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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


Placerville, Cal., Aug. 1, 1859.

Though the Carson sinks in or is absorbed by the same desert with the Humboldt, a glance at its worst estate suffices to convince the traveler, that the former waters by far the more hopeful region. Large cotton-woods dot its banks very near its sink; and its valley, wherever moist, is easily rendered productive. You feel that you are once more in a land where the arm of industry need not be paralyzed by sterility, obstruction, and despair.

Still, the prevalence of drouth is here a fearful fact. No rain in sumnmer—that is, none that can be calculated on, none that amounts to anything—might well appall the cultivator accustomed to warm, refreshing showers throughout the growing season. We crossed, on our rapid ride up the Carson, a single high plain twenty-six miles long and from six to twelve wide, which drouth alone dooms to sage-bush, sterility, and worthlessness. Two or three other plains or high intervales further up are nearly as scorched and barren. All these may be rendered most productive by irrigation, and here is the water at hand. If the new gold mines in this valley shall ultimately justify their present promise, a very large demand for vegetable food will speedily spring up here, which can only be satisfied by domestic production. The vast deserts eastward cannot meet it; the arable region about Salt Lake is at once too restricted and too distant; inland California is a dear country, and the transportation of bulky staples over the Sierra a costly operation. The time will ultimately come—it may or may not be in our day—when two or three great dams over the Carson will render the irrigation of these broad, arid plains on its banks perfectly feasible; and then this will be one of the most productive regions on earth. The vegetable food of one million people can easily be grown here, while their cattle may be reared and fed in the mountain-vales north and south of this valley. And when the best works shall have been constructed, and all the lights of science and experience brought to bear on the subject, it will be found that nearly everything that contributes to human or brute sustenance can be grown actually cheaper by the aid of irrigation than without it. As yet, we know little or nothing of the application of water to land and crops, and our ignorance causes deplorable waste and blundering. Every year henceforth will make us wiser on this head.

Twenty miles or so below Genoa, we passed “Johntown” a Chinese settlement, whose people find employment in the recently discovered gold mines. These mines are some eight miles northward of “Gold Cañon,” and are reported immensely rich. Silver and copper are blended with gold in the same vein-stone. A few are making money very fast here; but these few control all the available water, and it seems impossible to introduce more. If a supply can be obtained at all, it must be at enormous cost. I have vaguely heard of a patent ed process or processes for separating gold from other minerals or earths without the use of water; if there be any such process which is not a humbug, I urge the owner of the patent to haste to Carson Valley and there make his fortune. I assure him of an enthusiastic welcome.

“Carson City,” just above Johntown, though it has few houses as yet, aspires to be the emporium of the new gold region, and perhaps of the embryo State of Nevada; but Genoa, ten or fifteen miles further up, is the present emporium, though a village of but forty or fifty houses. Here a convention had been in session for a fortnight, and had completed a constitution for the aforesaid embryo state of Nevada only the night before our arrival. We met some of the delegates bound homeward. Said state is to comprise the western half (very nearly) of Utah, with (I believe) a small strip of eastern California. California may object to this; but I trust Congress will organize at least the Territory of Nevada at an early day. It is an established fact that a division of power between Mormons and Gentiles seldom works harmoniously; but in Utah there is no division—the Mormons have all. The people of Carson Valley, and of western Utah generally, are not Mormons; the legislation of Utah is unsuited and unacceptable to them; they desire to be set off, and I trust they soon may be. Though few in numbers as yet, they are rapidly increasing, and will soon possess all the elements of a state.

I had previously seen some beautiful valleys, but I place none of these ahead of Carson. I judge that portion of it already in good part under cultivation, about thirty miles long by ten to fifteen wide—an area destined to be largely increased, as I have already indicated. This valley, originally a grand meadow, the home of the deer and the antelope, is nearly inclosed by high mountains, down which, especially from the north and west, come innumerable rivulets, leaping and dancing on their way to form or join the Carson. Easily arrested and controlled, because of the extreme shallowness of their beds, these streams have been made to irrigate a large portion of the upper valley, producing an abundance of the sweetest grass, and insuring bounteous harvests also of vegetables, barley, oats, etc. Wheat seems to do fairly here; corn not so well; in fact, the nights are too cold for it, if the water were not. For this spring-water, leaping suddenly down from its mountain-sources, is too cold, too pure, to be well adapted to irrigation; could it be held back even a week, and exposed in shallow ponds or basins to the hot sunshine, it would be vastly more useful. When the whole river shall have been made available, twenty to forty miles below, it will prove far more nutritious and fertilizing.

Genoa stands on the narrow bench or slope of hard granitic gravel, which intervenes betwixt the mountains and the valley, with half a dozen rivulets running through it, to fructify the fields and gardens below. Just behind it is the steep ascent of the mountain, its very soil formed of white, pulverized granite, gloriously covered with fragrant and graceful pines. As these steep acclivities are absolutely worthless for any other end than tree-growing, I entreat the people of Genoa to take care of these woods, and not let their place be shorn of half its beauty, merely to save a mile or so in the hauling of fuel. I may never see this lovely valley again—it is hardly probable that I ever shall—but its beauty, its seclusion, its quiet, the brightness of its abundant rivulets, the grandeur of its inclosing mountains, the grace and emerald verdure of their vesture of pines, have graven themselves on my memory with a vividness and force which only he who has passed weary weeks on some great, shadeless, verdureless desert can fully realize. We stopped but to dine in Genoa, then economized the residue of the daylight by pressing on fifteen miles to the point at which the California road enters the mountains by the side of the largest of the brooks which unite to form the Carson. Here we halted at a fair two-story house, the first one I had entered with the hope of resting in it since I left Salt Lake City. We had beds here—actual beds, and good ones—our first since Camp Floyd. Though our night was not a long one, for we were to start again by 4, a. m., I reckon good use was made of it by the four through passengers who had not lain down before since they left Shell Creek, five days ago, and nearly five hundred miles away. My own slumber was partial and broken, as it generally is; but the bath which preceded and prepared for it was a genuine refreshment, and the sleep seemed quite sufficient. In fact, I felt that I could have gone without for another week, and experienced less discomfort than I did the first night that we rode, and the day after.

We were in motion again at the earliest dawn, for we had still about seventy-five miles of rugged mountain road to traverse before reaching this place. The Carson side of the road is not yet half made while the half next to this place is in the main good. But in fact, the expense of a good highway up the eastern slope of the Sierra must be a heavy one. For that slope is here composed of granite—simple, naked rock —with scarcely a fraction of its surface thinly covered by soil. Of course, no trees but evergreens can live—a very few small quaking-asps in the bottoms of the ravines scarcely form an exception—while almost every rood is covered by giant, glorious pines. I saw sugar and yellow-pines at least eight feet in diameter and tall in proportion; I am assured that one was recently cut near this road which measured eight feet across at a height of eighty feet from the ground, and from which two hundred and forty thousand shingles were made. Beside these universal pines, there are giant cedars, balsam-firs, and some red-wood; after we cross the summit, we found also oaks, which gradually increased in size and number as we descended. I think I saw oaks (the prevalent California species is much like our white-oak) at least four feet through-in short, I never saw anything like so much nor so good timber in the course of any seventy-five miles’ travel as I saw in crossing the Sierra Nevada. How greatly blest California is in this abundance, I need not say.

The road over this pass-here claimed to be the lowest and most practicable of any over the Sierra Nevada —rises steadily for twelve or thirteen miles from Omr morning’s starting-point, then descends for two or three miles as abruptly to the valley of a brook which runs north into lake Bigler, which in turn finds an outlet into Truckee River, whereby its waters are borne eastward into the desert and there dissipated. There is fine grass on Lake Bigler, and several hundred cows are kept there in summer, making butter for the California market. When snow falls, these cattle are driven down to the valley of the Sacramento, where the rains are now commencing, and they here live without hay till June, when they are taken back to the mountains again, where only is butter made from them. The business is very lucrative, the land costing nothing and being unfenced. Taking into account gold, timber, and grass, the Sierra Nevada is probably the richest and most productive mountain-chain on earth.

From the valley aforesaid, we rose again for two miles, along a narrow road cut into the side of a mountain, with a precipitous declivity on the right. Then we began to descend once more, beside a rivulet which leaped and laughed on its way to the Pacific. The ascent from the Carson side is far shorter than the descent this way, Carson Valley being much higher than that of the Sacramento. But the road, even on this side, is, for most of the way, eaten into the side of a steep mountain, with a precipice of from five to fifteen hundred feet on one side and as steep an eminence on the other. Yet along this mere shelf, with hardly a place to each mile where two meeting wagons can pass, the mail-stage was driven at the rate of ten miles an hour (in one instance eleven), or just as fast as four wild California horses, whom two men could scarcely harness, could draw it. Our driver was of course skillful; but had he met a wagon suddenly on rounding one of the sharp points or projections we were constantly passing, a fearful crash was unavoidable. Had his horses seen fit to run away (as they did run once, on the unhooking of a trace, but at a place where he had room to rein them out of the road on the upper side, and thus stop them) I know that he could not have held them, and we might have been pitched headlong down a precipice of a thousand feet, where all of the concern that could have been picked up afterward would not have been worth two bits per bushel. Yet at this break-neck rate we were driven for not less than four hours or forty miles, changing horses every ten or fifteen, and raising a cloud of dust through which it was difficult at times to see anything. We crossed the south fork of the American River, eighteen miles above this point, rising two or three miles immediately after to the summit of the ridge south, and thenceforward the road, nearly to this city, descends steadily a beautifully inclined ridge, and, but for the dust, would be one of the finest drives on earth. And right glad was I to find myself once more among friends, surrounded by the comforts of civilization, and with a prospect of occasional rest. I cannot conscientiously recommend the route I have traveled to summer tourists in quest of pleasure, but it is a balm for many bruises to know that I am at last in California.

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