Home | Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search

San Francisco Alta California, March 17, 1867

At sea, January 1st.


ALL this morning the surf-boats were busy bringing New York passengers ashore from the steamer San Francisco, and carrying us out to take their places - and all in the midst of a heavy sea and a drenching rain. We took our places in the surf-boat at 8 A.M. and with the first stroke of the oars we were soaked to the skin. Yet it was very pleasant. It was quite a picture to get a misty and momentary glimpse of the boat ahead of us through the driving rain, as it rose high upon the crest of a lofty wave, and then sank down, leaving nothing visible in all the wide horizon but the rainy sea.

It was dreary enough on the ship when we got there, squatting around on the wet promenade deck watching baggage and looking soaked, woe-begone and disconsolate. We were well satisfied, though, for the boat loads that were leaving the vessel every moment were bound for vastly drearier quarters. We sailed at noon.


MIDNIGHT - There goes that choir again:

"God save the good ship as onward she flies!

We're homeward bound! homeward bound!"

That is well enough - I like that. But usually they do sing the wretchedest old songs in the world. Think of them sitting up there, under these jeweled skies, with all the ocean around them glistening with white-caps, piping "Just Before the Battle, Mother!" and "Johnny Comes Marching Home!" and "Lily Dale!" and "Dog Tray." When they sing hymns they do well enough and make good music, but perdition catch their other efforts! "Homeward Bound" and the "Larboard Watch Ahoy!" nobody objects to, because they are in keeping with our surroundings - but what in the nation is there in common between the shoreless sea, the gemmed and arching heavens, the crested billows, the stately ship ploughing her gallant way and leaving a highway of fire behind her, the thousand thoughtful eyes gazing out upon the ocean, lost in dreams of the homes that shall soon bless their sight again - and Dog Tray! Why is Dog Tray to be intruded upon circumstances of such moral and physical sublimity as these? What has Dog Tray got to do with such matters? Confound Dog Tray!


KEY WEST (Florida), January 6th. - We soon got accustomed to the new ship and her officers, and liked them well. And, behold, we had ice-water! That was a treat. There was plenty of it, and so all hands did little else but drink it while the novelty was fresh. We could not well help liking a ship that kept plenty of ice on board. She was a good ship, but she kept breaking a bolt-head or a king-pin, or whatever its name was, every now and then. The first time it broke the passengers were in a sweat; they thought it must be something terrible that could keep the ship lying still on the water for two hours at night. Next day it broke again, and again we floated an hour or so till it was mended. Two days afterward it broke again, and again we lost several hours - the passengers getting scared for fear we should get disabled entirely - disabled! when we had canvas enough to supply two ships; but passengers are usually just about as reasonable as that. The last time the accident happened, Brown came up from his orgies in the cabin, late at night (it was storming like every thing), and roused me out of my slumbers. "What the devil do you want?" "Why, I want to tell you something." "Out with it - quick!"

"Why, I know why they call this the tri-monthly line of steamers."


"It's because they go down to Greytown one month, and then they try all next month to get back again !"

"Leave the room!"

And he left - else I would have brained him on the spot.

On the other side, when this lunatic first came in sight of the Isthmus, he gazed, and gazed, and gazed at it as if he had found something so wonderful he could hardly realize it. Finally he said, reflectively: "The Isthmus - and so this is the old, regular, simon-pure Isthmus - the place where all the butter comes from!" I suppose you can appreciate that in California.


We had a rare good time on the San Francisco. The old Captain was jolly, and a gentleman - formerly a Lieutenant Commander in the navy. The Purser was a long, gangly, first rate fellow - perfect gentleman - and told the oldest, rattiest, last-century stories, and told them with the worst grace! We had a very jolly time. The cholera was in the ship, medicines were nearly out, and we had to be jolly. It wouldn't do to get melancholy for a moment. Brown and Smith (my room-mates) invented a harmless tropical drink (I thought I had tasted it before) which they named "west-sou'-wester;" and every day, before each meal, all the boys were drummed forward to take it. It was built thus:

R. - White sugar - lbs. 3/4
Ice.- lbs. 1 1/2
Limes - dozen 1
Lemon - 1
Orange - 1
Brandy - bot. 1/2
Put in 3/4 gal. ice-pitcher, and fill up with water.

The smoking room was always full of lovers, teething babies and sea-sick women, and so Brown and I had to take it turn about getting sick every night. The idea of this was, so that we might have a large ship's lantern in our state-room instead of the dingy little spark of a swinging lamp usually provided for passengers, and which must be blown out promptly at ten o'clock. Only sick people can have ship-lanterns, and burn them as long as they want to see how the medicine operates, and play seven up. We never worried much about the medicine - we let it operate or not, just as it came handy, because it wasn't anything but west-sou'-westers anyhow - but we used to be very regular about getting the room crammed full of cigar-smoke and boys, and listening to the purser's infamous old stories, and playing pitch seven-up till midnight.


The monkey was a well-spring of joy - one of the passengers got him at Greytown and kept him in a locker near our room on the upper deck - and we used to get him as tight as a brick occasionally, on a banana soaked in cherry brandy, and then it was fun to see him reel away and scamper up the rigging and miscalculate his jumps and fall thirty feet and catch by his tail on another rope and save himself. He was dressed up by the ladies in a gray Scotch cap and pantaloons, gray coat with cuffs and collar of brilliant red and gold, and a belt and wooden dagger, and was as comical and happy-spirited a scoundrel as ever lived. He was never idle - never still; always prospecting and rummaging in staterooms or galloping up the rigging to the very masthead. The gale, and the quivering mast, and the plunging ship, were nonsense to him on his dizzy perch. One morning when he was tight and the weather was cool, he went and got into bed with a sick woman who was asleep - drew the covers down carefully, one after the other, watching her face all the time with his sharp eyes - then turned back the sheet and sprung in! He nestled snugly up to the lady, keeping up his low, gratified squeak all the time, and drew up the bedclothes till nothing of him was visible but the brim of his cap and the end of his gray nose. His squeaking woke the woman, and she looked once at the diminutive old face on her pillow, and then she screamed like a locomotive and sprang out of bed. The next moment the monkey was at the masthead, infinitely worse scared than she was.


When the monkey and all other sources of amusement failed, the passengers talked gossip. But the chief of this was the lady they dubbed Miss Slimmens. Not one soul in the cabin escaped her. She told fearful stories about everybody. And she never told one that didn't make her victim wince as if he were skinned. She is a newspaper correspondent, and I think she must be a right spicy one. Everybody was in misery on her account, but the climax that filled every heart with anguish was the poem she wrote, and into which she compressed all her monstrous stories. It scorched them! Human nature could not stand this. It had to be resented; and one of the boys in the after cabin served her up to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." Everybody read it, but they did not want to go further than she did, and so they never sang it. There were eight verses of home-spun doggerel. I will give a brief extract:

"She gave M. T. an awful shot,
And Kingdom she did lift;
From White and Thayer the fur did fly -
Lord! how she snuffed out Smith!

"She crowded Lewis till he swore
If she would stop the war,
He'd take the cussed newspaper
She corresponded for.

"She said 'twas funny Baker's charms
No woman could withstand,
But if she saw where those charms lay,
She wished she might be destroyed."

Brown always spoke reverently of Slimmens as "the correspondent" - but it was small distinction, because he always spoke of me in the same way, and the same way of the monkey.


Most of the steerage passengers ate quantities of fruit on the Isthmus and drank aguadiente - a dangerous combination, even for a native - and we had hardly got to sea before the effects of their imprudence appeared. In my log I find these en tries :

"JANUARY 2d. - Two cases cholera in the steerage reported this morning."

"4 P.M. - Surgeon has just reported to the Captain that 'two of the cases are mighty bad, and the third awful bad.' So there is a new one, it seems."

"9:10 P.M. - One of the sick men died a few minutes ago, and was at once sheeted and thrown overboard. Rev. Mr. Fackler read the prayers."

"MIDNIGHT. - Another patient at the point of death - they are filling him up with brandy. These are sad times."

"1 A.M. - The man is dead."

"2 A.M.-He is overboard. Expedition has to be used in our circumstances."

"JANUARY 4th. - Off coast of Cuba. Another man died this morning - of cholera, everybody in the ship said, of course - but it was not. Old case of consumption."

"JANUARY 5th. - We are to put in at Key West, Florida, to-day, for coal, so they say, but no doubt it is to cool down the fright of the passengers as well. Some are lively, but others are in a terrible way. Seven cases sickness yesterday - one a first cabin passenger."

"NOON. - Another man said to be dying of cholera - the young man they call 'Shape."'

"Half a dozen on the sick list now. The blockheads let the diarrhea run two or three days, and then, getting scared, they run to the surgeon and hope to be cured. And they lie like all possessed - swear they have just been taken, when the doctor knows better by their symptoms. He asked a patient the other day if he had any money to get some brandy with? - said 'no,' and so the ship had to furnish it - when the man died they found forty-five dollars in his pocket. May be it was all the money the poor fellow had, but then he needn't have spoken falsely about it when the chances were all in favor of his going to the bottom anyway, and then he wouldn't want it."

" 'Shape' been walking the deck in stocking feet at midnight last night - getting wet - exposing himself - going to die, they say."

"The disease has got into the second cabin at last, and one case in first cabin. The consternation is so great among some of the passengers, that several are going to get off at Key West (if quarantine regulations permit it) and go north overland."

"The Captain and the Surgeon go through with the regular daily inspection of every nook and corner and stateroom in the ship, as usual. It is a good regulation, and more than ever necessary now."

"Shape is dead - sick about twelve hours."

"2 P.M. - The Episcopal clergyman, Rev. Mr. Fackler, is taken - bad diarrhea and griping. He has buried all the dead, and he is a good-hearted man and it always affected him so to see those poor fellows plunge into the sea. Pure distress of mind has made him sick - nothing else. He started out to read prayers over 'Shape,' and when he came in sight of the sheeted corpse he fainted and fell down by the capstan."

"All hands looking anxiously forward to the cool weather we shall strike twenty-four hours hence, to drive away the sickness."

"4 P.M. - The Minister has got a fit - convulsions of some kind. They are nursing him well; everybody likes him and respects him."

"Just heard the Captain give the order to Purser to put up a sign, in letters large enough for all to read: 'No charge for medical attendance whatever.' It is a good idea - we have found some more like that fellow that died and didn't want to buy brandy."

"5 :30 P.M. - As the boys came to the room, one after the other, I observed a marked change in their demeanor. They re port that the Minister - only sick such a short time - is already very low; and that a hospital has been fitted up in the steerage and he removed thither. Verily the ship is fast becoming a floating hospital herself - not a single hour passes but brings its new sensation - its melancholy tidings. If ever a group of earnest countenances assemble on any part of the deck, you will see everybody flock there - they know there is some more news of dire import. When I think of poor 'Shape' and the preacher, both so well when I saw them yesterday, it makes me feel gloomy.

Since the last two hours, all laughter, all cheerfulness, have died out of the ship. A settled sadness is upon the faces of the passengers."

"The last arrival says the Minister is dying. The passengers are fearfully exercised, and with considerable reason, for we are about to have our fifth death in five days, and the sixth of the voyage."

"That bolt-head broke several days ago, and we lost two hours while it was being mended. It broke again the next day, and we lost three or four hours. It broke again this afternoon, and again we lay like a log on the water (head wind,) for three or four hours more. These things distress the passengers beyond measure. They are scared about the epidemic and so impatient to get along that a stoppage of an hour seems a week to them, and gets them nervous and excited. One or two insist that we are 'out of luck,' and that we are all going to the very dickens, wherever that may be. Good many patients in the hospital. One well man is in a terrible way - can't bear the idea of dying and being buried at sea - as if his dead carcass would be more comfortable being eaten by grub-worms than sharks. Has got sixty-eight articles on cholera and its treatment - does nothing but read them. He tried hard to get the Captain to promise not to throw him overboard in case he died - offered him a hundred dollars. He is determined to quit the ship at Key West, and so are twenty or thirty others."

JANUARY 6th. - At two o'clock this morning, the Rev. Mr. Fackler died, and half an hour afterwards we landed at Key West. It is Sunday. Two of us attended Episcopal service here, and retired when they prepared to take the sacrament, and left a request at the pastor's house that he would preach the funeral sermon. We visited the cemetery in the edge of town, and then, supposing there was plenty of time, strolled through the principal streets and took some notes. When we got to the ship, a little after one o'clock, they said the funeral was already over.

Return to Alta index


Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search