Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin

The Sights of San Francisco

Charley took one end of the trunk, his father the other, and piloted by the hotel man, with Mr. Grigsby, lugging the hand baggage, in their wake, they climbed two flimsy flights of stairs to the third floor! The hotel man led the way down a narrow hall of rough boards, and flung open a door.

"Here's your room," he announced, shortly. "Don't ask for what you don't see. We haven't got it. You're lucky, gentlemen, not to be obliged to sleep in a tent—and San Francisco nights are cold. Five dollars each, please."

"Certainly," said Mr. Adams; and he and Mr. Grigsby settled for the party.

"Well," remarked Mr. Grigsby, when the hotel man alertly left, "I've been in worse quarters."

"Don't bump your head," warned Mr. Adams.

It was a dormer room. The ceiling, of bare rafters, sloped sharply. The walls also were bare, made of unsurfaced boards, warped and cracked. There were two "beds": one a low bunk, home-made and solid but not pretty, the other a wobbly canvas cot. Each had a pair of gray blankets as bedclothes. There were a couple of rickety chairs, a home-made table bearing a wash pitcher and a tin basin, with a towel hanging from a nail over it, beside a cracked looking-glass, and in the end of the room a small window dulled by dust. Charley tried to look out through the window, but could dimly see only the tops of the roofs, across. From below, and from the city around, floated in through the thin floors and walls a medley of voices and bustle.

"Guess we'd better unpack some of our stuff, and sort what washing we want done," quoth his father, cheerily. "When we take it out we can look about and get what other supplies we need; eh, Grigsby? What are your plans?"

"Same as yours, if you say so," answered the Fremonter.

"You mean to say you'll go along with Charley and me?"

"Why, yes. This town's too crowded for me, already. Doesn't strike me as a very healthy place to loaf in. Money, money; that's all I've heard. So I'm off for the diggin's, like the rest."

"Good. Shake," approved Mr. Adams, and Charley felt delighted. The Fremonter was such a fine man; a loyal friend in need. "We'll stick together as long as you can stand our company."

"Agreed," quoth Mr. Grigsby, shaking. "There'll be room enough in the hills for us to spread out, if we want to."

They overhauled their baggage and wrapped their wash in some old newspapers that had been stuffed into the trunk. Then they sallied forth.

"Pshaw! There's no lock on the door," exclaimed Charley's father. "I hate to leave all our stuff scattered around, in that fashion."

"It'll be all right, I reckon," said Mr. Grigsby. "Ask the clerk about it."

"The door to our room has no lock," spoke Mr. Adams, to the hotel man, when they had tramped below. "We've got quite a bunch of goods lying open."

"That's all right, sir," answered the clerk. "They'll not be touched. Not a door in this hotel has a lock. Thieves are given short shift in San Francisco, and they know it. You can leave a bucket of gold out in the street and it'll all be there when you want it again."

"Beg your pardon, gentlemen," spoke a voice near at hand, "but I see you're carrying a newspaper or two. Would you sell them?"

He was a brusque, bearded man, in miner costume, but he spoke like a person of education.

"I'll give you a dollar apiece," cried another man, hurrying forward; and almost immediately the three in the Adams party were surrounded by a crowd.

"Wait a minute," bade the first man. "I was here first. I'll give you a dollar apiece."

Charley gasped. Were they crazy?

"But, gentlemen, these are only some old papers we happened to have as fillers," protested Mr. Adams, as much astonished as Charley.

"How many have you got?" demanded the second speaker.

"Probably a dozen."

"Where from?"

"St. Louis; two or three from New York, maybe."

"I'll give you eight dollars for the lot."

"Give you nine," bid somebody else.

"But they're six weeks old, gentlemen," informed Mr. Adams.

"Only six weeks old?" queried the first man. "I'll give you ten dollars for a dozen! And here's your money." He held out a ten-dollar gold piece.

"Go up and get the other papers, Charley," directed Mr. Adams. "If these men are crazy it isn't our fault. When you see the papers, if you don't want them you needn't take them, sir," he said to the man.

"I'll take them," laughed the man, grimly. "Papers only six weeks old? Why, stranger, that's fresh news out here. You can sell a thousand at a dollar apiece."

"Wish I had them, then," remarked Mr. Adams. And Charley scuttled away. He brought back all the crumpled papers that he could find. They sold every one—the first lot at ten dollars for a dozen, and the three more, in which the washing was wrapped, at dollar apiece on delivery later!

"This will pay for our washing, at least," commented Mr. Adams. "Is there a laundry near here?" he asked, of the clerk.

"Right around the corner."

"Thank you."

They went out—Charley sighing as he thought of the big stack of old newspapers, back home. Why, they might have brought out a hundred more! What a queer town this was, where people would pay a dollar apiece for old papers! He resolved to write to his mother the first thing, and tell her when she came out to bring every old paper she could find.

The air was much chillier than when they had arrived. A strong, gusty wind was blowing, carrying clouds of dust, and because of this, and a raw fog, the sunshine had waned from gold to gray. Nevertheless, something in the atmosphere made them all step out briskly.

Around the corner of the plaza a torn canvas sign before a dingy tent-house said: "Washing Done." And in through the open door they filed. A short, stout Frenchman, apparently, stood behind the board counter, and bowed at their approach. He wore a little black spike or goatee, and his face fairly shone above a collarless shirt. From a room behind sounded vigorous scrubbing and rinsing.

"You do washing?" demanded Mr. Adams.

"Oui, m'sieur."

"Here's some. When can we get it?"

"To-morrow morning, at the ten o'clock. And does m'sieur wish ze repassage—what you call ir-ron?"

"What's the charge?" asked Mr. Grigsby.

"Seex dollair the dozen, m'sieur, for ze wash; the same for ze ir-ron."

"There goes your newspaper money, Adams," laughed the Fremonter. "I think I'll do my own washing, after this."

"We have to live, my wife and I, messieurs," explained the Frenchman, spreading his hands. "In France we live on ze very little. In New York we have one tres bon cafe, and we charge ze very little. But out here——" and he shrugged his shoulders. "We wash, and for zis meesairable caban—what you call it? hut—we pay ze price of 500 dollair ze month."

"Wash what we've brought, but don't you dare to iron them; eh, Grigsby?" said Mr. Adams.

"Ze rough wash it shall be, messieurs," bowed the stout Frenchman.

"On the trap trail we washed twice a year—spring and fall," commented Mr. Grigsby, as they trudged out. "That's plenty often enough here, too, the way prices run."

"Look at the crowd!" exclaimed Mr. Adams, as they emerged at the corner; for part way up a hilly street a great throng had gathered in front of a low building, and a constant stream of other people were hastening that way. "What's the matter up there?" he inquired, of a passerby.

The man scarcely paused. He only turned his head, to drawl:

"Post-office, mister, and the mail's come in."

"That must be the mail we brought," cried Charley.

"If you came on the California, you brought it, sonny," informed another stranger.

"When's the office open, sir?" inquired Mr. Adams.

"Whenever the mail's distributed, of course," replied the man. "I hear the California fetched about 25,000 pieces, in all languages from American to Chinese. The postmaster and two assistants have been working all night and they'll probably work all day and another night."

"Well, we don't expect anything this time; do you, Grigsby?"

The Fremonter shook his head.

"Nor do I," volunteered the strange man. "But I've a partner up there who's been expecting a letter for six months. See those lines of hopefuls? By noon they'll be extended two blocks. The first in line must have got there as soon as the ship was sighted, last evening. I've known men to wait in line for a week, and have their meals brought to them. And then as like as not they didn't get their letter."

"I was thinking that we'd get what few supplies we need," said Mr. Adams, as they resumed their way, "and start out for the diggin's in the morning. There'll be some way of getting up there, I suppose."

"Yes, by boat, horse or foot," answered the Fremonter. "I don't reckon we want to buy any horses, and it's a long trail afoot. I'll see about a boat if you'll lay in what supplies you think we'll need."

"All right. Sugar, salt, flour, bacon and potatoes will be enough, won't it?"

"Plenty. I'll meet you at the hotel at noon. Adios."

"Adios," replied Mr. Adams and Charley; and the tall Fremonter strode away.

The throng at the post-office seemed to have no effect on the rest of the down-town, for the streets were as crowded as before with hurrying people, mostly men. New Yorkers, Arkansans, Illinoisans, Britishers, Germans, Frenchmen, Swedes, Mexicans, Malays with long curved knives, the queer Chinamen, and some swarthy persons, in brown ponchos (or cloaks with a hole in the middle for the head), who his father said were Peruvians and Chilians—all these passed hither-thither, only pausing to bargain with each other or at the shops, until Charley's brain whirled at the many odd sights. There were a few women, but none who looked to him anything like his mother.

Across the plaza his father espied a new sign, in front of a shop built of boxes. It said: "Potatoes for Sale. Just Received."

"That's what we want, Charley," he spoke; and for the place they made. The potatoes were in open sacks, just inside the door—and that was the shop's whole stock of goods.

"How much are your potatoes, my man?" asked Mr. Adams. "They look pretty good."

"One dollar and a half. Yes, sir; they are good ones; came in only this morning."

"Let me have a bushel, then, at a dollar and a half," bade Mr. Adams, with satisfaction. "That's not an unreasonable price, is it, Charley!"

"We don't sell by the bushel; I quoted you the price by the pound," explained the potato merchant.

"What!" gasped Charley's father, again astounded. "You don't mean a dollar and a half a pound?"

"You bet," smiled the merchant. "And going like hot cakes at that. I'll not have a potato left, by night."

"Come on, Charley," laughed Mr. Adams. "We'll wait and grow our own potatoes."

"I'll take all you can grow at your own price," challenged the merchant, after them, as if growing potatoes out here in California was impossible.

Suddenly a score of voices yelled: "Look out! Look out!" The crowd jostling and bartering in the plaza parted and rushed to one side and another, and people plunged headlong into the store doors. Mr. Adams grabbed Charley by the arm and dragged him in the nearest doorway, too. Amidst wild shouts and a cloud of dust, into the plaza charged a lean red bull, with curving sharp horns and frothing mouth; close at his heels pursued, on dead run, a horseman in Mexican costume, swinging his riata, or noosed rawhide. The bull dodged—bolted right over a stand where cakes were on sale—and over the stand sped the horseman, too. His noose shot forward—it fell exactly over the bull's wide horns, and to one side veered the quick horse. He braced as the rawhide tautened; it snapped tight, and head down, heels up, the bull capsized in a twinkling. The fiery horse held hard, bracing with his legs, while the Californian sat straight and easy. As the bull struggled, with a shrill whoop another rider like the first raced in, threw at full speed, and noosed the bull by the two hind legs. With wave of hand and flash of teeth the vaqueros, or cowboys, rode away, dragging the bull through the plaza and out. The plaza filled up again, the shops resumed business, and nobody appeared to be annoyed. Even the cake seller gathered his cakes and joined in the laughter while several persons helped him set up his booth again. Truly, this San Francisco was a light-hearted, generous place.

"I should think that a man would make surer money farming than digging for gold," declared Mr. Adams, after he and Charley had noted eggs priced at twelve dollars a dozen, squashes at a dollar a pound, and some cabbages at two dollars apiece! "Hello; there's Lieutenant Sherman." For a spruce military figure was briskly crossing this plaza of Portsmouth Square.

Lieutenant Sherman saw them, as he approached and smiled.

"Not off to the mines yet?" he greeted.

"Not yet. I was just saying to Charley that farming looked better to me than mining, in this country, judging by prices of common produce."

"It's all shipped in," stated the lieutenant, in his quick voice. "Nobody now has any time for farming; and before this excitement everybody had too much time. The Californians lived on beef, tortillas and beans, all of which was easy. They wouldn't take the trouble even to milk a cow. The missions tried to teach agriculture to the Indians, and now since some Americans have taken up ranches a few patches have been ploughed, for the home table. But the wheat, barley and live stock, which grow without attention, are about all you'll find on tens of thousands of acres. California is dry and barren. I've ridden over a great deal of it, and I once wrote East that I wouldn't give two counties in Ohio, Kentucky or Tennessee for the whole territory. It never will amount to anything except for gold production. When do you start?"

"To-morrow morning."

"All right. Good luck to you. Our headquarters offices are in the old custom-house; drop in if you need any information I can give you. General Persifor Smith and family are lodged in the lower room of the old Hudson's Bay Company house on Montgomery Street. Every servant but one, and he is a negro, has deserted us; and the general does the marketing and sometimes the cooking. The rest of us occupy the second floor, and hustle for our meals the best we can. You're well out of this hurly-burly where the commander of all the United States forces on the Pacific coast must do his own housework! When we move over to the new post at Benicia perhaps things will be better."

So saying, the busy lieutenant strode on.

By the time that Charley and his father had succeeded in purchasing what few supplies they could afford, they had pretty nearly seen San Francisco. It certainly was a queer jumble. Buildings and population alike were of the hasty, rough-and-ready style; but already a brick store, for the merchant firm of Howard & Mellus, had gone up and had cost a dollar a brick! In the stores, no matter how constructed, every kind of goods was being sold, signs bore high-sounding names such as the Alhambra, Delmonico's, United States Hotel, and other signs were being added hourly; from the wharf on Montgomery Street to the top of the Clay Street hill beyond the post-office busy hammers beat a great chorus, in the bay flew hundreds of flags, and in the streets school-teachers, bankers, lawyers and farmers rubbed elbows with Mexicans, Peruvians, Chinamen and Kanakas, while all talked in terms of thousands of dollars. Why, here was New York, New Orleans and St. Louis thrown together and boiled down.

Up at the post-office the post-master and his clerks evidently were still sorting out the 25,000 letters, for the lines of waiters were unbroken.

Mr. Grigsby was promptly on hand, at noon, in the hotel. He reported that he had engaged passage on a sail-boat, the Mary Ann, for the town of Sacramento, 120 miles north up the Sacramento River.

"That is," he added, "if you want to try the American River country, where the first diggin's are. Sacramento is the old embarcadero [which, as Charley found out, was the Spanish for boat-landing] for Sutter's Fort, up the American. The fare is thirty dollars, and I paid ten dollars apiece down, to hold our places till two o'clock."

"All right," approved Mr. Adams. "We'll go. Now let's eat. Hear the dinner bells! It must be a hungry town."

And that would seem so, indeed. From every hotel and restaurant issued a clamor of hand-bells and of gongs, each apparently vying with the other to make noise. It sounded like a Fourth of July! People began to rush into the Parker-house, and in a jiffy the long tables were filled. The Adams party got seats just in time.

The price of the meal was two dollars, for beef (splendid beef, too), bread, potatoes, and coffee or chocolate. There wasn't any milk or butter. However, as Mr. Grigsby remarked, one could easily eat a dollar's worth of potatoes at a helping! The food was very good and well cooked. Charley heard somebody say that the cook was a famous chef from New York, and drew a salary of $2000 a month. Even the waiters (who were men in shirt-sleeves) were paid $300 a month, and board.

"I believe I'll go up to the room and rest a bit," announced Mr. Adams, after dinner. "The rest of you can do as you please."

"You aren't sick, are you, dad?" asked Charley, anxiously.

"Not a bit. I feel a hundred per cent. stronger than when we left home. But I mustn't overdo. I'll take a nap and write a letter to your mother. There'll be a mail out next week, and not another for maybe thirty or forty days. Shall I leave the letter open for you?"

"Yes, please," bade Charley, a lump in his throat at the mere thought of his mother. "I'll add a lot to it after I come back."

"I'll tell her we've not found our gold mine yet, but we've sold our newspapers for a dollar apiece and spent that for washing," laughed his father.

"Tell her to send us out all the old papers she has," begged Charley, excitedly. "And potatoes and cabbages, from the garden!"

"I saw a man buy a whole cargo of eggs, down at the water-front," put in Mr. Grigsby, "at thirty-seven and a half cents a dozen, and he turned right around and resold 100 dozen of them at six dollars the dozen! You can't afford to be sick here, Adams. The doctors charge $50 for a visit, and the same for every hour after the first look-in. Come along, Charley, and we'll see the sights while I do a few errands on my own account. I hear Colonel Fremont's in town. Maybe we can catch him."