July 12, 1863: Aurora
It rained at intervals all night, but in the morning cleared up after a fashion. It still looked bad, and we resolved to push on to Aurora, thirty miles, where we would find shelter.
We were soon on our way, most of the journey over a sandy desert on the north side of the lake. Mono Lake was at no very early period much higher and larger than at present. It has been gradually lessening and shrinking, leaving its old shores like terraces stretching around the present water, and great sandy desert plains covered with sagebushes, once its bed. We measured terraces 680 feet above the present lake. About ten miles before reaching Aurora we struck into the hills north, the town being about fifteen miles due north of the east end of the lake, near what is called “Walker’s Diggings” on your maps.
You doubtless have heard of the mining district of Esmeralda. Well, Aurora is the head of this—is a city, in fact, and the second in importance on the east side of the mountains. It has grown up entirely within two years, numbers now probably five thousand inhabitants, and is like California in ’49. The town lies in a valley—canyon rather—and the first view is picturesque. The hills around are barren as a desert, with scattered scrubby pines and more scrubby cedars here and there—no grass, no anything to attract man, except the precious metals. With so large a population there are not accommodations for a fourth of the people. Thousands of “prospectors” come there poor as rats and expect to grow immensely rich in a few months—but, alas! most of them will either die here or leave still poorer. They live in such quarters as such a region will enable them to get up—hundreds of huts made of stones or dug in the earth with a canvas roof—such are the houses of the outskirts. The center of the town, however, is better—whole streets of wooden buildings, erected in the most cheap and expeditious manner, a few of brick. There are men at work, but far more are idle, for it is Sunday. We put our horses in stables at $1.25 per day each for hay alone. There is no hotel, but there are many lodging houses—we take “beds” at one and eat at a restaurant. I would much rather sleep out in my blankets if a clean spot could be found, although it is showery weather.
We got letters but, much to our disgust and disappointment, no money, and we have not enough for actual wants. We also got late and brilliant news from the armies. In the mountains we heard of the invasion of Pennsylvania. Here we heard that Lee’s army is whipped, that Vicksburg is ours, and that gold is falling.
Aurora of a Sunday night—how shall I describe it? It is so unlike anything East that I can compare it with nothing you have ever seen. One sees a hundred men to one woman or child. Saloons—saloons—saloons—liquor—everywhere. And here the men are—where else can they be? At home in their cheerless, lonesome hovels or huts? No, in the saloons, where lights are bright, amid the hum of many voices and the excitement of gambling. Here men come to make money—make it quick—not by slow, honest industry, but by quick strokes—no matter how, so long as the law doesn’t call it robbery. Here, where twenty quartz mills are stamping the rock and kneading its powder into bullion—here, where one never sees a bank bill, nor “rag money,” but where hard silver and shining gold are the currency—where men are congregated and living uncomfortably, where there are no home ties or social checks, no churches, no religions—here one sees gambling and vice in all its horrible realities.
Here are tables, with gold and silver piled upon them by hundreds (or even thousands), with men (or women) behind, who deal faro, or monte, or vingt-et-un, or rouge-et-noir, or who turn roulette—in short, any way in which they may win and you may lose. Here, too, are women—for nowhere else does one see prostitutes as he sees them in a new mining town. All combine to excite and ruin. No wonder that one sees sad faces and haggard countenances and wretched looks, that we are so often told that “many are dying off”—surely, no wonder!