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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Writer had mother of all trips to Mother Lode

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Ride by stagecoach turned out to be arduous, dangerous

The early editions of the Solano Herald, which started publication as Solano County’s first newspaper late in 1855, were filled with eye-witness accounts of pioneer experiences.

These included the letter of “Dame Shirley” by Louise Amelia Clappe, or those written by anonymous authors who recounted their personal experiences.

One such account was published in the Solano Herald on Saturday, Dec. 1, 1855. It is titled “A Trip From Sacramento To Benicia,” and recounts the adventurous exploration of this particular “subscriber,” who started out in Sacramento and traveled along the foothills into the Mother Lode country where he visited a gold mine before continuing en route to Benicia.

Today’s direct routes did not yet exist. Waterways forced travelers into large detours to reach Benicia. The writer’s often humorous observations throw an interesting light on travel conditions and lifestyle of the time.

One of the reasons for the trip was “the Colonel,” a friend or acquaintance who had an interest in the operation of a gold mine in Volcano, Amador County, and who had pressed the writer into a visit. The gold mine location was somewhere close to the stagecoach route from Sacramento, allowing the writer a seemingly easy trip.

“You must,” said the Colonel in the opening sentence of the article on Dec. 1, 1855. “That settled the question and on the payment of six dollars, your subscriber had the pleasure of seeing his name enrolled on the records of the California Stage Company, accompanied with the pleasing information that the stage would start at 6 o’clock, A M, precisely. Morning came, cold, cheerless and gloomy, boys crying, ‘ere’s your San Frisky and Sacramento papers,’ stage agents eagerly examining their way bills, and shouting for the missing Mr. Smith, who was booked for Mokelumne Hill, or the non-comeable Mr. Jones, who had engaged passage for Jackass Gulch.”

With this introduction, one can easily imagine the lively scene at the stagecoach office, with passengers scrambling onto their seats for the uncomfortable journey ahead.

“At last, after thirteen false starts, more or less, away we went for Volcano, nine inside and ten out. Good stage, fine horses, decent road, cold feet and swelled heads, everybody trying to sleep, and very generally making a ludicrous failure, until we reached the ... House, where breakfast awaited us. Talk of Yankee variety! We had everything, from eggs and fried cakes to sardines and English walnuts.

“After breakfast, with fresh horses, we bowled along past Katesville and Sebastopol mining ephemera, forcibly suggesting the truth of the remark of my German friend on the back seat. ‘Dat dere vas doo many downs!’

“A string of mining camps was located along the route, their creative names evoking the rough and tumble gold rush times. Cooks’ Bar, Michigan Bar, Live Oak City, and divers other camps, too numerous to mention, brought us at last to Fiddletown and dinner. I strolled up the one street of Fiddletown (which had been founded only six years earlier, in 1849), strenuously seeking the why of the name, failed, dined discontentedly and embarked in a Concord wagon (so called). If that be the wagging of Concord, give me the stillness of discord. Springs there were none, or, if any, a stiff necked generation, as my bruised flesh still bears witness. We were comforted, however, by the assurance that we were to go by the new road, shortening the distance and generally making the crooked ways straight.”

Both route and travel conveyance were not developed, making the journey arduous and at times downright dangerous. Our writer injected humor into his narrative in a droll way, trying to make light of what undoubtedly was a dusty, bumpy, tiring trip.

“A few miles and we struck the turnpike - a name derived from a sensible remark made by a gentleman from the States, who, seeing the steepness of the hills, the deepness of the gulches, and the universal ruggedness of the way, exclaimed, ‘Turn, Pike!’ So much for history.”

Traveling on this roughly developed route had its challenges, including a fair amount of physical exercise by the passengers.

“On we went, now and then walking up hill, for the purpose, as the driver said, of warming our toes, though, when I ventured to remark that my extremities were by no means deficient in caloric, answer made he none. So up, up, up, with an occasional variation of down, down, down, until at last we reached the father of all hills, dipping at an angle of forty-five degrees, paved with limestone boulders from eight inches to three feet square, just lying around loose. (Physicians warrant dyspepsia cured, if the patient will walk up and ride down that hill once per diem for a week.)

“Down we jolted, until we reached a point, where, pulling up his horses, the driver suggested that he personally had no objection to our riding, but if anything should break, our ‘disjecta membra’ would probably be carried into town in a basket. We walked the dangerous portion of the road, and getting once more into the wagon, just as the sun was setting, dashed down the remaining descent into the town of Volcano. We dropped the Colonel at his pretty little cottage, drew up at the stage office, and I started down street, or up - I’m sure I don’t know which - for the ‘Empire,’ a right good house, kept by Frank Tarbell & Co., formerly of the Metropolitan Billiard Saloon, San Francisco.”

Hotels were one of the first businesses to be established in these new communities. Vacaville had Luzena Stanley Wilson’s hotel provide similar services to travelers.

“Supper and bed followed in due course, and the next morning I was up bright and early to look about. P., whom I was fortunate enough to meet the night before, accompanied me to the ‘Masonic Cave,’ so called from the erection of the Masonic and Odd Fellows Hall above it. This is one of the curiosities of the place, a deep pit extending under a huge limestone mass, about forty feet high. We peered into its depths which had never been penetrated to any extent. Below is a perennial spring, and above the peculiar formation resembles the finest coral, caused probably by the filtration of the water through the limestone. A water company are erecting their reservoir there, and pipe is being laid to supply the town with water.”

The author’s reason for the lengthy stopover in Volcano was a visit to the local gold mining operation. Instead of an open claim in a stream, this particular operation took place inside the mountain.

“On my return to the ‘Empire,’ I met the Colonel, and accompanied him to his house, and there being joined by his amiable lady and a young female friend, we started for Keystone tunnel, a claim in which the Colonel is interested. Now, to a sylph like one of our company, or to anything or body of gossamer formation, the ascent of the hill leading to the tunnel may be a matter of perfect ease; but to one who is of the earth earthy, decidedly inclined to corpulence, of abbreviated wind, it is the reverse of comfort. ‘Labor vincit,’ however we arrived.”

I’ll continue the gentleman’s journey through Gold Rush era Northern California in my next column.