Chapter VIII. The Great Stampede
The rush of people to the Pacific coast after the gold discovery may well be called a stampede. The terrible overland journey, over thousands of miles of Indian country, across high mountains and wide stretches of desert, was often undertaken with poor cattle, half the necessary supplies of food, and but little knowledge of the route. On the other hand, those who preferred going by water would embark in any vessel, however unsafe, sailing from Atlantic ports to the Isthmus.
In New York the excitement was especially great. Every old ship that could be overhauled and by means of fresh paint made to look seaworthy was gayly dressed in bunting and advertised to sail by the shortest and safest route to California. The sea trip is thus described by an elderly gentleman who made the journey when a boy of ten: -
"Together with the news of the discovery of gold came also reports of a warm, sunny land which winter never visited, where life could be spent in the open air, - a favorable spot where sickness was almost unknown. It was, I think, as much on account of my mother's health as to make his fortune that my father decided to go to California. The water route was chosen as being easier for her.
"The saying good-by to our relatives had been hard; but by the time we were three miles from home we children ceased to grieve, so interested were we in new sights and experiences.
"I had never seen salt water until that morning in New York, when we boarded the gayly trimmed brig, the Jane Dawson, which was to carry us to the Isthmus. To my sister and myself it was a real grief that our vessel had not a more romantic name. We decided to call it the Sea Slipper, from a favorite story, and the Sea Slipper it has always been to us.
"On the deck there were so many unhappy partings that we became again downhearted, a feeling which was intensified in the choppy seas of the outer bay to the utter misery of mind and body. We got ourselves somehow into our berths, where, with mother for company, we remained for many hours. Finally the sea grew calmer and we were just beginning to enjoy ourselves when off Cape Hatteras a severe storm broke upon us. The vessel pitched and rolled; the baggage and boxes of freight tumbled about, threatening the lives of those who were not kept to their berths by illness.
"Although I was not seasick I dared not go about much. One night, however, growing tired of the misery around me, I crawled over to the end of the farther cabin, which seemed to be deserted. Presently the captain and my father came down the stairs and I heard the officer say in a hoarse whisper. 'I will not deceive you, Mr. Hunt; the mainmast is down, the steering gear useless, the crew is not up to its business, and I fear we cannot weather the night!' I almost screamed aloud in my fright, but just then a long, lanky figure rose from the floor where it had been lying. It was one of the passengers, a typical Yankee.
"'See here, captain,' he said, 'my chum and I are ship carpenters, and the other man of our party is one of the best sailors of the Newfoundland fleet; just give us a chance to help you, and maybe we needn't founder yet awhile.' The chance was given, and we did not founder.
"Some days later we anchored in the harbor of Chagres. There were many vessels in the bay, and a large number of people waiting to secure passage across the Isthmus. They crowded around the landing place of the river canoes and fought and shouted until we children were frightened at the uproar, and taking our hands mother retired to the shade of some trees to wait.
"It was almost night when father called to us to come quickly, as he had a boat engaged for us. It lay at the landing, a long canoe, in one end of which our things were already stored. Some men who were friends of father's and had joined our party stood beside it with revolvers in hand watching to see that no one claimed the canoe or coaxed the boatmen away. Mother and Sue were quickly tucked beneath the awning, the rest of us tumbled in where we could, and at once our six nearly naked negro boatmen pushed out the boat and began working it up the stream by means of long poles which they placed on the bottom of the river bed, thus propelling us along briskly but with what seemed to me great exertion.
"To us children the voyage was most interesting. On either side the banks were covered with such immense trees as we had never dreamed of. The ferns were more like trees than plants, and the colors of leaves and flowers so gorgeous they were dazzling. The fruits were many and delicious, but our father was very careful about our eating, and would not allow us to indulge as we desired.
"The night came on as suddenly as though a great bowl had been turned over us. For an hour or more we watched with delight the brilliant fireflies illuminating all the atmosphere except at the end of the boat, where the red light of a torch lit the scene. After we had lain down for the night the moon rose and I could not enough admire the beauty of the tropical foliage, with the silvery moonlight incrusting every branch and leaf.
"The second day we left the boats and took mules for the rest of the journey. To my delight I was allowed an animal all to myself. Sue rode in a chair strapped to the back of a native, and our luggage was taken in the same manner, the porters carrying such heavy loads that it did not seem possible they could make the journey.