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Up and Down California in 1860-1864;
The Journal of William H. Brewer:
Book 4, Chapter 1



Lecturing at San Jose—A Chinese Theater—The College at Oakland—A “Grand Explosion” at the Beach—Chinese New Year’s—A Speculator—The Quicksilver Mines Again.

San Francisco.
January 11, 1863.

Well, the holidays have passed. The day before New Year’s was a lovely day, but New Year’s itself was rainy enough. I made some calls, but the rain interfered seriously. We had little parties at our boarding house, both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s night—informal, pleasant little affairs.

The Emancipation Proclamation was hailed with gladness by a large majority of our loyal population. It is looked upon not only as a military necessity, but also as a grand step in civilization, as the great movement to unite the nation again by laying the foundation for the early removal of the grand bone of contention.

I was invited to deliver a lecture in San Jose on Saturday evening, January 3, and went up that day, arriving at 3 P.M. I expected to stop with Mr. Hamilton, but found his household in some slight confusion owing to the addition of a young daughter to the family that morning. All parties were doing well at the last accounts. I had a very good audience and I believe it was considered that the lecture was a very good success. My subject was “The Mountain Scenery of California.” I was invited to the house of a wealthy citizen, where I stopped until Monday morning, and had a very pleasant time. Mr. Belden, at whose house I stopped, is an old pioneer—came here in 1841, while the territory was under Mexican rule, and his wife followed five years later. The changes they have seen in this state in the twenty years they have been here must seem like romance. Like other pioneers he made money, and unlike most of them he has saved a snug little sum of it and now lives in very comfortable circumstances, indeed.

I returned on the fifth in order to attend a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences, of which I am the recording secretary. On Wednesday evening, January 7, I was at Rev. T. Starr King’s, and had a most pleasant time indeed.

I have told you much about the Chinese here—that there are thousands in the city, that whole streets look like a Chinese town so far as people and wares are concerned. Well, last Thursday evening, I attended the Chinese theater. Now, if I could correctly describe this it would make a most interesting letter, but unfortunately I cannot. Words would entirely fail. Whether it was opera, tragedy, or comedy, or a mixture of the three, I have no idea—I think it was perhaps a mixture—but it was all comical enough, and yet intensely interesting because of its extreme singularity, so very unlike anything I have ever seen before.

The place is extremely low, frequented by the lower classes of Chinese, and is in a rather poor building. A stage extends entirely across one side, raised about three feet above the floor, covered with mats, and without drop curtain in front or side scenes. Stage furniture stands upon the two sides, a table in the middle, and two doors closed by fancy Chinese curtains lead to two rooms behind the stage—the “behind the scenes” of the place.

The orchestra, five or six persons, sits at the back part of the stage. One holds a small metallic instrument, a sort of cross between a small gong and a flat bell; another has several blocks, of different sizes and shapes, upon which he beats with two sticks, making a noise but surely not music; another beats a drum, looking and sounding like a half-barrel tub covered with leather. A large gong hangs beside him, which he pounds in the “terrific” portions of the play. Another plays most of the time on a stringed instrument, in principle something like a fiddle with two strings, but entirely unlike a fiddle, or anything else describable, in both shape and sounds. In the more noisy parts of the play he beats a pair of huge cymbals—about as musical as would be the clashing together of two pieces of sheet iron. Another plays on a guitar-like instrument, or, by way of variety, lays this down and blows a sort of shrill clarinet. There is system in their music, but neither melody nor harmony. It could not be expressed at all by the characters we use for writing music. Such is the orchestra. It keeps up a sort of accompaniment to the whole play, but some of the interludes are “awful.” Imagine a room in which one man is mending pots, another filing a saw, another hammering boards, another beating a gong, and two boys trying to tune fiddles, and you will have some idea of some of their grand efforts in the music line.

A strong odor of burning opium pervades the room, for a few are smoking that narcotic. Against the wall at one side of the stage is the idol, with some pictures, Chinese letters, etc., and a lamp burning in front of it. The acting is the most comical part of the whole, but I could only tell which part was considered funny and which pathetic by watching the effect on the audience; it could never be perceived from the play itself.

San Francisco.
February 7.

Since I last wrote I have received your letters of December. You ask about the pronunciation of San Joaquin. It is pronounced San Waugh-keen'—accent on the last syllable. The Spanish names in this state are generally pronounced in nearly Spanish style, thus; Marin (County) is known as Ma-reen’, San Jose as San Ho-say´, San Juan is called San Huan’, or San Wan’, etc.

The month of January is past, and lovelier weather could not be—but three or four rainy days—its contrast with the last year’s January is a good commentary on the uncertainties of the Californian climate. In January, 1862, there fell in this city 24.36 inches of rain; in January, 1863, only 3.63 inches, or only one-seventh as much. There had fallen last winter, up to the first of February, over 38 inches; this winter only 6.5 inches.

Last Saturday I went across the bay to Oakland, where I visited the college and saw the president.1 The college is a small-fry affair, but it is the best in the state, and the largest except a Jesuit college.2 They are more anxious to have me unite with it than I had expected. I shall probably be offered a professorship, in which case I shall accept it conditionally. I had an offer a few days ago to go into Mexico and examine a silver mine for some capitalists. It went hard to refuse it, but I could not well go, and I did not wish to assume the responsibility of advising in the matter, where I have had so little experience, and where so much money might be lost if my conclusions should not be correct. Therefore, I declined.

Sunday, March 1.

Nearly a month has elapsed since I wrote the beginning, and I have continually neglected finishing. I find it even harder to write letters in the city than in camp, for after writing all day in the office I feel but little like writing in the evening. But I will go on with my story.

A company is constructing a carriage road directly west of the city to the ocean, and at the ocean beach it passes around a high bold cliff, which it was necessary to blast. Directly under this, on a level with the beach, a cavern was found extending back some fifty feet. The papers announced that on Friday, February 6, a large quantity of powder would be put in this, the mouth closed, and “the whole cliff torn off.” The “grand explosion” was announced to come off at 3 P.M., and

Entering the Calveras Grove of Big Trees
From a lithograph reproduction of a drawing by Edward Vischer published in 1862
hundreds went out to see it—in carriages, on horseback, on foot. Our whole party walked out. It was a tedious walk, some five or six miles of it being over sand hills, in which one sank to the ankles at every step. The point was reached, and all waited for hours. The great hole had to be filled nearly full of sand, and at last nearly all the crowd left. I, however, remained. Fifty kegs of powder were placed in the cave, the mouth filled with sand and rocks for some thirty feet, a long fuse laid, and at last, long after dark, the train was fired. The explosion was a failure so far as effects were concerned. It threw out an immense quantity of sand and rocks from the mouth, but nothing more—an immense volume of flame, a very heavy sound, and a disgusted crowd who got lost in the sand hills on their way back to the city. I caught a bad cold which I have not got over yet.

The next excitement was the Chinese New Year’s, which came off the third week in February. The festival lasts two weeks, but the police grant them the privilege of firing firecrackers only three days. I do not know the reason for their burning so many firecrackers, but I believe it has some religious significance. I thought I had seen firecrackers before, but became convinced that I had not. All day Tuesday, February 17, there was a continuous roar of firecrackers. About sunset I strayed through the main Chinese street, where the wealthier merchants live and have their places of business. From the roofs of the houses the “crackers” were in progress. At home we see Chinese crackers only in small packs about four inches square and one inch thick, the crackers all of a size and red. Not so here; they have not only these small packs, but immense ones, containing vastly more. I have seen them over a foot long, with partly small and partly large crackers—the latter yellow and large and thick as a stout man’s thumb, exploding with a noise like a musket. Most of the crackers are in bunches about three times as large as those in vogue among boys at home about July 4.

But to get back to my story—one scene will describe many. On the top of a store is a crowd of twenty or thirty men (Chinese)—packs of crackers are lighted, hurled in the air, and allowed to fall in the street. A part of the time twelve men are lighting and throwing out the packs—a hundred crackers in explosion at each instant, making a continuous roar that can be heard over the whole city. As twilight comes on, the night becomes more picturesque. The roar, not only of this place, but of a hundred other places in the city, the dense volume of smoke that rises from the burning powder, the crowds of Chinese in the streets below—all conspire to produce a grand effect. Some of the wealthier houses spend as high as $600 for firecrackers alone.

Wednesday, February 18, was still worse. The exploded husks accumulated so thickly in front of some of the houses that they took fire and the engines came out to extinguish them, the fire bell of the city giving the alarm! This I know seems a big story, but it is true. The police only allow the firing of crackers for three days, but I will venture to say that it would take many thousands of dollars to foot the bills. On one street a hundred bushels of exploded husks could have been shoveled up—another big story, but also true.

We have a lot of “Secesh” at my boarding house—among them a sister of Van Doren. The last night of carnival the boarders at the house (Virginia Block) proposed to have a little private masquerade. All the preparations were made, when some wag went to the Chief of Police and told him that “a grand Secession masquerade ball” was coming off. He stopped the whole affair—decidedly “rich,” but it shows how loyal this city is.

Affairs of the Survey are very uncertain. I shall be home sometime during the year, but when I can’t tell. I have been nominated to the Professorship of Chemistry at Oakland and will probably be elected in June. If I am I shall accept.3

San Francisco.
March, 1863.

We had been desiring to examine a region of mountains a little beyond New Almaden, the great quicksilver region. A gentleman came into the office March 4 with some fine specimens of cinnabar (quicksilver ore) and was greatly excited thereat. A new mine has just been found, ore very rich, and very abundant—the old story—the farm upon which it occurs can be got very cheap, not over one-hundredth of what even a tolerably good mine is worth—the whole thing could be got for $6,000. He was intensely excited, wanted me to go right down and examine it, would pay me $150 for three days’ work. Now, we are not allowed to take fees from private individuals, but I told him I would go if he would pay my expenses and those of an assistant for a week’s trip in that region. He was delighted.

Thursday, March 5, early, found Hoffmann and me on the steamer for Alviso, our speculator along. He thrust five twenty-dollar pieces into my hand, begged me to accept it as a present, which I most virtuously refused, except thirty dollars to pay our expenses on the proposed trip. He had all the papers necessary to make the purchase. The company was formed—twenty-six shareholders, the stock to be—dollars. He had the specimens of ore in his pocket, a lawyer engaged in San Jose to search titles, even pen and ink to make the Frenchman, on whose land the rich mine was, sign immediately, and blank paper on which I was to write a favorable report to the company. All the way up he could talk of nothing but “cinnabar,” “quicksilver,” and “ledges.”

Alviso was reached and we took the stage to San Jose, where we hired a private conveyance to the mines. We found the farm and the Frenchman, but not the mine—no trace of one. The ore had come from the Guadalupe Mine. It was evidently a plot by which he expected to sell his land (for which he had only a squatter title) “unsight and unseen” to persons in this city, whose mining zeal should outrun their discretion. Yet he pretended that he had a mine—he would show it the next day. The end was that the speculator, after talking hard French, harder Spanish, but the hardest English, left most disgusted, his bright visions of sudden wealth gone, and we took up our way to the mountains near, promising to return in a week and examine a mine he would then show us.

This was near the Guadalupe Mine, and the next day, Friday, March 6, we visited that. As I have told you before, three quicksilver mines lie within a distance of six miles, the Guadalupe, the Enriquita, and the New Almaden. Of these, only the last has proved very valuable. We saw Doctor Mayhew, the superintendent and engineer of the Guadalupe; he said that the company had spent upward of $400,000 in prospecting. This mine is a good illustration of the uncertainty of mining quicksilver. The ore is found in three different conditions: as fine threads of the brilliant red cinnabar in the harder rock, called jilo; or as a red looking earth, known as terres; or in great chambers of solid ore, called labors. Now, of course, the occurrence of these last is the most desirable, but they are very capricious, following no regular law in their distribution. A year and a half ago a large labor was discovered in the mine, which is not yet exhausted, although they have taken out over 100,000 pounds of metal from it; yet, until the discovery, its presence had not been suspected, although one drift had passed within eleven feet of it and another had been worked to within four inches of it and then stopped. Years later this labor was discovered by accident in cutting an air passage from one part of the mine to another.

We visited the Enriquita Mine. It, too, is doing but little. The Dutch superintendent and his Irish wife received us kindly and treated us to lager beer. We pushed on our way and stopped at New Almaden, a mine of real value. Here we remained from Friday until the next Tuesday, exploring the region. We had intended to work south of New Almaden, but the very broken country and dense chaparral prevented us. A large region is thrown into high ridges and very deep canyons, the ridges from 1,500 to 3,700 feet high, but mostly about 1,800 or 2,000 feet, covered with a dense growth of almost impenetrable chaparral. We reached a few elevated points, from which we could map out the topography of the country.


1. The College of California at Oakland was the beginning of the University of California, now at Berkeley. Samuel H. Willey, D.D., was at this time acting president.

2. Santa Clara College, founded 1851.

3. The following letter is quoted in Willey’s A History of the College of California (San Francisco, 1887):

“San Francisco,
Apr. 1, 1863.

Rev. S. H. Willey
Dear Sir:
Your favor of yesterday is received, informing me that the Board of Trustees of the College of California at a recent meeting had honored me with the election to the chair of the Professorship of Natural Science in the College. In reply, I am happy to accept the appointment, subject to the condition that during my connection with the Geological Survey, my first duty will be to serve that, and that the time I devote to the instruction in the College shall be regulated by the wants of the said survey. I will at all times endeavor to advance the interests of the institution according to my abilities and opportunities. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
Wm. H. Brewer.”

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management