“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” by Bret Harte was one of the most famous 19th century American stories. It was made into a silent movie as early as 1919, and into an opera in 1932 (though this work, by Jaromir Weinberger, is not in the current repertory). It was filmed in Hollywood again in 1937 and remade in 1952. Yet few at Williams realize the origin of the name of the luxurious student dormitory known as Poker Flats.
In Harte’s original story, four people were exiled from the California Gold Rush town of Poker Flat. The story’s hero among the exiles was a gambler from the town of Roaring Camp, and the company included two prostitutes and a drunkard, though Harte’s delicate wording is part of the charm. These outcasts – John Oakhurst, the Duchess, Mother Shipton and Uncle Billy – travel halfway to the next town, Sandy Bar, where against our hero’s better judgment, they decide to travel no farther that day.
They run into a couple eloping from the next town – a young man known as “The Innocent” and his 14-year-old fiancee, Piney Woods – and together are battered by a severe snowstorm. Unlike so many of today’s literary reviewers, I will not give away the twists and turns of the plot other than to call attention to human selflessness, but I recommend the story highly to all. A web search on Google reveals at least three sites with the whole short story to read, given that it is long out of copyright. One possibility is http://www.bibliomania.com/ShortStories/Harte/Stories/chap13.html.
Harte was born in Albany in 1902. He went to the California gold rush country in 1854, where he followed several careers but was mainly a journalist and writer. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is another of his stories. His play with Mark Twain as coauthor, “Ah Sin” (1877), was not successful. He died in 1902.
How “Poker Flat” was turned into “Poker Flats” by Hollywood I don’t know. Given that it was already Poker Flats by about 1946, when David Bryant, then the director of theatre at Williams, was one of the first tenants in what was then unfinished buildings surrounded by mud. He said, “Who do they think we are, the outcasts of Poke apartments located relatively far out in Cole Field and thus apparently named Poker Flats. I thought then that associating themselves with outcasts was not a way to cheer up one’s soul, and I had the impression that the faculty living there were relatively unhappy with their lives. In any case, the apartments were painted brightly and cheered up considerably before they were turned over to undergraduates, and I know that they are now desirable. Irwin Shainman, professor emeritus of music, tells me that the name Poker Flats actually arose in about 1946, when David Bryant, then the director of theatre at Williams, was one of the first tenants in what was then unfinished buildings surrounded by mud.” He said, “Who do they think we are, the outcasts of Poker Flats?”
Further, the inhabitants of Poker Flat were not the outcasts. So to live in Poker Flat was to live in a gambling town, with lively transactions of all kinds going on.
Still, Poker Flats has connotations of undesirability to many. A rocket range 30 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, used to launch sounding rockets to study aurorae has been called Poker Flat Research Range after the Bret Harte story. It is operated by the University of Alaska for NASA. (See http://www.pfrr.alaska.edu.) I hope that Williams College’s Poker Flats and its inhabitants can contribute as much to knowledge.