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November 25, 1864: Off the Coast of Guatemala

November 25, 2014

Along the coast of Central America the grand volcanic cones rose against the sky, some in sharp outline, others with clouds curling over them, but all very grand. [This] morning a fellow passenger awoke me before five o’clock to see a grand sight, the volcano of Pecaya in eruption. It was forty or fifty miles distant, but the night was clear. A pillar of clear, white smoke or steam curled up into the blue sky from the sharp cone, and a great stream of lava ran down, forming a broad, glowing belt down the side of the mountain. At times great volumes of steam and smoke would roll up, while along the line of the lava stream steam curled up here and there, perhaps where the hot lava found moist ground or water. It was less distinct after day broke, but for nearly a hundred miles we could see the smoke rising from it. This volcano is in the southern part of Guatemala.

November 21, 1864: Off the Coast of Mexico

November 21, 2014

[Today] we passed a steamer of the French blockading fleet off Acapulco, which some thought a pirate of the Rebel persuasion until we were fairly up to her.

November 20, 1864: Off the Coast of Mexico

November 20, 2014

As we ran down along the coast a change came over the spirit of the scene. We left fogs behind and entered the sunny climate and balmy air of the Mexican coast. Bright skies and blue sea came on, the days waxed longer and the nights shorter. We passed Cape San Lucas [yesterday], scarcely half a mile from the forbidding shore, and [today] crossed the Gulf of California. We had an unusually cool passage—the captain says the coolest he has ever made on this route.

November 16, 1864: Off the California Coast

November 16, 2014

We soon settled down to the monotony of ocean life. We got acquainted with genial or congenial friends, we gazed off on the ocean, we ate, we read, we smoked, we slept. Occasional glimpses of the rugged coast of California, a school of porpoises, a whale, or the miseries of some seasick passenger as he hung over the gunwale of the ship and contemplated the mighty deep, were our only excitements. We were not yet acquainted and did not feel at home.

November 14, 1864: San Francisco

November 14, 2014

[This] morning, November 14, I was up early and off for the steamer. I bade goodbye to dear Hoffmann. He was out of bed, but could not walk yet. He wept like a child when I left, and I felt like parting from a brother. For over three years we had been together almost all the time—in winter in the office, and during summer in the field.

Several of my friends came down to see me off. We were off at half-past ten. It was a dull, foggy morning, and the hills of Oakland were dim. We stopped out in the stream while the passengers were marshaled and a boatload sent ashore—those who had forgotten to provide themselves with tickets. It was “opposition day” and we were on the opposition steamer, America. The steerage was full—over 100 had been turned away, and 650 were crowded in there. The second cabin was crowded, but the first cabin was not full. I had a stateroom to myself, on deck, one of the pleasantest on the boat, thanks to the agent at San Francisco, whom I had once met in Yosemite Valley and who had thus kindly remembered our meeting.

November 13, 1864: San Francisco

November 13, 2014

The [last] two days I was busy enough. I finished packing up and called on friends to bid them goodbye. I [have] made many warm friends in [this] city, and I parted with many, probably never more to see them in life. I spent [this] evening, Sunday, at my boarding house, where I felt almost at home.

November 11, 1864: Returning to San Francisco

November 11, 2014

I slept but very little [last] night. We passed through Dutch Flat, now so familiar to every Californian because of its name in connection with the railroad, and finally reached the railroad soon after daylight, near Auburn, and were in Sacramento in time for breakfast. I stopped there until the afternoon and then went to San Francisco. During my stop I called on the comptroller and got the cheering news that we would probably be paid up in January next.

It was a mild lovely afternoon as we sailed down the muddy Sacramento. The hazy air shut out all views of the Sierra. Nothing but the level banks of the river was in sight, yet at times even these were picturesque, with their festoons of vines and the gray willows hanging over the lazy water.

November 10, 1864: Over Donner Pass

November 10, 2014

Donner Lake

Donner Lake; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr


Donner Lake

Donner Lake from near Donner Pass; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

[Today] I bade goodbye to my friends at Virginia City and got upon the stage at noon for California again. I rode on the box with the driver, so I had a good chance to see the country. We crossed the Truckee River and then ascended the grand Sierra. We went by the Truckee Pass, where the Pacific Railroad is to cross, according to present hopes. We passed by Donner Lake, a beautiful sheet of water three miles long, the scene of the fearful tragedy that overtook the Donner party at “Starvation Camp” a few years ago1. Here we took supper; then again on the stage and over the pass.

Old Donner Highway

Old Donner Pass Highway; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

It is the grandest of the wagon road passes that I have yet seen. The moon was at its full, and as a little snow lay around and as the naked granite rocks are so very light colored, we could see almost as well as by day. The road winds up the rocky height through a scene of unmitigated rocky desolation—great bare crags, with here and there a tree or bush struggling for existence in the corners and crevices—all else naked rock and snow. How a railroad is to be got through and over this pass is not easy to see. It will take much money.

The night was cold as well as clear. After crossing the summit we were soon in the grand forests of the western slope. We had a jolly set on the stage, that is on the top, and we awoke the echoes of the mountains with our songs.

1Brewer had actually met a survivor of the Donner Party, but seems to have been unaware of it.

November 9, 1864: Virginia City

November 9, 2014

Virginia City

Virginia City from Spanish Ravine; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr


I intended to leave [today], but found the stages filled, so I had to wait over. I took a stroll over the hills a few miles, looking at the rocks and geology of the country.

November 8, 1864: Virginia City

November 8, 2014

Red Dog Saloon

Red Dog Saloon, Virginia City; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr


[Today] we returned to Virginia City, arriving about noon. It was election day. I had no vote, of course. One should see the elective franchise exercised in such a new place to have a realizing sense of the free and enlightened voters exercising their rights. Men argued but little, but opinions were freely given, rendered more forcible by bowie knife and revolver. I don’t know how many I saw drawn during the day, yet I saw no one hurt. Some were shot in the evening, however, as the excitement rose and the whiskey began to work. I was up until very late [tonight] around town.