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October 10, 1861: Mountain House

October 10, 2011

Marsh Creek Road 02

Mount Diablo from Marsh Creek Road, near the Marsh house; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Camp 60

Marsh Plaque

Plaque near Marsh house; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

[Today], we came on to Camp 60, in the entrance of Livermore Pass1. First, down the canyon about eight miles to a Mr. Marsh’s ranch. He has a fine stone house, by far the finest in this whole region. As this was the last water, we stopped two hours, lunched, and I visited a “quicksilver lead” of his, which proved to be no quicksilver at all, but a red clay. He gave us some fine grapes.

We had expected to get across through the hills, but found it impossible—we must take the plain. It is about thirty-six miles to the coal mines, water to be found in only one place on the way, sixteen miles on.

We strike out on the plain—oh! what a tedious plain—league after league stretches away—it seems as boundless as the sea—we go slow, for it is sultry—but we pull up into the hills at the place directed and find a little tavern at a spring, with a few stunted willows around, the first trees we have seen for over a dozen miles.

Sans the human

Tarantula (Aphonopelma sp.); by Ken-ichi, on Flickr

The San Joaquin (pronounced San Waugh-keen’) plain lies between the Mount Diablo Range and the Sierra Nevada—a great plain here, as much as forty to fifty miles broad, desolate, without trees save along the river, without water during nine or ten months of the year, and practically a desert. The soil is fertile enough, but destitute of water, save the marshes near the river and near the Tulare Lake. The marshy region is unhealthy and infested with mosquitoes in incredible numbers and of unparalleled ferocity. The dry plain on each side abounds in tarantulas by the thousands. These are spiders, living in holes, and of a size that must be seen to be appreciated. I shall try and catch some to send home, but I have seen them where two would cover this page, as they stand, their bodies as large as a half-grown mouse, their hairy legs of proportionate size, their fangs as large as those of a moderate sized rattlesnake. Pleasant companions! We never think of pulling on our boots in the morning without first shaking them, for fear of tarantulas—but luckily they seldom travel by night. They bite vigorously when provoked, and their bite is generally considered fatal, although I have heard of but one well-authenticated case of death resulting since I have been here; but the bite generally proves a painful and serious affair.

Mountain House Road 01

Mountain House Road, 3 miles from Zimmermann's; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

The Diablo Range is skirted on the east side (I think its whole length, certainly for 150 or more miles) by ranges of barren hills, sinking into the plain, and sometimes rising to the height of 1,500 feet, mostly rounded, nearly destitute of water. Barren, very barren, few trees—often one will have a prospect of a dozen or even twice that number of square miles without a tree or shrub large enough to be seen, the ground either entirely bare or with a very scanty vegetation of stunted grass and low weeds.

A few cattle feed among these hills or on the adjacent plain, knowing where the water is to be found in the ravines, or going to the river. Hundreds of trails here lead to the river. Cattle go down in the forenoon, linger near the water until near night, then start in droves, single file, for the hills. They will thus go six or eight miles for water each day, going to the hills to feed and to keep away from the mosquitoes. The streams that form in these hills in the spring all sink when they enter the plain, and as summer advances they dry up farther and farther until they all disappear. Such is an immense region, such it must ever remain, supporting a scanty population.

Our camp (No. 60) was at Zimmermann’s Mountain House at the entrance of Livermore Pass. The hills near had been extensively prospected for coal, but nothing of importance found.

1Altamont Pass.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim Flynn permalink
    October 10, 2011 6:37 pm

    Somehow this: “The San Joaquin (pronounced San Waugh-keen’)” creates the most powerful sense of time and place for me. Makes me feel like a ghost on their landscape.

  2. William H. Brewer permalink*
    October 11, 2011 10:20 am

    Nicely put, and I know what you mean.

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