W. Fraser (William Fraser) Rae.

Westward by rail : a journey to San Francisco and back and a visit to the Mormons online

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is yet of the richest and most valuable character.
If little more than semi-liquid mud, it is a soil in
which anything will grow, provided the recurring
inundations are checked. At present, cultivation
is hardly possible here. Rising and falling with
the varying height of the river, the fields cannot be
tilled with ease, nor the harvest reaped with cer-
tainty. A house bnilt upon it is reared on as
imperfect a foundation as a house built upon trea-
cherous and unstable sand. To other drawbacks,
that of unhealthiness must be added. Conspicuous
among the natural products of this virgin soil are
huge reeds, many of which attain to the height of
ten feet. These are similar to the bulrushes of
Scripture among which the infant Moses was con-
cealed. Here they are called * Tules.' The ground
whereon they flourish is known by the name of the
( Tule Lands.' Millions of acres of this land could
be turned to profitable account if efficient embank
ments were erected. The pure vegetable mould
which constitutes the soil, coupled with the faci-
lities for inexpensive irrigation, present every re-
quisite for the growth of rice. The reclamation of
these Tule Lands is one of the problems which the
agriculturists and capitalists of California are long-


ing and labouring to solve. Experiments have
been made by them, but without success, owing,
it is said, to the imperfect nature of the works
executed. If the Dutch had control over this land
they would soon win it from the river, while if the
Chinese were allowed to cultivate it they would
soon convert it into remunerative rice -fields. What
some Californians do is to discuss the course to be
adopted, and to set fire to the e Tules ' once a year.
The spectacle of these fires is magnificent. I was
fortunate enough to witness the sight. The thick,
sluggish volume of smoke rose grandly into the
air, and was wafted slowly away by the gentle
breeze. A purplish red tint gave to the canopy of
smoke a strange and beautiful aspect. I have seen
a prairie on fire in the State of Iowa, but the sight
was infinitely less imposing than the blazing ' Tules '
on the banks of the Sacramento River. After
nightfall the effect produced resembled that which
those can picture who have seen the furnaces of the
Black Country or of Belgium belching forth flames
in the darkness of a starless and moonless night,
and illuminating the surrounding country with a
lurid glare, only that in this case the flames were
rolling and raging in an unbroken mass, extending
over what appeared to be a limitless tract of
country. The bon-fire was the largest and grandest


I ever witnessed. I should have preferred, how-
ever, to have seen the f Tule lands ' yellow with
harvest to seeing them the theatre of a gigantic

While the steamer Yo- Semite was descending
the Sacramento River, I learned some interesting
particulars, from passengers with whom I conversed,
relating to the agricultural capabilities and customs
of California. My informants were practical
farmers, and, like farmers in other quarters of
the globe, grumbled bitterly at their lot. But
their grievances were not the grievances of un-
certain weather and untractable soil which vex the
hearts and try the tempers of English farmers. As
regards the weather, they had no reason to com-
plain. They could make their arrangements with
perfect confidence that no outward change in tem-
perature nor any untimely shower of rain would
blight their prospects by ruining their crops.
During certain months of the year they know that
rain will fall ; during the remainder of the year
they can count upon uniformly fair weather. In-
deed, the Calif ornian farmer is sure of reaping, in
due season, the crop whereof he sows the seed.
He is under no apprehension that if he omits to
house his grain for a day the consequences may be
fatal to his hopes. On the contrary, he may post-


pone his harvest-home from day to day, and from
week to week, with comparative impunity. His
sheaves will not rot on the fields, owing to the
moisture with which, after too long exposure in our
fickle climate, they are certain to be saturated. Of
sheaves, indeed, he knows nothing. The ears of
corn are clipped from the stalks by a machine, and
gathered into heaps until the time for thrashing
them arrives. The straw is wasted altogether,
being got rid of as an incumbrance, instead of being
treated as a source of profit. It is set on fire.
As the ash produced by its combustion partially
and imperfectly subserves the purpose of manure, the
process is a wasteful as well as barbarous one. The
excuse for it is, that labour being scarce a loss must
be incurred at some stage or other of the agricul-
tural processes. If there were more hands to do
the work much less waste would be occasioned.
This, then, is one of the grievances of the Cali-
fornian farmer. He is ready to pay farm labourers
as much as a skilled mechanic is paid at home.
"What a Dorsetshire peasant gets for a week's
labour he would readily receive in California for
the labour of a single day. Moreover, he would
be well fed and comfortably lodged, treated not as
a servant but an equal, and expected to prove
himself something nobler than a drudge touching


his hat in abject submission to the squire, and
listening meekly to the parson. To all who are
willing to engage in field-work, the Western
prairies of America and the vast plains of California
offer inducements such as can hardly be over-
estimated or exaggerated. But those who are
ignorant of farming, and who cannot or who will
not toil with their hands, had better stay at home.
It is true that they may starve in England, but it
is quite as probable that such persons will starve in
the United States. Next to procuring plenty of
labour not cheap labour, be it remarked, for he
is both willing and able to pay good wages the
Californian farmer desires to purchase cheap imple-
ments of husbandry. This is but another way of
stating that he is a Free-trader to the backbone.
He finds that Liverpool is the best market for his
grain, and he argues that no obstacle should be
interposed to hinder his getting in return cheap
machinery and tools from England. These state-
ments are not put into the mouths of imaginary
farmers, but are the statements actually made to
me by men with whom I conversed. More than
one avowed that his conversion to Free Trade was
a thing of yesterday, and had its basis in self-
interest. Until California became a large grain-
producing country, the injury wrought by a high


protective tariff did not directly affect its inhabi-
tants. They are otherwise-minded now, because
they feel that they are the victims of a policy which
enriches a section of the American people at the
cost of the agricultural population of the country.
The Californian farmers are at one with the farmers
of Illinois and other States in desiring the pro-
clamation of Free Trade as the policy of the nation.
Moreover, what these men desire will probably be
brought to pass, because they bid fair to become
the majority at the polls.

Eighty miles below the city of Sacramento the
Joaquin joins the Sacramento River, and the united
streams flow into the Bay of Suisun. This bay is
connected with the Bay of San Pablo by the Straits
of Carquinez. On the right of the outlet from the
Bay of Suisun is the town of Benicia, celebrated in
Europe as the dwelling-place of the ( boy ' of that
name, and notable here as the former capital of
California. It is no longer a thriving and advancing
place. The wharf seems falling into decay. The
number of inhabitants is rated at 600, yet it
still continues to enjoy a reputation of an enviable
kind. Its schools are well-conducted and are
largely patronised. The only law school of which
California boasts is among the noted seminaries of
learning that adorn Benicia. On the opposite side


of the bay may be discerned Mount Diablo, a
solitary eminence amid the surrounding plains. In
its vicinity are extensive coal pits. The coal raised
here is of excellent quality ; but it has one great
drawback. The volume of dense black smoke
emitted from the ignited coal is much larger than
is agreeable and desirable. A steamer or a loco-
motive, in the furnaces of which this coal is burned,
is distinguishable at a considerable distance by the
blackness and quantity of smoke issuing from its
funnel or chimney. About 1,000 tons monthly
are raised from the pits, and the surrounding towns
and cities are beginning to use this coal in pre-
ference to that which is imported, and which is
necessarily more expensive. The depth of water
at Benicia is great enough to permit of ocean
steamers sailing up to the wharf. Even the gigantic
boats of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company
can be brought here for repairs, the company's
foundry and machine-shqp being situated at this
place. The passengers who, at this season, descend
the river in steamers, are rejoiced when Benicia is
reached, because they no longer have reason to,
dread detention owing to the vessel running aground
on the Hog's Back, or any of the other shoals
which render the navigation of the river precarious
and unsatisfactory. The Yo- Semite took the ground



more than once ; fortunately, however, the engines
were powerful enough to move her into deeper
water again.

After passing through the Straits of Carquinez,
which are eight miles in length, the Bay of San
Pablo is entered. This bay is fifteen miles broad
and twenty long, and opens at its lower extremity
into the great bay on which San Francisco is situ-
ated. The sun set while the steamer was ploughing
her way through those noble sheets of water. The
sky was of a brilliant blue, and not a cloud dimmed
or concealed its brightness. As the sun rapidly
sank behind the range of mountains which lines the
coast of the Pacific the horizon was flushed with a
soft rosy light, which the eye, accustomed to the
varied splendours of the masses of golden and purple
clouds that constitute the glory of a sunset in a
Northern clime, views with an admiration mingled
with wonder. The rapidity of the change from
bright sunlight to pale starlight was still a novelty
to me. Of twilight, that charming isthmus between
the glare of the day and the gloom and mystery of
night, there was hardly a trace. Scarcely had the
last glimpse of the lord of light been caught than
the deep blue heavens were glittering with stars.
It is probable that the strangeness of the lovely
spectacle made it more fascinating to me than to


other passengers on board the steamer. To them
it was literally an e very-day occurrence. Each
returning evening resembles this one, and they were
not excited by a sight which was stale and common-
place to them. Moreover, they had an excuse for
preferring the shelter of the cabin to a seat on the
open deck. The breeze from the Pacific blows at
nightfall with a coolness almost too great for those
who have been oppressed by the heat of the day.
Besides, a slight swell made the Yo-Semite rock
with more violence than was perfectly agreeable to
the majority of the passengers. She was now
traversing the waters of San Francisco's unrivalled
bay, and the waves rolling in through the Golden
Gate demonstrated to the incredulous that the
Pacific has breakers which are a match for the
billows that rear their crests on the most stormy
seas. About fifteen miles intervene between the
wharf at San Francisco and the outlet from the Bay
of San Pablo. At a considerable distance from the
landing-place a fine view of the city is obtained.
Seen as I saw it for the first time the appearance of
San Francisco is enchanting. Built on a hill slope,
up which many streets run to the top, and illumined
as these streets were with innumerable gas lamps,
the effect was that of a huge dome ablaze with
lamps arranged in lines and circles. Those who

s 2


have stood in Princes-street at night, and gazed
upon the Old Town and Castle of Edinburgh, can
form a very correct notion of the fairy-like spectacle.
Expecting to find San Francisco a city of wonders,
I was not disappointed when it seemed to my eyes
a city of magic, such a city as Aladdin might have
ordered the genii to create in order to astonish and
dazzle the spectator. I was warned by those whom
personal experience of the city had taught to dis-
tinguish glitter from substance, not to expect that
the reality of the morrow would fulfil the promise
of the evening. Some of the parts which now ap-
peared the most fascinating were said to be the
least attractive when viewed by day. Still, the
panorama was deprived of none of its glories by
these whispers of well-meant warning. Those who
wish to have a favourable impression when they
first behold San Francisco are strongly advised to
view it from the deck of a steamer when the full-
orbed stars twinkling overhead are almost rivalled
by the myriads of gas-lights illuminating the land.

If this spectacle be poetry the landing is prose.
The din and bustle soon recall the errant mind
from aerial flights of fancy to the harsh realities of
terrestrial life. A Babel of tongues rises from the
crowded landing-stage as soon as the steamer has
been moored. Hardly has the passenger set foot


on shore than he becomes the prey of men intent
upon earning a gratuity by doing, or professing to
render, him a service. The importunities of the
touters, porters, and cabmen are not only quite as
tormenting as those of their brethren at Calais or
Boulogne, but this bidding for employment is also
in marked contrast to what prevails in other Ameri-
can cities. The stranger who disembarks at New
York has to ask the hangers-on at the wharf to
carry his luggage, and he might have long to wait
before they voluntarily pressed their services upon
him. It cannot be doubted that the stories which
once were true about the independence of the
dwellers in San Francisco have ceased to be appli-
cable and characteristic. At one time a new arrival
is said to have offered a shabbily-dressed man a
dollar to carry his bag a short distance for him.
He received the reply, ' I will give an ounce of gold
to see you carry it yourself.' The new-comer
thereupon acted as his own porter, returned and
claimed the ounce of gold, which he received, and
was in addition treated to a bottle of champagne,
for which his entertainer had to pay the value of
another ounce. At present the tables are turned,
and the supply of labour is in excess of the demand.
I had not long to wait before I discovered that if
certain kinds of labour were abundant, the prices


paid for labour generally were exorbitant. All
payments in California are made in coin, and they
are nearly as high as the corresponding payments
made elsewhere in depreciated 6 greenbacks.' A
drive through the streets disenchanted me as to the
fairy-like character of the city. Indeed, the streets,
private houses, shops, warehouses, and hotels pre-
sented no remarkable and exceptional appearance.
The journey had been made too rapidly to make
the aspect of a large and populous city a thing to
be beheld again with special satisfaction. Among
the marvels wrought by the Pacific Railway is the
comparative annihilation of ideas as to distance in
the minds of those who travel by it across the
continent of America. Some time elapses, after
arriving at San Francisco, before the fact is fully
realized that New York is three thousand and
Chicago two thousand miles distant. The traveller
who has come thus far thinks it but a trifle to
continue his journey in the track of the setting
sun, even though aware that he would have to
sail for ten or twenty days before finding a halting-
place at Honolulu, or Yokohama, or Hong Kong.




THE Golden Gate was one of the many important
discoveries made by Sir Francis Drake. He spoke
eulogistically of the bay into which that opening
in this rockbound coast furnished an entrance, and
in token of his gratification with the surrounding
country he named it New Albion. The Spaniards,
however, were the first settlers in California. Till
the year 1847, what is now known as San Francisco
was called Yerla Buena. In like manner, Sacra-
mento bore the name of Nueva Helvetia. Even
these names are being forgotten, just as all traces
of Spanish settlement are gradually dying out.
When Mr. Dana came here in 1835, but a single
wooden shanty occupied the site of the present city
of San Francisco. As long ago as that year, and
when the value of this place had not been ascer-
tained, Mr. Dana made the following entry in the
diary, which, under the title of ( Two Years before
the Mast,' was given to the world in 1840: ( If


California ever becomes a prosperous country, this
bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The
abundance of wood and water; the extreme fer-
tility of its shores ; the excellence of its climate,
which is as near to being perfect as any in the
world, and its facilities for navigation, affording
the best anchoring grounds in the whole western
coast of America all fit it for a place of great
importance.' This prediction deserves to be ranked
with the most successful specimens of fulfilled pro-
phecy. Ten years later the population had in-
creased from one man to an hundred and fifty
souls. According to the most recent estimate the
inhabitants of San Francisco now number 170,000.
This rapidity of growth is wonderful ; yet it is not un-
exampled in the United States. Other things than
the increase of the population and the enlargement
of the city have made the growth of San Francisco
an event without a parallel, either in America or in
any other quarter of the habitable globe. Its name
had become synonymous for all that was most
shameless in profligacy, for all that was basest in
depravity, for all that was wanton and brutal in
ruffianism. In the open day men were murdered
with impunity. At night the property of the citi-
zens was at the mercy of the lawless. The scum
of Polynesia, desperadoes from Australia, bullies


and blackguards from the wild State of Missouri,
Spanish cut-throats from the cities of the Pacific
Coast, dissolute women and reckless adventurers
from the slums of Europe, congregated in San
Francisco, and there plied their several avocations
and followed their devious courses in defiance of
the prohibitions of a law which had lost its terrors
for them, and in disregard of any other check save
the revolver or the bowie knife. At that time, San
Francisco was one-half a brothel, and one-half a
gaming hell. There came a crisis in the annals of
the city when the action of the law was forcibly
impeded, in order that the reign of law might be
restored. As the old Romans submitted to a Dic-
tator, so did the citizens of San Francisco tempo-
rarily and voluntarily submit to a dictatorship,
under the name of a Vigilance Committee. This
body discharged the fourfold functions of police,
judge, jury, and executioner. A short shrift and
a lofty gallows was the fate of the criminal whom
they took in the act of committing robbery or
murder. The remedy was strong and dangerous.
But the symptoms were so threatening as to in-
spire fear lest what men call civilization should
cease to exist, and no peril incurred in applying
the remedy was comparable to the risk of allow-
ing the disease to spread and become intensified.


Never, perhaps, in the history of the world did the
result more completely justify the means employed

than in the case of San Francisco. The Vigilance


Committee discharged its duties with unrelent-
ing severity so long as professional thieves and
systematic murderers were at large triumphing in
their crimes. As soon, however, as order was
restored, the Vigilance Committee decreed its own
dissolution, and the dispensers of summary justice
became conspicuous for their obedience to the ad-
ministrators of the law. From being a by- word for
its lawlessness and licentiousness, the city of San
Francisco has become, in little more than ten years,
as moral as Philadelphia, and far more orderly than
New York.

With the knowledge of what San Francisco had
been, and unacquainted by personal observation
with what it had become, my first walk along its
streets on the morning after my arrival was one of
peculiar interest. I went along Montgomery-street,
which is the Regent-street and Lombard-street, or
Broadway and Wall-street, of this city. It is
lined with handsome shops. The pavement is
crowded with pedestrians, the majority of whom
have the anxious look and the hurried gait of
business men, while the minority are ordinary sight-
seers, or persons who walk therein in order to be


seen. Bankers' offices are very numerous. Their
windows are filled with the paper-money of all
nations, from the plain white notes of the Bank of
England to the elaborately figured f greenbacks '
of the United States. These ' greenbacks' are
not current in California. The State stretched its
legal rights to the extreme point of refusing to
accept as currency what Congress had proclaimed
legal tenders. Nothing passes current here save
gold and silver coin. Even the nickel and copper
cents of the Eastern States are unknown. They
are looked upon as curiosities. Men wear them on
their watch chains just as some Englishmen wear
* spade ' guineas. On my arrival at the hotel, a
Californian who had brought some of these coins
from the East was besieged with inquiries for them.
Many persons had never seen one, and to them
they were as great novelties as African cowries
would be to us. Small sums are reckoned in s bits,'
which are imaginary coins having the nominal value
of twelve and a half cents. Indeed, the absence
of single cents causes something worse than con-
fusion. A newspaper costs ten cents. Suppose
that a quarter dollar, equal to twenty-five cents,
is presented in payment for the newspaper, the
seller will probably return a dime, which is equal
to ten cents. Thus fifteen cents have been paid


instead of ten. His excuse will be that he has not
any half dimes, these coins being extremely scarce.
In California this is taken as a thing of course by
the natives and the residents. The visitors, how-
ever, are apt to regard it as an imposition. The
gold coin generally current is the twenty-dollar
piece. It is about the size of half a crown, is
worth nearly five pounds sterling, and is a very
beautiful coin. The inhabitants, who are accus-
tomed to high prices, part with these coins far
more readily than we part with sovereigns. In
addition to paper money and specie, the windows
of the offices of the bullion dealers usually contain
a display of specimens of gold or silver ores. These
are said in the labels affixed to them to be very
rich in the precious metals. But statements of
this sort seldom impose on old and experienced
Californians. About the richness of lodes they
are as sceptical as cynics are about the existence of
unalloyed and genuine patriotism. Just as, with
many, ( patriot' has become a synonyme for im-
postor or place-hunter, so has a lode of great
reputed value come to be regarded by the mass
of Californians as worth little more than a large
property in the moon. The difficulty consists in
ascertaining with certainty whether or not the
specimens have been really found in a particular


spot, whether they fairly represent the lode, and
whether, if they have been dug out of the ground
in question, they had not been discovered by those
who, like the diggers in the f Antiquary,' had con-
cealed the specimens for the purpose of duping the
credulous. To prepare a mine in such a way that
it may appear to be extremely rich in valuable
mineral is called ' salting ' it. At this art many
persons in California, Nevada, and Montana are
practised adepts, and the desire of the majority is
to escape falling into the trap ingeniously and care-
fully baited for them. When these things were
explained to me, I ceased to wonder at the reluc-
tance of the capitalists here to secure for themselves

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Online LibraryW. Fraser (William Fraser) RaeWestward by rail : a journey to San Francisco and back and a visit to the Mormons → online text (page 16 of 27)