“Go It, Washoe!”


With “Washoe!” thundering like a battle cry, the rabble army converged on Sierra passes. From San Francisco they swarmed onto the decks of river steamboats, sprawling wherever they could find room between bales and boxes, jabbering about Washoe in a dozen tongues. At Sacramento they took the puffing Iron Horse—first on the West Coast—a few miles farther, then staged onward in six-horse wagons. With a dozen people crammed into each stage, they were so tightly packed that when one overturned nobody was hurt. The passengers crawled bravely out, helped to right the wagon, and lurched merrily onward.

At Placerville, snugly tucked in the Sierra foothills, they came to an abrupt halt. This depot for the Washoe mines had suddenly been so overwhelmed with business that there were not enough wagons or mules in the countryside to keep the stampede moving. The hills above town were piled with boxes of merchandise while their owners vainly offered fantastic freight fees for hauling them over the Sierra. Stagecoaches and mule trains were booked up days in advance. Streets and hotels, saloons and restaurants, were thronged with a noisy crowd of expectant millionaires. One of them was a writer named J. Ross Browne, who later described his attempt to get a night’s sleep in a hotel room. People were rushing through the corridors all night, he wrote, “in and out of every room, banging the doors after them, calling for boots, carpet-sacks, cards, cock-tails, and toddies; while amidst the ceaseless din arose ever and anon that potent cry of ‘Washoe! …” In the midst of the pandemonium his door burst open.

“I say, Cap!” cried a disheveled intruder wearing a wide-brimmed hat and long underwear. “Are you the man that can’t get an animal for Washoe?”

“Yes, have you got one to sell or hire?”

“No I hain’t got one myself, but me and my pardner is going to walk there, and if you like you can jine our party.”

When Browne agreed, the door was closed, only to be opened again.

“I say, Cap!”

“What now?”

“Do you believe in Washoe?”

“Of course; why not?”

In this breathless spirit California marched to the Comstock Lode. And as the line of glory-hunters moved through Placerville’s streets each morning, clattering along with shovels, picks, and washpans, there rose from the throats of bystanders the inevitable shout, “Go it, Washoe!”

Up into the pines the adventurers thronged, making an unbroken line of men, mules, and wagons from Sacramento Valley over the mountains to Carson Valley. As the stagecoaches whirled around blind bends, the passengers found themselves looking hundreds of feet downward to the churning American River while the wheels dusted the brink. In the steepest stretches they walked and sometimes pushed as the teams struggled upward. Those who hiked or rode muleback suffered worse—slogging in the ruts of freight wagons, jumping out of the trail to avoid being knocked down when a pack train brushed relentlessly past.

Among the worst hazards on the trail were the wayside taverns, where the travelers piled in on one another in frantic quest for board and bed. Typical was Dirty Mike’s, where one paid for the privilege of sleeping on the floor in company with numerous other flea-bitten vagabonds, in a room whose only fixtures were a piece of looking glass fastened to the window casing and a common comb and toothbrush dangling by strings nearby. The best stopping place on the route was Strawberry Flat, where hundreds of travelers congregated each night, flooding the bar-room and jostling each other for a place near the dining-room door. J. Ross Browne thus described the evening meal:

At the first tinkle of the bell the door was burst open with a tremendous crash, and for a moment no battle-scene in Waterloo … could have equalled the terrific onslaught of the gallant troops of Strawberry. The whole house actually tottered and trembled at the concussion, as if shaken by an earthquake. Long before the main body had assaulted the table the din of arms was heard above the general uproar; the deafening clatter of plates, knives, and forks, and the dreadful battle-cry of “Waiter! Waiter! Pork and beans! Coffee, waiter! Beefsteak! … quick, waiter, for God’s sake!”

Next morning, after a night’s sleep in a room with 250 companions and a bracing wash at the horse trough, the silver-hunter was on his way. At Genoa, first settlement reached on the east side of the Sierra, accommodations were even more formidable. Lodgers were packed like stowaways—two and three in a bunk, the unfortunate ones curling up on saloon floors, behind store counters, between packing boxes, and even on the tops of nail kegs. At the booming new town of Carson City, last stop before the mines, one weary arrival ate a hearty meal and then told the hotel-keeper he was ready to be shown to his room. “Just imagine my surprise,” he wrote, “when the landlord informed me that he had no place for me to sleep but on the floor, that is, if I had blankets …”