- Historic Sites
All That Glittered
Save for the Civil War, what occurred after a carpenter glimpsed a flash of yellow 150 years ago was the biggest story of the nineteenth century. RICHARD REINHARDT examines what we think we know (and don’t) about the people who made it happen.
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
Even those forty-niners who had eagerly rushed home continued to re- gard themselves as founders of California. Only a decade or two after the event, fraternities of gold-rush “pioneers” began gathering in cities far from San Francisco, the shrine of forty-niner worship. The New York Society of California Pioneers met in October 1869 for a twentieth-anniversary banquet to which they invited Mark Twain, whose recently published tale of the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County had instantly become a part of the gold-rush mythology. Twain declined. He bragged that he could “talk Pioneer like a native” but admitted he was neither a forty-niner nor a California pioneer.
The Society of California Pioneers of New England, formed in Boston in 1888, quickly enrolled 223 members and began planning an excursion to the scenes of the great adventure. Two years later 84 members of the society and 61 assorted wives, offspring, friends, and relatives set out from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in a chartered train whose sponsors claimed it was the largest and heaviest ever to cross the continent. Two thousand well-wishers came down to the station to wave good-bye.
The excursion train carried six Pullman Palace sleeping cars with such inviting names as Etruria, Eurasia, and Servia, two dining cars, a baggage car, and a “combination car” with a library, barber’s chair, smoking compartment, and bathroom. It rolled west by way of Niagara Falls to Chicago, dropped down to Kansas City, then took the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe through Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, a route that few forty-niners had followed but which led to some favored tourist destinations: the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, the Hotel Raymond in Pasadena, the orange groves of Riverside County, and the obligatory Southern California ostrich farm.
Nostalgia overwhelmed the old men. At a banquet in San Bernardino, a retired general from Norton, Massachusetts, tottered up to the head table to share his recollections of the day he had landed in San Francisco.
The young Argonaut never ages as he pursues his endless search for gold under the blazing artificial sunset of Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West .
“It was on Sunday, and I heard there was to be preaching there, somewhere, in the hall devoted to justice—the courthouse, I think. I found it and went in, and there were two ladies there, and I crowded my way up to them until I was within two feet of them, and that was as close as I dared to go, and oh! What a joy it was when one of them asked me to share her hymn book with her, and oh! how we did sing! Oh, such grand old hymns! Ladies were scarce in California then, and you would have to run around two blocks to get a sight of one.”
Bowing and smiling, he returned to his seat, slumped forward, and died. The pioneers shipped his body home, just as a fraternal order—the Masons, the Odd Fellows—would have done in 1849, and the tour pushed on to San Francisco.
On April 28 the San Francisco Examiner reported that the Palace Hotel had been taken over by bald-headed, gray-bearded gentlemen wearing blue silk badges trimmed with gold fringe and inscribed with the totemic number, 49! Several, including one elderly Bostonian who was later described by the historian John Walton Caughey as “an accomplished fictionist,” gave epic interviews. Others were determined to seek out the tiny creek beds where they had painfully rinsed tons of red gravel in flat pans and long-tom washers.
Charles Stumcke, who had come west with a company of Boston boys in 1849, took a train from Sacramento to Auburn, a forty-mile jaunt that had taken him eight days to accomplish behind a four-yoke oxteam.
“When we left the cars, I looked for the spot where I pitched my tent, built a stone chimney at one end, made a mattress of fir boughs, and thought myself well fixed for the winter,” Stumeke wrote in a letter to his son back East. “On the identical spot stood a nice, two-story house with a fine garden, neatly fenced. … It was hard to realize that this was the place where I had dug for gold, and that the hills of red clay we thought good for nothing were really the charming places now covered with grape vines, peach, apple and pear trees and other evidences of fertility. … I thought of all the hardy men who had helped build the place; but, by diligent inquiry, I could not find one of all who wintered here in ’49 and ’50. I suppose most of them have gone to their long home, and that the others are widely scattered. It makes me feel sad as I think of the old days.”