inquest,” Inyo Independent, February 10, 1872, 6.
11 It is likely that Garcia’s first name may have been “Rosales,” or something similar. In the Inyo Independent, Garcia, who is identified as a man, is referred to as “Rosalia” and “Rosealtis.” One article from February 1872 mentions that reporters were unsure how to pronounce and spell his name. “The Garcia-Alvarez Affair-Coroner's Inquest,” Inyo Independent, February 10, 1872, 6.
12 The January 1872 article about the shootout in the Independent describes the initial break-in as having occurred in “Madam Moore’s” bedroom. Subsequent reporting on the coroner’s inquest refers to the same event as having occurred in the bedroom of “Rosalia Garcia” and features mention “Dona Pietra” as a witness who believed her establishment to have been disgraced by the events of the evening. “The Garcia-Alvarez Affair-Coroner's Inquest,” Inyo Independent, February 10, 1872, 6. “Local Affairs,” Inyo Independent, January 27, 1872.
13 “The Garcia-Alvarez Affair-Coroner's Inquest,” Inyo Independent, February 10, 1872, 6.
14 Willie Arthur Chalfant, The Story of Inyo (Chicago: W.A. Chalfant, 1922), 264.
15 “Local Affairs,” Inyo Independent, February 15, 1873.
16 Flinchum, Red Light Women, 32; “Balls,” Inyo Independent, June 27, 1874, 2.
17 “Fire in Cerro Gordo,” Inyo Independent, March 20, 1880, 2.