Home -> Paul Elder -> A Tramp Through Bret Harte Country - Chapter 5

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Chapter V

Auburn to Nevada City Via Colfax and Grass Valley. Ben Taylor and His Home

After surmounting the cañon of the South Fork of the American River, you gradually enter a open country, the outskirts of the great deciduous fruit belt in Placer County, which supplies New York and Chicago with choice plums, peaches and pears. About three miles from Auburn, the road plunges into one of the deepest cañons of the Sierras, at the bottom of which the Middle and North Forks of the American River unite. Just below the junction, the river is spanned by a long suspension bridge. Auburn is remarkably situated in that one sees nothing of it until the rim of the cañon is reached, at least a thousand feet above the river. Thus there are no outskirts and you plunge at once into the business streets, passing the station of the Central Pacific Railway, which line skirts the edge of the cañon on a heavy grade.

I had accomplished a good thirty miles but that did not prevent me from accompanying my friend on a long and protracted hunt for comfortable quarters in which to eat and spend the night. There was quite an attractive hotel near the railroad, but actuated by a desire to see something of the town, which we found to be more than usually drawn out, we passed it with lingering regret. Whether by chance or instinct, we drifted to the ruins of the old hotel, now in process of reconstruction, and were comfortably housed in a wooden annex.

Auburn marks the western verge of the mineral zone, but in the fifties there were, rich placer diggings in the immediate vicinity. There are some remarkably solid buildings of that period, in the old portion of the town, which, as customary, is situated in the bottom of the winding valley or ravine. Practically a new town, called "East Auburn," has been started on higher ground, and a fight is on to move the post office; but the people in the hollow having the voting strength, hang on to it like grim death. Along the edge of the American River cañon and commanding a magnificent view, are the homes of the local aristocracy. In christening Auburn, it is scarcely credible that the pioneers had in mind Goldsmith's "loveliest village of the Plain;" nor, keeping the old town in view, is the title remarkably applicable today.

Our next objective point being Colfax, distant in a north-easterly direction only fifteen miles, we made a leisurely inspection of the town and vicinity in the morning. The old town proved of absorbing interest to my friend, and we became separated while be was hunting up subjects for the camera. Having a free and easy working scheme in such matters, after a few minutes' search, I gave up the quest and started alone on the road to Colfax.

A few miles out, I met a man with a rifle on his shoulder, leading a burro bearing a pack-saddle laden in the most scientific manner with probably all his worldly possessions, the pick and shovel plainly denoting a prospector. A water bucket on one side of the animal was so adjusted that the bottom was uppermost; on the top of the bucket sat a little fox-terrier, his eyes fixed steadfastly on his master. I paused a moment, possessed with a strong desire to take a snap shot of this remarkable equipment, but the man with the gun gave me a glance that settled the matter. His was not a bad face - far from it - but the features were stern and set, the cheeks furrowed with deep lines that bespoke hardship and fatigue in the struggle with Nature and the elements. That glance out of the tail of his eye meant: "Let me alone and I will let you alone, but let me alone!"

Taciturnity becomes habitual to men accustomed to vast solitudes. Even on such a tramp as I had undertaken, in which I frequently walked for miles without sight or sound of a human being, I began to realize how banal and aimless is conventional conversation. Under such conditions you feel yourself in sympathy with the man who says nothing unless he has something to say, and who, in turn, expects the same restriction of speech from you.

I was seated on the porch of the store at Applegate, disposing of a frugal lunch consisting of raisins and crackers, when my friend hove in sight. After a private inspection of the store's possibilities, with a little smile, the meaning of which I well understood from many similar experiences, he sat down beside me and without a word tackled the somewhat uninviting repast, to which with a wave of the hand I invited him. I may say here that Mr. Smith is a veteran and inveterate "hiker." I doubt very much whether any man in California has seen as much of this magnificent State as he, certainly not on foot; as a consequence he is accustomed to a ready acceptance of things as they are. Applegate, about midway between Auburn and Colfax, is an alleged "summer resort." It did not appeal to us as especially attractive, the view, at any rate from the road, being extremely limited and lacking any distinctive features. Without unnecessary delay, therefore, we resumed the march.

It is practically up-hill - "on the collar" - all the way to Colfax, as is plainly evidenced by the heavy railroad grade. About a mile short of the town, we made a digression to an Italian vineyard of note. There, at a long table under a vine-covered trellis that connected the stone cellar with the dwelling-house, we were served with wine by a young woman having the true Madonna features of Sunny Italy, her mother, a comely matron, in the meantime preparing the evening meal, while on the hard ground encumbered with no superfluous clothing, disported the younger members of the family. And as I sat and smoked the pipe of peace, I reflected upon how much better they do these things in Italy - for to all intents and Purposes, I was in Italy.

Colfax - before the advent of the C. P. R. R. called "Illinois Town" - is an odd blending of past and present; the solid structures of the mining days contrasting strangely with the flimsy wooden buildings that seem to mark a railroad town. We were amazed at the amount of traffic that occurs in the night. Three big overland trains passed through in either direction, the interim being filled in with the switching of cars, accompanied apparently with a most unnecessary ringing of bells and piercing shrieks from whistles. Since our hotel was not more than a hundred and fifty feet from the main line, with no intervening buildings to temper the noises, sleep of any consequence was an utter impossibility.

Few Californians are aware, probably, that a considerable amount of tobacco is raised in the foothills of the Sierras. At Colfax, I smoked a very fair cigar made from tobacco grown in the vicinity, and manufactured in the town.

I think we were both glad to leave Colfax. Apart from a nerve-racking night, the mere proximity of the railroad with its accompanying associations served constantly to bring to mind all that I had fled to the mountains to escape. Yet I cannot bring myself to agree with those who profess to brand a railroad "a blot on the landscape." The enormous engines which pull the overland trains up the heavy grades of the Sierra Nevada impress one by their size, strength and suggestion of reserve power, as not being out of harmony with the forces of Nature they are constructed to contend with and overcome.

This thought occurred to us as we watched a passenger train slowly winding its way around the famous Cape Horn, some four miles from Colfax. Although several miles in an air line intervened, one seemed to feel the vibrations in the air caused by the panting monster, while great jets of steam shot up above the pine trees. I confess to a sense of elation at the spectacle. Nature in some of her moods seems so malignant, that I felt proud of this magnificent exhibition of man's victory over the obstacles she so well knows how to interpose.

The road between Colfax and Grass Valley - the next stopping place on our itinerary - lay through so lovely a country that we passed through it as in a dream. Descending into the valley we were joined by several small boys, attracted, I suppose, by our - to them - unusual costume and equipment, who plied us with questions. They asked if "we carried a message for the mayor," and were visibly disappointed when we regretted we had overlooked that formality. For several minutes they kept us busy trying to give truthful answers to most unexpected questions. They had never heard of Tuolumne and wanted to know if it was in California. Their world, in fact, was bounded by Colfax on the south and Nevada City on the north.

Grass Valley received its name from the meadow in which the town, for the most part, is situated. The ground is so moist that, notwithstanding the heat, the grass was a vivid green. Apple trees growing in the grass, as in the orchards of England and in the Atlantic States, and perfectly healthy, conveyed that suggestion of the Old World which lends a peculiar charm to these towns. And Grass Valley really is a town, having seven thousand inhabitants; and is, withal, clean, picturesque and altogether delightful. One understood why "Tuolumne" sounded meaningless to those small boys. Thus early in life they were under influences which will probably keep them in after years - as they kept their fathers - permanent citizens of the town of Grass Valley.

Grass Valley was one of the richest of the old mining camps. There was literally gold everywhere, even in the very roots of the grass. The mining is now all underground and drifts from the North Star and Ophir mines underlie a part of the town.

After a methodical search, we discovered an excellent restaurant and made a note of it as a recurrent possibility. A judicious choice of a suitable place in which to eat and eke, to pass the night, is to the tramp a matter of vital interest. Robert Louis Stevenson, in those entertaining narratives "An Inland Voyage" and "Travels with a Donkey," lays heartfelt stress on these particulars; when things were not to his liking, roundly denouncing them, but if agreeably surprised, lifting up his voice in song and praise.

Though tempted to pass the night in Grass Valley, impelled by curiosity, we pushed on four miles farther, to Nevada City. It is useless to attempt to convey in words the fascination of Nevada City. My friend, who is familiar with the country, said it reminded him of Italy. Houses rise one above the other on the hillside; while down below, the winding streets with their quaint old-time stores and balconied windows, are equally attractive. The horrors of the previous night at Colfax made the quiet peacefulness of Nevada City the more refreshing. At the National Hotel I enjoyed the soundest sleep since leaving home.

In the morning there was a delicious breeze from the mountains, which rendered strolling about the town a pleasure. According to custom, we went our several ways, each drawn by what appealed to him the most at the moment. When ready to depart, finding no trace of my companion at the hotel, I left word that I had returned to Grass Valley; where an hour or two later, he rejoined me.

More fortunate than I, my friend by chance encountered Mr. Morrison M. Green, on the street in front of his home upon the hill which looks down upon the town. This gentleman, who is in his eighty-third year, related an almost incredible incident in connection with the fire in 1857, which wiped out the town, with the exception of one house. Three prominent citizens who chanced to have met in a saloon when the fire broke out, having the utmost confidence in the safety of a certain building, on account of its massive walls and iron door, made a vow to lock themselves in it, and actually did so. They might perhaps have withstood the ordeal, had not the roof been broken in by the fall of the walls of the adjoining building. The iron door having been warped with the heat, it was impossible to open it; when last seen, they were standing with their arms around one another in the center of the store.

At Grass Valley, my friend - greatly to my regret and I think also to his own - received word which rendered his return to San Francisco imperative. After a farewell dinner at the restaurant before mentioned, I accompanied him to the railway station, and in the words of Christian in "The Pilgrim's Progress," "I saw him no more in my dream." I confess to a feeling of depression after his departure, for however enjoyable the experiences of the road, they are rendered doubly so by the sympathetic companionship of a man endowed not only with a keen sense of humor but also with an unusual perception of human nature.

After registering at the Holbrooke - a substantial survival of the old times - I called by appointment on Mr. Ben Taylor, a much respected citizen of Grass Valley and probably the oldest inhabitant of Nevada County, having reached the patriarchal age of eighty-six.

Mr. Taylor has a charming home with extensive grounds overlooking the town and surrounding country. In his garden is a spruce he planted himself forty-five years ago, and apple trees of the same age. The spruce now has the appearance of a forest tree and shades the whole front of the house. His present home was built in 1864 and from all appearances should last the century out. He said the lumber was carefully selected, the boards being heavier than usual, and all the important timbers, instead of being nailed, were morticed and dove-tailed. This thoroughness of workmanship accounts for the excellent condition of the wooden buildings in these towns, many of which were constructed over fifty years ago.

Mr. Taylor came to Grass Valley September 22, 1849, and has lived there almost continuously ever since. He crossed the plains one of twenty-five men, the last of his companions dying in 1905. The little band suffered many hardships, having to be constantly on watch for Indians, though he said they were more fearful of the Mormons. They came over the old emigrant trail across the Sierra Nevada. When they reached Grass Valley, their Captain, a man named Broughton, exclaimed: "Boys! here's the gold; this is good enough for us!" And there they stayed, the twenty-five of them!

Mr. Taylor had frequently met Mark Twain, but never to his knowledge, Bret Harte. In common with other men who had known the Great American Humorist, Mr. Taylor smiled at the bare mention of his name. Twain's breezy, hail-fellow-well-met manner, combined with his dry humor, insured him a welcome at all the camps; he was a man who would "pass the time of day" and take a friendly drink with any man upon the road. Twain, he told me, and a man with whom he was traveling on one occasion, lost their mules. They tracked them to a creek and concluding the mules had crossed it, Twain said to his companion: "What's the use of both of us getting wet? I'll carry you!" The other complying, Twain reached in safety the deepest part of the creek and, purposely or not, dropped him. A man, to play such pranks as this, must be sure of his standing in a primitive community.

Mr. Taylor is known to everyone in Nevada County as "Ben." His genial manner and kindly nature are apparent at a glance. But while Ben Taylor was on friendly terms with Mark Twain, he was never so intimate with him as with Bayard Taylor, whom, it seems, he much resembled. This accidental likeness, combined with the similarity of names, caused many more or less amusing but embarrassing complications, since they were frequently taken for each other and received each other's correspondence.

I asked Ben Taylor - he rightly dislikes "Mister," perhaps the ugliest and most inappropriate word in the English language - if the shootings and hangings which figure so prominently in the stories of the romancers were not exaggerations. He said he certainly was of that opinion. I said: "As a matter of fact, did you ever see a man either shot or hung for a crime?" "I never did," he replied with emphasis. "But I once came across the bodies of several men who had been strung up for horse-stealing; that, however, was not in Grass Valley."

Ben Taylor was present when Lola Montez horsewhipped Henry Shibley, editor of the Grass Valley National, for what she considered derogatory reflections on herself, published in his paper. It can readily be understood that Grass Valley was at that time a place of importance, when Lola Montez considered it worth while to stay there several years and sing and dance for the miners.

In parting, Ben Taylor told me pathetically that his wife had died a few years before and he had never recovered from the blow; "I am merely marking time until the end comes," he added. Since his married daughter and family live with him, he is assured in his latter days of loving care and attention.

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