I was delighted to find that other readers enjoy Dame Shirley as much as I do. We even had a comment from our friend Mridula in India!
I thought I would include a passage from “The Shirley Letters” which dispels one stereotype of the ’49er and the ’50ers and the ’51ers — that is, the intrepid miners who first reached Rich Bar. This settlement was high up in the Sierra Nevadas, accessible only by a treacherous road through the mountains.
“Ten miles this side of Bidwell’s Bar, the road, hitherto so smooth and level, became stony and hilly,” Dame Shirley writes. “For more than a mile we drove along the edge of a precipice, and so near that it seemed to me, should the horses deviate a hair’s breadth from their usual track, we must be dashed into eternity.
“Wonderful to relate, I did not oh! nor ah! nor shriek once; but remained crouched in the back of the wagon as silent as death. When we were again in safety, the driver exclaimed in the classic patois of New England, ‘Wall I guess yer the fust woman that ever rode over that are hill without hollering.’ He evidently did not know that it was the intensity of my fear that kept me so still.”
Upon reaching Rich Bar, Dame Shirley and her husband boarded at “The Empire,” a ramshackle hotel which she describes in detail and then sums up:
“It is just such a piece of carpentering as a child two years old, gifted with the strength of a man, would produce if it wanted to play at making grown-up houses. And yet this impertinent apology for a house cost its original owners more than eight thousand dollars. This will not be quite so surprising when I inform you that, at the time it was built, everything had to be packed from Marysville at a cost of forty cents a pound.”
“It was built by a company of gamblers as a residence for two of those unfortunates who make a trade — a thing of barter — of the holiest passion, when sanctified by love, that ever thrills the wayward heart of poor humanity.
“To the lasting honor of miners, be it written, the speculation proved a decided failure. Yes! these thousand men — many of whom had been for years absent from the softening amenities of female society and the sweet restraining influences of pure womanhood — these husbands of fair young wives, kneeling daily at the altars of their holy homes to pray for their far-off ones — these sons of gray-haired mothers, majestic in their sanctified old age — these brothers of virginal sisters, white and saint-like as the lilies of their own gardens — looked only with contempt or pity upon these, oh so earnestly to be compassionated creatures!
“These unhappy members of a class to one of which the tenderest words that Jesus ever spake were uttered left in a few weeks, absolutely driven away by public opinion. The disappointed gamblers sold the house to its present proprietor for a few hundred dollars.”
Now if those gamblers had tried the same speculation a few years later they might have done a whole lot better. Turns out the ’52ers and ’53ers and ’54ers were not so intrepid, nor so honorable as the first miners on the scene, as Dame Shirley relates in later letters.