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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Daily 1855 life detailed in traveler’s journey

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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From mining camps, hotels, by steamer led way to Benicia

This is the second part of the story originally published in the Solano Herald on Dec. 1, 1855. In it, an unnamed gentleman talked about his journey from Sacramento to Benicia via the mining towns and camps of Amador and Calaveras counties.

In my last column, we left the traveler, his friend the Colonel, and several related ladies at the entrance to a mining operation, the Keystone mine, in Volcano.

“We entered the tunnel, Mr. M. pushing the car, which ran easily over the railroad; the Colonel and myself bringing up the rear. For about two hundred feet the tunnel is cut through solid rock, at an average height of about five and a half feet, by four feet in width. Some thirty feet farther in the pay dirt commences. It lies in a vein, between a cement looking like decomposed granite and ordinary dirt, and varies from eight inches to two feet and a half in width. ...

“We remained in the tunnel about twenty minutes, admiring and wondering, when we pushed our way out, the candles occasionally suspended, twinkling like stars on our course, until we reached again the broad light of day.”

The gold content of the “pay dirt” was the attraction for miners and investors. Our little group was not to be disappointed.

“Mr. M. brought out a pan of dirt, which he washed out, under the anxious supervision of our little crew, who saw the earth and stones gradually disappearing until the bright little particles were plainly visible at the bottom of the pan. This prospect afterward weighed, realized two ounces. ‘Pretty good, eh!’ Yet they declared this not the real pay dirt, for the adjacent tunnel, owned by the brothers G. and Mr. McM., yielding precisely the same kind of dirt, after passing the fine gold, has prospected as high as three hundred dollars to the pan of very coarse gold.”

And so the group inspected this second tunnel, which was cut into softer soil, “constructed with more care than the Keystone, requiring frequent propping and shoring, as it runs from the commencement through earth and cement instead of rock.

“Walking up the hills and into the tunnels was dirty work, and our correspondent seemed ever interested in culinary breaks. Feeling somewhat sharp set ..., we accepted the kind invitation of Mr. G. and Mr. McM., and went to their cabin, where we lunched on good soup, excellent coffee, and the whitest and sweetest of bread. After lunch, a pipe for the ‘hombres,’ a swing for the fair sex, then bidding good bye to our kind hosts, back to the Keystone, to see the sluice washing.”

The sluices helped separate the dirt and the gold, using copious amounts of running water in the process.

“The dirt for washing is run out of the tunnel, dumped in a heap, and when sufficient has accumulated, run through sluice boxes and the gold extracted.

“At present all the water they have is from a reservoir, filled by saving the water which drips from the tunnel and runs out in a gutter, in the center of the railroad track.

“Considerable gold is found in a kind of red cement, which is nearly as hard as rock when first dug out, but when exposed to the air slacks like lime and is very readily washed. Collecting some of this cement, we pounded it in a mortar, and tried our hand at panning out. I brag on beating the party, for I got over a dollar out of my pan, which, however, the Colonel feloniously appropriated; and it is my firm belief he means to show it as his own handiwork.

“Finally, it was time to head back to Volcano - supper beckoned, after all.

“On the way to the Colonel’s I found myself with a bottle of Tennent’s best in each hand and a very picknicky appearance we presented as we sauntered along, the Colonel heading with a bag of dirt on his shoulder, brought down to be washed at leisure, our valuables - the ladies - in the center, and your humble servant bringing up the rear, with what our Nicaragua friends would call the ‘munitions of war.’

“A slight but refreshing toilette, and then we dined - dined, ye gods! we feasted. Leon, (likely the cook) my blessing be upon you, may you never want a friend ... Tired and contented, I went to bed that night to sleep but not to dream. I was a Know Nothing, indeed, until I started the next morning at the entrance of the porter seeking candlesticks.”

The description of his hotel room is interesting, which seems to not provide much privacy or comfort. A lack of daylight had its consequences, although the day was a Sunday, and thus not a travel day; our traveler did not miss much - except one meal.

“My room was slightly on the hermetically sealed order, having no window, as my best friend the porter very properly remarked ‘saving the door,’ ” he recounted.

“Pluming myself, as an early bird well might, I casually asked the time. ‘Eleven o’clock, sir’ said he. ‘The devil!’ said I. No breakfast for my sins, dinner punctually at twelve.”

California society still was small enough that people knew each other. Within the next couple of travel days, the writer recounts meeting several acquaintances, one of whom told a similar tale of travel hardships.

“Out on the street I met S., the legislator, usually the embodiment of ‘bonhominie.’ Inquiring the cause of the cloud which hovered over his brow, he gave me a heart rending account of his trials and tribulations in coming from Sacramento the day before; of how he climbed the hill with a baby on his arm, the personal property of one of the female occupants of the stage; of how depositing the baby at the tops of said hills, on the several occasions of the carrying he sadly wended his way down to pack up the stage, which the balky horses refused to draw , of how, finally, at J. A. M. he reached Volcano. I heard him to a close, and then suggested by way of consolation that ‘an arm-full of babies’ was a very good hand. He refused to be comforted, and off I went to call on S. the enterprising editor of The Volcano Weekly ..., a sheet highly creditable to himself and the county. Penetrating his sanctum I found he had gone, as all good citizens should, to church.”

Instead, our traveler viewed the town of Volcano, which “grows before your very eyes.” He described handsome brick and limestone buildings, flourishing businesses and the Volcano Ditch Co. whose goal it was to bring a steady water supply to the 3,000 residents of the town.

The following morning, his fourth day on the road since leaving Sacramento, saw him on another coach to Jackson. With his slightly skewered sense of humor, he had to tease the driver a bit.

“Seven o’clock on Monday saw me ‘en route’ for Jackson, the county seat of Amador. A heavy frost covered the ground and it was bitter cold. As we wound up the hill, out of the town, the driver looked aghast on hearing me say that we both had the cholera. I hastened to relieve his apprehension by suggesting that we were both certainly in the cold stage. He didn’t appreciate the exertion, and on we bowled past Aqueduct City, ... till we arrived at Jackson.”

After a short interval, the coach moved on to Mokelumne Hill. This time, one of his travel companions reflected all the Anglo pioneer prejudices of his time.

“Again we penetrated a country of hills and lofty mountains crowned with the pine, the oak, and the manzanita, passing several thriving mining camps without incident, save the advent of a senora with infant, child and a daughter, whose gorgeous dark eyes awoke my slumbering sentiment, until I saw her spit. (Why will they do it?) Mamma was ill, and her malady was increased by the motion of the coach, until worn out and past endurance, and finding that her barbarous companions did not understand the sonorous Castilian, she emphatically pronounced the ‘stage coach no good,’ and energetically slapping the sole of her shoe, with her hand, indicated her intention in the future to ‘pad the hoof,’ or, and an honest miner interpreted it, to take ‘Shanks mare.’

Mokelumne Hill, the county seat of Calaveras County, hosted an important mining trial at the County Court. Our friendly traveler spent the night at the comfortable hotel. The trial attracted “Gen. B. of Tuolumne and Judge R. of Sacramento. The evening was pleasant and passed in the company of bench, bar and suitor, enlivened by the frequent anecdote and jest of Judge R., most admirable of conservationists.”

On his final day of travel, he was in luck - a near-empty coach awaited him.

“At seven in the morning my coach, I was alone in my glory, and tried to occupy all three seats, but found it incompatible, started for Stockton. As we picked our way along the ridge of the mountain, the sun peeped over the eastern hills, and the veil-like mist, which had hung over the valleys folded itself away, and all the country shone forth in bright, beautiful day. One could hardly imagine a more beautiful scene. Hill and mountain, with their variegated mantle of foliage, stretching away in the distance as far as the eye could reach, agreeably interspersed with valley and ravine, the silver threads of river and canal girding the hills till lost to view, the white-topped cabins and huts of the miners twinkling up from gorge and gulch, all was bright and glorious. The scene grew gradually tamer, the mining district merging into the agricultural, until afternoon found us riding over the vast plateau of the San Joaquin valley into the city of Stockton.”

Late that afternoon, the traveler caught the steamer to San Francisco, making the last leg of his journey smooth and easy. Once again, he quoted time spent in South America in comparing landscape and vegetation.

” ... on we pushed for San Francisco and intermediate ports, steaming through the slough, whose placid water might, in a vivid imagination, excise a dim remembrance of Rio’s’ beautiful harbor, provided always, you call the floating tule sugar cane, and the potatoes and egg plants oranges. Half past eleven saw me safely ashore, ‘at the landing place opposite Martinez,’ convinced that the longest way round, if not the shortest, is certainly the most pleasant way home. The collector was on the wharf, we mutually put on night caps, and (as quaint Pepys says) ‘so to bed.’ Good Night.”

Thus ends the unknown gentleman’s long narrative which offers insight into the many small details of daily life of California pioneer days of 1855. I hope that you enjoyed this journey as much as I did.