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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



July 20th.

Certainly human beings are wonderfully like sheep; not independent, fearless, mountain sheep, which sportsmen describe as full of individual character—but regular domestic follow-my-leader sheep. They must move in flocks or not at all. Just as the Sassenachs1 never dream of visiting Scotland in the beautiful spring and summer months, but pour in in an unmanageable flood during the autumn, so it is here.

[1Sassenach, Saxon—the name by which the Celtic Highlanders describe the dwellers in the low country.]

For the last six weeks there has not been an empty bed in any of the hotels, and camping-parties have been legion.

Now, though the weather is lovelier than ever, the valley is wellnigh deserted. I am the sole surviving guest at this hotel, though the sisters still occupy the cottage. All the regular inhabitants of the valley hang about in listless idleness, their occupation gone for the present, and their herds of mules and ponies turned out to grass. They expect a short spirt of work a little later in the summer, during certain holidays, but “the season” is apparently at an end.

Of course a few people continue to drop in, and the coaches run as usual. There is still a pleasant party at one of the hotels, including a very clever and agreeable artist, Mr Bradford, who met you some years ago at Niddry Lodge, when he came to London, on his return from a wonderful expedition to Greenland, undertaken solely to paint icebergs, in which he has been eminently successful. Now he is devoting his brush to wonders nearer home, and more attractive to ordinary mortals. (Don’t you observe that people in general prefer subjects with which they are, or might be, familiar, to the grandest pictures of unknown scenes?)

I have myself held rather an amusing Great Exhibition this afternoon. Latterly I have repeatedly been asked to “do portfolio” for the edification of various friends; but the people who took the keenest interest in all the sketches were just those who had not seen them, so I had promised them all to have a grand show before I leave the valley. That sad day, alas! is drawing near; so, having issued a general invitation to every man, woman, and child in the neighbourhood, I borrowed a lot of sheets from my landlady, who allowed me to nail them all round the outside of the wooden house. To these I fastened each sketch with small pins, so that the verandah became a famous picture gallery.

I certainly have got through a good deal of work in the last three months, having twenty-five finished drawings, and as many more very carefully drawn and half coloured. Most of these are large, for water-colour sketches—about thirty by twenty inches—as I find it far more troublesome to express such vast subjects on a smaller scale.

I was amused by the zeal with which one of the guides constituted himself showman, and went round and round the verandah descanting on every drawing. Hitherto he has always been so busy with tourists, that I had not previously discovered this kindred spirit. He did his work thoroughly; for when I returned from my walk, I found him still hard at it! I was much gratified by the enthusiasm of the Yō-semité-ites, as they recognised all their favourite points of view, and vouched for the rigid accuracy of each,—that being the one quality for which I have striven, feeling sorely aggrieved by the unscrupulous manner in which some celebrated artists have sacrificed faithfulness of outline to make grand Nature fit their ideal. They are the fashionable staymakers and general improvers of the Sierras!

Happily for the Yō-semité, it lends itself admirably to photography, and has found various enthusiastic artists in that line, chief among whom still ranks Mr Watkins,1 whose beautiful work reached us in England some years ago, and first made me long to visit this grand region. He has been working here all this summer, camping in the valley, and carrying his materials in a great covered waggon, which he stations at some accessible spot, and thence makes his expeditions to all the finest points.

[1Mr Watkins has conferred so great a boon on travellers in making the valley known when it was first discovered (and only to be reached by difficult and dangerous trails), that it was a matter of sincere regret to many to learn that, through business difficulties, all his original photographic plates passed to other hands. The new photographs above referred to, which are superior to the original set, are now sold by Mr Watkins himself at 427 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. And as it is only on these that the artist reaps any profit, travellers have a double inducement to purchase no others. I have mentioned this to friends visiting San Francisco; but the agents for the original photos have generally waylaid them, offering to show them the only place where Watkin’s photos were to be sold, and so have secured the custom of the strangers.]

July 22d.

I have really decided to uproot myself this week, but it is a great struggle. I cannot tell you how I have grown to love this valley. Each mighty crag has become an individual friend;—each flowery bed in the sunny meadows, and all the green glades in the pine-forests, where the darling little squirrels have borne me company through the happy days;—each quiet bend of the poplar-shaded river, and all the merry rippling rivulets, laughing and leaping in frothy foaming falls and rapids, then resting in tranquil reaches, where the light falls tremulously through the overshadowing golden-green leaves, and plays on the shadowy pools, revealing the flakes of glittering mica, which we call Pilgrim’s gold,—all these are the friends who have whispered messages of peace, and gladdened me with their beauty for so many weeks. Now the thought of leaving them for ever makes me sad.

The human friends urge me to stay on and see the valley in “the fall,” when autumn tints give touches of colour to the gulches, and when the smoke of the low-country fires throws a warm lurid haze over the whole landscape.

But already I have watched many changes. The waterfalls, which in May and June were mighty cataracts, have now dwindled to silvery ribbons. The glory of the scented azaleas is departing; and this evening I have been sitting among the golden “stooks” in a yellow harvest-field which was a fresh young green the first morning we passed it. It is only a little field, happily too small for the wholesale harvesting of the great wheat-valleys!

July 24th.

I have had my last expedition from the valley to a high summit I had never before visited—namely, the Sentinel Dome, which lies beyond the giant Sentinel Rock-needle. An English lady bore me company, and the excellent Murphy offered himself as our escort—a picturesque rugged Californian, well in keeping with his surroundings.

I need not give you details of our day, which would sound to you only like an oft-repeated echo of what you have already heard (just as I sometimes hear a single thunder-clap reverberated from one great crag to another, till it seems as though it would never cease). Of course, the reality is always full of new delight—such views as these could never be monotonous, and, as I see them daily from new points, they are ever varying.

Suffice it to say, that we ascended a terraced trail till we reached the bald rounded summit of a grey granite dome1 towering 4000 feet above the valley, a wind-swept rock-pavement, with a few strangely picturesque old cedars, blasted and splintered by many a wintry storm.

[1Sentinel Dome, 4125 feet=8125 feet above the sea.]

Of course the panorama in every direction was grand, the farthest peaks showing sharply through air so crisp and clear that it seemed to glitter. Above all, there was the unspeakable delight, peculiar to these high regions, of unbroken stillness—not one distinct sound breaks the solemn silence of the hills. And yet, as you listen intently, you realise that what you deemed silence is, in truth, a mingling of multitudinous whispering voices of nature—the faint sighing of the breeze as it sweeps lightly through the pine-forests, and the distant murmur of the many waterfalls. Distance has mellowed the thunder of those falling waters, as years soften saddest memories.

When I had looked my last on the wide ocean-like expanse of undulating granite ranges, Murphy led the way by a very rough but beautiful forest-trail, till we struck the Illillouette above the falls, and halted for luncheon

View of the Sierras from Sentinel Dome
Photo-Engraved by T&R Annan
[click to enlarge]
in an exquisitely green meadow beside the cool lovely river.

What a contrast from the ghastly region all around us! How the tired horses did revel in those luscious green pastures, and how loath both they and their riders were to abandon so pleasant a resting-place! But new visions of beauty met us at every turn on the circuitous homeward trail, and I am fain to believe that this last ride has been the loveliest of all.

It has been a long day—starting with the summer dawn, and returning in the twilight; and then a round of the village to say good-bye to many friends. Now I must sorrowfully finish packing—so good night.

Chinese Camp, July 25th.

Alas! what a change has come over the spirit of my dream! This morning in Paradise; to-night in—well, in a forsaken mining village—of all dismal and dreary things on earth, the most hideous.

Never had the valley looked more lovely than when, after many hearty farewells, I took my seat, as sole passenger, on the top of the Oak Flat coach, and drove away in the early dawn; never had El Capitan appeared so stupendous as when, after skirting its base, the coach toiled up the steep road through the hanging oak forest, and I looked back for the last time to the beautiful, majestic crags, and the green valley which has been my home for three such happy months.

For the first few hours the road lay through a very fine pine-forest, with here and there a solitary plant of the tall pale lily of the Sierras, which is just like the “virgin lily” of our own gardens—a lovely queen of blossoms.

We passed through the Tuolumne grove of Big trees, where, by a quaint freak, the road is led right through the heart of a grand old burnt stump, known as the Dead Giant. He had so long been used by the Indians as a camping-place and kitchen, that his inside was quite burnt out, and at last the main shaft fell; so only the huge base remains, like a strong red tower, ninety-three feet in cir- cumference. The woodman’s saw has completed the tunnel right through the poor burnt heart, and now the tall coach, with its mixed company from many lands, drives daily through the great tree, that for so many centuries has here reigned lord of the forest.

Having no other passenger to consider, the coachman very good-naturedly pulled up at the tree, and waited patiently while I found a good sketching-point, and secured a rapid drawing. He was good enough to set me down as being “of the right sort,” because, one of the wheelers having fallen, I jumped down and held the leaders till he had loosed the traces and restored order. Knowing my inveterate cowardice with respect to horses, you will fully appreciate the situation!

We halted for luncheon at a pretty cottage, covered with trailing hops: a cheery pleasant woman, like an English farmer’s wife, came out to greet us—and to welcome us to “a square meal,” with good roast-meat, and the invariable big teapot. I profited by some spare minutes to work at my sketch of the Dead Giant, whereat the old lady was vastly entertained. “Why,” said she, “you must be the lady I hear them talk of who makes pictures just like a man! And—why, dear me! you wear a man’s hat! Why, I do believe you are a man! Come now, do tell me,—aren’t you a man really?

I tried hard to make her believe that it was quite correct for English ladies to wear wide-brimmed soft felt hats, but the effort was hopeless. Neither she nor any of the women in the valley could believe it, and I felt really glad when an essentially feminine and golden-haired English woman arrived there, wearing a ditto.

Why my poor little water-colour paint-box should be considered masculine I cannot say, but it attracted great notice in the valley as something quite unknown, even to most of the tourists,—the artist masculine, armed with cumbersome oil-paints, being the only specimen of the genus known in the Sierras.

All this afternoon our route has lain through old fields—the very country to which we all remember the rush from England, when first the gold-fever broke out. Then thousands and tens of thousands of all nations were here, digging and washing, and dozens of coaches ran daily over roads where to-day I travelled in solitary state on my coach-and-five, in clouds of dust and grilling heat. The whole country in every direction has been dug out or tunnelled—every ounce of earth has been washed away, leaving only curiously contorted layers of rock. You can imagine no devastation more dreary and hideous. All the mines hereabouts are considered to be worked out, and we saw some very disheartened-looking men on the tramp, seeking better luck.

The coachman gave a lift to a fine young Cornish lad, who said he had already walked for many a weary day in search of work, and had become well acquainted with the pangs of hunger. Of course many of the miners are a roving lot of inveterate wanderers,—rolling stones, who make their pile one day and lose it the next, then try elsewhere, work hard for a while, invest in a claim—which very likely turns out unlucky—and then have to begin again. Possibly their claim had been carefully “salted,”— i.e., sprinkled with gold-dust by the last owner, with a view to getting rid of a worthless possession.

All the skeletonised country hereabouts tells of old placer-mining, which was the early superficial system of washing the loose gold deposited in alluvial soil, by means of the old-fashioned, primitive “cradle,” which was a rude hand-sluice. The refuse soil which has been thus washed is called “tailings”; and this is what the careful Chinamen and Indians now wash a second and even a third time, always with some result.

We passed through some of the original settlements of the early miners, where the gold-seekers have scooped out hollows in every bank, and the earth is burrowed as if it were a rabbit-warren, and seamed with deep ditches dug as channels to bring water for the gold-washing. Now not one living creature remains of all that swarming throng. Only straggling rows of shabby dismantled buildings, and a few squalid weather-board huts, with flaunting fronts, proclaiming them to be stores (like pigmies hiding behind monstrous masks), still stand desolate and lone,—unsightly reminders of those toilers in dirt and discomfort who created these mining stations.

Here and there roads, now disused, mark the direction of some mountain-mine which once was the centre of hope and keenest interest, to men gathered from the east and from the west, the north and the south—men who, in those days of mad excitement, periodically poured down from their remote camps, carrying their gold-dust in bags, and armed with pistols and bowie-knives, bent on a Sabbathday’s rest from hard labour, and the full enjoyment of as much chain-lightning whisky, and the row to follow, as could conveniently be procured!

The capital of all this district, and the central meeting-place of these choice spirits, was Chinese Camp, where we now are. It is a tumble-down, semi-deserted town. The liveliest spot is the hotel, where a few men are hanging about, on their way to Sonora, where there is a small temporary revival of excitement.1

[1These mining cities are like Jonah’s gourd. They come up in a night, and perish in a night. The ‘San Francisco News Letter’ gives a graphic description of the rapid growth of one which only sprouted in August 1881, when a number of miners assembled at a silver district in Dakota, U.S., not far from Deadwood. They fixed on the most desirable site for their town, drew lots for the different pieces of ground, arranged the rules of government, and named the place “West Virginia City.” Within two days the mushroom city contained 1000 inhabitants and nine drinking-saloons. On the following day restaurants were opened; also two faro banks. On the fourth day, the first number of a daily newspaper was issued. Within a week fifty buildings were erected, and 500 dollars were paid for desirable building-sites.]

Nothing astonishes me more than to see the good fruit, which appears as if by magic, at the various wayside inns, where apparently the only crop that flourishes is dust,—a choking, fine grey dust which permeates all things. The fruit is the only tempting food here; for though a substantial “square meal” of beef, Indian corn, and potatoes awaited the coach, I was nearly sickened by the multitude of black flies which crawled all over the table and darkened the windows in buzzing swarms. It was therefore a double treat when a splendid dish of large, juicy blackberries appeared, supported by a bowl of rich cream—both unexpected luxuries. I think I have told you that quantities of blackberries are grown for the market all over this country, and very good they are.

Sonora, Friday 28th.

Left Chinese Camp at sunrise, without much regret. The coach was driven by its proprietor, who proved a pleasant companion, and told me much of the story of the strange country through which we were passing. Such hideous country! a world of honeycombed rocks and dust, only relieved by turbid red streams, telling of the eager gold-seekers, who are so busily washing the soil in every direction.

In some of the little valleys, watered (and occasionally overflowed) by mountain torrents, we came on parties of gulch-miners—in other words, “diggers,” as distinguished from those engaged in quartz-crushing. The latter, of course, require a considerable outlay of capital in machinery and labour; whereas any strong man owning a pick and shovel can sink a gulch—in other words, dig a deep wide ditch, into which he can lead water from a higher level by means of a flume, which is a simple aqueduct formed by a series of long wooden troughs raised on trestles. Then he can dig and wash the soil at his leisure; and though rarely rewarded by finding nuggets such as gladden the gold-diggers of Australia, he may hope (by means of quicksilver) to secure a considerable amount of gold-dust, with occasional morsels the size of a pin’s head.

It is dirty, disagreeable work, and generally involves standing up to the knees in water and mud from morning till night, sluicing, and gulching, and washing. So the prize is hardly earned; and now that white men have effectually skimmed the cream of this surface gold, they are content to abandon the field to the Chinamen, who, like patient and frugal gleaners, go carefully over the ground, and find enough of gold-dust to repay their toil: so every stream is red and muddy with the ceaseless washing.

We drove through the ruined remains of what have been quite large mining towns, now utterly deserted—long rows of dismal wooden shanties, dust-coloured or glaring white, with hot zinc roofs. Every bit of soil, for miles and miles, has been dug and washed, and every inch of the rocks thus laid bare has been picked and examined by the gold-hunters. But here and there we saw fertile orchards and vineyards, and learnt that some provident soul had created dams to trap the red alluvial “slum” as it floated away in the turbid streams; so whether he got gold or not, he made sure of perhaps many acres of good fertile land, which still abides, and makes the very best garden soil. It was quite saddening to see many such orchards deserted, and to think of all the good toil that has here been wasted.

For some miles our road lay along the broad ancient bed of the Stanislaus river, which, some years ago, was by superhuman labour turned into a new channel, from a conviction that it would prove to be another Pactolus, yielding untold gold. It proved to be untold, in the sense of infinitesimal, to the amazement and disgust of all concerned.

The miners have their own theories of a Californian Pactolus, which seem to be well supported by modern experiments. They believe that in antediluvian days a vast river flowed over great regions in California, washing down immense deposits of auriferous quartz from the mountains. Loose fragments of gold and gold-dust were carried down by the torrent, and, being heaviest, sank to the bottom of the stream, and there remained. So the channel became thickly strewn with gold.

In course of ages the river disappeared, and its bed was, in places, covered to the depth of hundreds of feet by masses of lava-rock or gravel. Elsewhere the channel was upheaved, so that it is to be traced on some high mountain-sides.

So firmly do Californian miners believe in this theory, that where they find indications of having struck the course of the ancient river-bed, they will invest huge sums of money in tunnels and flumes for carrying away the loose rock and soil, which they must remove to reach the bed. Thus hills, perhaps hundreds of feet in depth, are washed away by the irresistible force of water.

Where only a shallow deposit is found, individual parties can work it by sheer physical toil; but where it is very deep, there hydraulic mining companies are formed.

The soil being removed, the miner’s theory certainly seems to be proven, for the sub-strata does resemble the bed of a vast river,—an immense deposit of fine gravel, with water-worn, polished, rounded rock-boulders, and layers of rock all water-eaten and honeycombed—and much gold lodged in the rock, and lying loose in the fine gravel. So this is declared to be the bed of the pre-Adamite river.

Whether this be so or not, the system of hydraulic mining which was introduced, is truly wonderful in its results. If it is desired to wash away the whole side of a mountain, perhaps a couple of thousand kegs of gunpowder are inserted in every direction, and exploded. Thus the earth and rocks are loosened. Then water-power is brought to bear.

The water is sometimes led from reservoirs a hundred miles distant, and at a great elevation. It is brought through eight or ten inch iron pipes, and ejected through a nozzle like that of a fire-hose. Such is its impetus that it would cut a man in two should he chance to be in the way of the stream, even at a considerable distance from the pipe. Half-a-dozen such hose directed against a hillside, play with such irresistible force that they wash down rocks and earth, till at length a huge landslip occurs.

At many mines thus worked, a surface of several acres in width and a couple of hundred feet in height is daily washed away. The auriferous dirt and gravel are washed into long sluice-boxes, in the bottom of which is laid quicksilver, to attract the gold.

But the greatest expense of this work is incurred in carrying off the immense mass of débris. To do this, it is necessary to secure a rapid fall of ground towards some deep valley or stream; and there are cases, such as that of the Smartsville gold-beds, in which it has been necessary to drive a tunnel through a great hill, perhaps through several thousand feet of hard rock, in order to find an outlet for the raging mud-torrent, which rushes down at racing speed, bearing with it huge rocks, and so finds an outlet in the Yuba river—formerly a clear trout-stream, now a sluggish ditch-like river of red mud.

The coach halted at a big cattle-ranch to water the horses, and the ranch-men brought us a bowl of delicious milk to wash down the stifling dust. They would accept no payment, but gave it with a cheery welcome that made it doubly acceptable. They were fine, strapping, well-to-do, well-clad men, thriving and hearty, proud of their glorious country of California, and anxious that every stranger should carry away a good impression of it.

A little before noon we reached this town of Sonora, which, though fast decaying, is still the headquarters of mining operations in these parts. Though somewhat dilapidated, it is quite a fair-sized town, and has two large hotels, four churches, schools, restaurants, bar-rooms without number, large shops with fire-proof iron shutters and iron doors. Much money has here been expended; but life has passed by, and these properties are now almost worthless, the houses standing empty—mere skeletons.

The coach rattled up the long, dead-and-alive street which forms the principal feature of the place, and deposited me at a very clean, handsome hotel, where, somewhat to my annoyance, I am compelled to spend a whole day, as, tourists being scarce, the other coach is not to run till to-morrow.

So I have had plenty of time to look about me; and though the place is not beautiful, it is interesting. The surrounding country has all been worked out in surface mining, but it is not yet thoroughly exhausted, and some lucky men still occasionally hit on a good thing, and contrive to wash out a few thousand dollars. If a travelling circus, or any such delight, finds its way to Sonora, the big lads go out with old pans, and contrive to “pan-out” as much gold-dust as will pay for their admission.

In former days, gold-dust, by weight or by measure, was the medium of exchange for everything. Tobacconists sold an ounce of “negrohead” for “a pinch” of gold-dust—a mode of payment which was greatly in favour of the man with a large thumb! (By the way, I hear that a favourite singer has been giving concerts at the Temora gold-fields in New South Wales, when the open-handed miners showered on her, not only applause, nor even bouquets, but genuine nuggets, twisted up in bits of paper! Decidedly a useful form of approbation!)

The recent lucky finds of gold have proved fortunate for some of the men who had spent thousands of dollars on building here in prosperous times, and who now cannot sell at any price. In some cases they have found a new source of wealth under their feet, by pulling down their houses, and washing the soil on which they stood. One man, whose store stands in the main street of Sonora, finding he could not sell his property at a fair price, turned his assistants into gold-miners, and, by removing the soil to the depth of perhaps twenty feet, and washing it, they found gold-dust to the value of 4000 dollars. The soil was trapped, so that it could not be washed away, and was then replaced, and the house rebuilt as before!

Just at present, the dying life of Sonora has somewhat revived, in consequence of hopeful operations at “The Confidence Quartz Mine,” which is in a mountain about twelve miles from here. For years it was worked at a dead loss by two successive companies, who excavated to the depth of 200 feet, and then finally abandoned it. After a while, a third company started it afresh. This time it appears to be answering the highest expectations, and is set down as one of those happy exceptions—a successful mine.

So a multitude of eager men are now thronging to seek work at “The Confidence,” and the dull streets of Sonora echo the speech of many nationalities. Hard-headed Yankees from the Eastern States; hopeful, reckless Celts from the Emerald Isle, earnest canny ones from Scotland; Cornish men, Kentish men, Portuguese, Norse, Danes, representatives of all nations,—flocking from afar to take their share of hard unlovely toil, digging and delving like moles, in dark, dirty tunnels, all for the chance of gold.

Still, the real inhabitants, such as my landlady, say that the present crowd is hardly worth mentioning, as compared with the busy throng of 1849 and the following years, when on Saturday nights the miners poured in from all their lonely cabins, to buy stores, and bring their week’s gain to be despatched to San Francisco in the strong-box of the Express, or, too often, to squander it at the gambling dens or whisky bars. On those nights a procession, more than half a mile long, was formed by eager men, waiting their turn to approach the post-office—that weekly lottery which might perhaps have brought them a letter from some far country which they called home.

The actual residents of Sonora seem rather to like the place. They say it has a good climate; the nights are always cold, however grilling may be the dusty noonday. There are no mosquitos, and no fevers; and the easy going life of doing nothing seems a natural reaction from the fiery gold-fever of past years.

Roses and oleanders contrive to blossom beneath a thick coating of dust, and there are very fine vineyards and orchards all round the town. Through these I have been wandering at large unheeded, and should probably have been told “I was heartily welcome” had I helped myself to their treasures. Large fig-trees form the chief feature of the vegetation. They have just done yielding a heavy crop, and a second is due ere long. The grapes are splendid, but are not yet fully ripe.

I must tell you a trifling but characteristic incident of this New World life. As I was coming up to my room (a very smart one), a fine stalwart miner, from Virginia city, came up to his (equally smart). He was in his muddy working-clothes, and carried a big bucket full of magnificent ripe peaches. Of these he insisted on giving me more than I could carry,—and I only hope he enjoyed his own share as thoroughly as I did those he so generously bestowed on a stranger.

In the colonies we are thoroughly familiar with Californian peaches and apricots “canned”; but this was my first introduction to the genuine article, freshly gathered.

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