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Up and Down California in 1860-1864;
The Journal of William H. Brewer:
Book 3, Chapter 3
THE DIABLO RANGE SOUTH

Corral Hollow Revisited—Sheep-Herders—Mount Oso—Cañada Del Puerto—Impenetrable Canyons—Hot Days on the Plain—Orestimba Canyon—A Rodeo—Pacheco Pass—The Road to San Juan.

Orestimba Canyon, Camp 76.
Sunday, June 15, 1862.

Two most laborious weeks have passed since I have written anything—weeks of care, toil, and anxiety—to write all the incidents of these two weeks that have crowded upon my mind for writing would take more time than I can devote and would perhaps tire you.

I think I told you that I was instructed to work up the San Joaquin plain, at the foot of the Diablo Range, examining that mountain chain as far as is possible from the plain, up to Pacheco’s Pass, then cross the San Joaquin River about the last wek in June, and join Professor Whitney on the east side.

We made ample preparation for the trip. We would be a month away from all mail facilities and all stores save fresh meat, so we profited by previous experiences and were well provisioned and prepared. So soon as we left Mount Diablo, and the party was fully in my charge, I got things going like clockwork, inaugurating a more strict discipline than we had last summer, and giving each man his place and work. Thus far everything has moved on capitally.

At Zimmermann’s we heard that all the ferries across the San Joaquin were still impassable, up to Firebaugh, eighty miles up the river, and that to get to Stockton was practically impossible. Two men had recently arrived from there on horseback, but had to ride in the water four miles, often swimming their animals.

Tuesday, June 3, we raised that camp, and went on to Camp 72, at the mouth of Corral Hollow. The morning was peculiarly clear. The plain looked like the sea, or rather a great bay, the snowy Sierras seemed scarcely ten miles distant, instead of sixty to a hundred as they really were. We passed out upon the plain, and passed the fifteen miles across it by a very obscure trail, the mirage flitting about us most beautifully.

All work at the Corral Hollow coal mines had ceased since last fall and only a few men hung around there. A torrent, like a river, had swept down the canyon last winter, destroying the road, so we camped at the mouth of the canyon, where there was water, six miles below where we camped last fall—a solitary spot.

We had done most of the work last fall, so but little was now to be done. Nevertheless, on Wednesday, June 4, Hoffmann and I climbed a high hill several miles south for bearings for topography, etc., while Gabb explored the canyon for its geology.

As we have worked south it has grown hotter—today was over 90°, but on the hills, if we could get in the shade of a tree, a most delicious breeze fanned us. I have never experienced any more delicious air than we have these clear days, provided one can be in the shade and rest from exertion. I have long ceased to wonder that the natives are so universally lazy. Any man is justified in being lazy in such a climate. But the evening was still more delicious, cool—you would say warm at home—a delicious breeze, no dew. The moon was bright, and we lay in the open air and sang songs of home until the rocky sides of the canyon echoed again. I assure you that no song is oftener sung than “Sweet Home.”

Thursday, June 5, we rode up the canyon and again visited the mines and prospectings, all now deserted for a time. My previous opinion of the worthlessness of the mines was

Dr. James G. Cooper
Dr. James G. Cooper
  Charles F. Hoffmann
Charles F. Hoffmann

 

Auguste Rémond
Auguste Rémond
  William More Gabb
William More Gabb
confirmed strongly. Over $100,000 has been spent in that desolate place—and more will probably be sunk there!

We have been sleeping in the open air since this month began, and it seems like old times again. Friday, June 6, we were up early and out upon the plain, passed up a few miles and turned into Lone Tree Canyon, Camp 73. Here another canyon opens into the plain, a lone tree stands near its mouth and gives the canyon a name. We went up the canyon about one and a half miles to where another tree stands, a poor apology for a cottonwood, but still a tree. Here we camped. A man lives here, and has a flock of sheep, and feeds them over the hills. He seemed a very intelligent man, and lived the best of all of these sheep herders that we have seen, although living entirely alone. He was glad to see us, for we were the first human beings he had seen for three weeks, and as many more weeks may pass before he sees any others. What a lonely life must be his! Summer and winter he must be here—his visitors few and far between. Sunday and week day are alike to him. Up at dawn, he gets his breakfast, and drives his sheep out in the early cool air of morning twilight. He carries a little bag in which is his noon meal. He watches his sheep among the hills the entire day, and at night brings them into the fold, or “corral,” beside which he sleeps, to keep away coyotes, wolves, and bears. Such is the monotonous life of hundreds of sheep herders in California.

Saturday, June 7, I intended to climb Mount Oso, but our mules got away and so much time was wasted that it could not be done. The feed is poor and water has been poor and alkaline since leaving the region of Mount Diablo, so that both horses and men are affected by it. The mules are so disgusted with affairs that they utterly refuse to stay unless a part of them are tied up. I don’t blame the poor animals. But the water is much better and more abundant in this region than usual, from the heavy rains of last winter. Although this canyon heads back many miles among high hills, yet, this man said, during the five years he has been here he has never before seen water in it, summer or winter. Now there is a small stream.

Sunday, June 8, was a quiet Sunday in camp—no one seen save ourselves, and even our mules were absent, for we had picketed them a mile and a half up the canyon where the feed was better.

Monday, June 9, I was up early and, with Hoffmann, started for Mount Oso. Averill was left in camp to observe station barometer, and Gabb was sent back to the last camp with another barometer to get the difference of altitude for obtaining the height of the mountain. We crossed a table-land, furrowed by canyons, to Hospital Canyon, then up that. It is a wild canyon, which breaks through from behind Mount Oso. Here we met another solitary herder, who anxiously inquired the news from the outer world. The news we gave was fresh to him, although we have heard none for over two weeks.

We rode up the canyon two or three miles, often with high walls of rocks on both sides. Occasionally it widened out into little valleys, surrounded by steep hills, where scanty grasses, now dry, support the sheep. A few cottonwoods grow along the creek, and in them hundreds of cranes have built their nests—great awkward birds, with their maltese-colored plumage, long slim necks, and longer slimmer legs.1 At the sight of us they would fly out in flocks, squawking and screaming, but some, more tame, would stand their ground and look down on us with dignity. Great numbers of other species of birds also congregate in these canyons. They are marvelously tame, for they have never learned to fear man—he is too rarely seen.

We tied up our mules and climbed the ridge. It was steep and long, but the summit was gained. We found the mountain to be 3,400 feet high. The view was magnificent. Back of the treeless hills that lie along the San Joaquin plain, there rises a labyrinth of ridges, furrowed and separated by deep canyons. These ridges rise 3,200 to 4,000 feet high, with scattered trees over them, sometimes, but not often, with some chaparral. This region is twenty-five to thirty miles wide and extends far to the southeast—I know not how far, but perhaps two hundred miles. It is almost a terra-incognita. No map represents it, no explorers touch it; a few hunters know something of it, and all unite in giving it a hard name. Two different ones, one a companion of old Grizzly Adams, have described it to us as “a hell of a country,” and so far as our observations go they were not far from correct. We got into the margin of it on the west last summer, from the San Jose Valley, and were now peeping into it from the east.

We found Mount Oso rightly named—Bear Mountain, of the Spaniards—for the whole summit had been dug over by bears for roots. Many tracks were seen, and trees scratched and broken, but we saw no bears, much to the surprise of the herder in the canyon below, for he had never been up the canyon without seeing some, but we kept on the ridges and thus avoided them. Only one rattlesnake was seen, making six seen this trip so far. We were back safely at sundown, and, tired enough, were in our blankets early.

I have been interrupted while writing this page by a great rumpus outside the tent—Schmidt calls for a light—something in his trousers leg—the lights are carried out—his pants carefully rolled up, for scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas are all abundant—but only a huge mole cricket is found under his drawers—a common insect, but harmless—a perfectly huge, wingless cricket, as thick as a man’s little finger. We laugh over the affair—the rest go to bed, and I return to writing.

Tuesday, June 10, we came on about fifteen miles to Camp 74, in the Cañada del Puerto, or, to translate, “Door Canyon.”2 It was a tedious ride along the plain, for since we left Corral Hollow we have had no road. We take our way across the trackless plain, sometimes sandy, at other hard, gravelly soil where we can trot a little, but oftener a clay soil, now dry and cracked by the heat, so that the mules must pick their way slowly. The cracks are from two to four inches wide, running in all directions. You cannot imagine how tedious it is thus plodding along, two or three miles off from the foothills to avoid the gulches that come down from them. Sometimes we come to one and must follow along it a mile or more to find a place to cross, then keep on our weary way.

Once we came upon a herd of thirty or forty antelope, a kind of small deer. We came up to within two hundred yards, or less, of them, when they galloped leisurely away. They are most beautiful and graceful animals, with slender legs, large ears, and erect heads. They are as fleet as the wind when really alarmed, but these only ran a short distance and then stopped to graze again.3

The Puerto Canyon breaks through the ridges, which are made by strata of rocks tilted up at a high angle. The outside ridge is of hard rock, and the canyon comes through by a very narrow “door,” which gives name to the valley behind, which widens out. There is a fine stream now—soon it will dry, however—with cottonwoods growing along it. We camped in a beautiful spot just within the “gate.”

Here we found another sheep ranch—a cabin, and two men keeping four thousand sheep. One of the men was going to Grayson’s Ferry, and would carry a letter to the express, so I sat up until midnight writing to Whitney. One of these men was a fine looking man—had been here five or six years—but he lived decidedly slovenly. His cabin was dirty beyond description, his scanty utensils dirtier, his bed a dirty sheepskin, and his blanket merely another dirty sheepskin. He says that in the summer, when they take the sheep back farther into the hills, months will pass without their seeing any other persons. Last summer, for three months, they only saw three men, hunters probably, who had come through the mountains.

Wednesday, June 11, was spent in examining the hills back for three or four miles. We looked at the total lunar eclipse until the moon was entirely obscured, then turned in. I watched it still as the shadow slowly passed off, but sleep accidentally cut short the observations at an early hour, and the bright morning sun was the next thing I saw. Strange enough, a slight shower had passed late in the night, a rare thing for this time of the year. I found my blankets and “pillow” (figurative) wet, but the rain had not disturbed me.

Thursday, June 12, as it was desirable to get back into the mountains, and, this being a very favorable spot to try it, I resolved on a two days’ excursion to see what was beyond the outer ranges of hills and to get bearings to connect with back points from some of the higher ridges within, for marking localities on our maps. So Hoffmann, Averill, and I started on mules up the canyon for a ridge supposed to be fourteen miles in a direct line from camp.

We traveled hard all day and found on plotting our maps on returning that we had made less than ten miles in a direct line from camp. For six miles the creek breaks through very steep ridges from 1,000 to 2,500 feet high, all made up of strata of sandstone tilted up at an angle of fifty to seventy degrees. The western side of each hill was made by the broken edges of the strata, so they were very steep. The numerous rocky precipices made a picturesque but desolate landscape. The side canyons were generally dry, but sometimes had small streams or pools of bitter, alkaline water, and the rocks often looked as if covered with frost, from the alkali that exudes from them. I scraped off about a pound of alkali, in one place, to take for analysis. It is nearly white as snow and is a mixture apparently of carbonate of soda, salt, gypsum, and Epsom salts, of which the first named ingredient is the most abundant.

Sometimes the canyon is a mere gorge between high rocks, at others it widens out into pretty little valleys with grass (now dry as tinder) and scattered trees. We passed these sandstone ridges and got into the metamorphic region beyond, where the strata have all been roasted and changed by volcanic agencies and tossed about in grand confusion. Here we found decidedly a “hard road to travel,” among and over rocks, now up, now down—places were passed which you members of civilized countries would pronounce absolutely impassable. Indeed, Averill (who unfortunately does not hold out well in places of danger or difficulty) once wanted to turn back, but I shut him up quickly and kept on, and the rest followed. We found it impossible to reach the point we started for, so came to a halt, near night, at a convenient spot.

From the exceeding abundance of grizzly tracks, it was but natural to suppose that we might be visited in the night, so we slept “conveniently” near an easy tree to climb and built a bright fire. But I bet Hoffmann a keg of beer, to be drunk at the first place where it could be got, that we would neither hear nor see a bear in the night. We built a bright camp fire, and in our scanty blankets lay down beside it, our saddles for pillows, the clear sky above, and these rugged mountains about. You cannot appreciate the peculiar pleasure of sleeping thus, in such solitudes. The stillness seems almost deathlike, but I do enjoy it. Tired enough, we slept soundly. I only awoke once, to replenish the fire, for it was cold.

But our sound sleep won for me the beer, for we found large bear tracks within a hundred feet, or less, of us in the morning—he had passed during the night. It was light moon, when bears love most to roam, but all hunters unite in saying that it is the rarest thing in the world for a grizzly to seriously disturb a sleeping man. I have never heard of a man being thus attacked. They often come up and smell the man, but if he lies perfectly quiet he will not be molested. The difficulty is, to lie quiet while an animal more ferocious than the lion and stronger than the strongest ox is thus examining you. But our friend that night took no such liberties. He apparently passed down the canyon, stopped and turned around when near us, then passed on.

We were up at dawn the next day, climbed a hill and got bearings sufficient for our purpose, then returned to camp, where we arrived just at night. At camp, we met three men lately from San Francisco, who gave us a “treat” of news—the evacuation of Corinth. They were on their way up the valley, on a vacation trip—one was a professor from Oakland College.

Saturday, June 14, we were up and off early, raised camp, passed out of the canyon, and again struck up the trackless plain. You cannot imagine how tedious it is to ride on this plain. The soil and herbage is dry and brown, few green things cheer the eye, no trees (save in the distance) vary that great expanse. Tens of thousands of cattle are feeding, but they are but specks save when they cluster in great herds near the water—often for miles we see nothing living but ourselves, except birds or insects, reptiles, and ground squirrels. We can only ride at a walk, and in the clear air long distances seem so short that we appear to make no progress. We ride on many a weary league, while a mountain ahead that seemed scarcely a dozen miles distant, at most, becomes no nearer. We camp, and then travel another day toward it, but approach it not. The Sierra is ever in sight, the brilliant summits seem ever in the same position. Peaks a hundred and fifty or more miles distant change their looks but little by our changing place forty or fifty miles.

It is hot, too, on this plain, and every day the mirage flits before us—seeming cool waters ahead that are never reached. Although this has become so familiar a thing that we look at it as a matter of course, yet I never cease to wonder at it. Daily observation has made me familiar with it. Science has explained its mystery, but its beauty, its poetry, remains ever the same to me.

We passed up about fifteen miles, then turned up the Orestimba Canyon and camped about three miles from its mouth. Here we were on a cattle ranch, away from the infernal sheep. We struck a good place to camp. It was a lovely Saturday night. We had wood, and built a bright camp fire, the first we had had since striking the San Joaquin plain—except that one back in the mountains. But the feed was poor, so, early in the morning of Sunday, June 15, we raised camp and moved up the canyon about a mile to where the feed was better and camped in a most charming spot—a little plain with high hills each side, feed tolerable (though dry as hay), a clear stream of pretty good water, and a great sycamore for shade. We were in camp again and all in order before ten o’clock.

It was a lovely and quiet Sunday. It followed a hard week’s work, and was spent quietly as could be—no one but ourselves to molest. The day was intensely hot, we could see the Sierra with marvelous distinctness out of the mouth of the canyon, which expands to over a mile wide, and the night which followed was yet clearer than the day—the sky of the intensest blue, and the stars as numerous as on a clear winter’s night at home.

San Francisco.
July 6.

As we came on farther and farther, the air grew day by day hotter and drier, and all the evidences of a drier climate increased. All the herbage on the hills was dry enough to burn, and the plain brown and dry as hay. At Orestimba the ranch runs to the river, six or eight miles distant, and often for several summers in succession all the cattle must be driven there for water. Until this past winter and spring it has been five or six years since there was water in the canyon where we were now camped!

Monday, June 15, we climbed some hills about 2,200 feet high, a few miles from camp. It was intensely hot. I know not how hot, but over 90° all day in camp where there was wind, and vastly hotter in some of the canyons we had to cross. It was 81° long after sunset. The Sierra seemed but a few miles away, and the night was intensely clear.

Tuesday, June 17, was still hotter. Hoffmann and I rode a few miles up the canyon, then a laborious walk up a ridge 2,400 feet high, to get bearings. Whew, how hot it was! On the top, where there was a breeze, it was 89°. How hot it was in some of the still canyons I have no idea, but in one, not the hottest, I got in the “cool shade” of a tree, where there was some breeze and found it 105°. It seemed positively parching. But on sinking into the deep, narrow canyon we came to a stream, found a deep hole, and took a most delicious bath. We saw a deer, also a panther—were quite near the latter, but he made off. This is the panther which is known here as the California lion.4 I have heard much of them, but had no idea that they were such formidable looking animals. This fellow could have carried off a man easily. Bear signs were numerous.

A hot night followed this hot day—few slept well. Mosquitoes, numerous, huge in size, and ferocious in disposition, haunted us, but they molest me less than the other men.

I had not spent a day in camp, save Sundays, since leaving Diablo, so Wednesday, June 18, I resolved to stay in camp, write, wash, and do odd jobs. It was still hotter—above 100° most of the day, and 87° after eight o’clock in the evening. With a fresh breeze it stood at 102° for hours, and so dry that heavy woolen clothes after washing were perfectly dry in less than two hours. It may have been sooner. I looked in two hours after leaving them out and found them dry.

Well, I washed my clothes, a job I positively hate—I would rather climb a three-thousand-foot mountain—and to make matters more aggravating, just as I was in the midst of it, along came two women, one young and quite pretty, who were assisting as vaqueros. A rodeo took place near camp, and several thousand head of cattle were assembled, wild almost as deer. Of course it takes many vaqueros to manage them, all mounted, and with lassos. A rodeo is a great event on a ranch, and these women, the wife and daughter of the ranchero came out to assist in getting in the cattle. Well mounted, they managed their horses superbly, and just as I was up to my elbows in soapsuds, along they came, with a herd of several hundred cattle, back from the hills. I straightened my aching back, drew a long breath, and must have blushed (if a man can blush when tanned the color of smoked bacon) and reflected on the doctrine of Woman’s rights—I, a stout man, washing my shirt, and those ladies practicing the art of vaqueros.

The cattle were “marshaled,” in a close body on the plain near, with hills on either side, surrounded by vaqueros on horseback. The rancheros from adjoining ranches were on hand to select such cattle as belonged to them and get them out. A rodeo is always a spirited scene. The incessant “looing” of these three thousand cattle, the riding, the lassoing, etc., form a scene that an eastern farmer cannot well conceive from description. This is considered a fine stock ranch—several thousand head of cattle and hundreds of horses are kept.

Just after sunset a fine deer, a buck, came down to within three hundred feet of camp and leisurely looked at us. We had no gun loaded, and he trotted away unmolested, much to our chagrin.

Thursday, June 19, we raised camp and came on to Camp 77 at Ranch San Luis de Gonzaga, at the eastern end of Pacheco’s Pass, twenty-seven miles—twenty-four of which were along the plain—with a temperature all day of 95° to 102°. Before entering the pass, we struck a road—a mere trail, yet it was a road, and what a luxury! We trotted our mules gaily along it. It is a novelty, for we saw our last road three weeks ago!

We camped in a very windy place. A strong current of air pours over Pacheco Pass the entire summer—from the west, cool, to supply in part the demand of the hot San Joaquin plain—and we were camped directly in this channel.

We passed a herd of antelope today on the plain.

Friday, June 20, we climbed a peak nine or ten miles south of camp, a conspicuous point, from which we had a prospect of a large extent of very rough country and a very great extent of plain beyond—a long and laborious day’s work.

In crossing some of the ridges that lay in the channel of this great wind current over the depression here in the mountain chain, the wind was so intense that our mules at times were blown out of the trail several feet—they could scarcely stand. The oak trees often lay along the ground, in the direction of the wind. They were not uprooted, but had grown in that way in that perpetual wind.

Saturday, June 21, we climbed another peak, about eight miles northwest—nothing of especial interest. Sunday was a quiet day in a windy camp. I wrote for some time in the tent, but at last the wind grew too high for that. We took a pleasant swim in a stream near, the first swim for the season. That night was the windiest we have had this season. We had to pile saddles, stones, anything heavy, on our blankets while we crawled in them, yet the wind would blow through them.

Monday, June 23, I visited some hills alone, and sent Gabb and Hoffmann on a longer excursion back, with the mules. The event of the day was their meeting, in a narrow ravine, a large she-grizzly with a cub. Now this is the worst kind of a customer to meet, and as they came upon her very suddenly, matters did not look well. She faced them at first, scarcely thirty feet distant, then slowly retreated. They took the hint, and both parties escaped unharmed; the two bears leisurely climbing the steep bank of the ravine on one side, the geologists climbing, less leisurely by far, the steep bank on the other side.

We have ascertained that the San Joaquin River is entirely impassable for its whole length. My instructions were to work up to this point, cross the river wherever we could, and meet Professor Whitney in the Sierra. He was, however, to write us at San Juan, and I was to send over the pass to that place for letters and funds. It was forty-five miles distant. But my program must be changed. I resolved to cross the pass with the party and work north, perhaps to Martinez again, 180 miles, and thence ship to Stockton by steamer, unless the plan should be again modified by future contingencies.

Tuesday, June 24, we raised camp and started over the Pacheco Pass, and stopped in the pass after a ride of eighteen miles. First our way was up steep ridges to the height of about 1,500 feet (1,200 above camp)—a heavy hill for our wagon, although the road was tolerably good. This pass is a toll road, so it has been put in repair for about twenty miles. It took $1,800 to make thirteen miles of it passable after the rains of last winter. The Overland route formerly ran through this pass.

After reaching the summit we descended through narrow, wild, and exceedingly picturesque canyons, in places so narrow on the bottom that our wagon could scarcely pass, in other places along a shelf worked in the steep sides. We camped in the pass six miles from the west side, near a little “hotel” established when the Overland ran.

Two days were spent in examining this region—one day in climbing Pacheco’s Peak, a very conspicuous peak from all sides of this point, the other in climbing a peak about eight miles north. We were thus enabled to work up the general topography entirely across this chain. Everything shows that we are now in a moister climate, getting fresh breezes from the sea. It is cooler, and trees are more frequent and green.

I ought to have said that the San Luis Ranch which we had just left contains nearly fifty thousand acres, and that it has the feed of as much more territory. They keep an immense number of sheep—some eighteen thousand belong to the ranch, but twice that number are brought in from elsewhere and rent pasture. The ranch is about eighteen miles long and six or eight wide. One valley, near where we camped, a plain nearly surrounded by hills, has as much as fifteen thousand or twenty thousand acres in it. On getting farther west the feed becomes better as we get away from the sheep.

Friday, June 27, we went on to San Juan, twenty-seven miles, first down the canyon for six miles, then across the plain over twenty miles. As soon as we left the toll road we struck the plain and most of the way had a good road, but where the raod belongs to the public the bad places had received just as little work as would possibly make them passable. We had to cross four bad gulches, or arroyos—decidedly bad places—from ten to twenty-five feet deep, with very steep sides. In one instance, where we crossed the San Benito, the bank is perpendicular for over twenty feet, and down this the narrowest possible road was cut—steep, sidling, and narrow. We got down safely by tying a long rope to the wagon, passing it over the top, and three of us holding on from the top of the bank, to keep the wagon from capsizing. The leaders were taken off and the wagon was got down by two mules. The San Benito is now a small creek, but last winter it must have been a river twenty or twenty-five feet deep and from a quarter to a third of a mile wide.

The plain of San Juan is vastly greener and more luxuriant now than it was last year at this time, owing to the wet winter. We camped on the old spot where we were camped a year ago.5

NOTES

1. Great blue heron (Ardea herodias hyperonca).

2. Or, “Canyon of the Pass.”

3. Antilocarpa americana.

4. Felis oregonsis californica.

5. The letter following this is missing. Very likely it was lost with the burning of the SS. Golden Gate, mentioned in the next chapter. From Brewer’s notebooks, however, we can trace the movements of the party. They went on to San Jose, climbed Mount Hamilton again (on July 2), moved on to Walnut Creek, and reached Camp 82, on the Suisun road, two miles from Benicia, on July 18. In the meantime Brewer visited San Francisco, San Jose, and New Almaden.


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