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A Vacation among the Sierras (1962),
by Thomas Starr King

Letter Two

SAN FRANCISCO, November, 1860.

Dear Transcript: Let me see: the last letter landed us in Coulterville, Mariposa County. We are now two hundred miles south-east from San Francisco, and have travelled more than seventy of them by stage—the last twenty over wild mountain roads. From Coulterville to the Yo-Semite Valley, by the nearest route, is about sixty miles. There is no wagon-road, and as the forest trail leads up and down over the rolling outworks of the Sierras, it is a good two days” journey on horseback.

But shall we take the shortest route? There are two trails which enter the remarkable pass. One has been opened from the town of Mariposa, is a little over fifty miles in length, and conducts us into the valley on the right hand or southerly bank of the Merced river, which flows between the mighty battlements of rock. The other or Coulterville path enters the valley over the northerly or left bank of the Merced, and, as we have said, is about sixty miles in length. It is as if there were no stage road to the White Mountain Notch, but two horseback routes; one from Centre Harbor, which should strike in fifteen hundred feet above the Willey House, on the side of Mt. Willey and over the west bank of the Saco; the other from Wolfboro,” and leading to the very top of Mt. Webster, opposite the Willey House, and descending into the gorge down that precipitous wall to the east bank of the Saco. The Coulterville trail to the Yo-Semite valley corresponds to the first of these imaginary paths; the Mariposa trail to the second.

It is over twenty miles, however, to Mariposa from Coulterville, and if we decide to take that route, we must be one day more on horseback, and cannot reach the Yo-Semite until the third day. But then we shall have the opportunity to see the celebrated gold estate of Col. Frémont, and also the great grove of Giant Trees in Mariposa County, which lies only five miles off from the Yo-Semite trail. I vote now for the longer route, although I foresee that it involves the infliction of two additional letters upon the columns of the Transcript. I do not say “upon the readers,” for they need not join our party, if they do not choose to. They can keep their eyes off all the letters, and thus protect themselves against the literary fatigues of the excursion.

At half-past seven in the morning, our party were mounted for Mariposa. First, a portly and very handsome gentleman of San Francisco, who has had the good fortune, in amassing real estate, to keep and enjoy a refined taste for the wider real estate of natural beauty, which cannot be monopolized or mortgaged. Second, a banker from the metropolis, astride of a charming black mule, and oblivious of the charms of three per cent. a month in the enjoyment of the more opulent dividends from the landscape. Third, a more elderly gentleman, but as young in heart as any, probably a Republican in principle, but in hair and complexion a delightful specimen of the “silver grey.” Fourth, a youth who belongs, as personal estate, to our portly friend first mentioned, a thorough horseman and a constant fountain of cheer to the whole party. Fifth, the slight proportions of the secretary of the expedition. Two excellent mounted guides and a pack mule almost invisible under a mound of blankets, overcoats, and general camping conveniences, completed our caravan. 80

We struck at once into a mountain path, and soon found ourselves winding around the side of a curved and very steep ravine whose walls, it is said, strikingly resemble the Scottish Trossachs. Gold is found in all the beds of the little streams which plunge down the sharp slopes of the pass. Miners’ tents were visible here and there in the furrows beneath us, enlivening the ravines with signs of nomadic life, but not suggesting very brilliant profits. Probably the majority of those who work there in the favorable season do not earn more pay than good Boston wages for mechanics, and not nearly so much as the San Francisco return for tolerably skilful labor. But there is poetry in the toil, and the constant hope of striking some rich stratum or “pocket” where Nature had hoarded nuggets or dust. We were soon attracted to the beauty of the pines shooting up their leaden green spires among the bright verdure of the bushes and scrub-oaks. This, however, was only the prelude to the great chorus of evergreens which the next two days were to furnish, and I will not speak of them here. But I must record the joy we felt when, on making a sudden turn in our wild and lonely path, about six miles from Coulterville, we found the noble Merced River immediately beneath us. Our path was several hundred feet above its bed. It was larger than the Androscoggin is in Gorham, and was roaring in right leonine majesty. This was the first clean river I had seen in California. No placer or hydraulic mining on its banks have polluted it yet. It is as pure at the point where we saw it, as when it bursts through the granite ramparts of the Yo-Semite, with not room even for a horseback-path along its edge. No stream, except possibly the Sutlej in Northern India, is shadowed, in its earlier career, by such sublime walls and stupendous cliffs. I thought of these, only some twenty-five miles distant, which our party must make a detour of sixty miles to reach, and it made the white flecks on its olive green tide more exhilarating to the sight as they flashed in the hot forenoon sun, and the music more fascinating which it poured up into the air of the lonely glen.

But although the Merced is not discolored and choked with mining mud, it is compelled to lend its strength to the task of unlocking gold from the granite veins of its neighboring hills. Three miles from the point where we first heard its roar we were startled with a noise that competes with its own rapids. We had reached the great quartz mill belonging to Col. Frémont, the largest in the world. 81 There are two mills on the bank of the river, the larger having forty-eight stampers for crushing quartz rock, the smaller having sixteen stampers and bearing on a large sign the title for both, “Benton Mills” 82 The rock that feeds them is torn from the mountain which towers over the southerly bank of the stream, and appropriately named “Mt. Bullion.”

The last Agricultural Report by the State Society here tells us that “Col. Frémont has damned the Merced River in the most substantial manner, where the stream is three hundred feet broad, commencing fifteen feet below low water mark, and ending twenty-two feet above.” This, when I read it, seemed to me the most comprehensive and intense instance of profanity in literature,—although I have no doubt that a great many capitalists in this State, who have engaged in quartz mining, have felt prompted to exuberant and emphatic utterances contrary to the directions in the Sermon on the Mount. But in observing the noble work near the “Benton Mills” which forces the river to turn the power-wheels of these money factories, I saw that the great man referred to had been engaged in better business than uttering maledictions on the stream, and that the intention of the Agricultural Report, as well as his own enterprise,

Fremont’s Benton Mills on the Merced River. Probably taken late in 1860

Bancroft Library Photograph


This photograph, probably taken late in 1860, shows the sign mentioned
by King.

Mariposa, California, about 1860

Bancroft Library Photograph


The town must have looked like this on the hot July afternoon when King
trotted at a “respectable rate” up the main street past the white-painted
store fronts in search of a hotel and a hot bath.

would be more clearly expressed by substituting the word “dammed.”

The two mills on the Merced are able to crush between five and six hundred tons of rock per week, which ought to yield a profit of ten thousand dollars. We gave our horses and mule a long rest, while we looked carefully through these admirably managed works. I will not repeat what was written in the Nevada letters by an attempt to describe the process of extracting gold from the milky fluid into which the quartz is beaten by the heavy pestles in the batteries. 83 It is not probable, however, that half the gold which goes into the mill in partnership with the rock is arrested by all the cunning traps that are set for it. The “tailings” of the mills which flow off into the river carry as much of the precious metal as is detained for the owner’s profit and the world’s use. It is this wasted California that the scientific metallurgists are now concentrating their skill upon. Whoever can set the chemical trap which will detain this fugitive dust will practically double the gold hills of the State, and make the forty-five thousand acres of the Frémont manor worth treble their value today on the stock-exchange. So solid and marketable a commodity is genius!

When we remounted to continue our journey toward Mariposa, we had a very striking revelation of the engineering enterprise and genius of the distinguished proprietor. We rode for four miles up the side of Mt. Bullion, and around an enormous ravine called “Hell’s Hollow” upon a railroad track which was nearly ready for the cars, and was to be dedicated on the first of August. 84 This road connects the Benton Mills by the Merced River, with their feeders—the Pine Tree Mine and the Josephine Vein on Mt. Bullion. The latter vein is nearly sixteen hundred feet above the river, and it was a very tedious and costly process to haul the rock to the mills over such roads as the winter rains and storms softened and gullied. Col. Frémont saw the necessity of a railroad, and determined that the mountain should be girdled by a substantial iron track. The scheme was laughed at. The difficulties were too great. In fact, good judges decided that from the nature of the ground it was impracticable. The cost, too, if the plan were feasible, would be enormous, and the mines would not yield rock enough to justify the extravagance. But the genius of the engineer conquered the opposition of the mountain, while administrative energy surmounted the pecuniary obstacles which threatened to be even more intractable. And today the railroad, built on an original plan, is in successful operation. The glistening rock from the four levels of the great Josephine vein, and the five galleries of the noble Pine Tree mine below, is not hauled by plodding oxen to be disenchanted of its wealth, but hurries to the river down a grade of one foot in seven by its own gravity, and pours into the mills faster than they can pound it into paste.

Thus the man who first taught the country how a railroad might connect California with the Mississippi, is the first who has bridled one of the savage Sierras themselves with an iron rein. It was an exciting and brilliant scene in that wild region, when on the first of August, at the dedication of the road, the first train of cars, laden with guests and adorned with banners, swept around the last curve of the mountain, upon the bridge near the mills. The whole force of the estate were drawn up in order to greet them. Their lusty cheers were accompanied by the roar of cannon. The mills started all their stampers to increase the applause; and a gentleman who describes the scene at length assures us that even “the liver in its mad career whirled and twisted in extra ecstasy.” We have more respect for the river hereafter on account of its enthusiasm; and if there are any Naiads in its current, no doubt they rose and clapped their hands intensely at the first sentiment offered at the feast by its banks, where a few years ago the grizzly lapped the water undisturbed:—“The enterprise we commemorate by this celebration, characteristic of the spirit and indicative of the energy of ’the “Pathfinder!”

It is useless for me to attempt any detailed description of this largest gold estate in California, and perhaps the most valuable mining property in the world. Only a geologist skilled in such writing can give an accurate account of the veins and outcroppings over its ten square leagues, and the characteristics and working of the opened mines. The yield of gold, from the few points where its bounty is tapped, is now $2500 a day, which may very soon be doubled. But “it takes a mine to work a mine.” As a witty friend who has had ample experience said to me, not long ago, “it is easy to have half a million in a quartz lead, but difficult to get it out.” With capital enough to handle Mt. Bullion properly, and make it bleed at every vein, the Frémont estate would yield millions a year, and pay more than the highest California rates of interest. Let us hope that the day is not distant now when the proprietor shall receive the fitting pecuniary return for the capital of genius, courage, and indomitable heroism, to say nothing of suffering, which he has invested in its development.

No romance could be more exciting, or hold the reader with more varied interest, than the story of this estate and its management during the last few years. The strange history of California in all its strata, financial, legal, social and moral, is illustrated by it in one “sectional view,” as the geologists say. A cool narrative of all the difficulties that have been surmounted, the perplexities that have been cut through, the perils that have been breasted, the agonies of thought and heart for weeks and months that have been endured, the genius that has been pledged and expended in securing the title to this estate, clearing it of squatting ruffians and buccaneers, postponing the grasp of angry or treacherous creditors, and opening channels for the flow of its fettered wealth, would show that, if it pays at last a million a year to its master, it will only be a just return for the immense investment of gifts, suffering and toil.

No country has ever seen in larger measure than California, the conflict of refinement with the coarsest and most repulsive hardships. Clergymen who preached in mining districts years ago, have told me that, in some places, more than a third of their audiences were from New England colleges, and that a large portion of these cultivated adventurers either sunk under the hardships of the mining life, or gained just enough, after two or three years of misery, to return dispirited to their Eastern home. Gold is costly when you must fight for it in the raw with delicate and naked hands. And as I rode by the charming Frémont cottage in Bear Valley, overtopped by the wedgy summit of burly Mt. Bullion, and thought of the cares and the anguish which had been experienced under its roof, by those who belong to the inner circle of the most cultivated, not only of our country, but of our time, I felt that the pilgrim record of California has leaves as dark and bitter as any that belong to the early annals of New England. Reader, have you ever followed the vivid chapters of Charles Reade, in the second volume of “Never too Late to Mend,” detailing the brutalities and distresses of Australian life in the gold region? Now imagine the utmost refinement and culture thrown into that maelstrom of savageness and depravity for two or three years! Qualities framed in that setting, that were made to flash in the most brilliant society which civilization can produce! Tennyson living in a coal pit! Ariel with his wings clipped condemned to the society of Caliban! Let us rejoice that the morning has dawned over all this gloom, and join in the cheers of that first of August over the emancipation of the Frémont estate from its fetters. 85


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