"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

It Was Hard Work and Hard Play For the Men of the Gold Rush


by Don Baumgart

Miners in the gold fields got up wet, did back-bending labor in the water all day, and went to sleep wet. Sunday was the only blessing to their schedule.

If you see a drawing of a miner sitting in a chair leaning against his cabin, you can bet it was Sunday.

Most hunted the forests on Sunday, trying to get a deer for the week's food. One, a German sailor named Adolphus Windeler, did some of this and that, and noted some of it down.

"Sunday, mended boots, read bible, washed all over, gathered mint for tea." Another Sunday, "Washed & mended & done different things." "Went loafing about," or "laid still."

"Christmas Eve went to Cris's store, got playing cards and won nine times, the 10th I got stuck for a dollar. Drank apple toddy & eat herrings & cakes."

"The people here dressed better than was usual in other parts of the mines," a visitor to the southern mines town of Sonora wrote. "On Sundays especially, when the town was thronged with miners, it was quite gay with the bright colors of the various costumes.

"Some men wore flowers, feathers, or squirrel's tails in the hats; occasionally the beard was worn plaited or coiled up like a twist of tobacco."

A peaceful Sunday often started on rowdy Saturday night with a drop of whiskey and a hand of cards.

The other much-lived-for event in a miner's life was a night in town. If the poke was small, the night out might be in a neighboring town like Marysville, Hangtown or Sonora. A bigger spree might involve a trip to Sacramento or San Francisco. Music and women seemed to distinguish the bigger towns, howling with sin, shame and crime. One observer said of San Francisco that it was "lit by the glare of its hells." At nights tents glowed and voices spoke many languages against a background of banjo music and drunken singing.

The bigger towns promised the same thrill of sudden wealth as did the gold fields. Gambling was everywhere and miners struggled for a chance to thrown down a nugget or two on the green cloth of the roulette tables. Elisabeth Margo writes in her book Taming the Forty-Niner, "When the man who came off the ship that afternoon reached deep into his pocket for a handful of coins to throw on the monte table, he was no longer a stranger. He was blood brother to the mob, no viewer of strange sights, but an actor in the scene he had recently greeted with the dazed stare of the Easterner. He had stepped into the picture."

A year after James Marshall made his discovery, half San Francisco's dwellings were tents and a third of those were saloons or gambling dens. For the celebrating miner the work had been hard, and so would be the play.

And often, the miners didn't have to leave camp to be relieved of their dust. When a strike was made, the professional gamblers soon arrived. San Francisco's gambling halls grew to magnificence, those in Stockton and Sacramento were less elegant, and the gambling saloons in the gold fields were often makeshift, lasting only as long as the strike.

Hard partying to relieve the monotony of scratching for the precious metals has no better example than the neighboring state of Nevada, where a gigantic party was held to celebrate...a train.

Originally a mere 15 miles long, for 80 years the Virginia & Truckee Railroad carried silver ore from Virginia City down to the stamp mills on Nevada's Carson River.

On the Fourth of July in 1873 a "Railroad Ball" sent Carson into a frenzy of excited preparation. Jacob Muller's Elegant Baths and Hair Dressing Salon was forced to stay open all night on July third. Six fresh pineapples were imported to ornament the buffet. The half dozen pineapples that crowned the banquet table cost $150 each at the docks in San Francisco.

As the excitement mounted a Virginia & Truckee baggage car arrived in town filled with cases of champagne. Men sported silk hats, clawhammer evening coats and varnished boots. The town's women were dazzling in their gowns of rich fabrics.

Dawn arrived like an unannounced train, but the grand party rolled on.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2002


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