Week 50: #52 Ancestors – Witness to History
By Eilene Lyon
Introduction: This two-part feature is an excerpt from my book about the California gold rush. The Blackford Mining Co. left a farming community in eastern Indiana to seek their fortunes in 1851. The ten men ranged in age from Peter Liestenfeltz, the youngest at 18, to Henry Z. Jenkins, the oldest at 49. Most were in their 20s and early 30s. Sam Jones, originally from Barnesville, Ohio, was the company president. Henry grew up in Philadelphia and had lived briefly in Cincinnati, too. The others most likely had little-to-no experience of big-city life. They left Indiana on foot, walking for two days to reach Richmond, where they boarded a stage…
After a butt-bruising 20-hour stage ride, Sam Jones and gang arrived in Cincinnati at 11 p.m. on March 12, 1851. They awoke Thursday morning, March 13, to a whiff of approaching spring, promising a pleasant day ahead. But the morning’s Cincinnati Enquirer held disturbing news that day for anyone planning a trip to the Sierras to find gold.
The Army had clashed with natives in Mariposa County. Consumable goods were getting scarce and commanding premium prices. Letters from locals testified to little success in the mines. There is no indication that any of these less-than-rosy reports deterred Henry Jenkins and the other farmers from Indiana.
For every realistic tale about miners making, on average, $2 a day, there were equally compelling statistics showing that vast sums were pouring out of California. One steamship from Panama, headed to New York, reputedly carried a million dollars in gold freight, with another $300 thousand amongst the passengers. Somebody was getting rich. Why shouldn’t it be them?
The company was eager to be “off to see the elephant,” in the parlance of the day. They had eschewed the slowest route to the gold fields of California, the overland trek, in favor of the fastest way possible: by steamboat to New Orleans and by sea, crossing the isthmus at Panama, and up the west coast.
After securing passage on the steamboat Indiana to speed their way to the yellow dust that would secure their financial future, they spent the day exploring “Porkopolis,” as Cincinnati was fondly called, due to its large pork-packing industry. The clamor of the city coming to life assaulted the ears of the country men, used to nothing louder than grinding millstones, clanging blacksmith’s hammers, or a rifle report heralding a meaty meal.
Wheels and hooves of the horse-drawn wagons and carriages clattered on the brick streets. Teamsters created a din as they loaded and unloaded merchandise. And the banshee scream of steam escaping from the riverboats’ high-pressure boilers on the waterfront punctured the air, audible for miles. Rather than startling, the cacophony probably delighted them and whet their appetites for all the new sights and sounds ahead.
Cincinnati had progressed since the days when Henry Jenkins had lived there two decades earlier. Swine were no longer the sanitation engineers of choice, freely wandering the streets devouring all manner of refuse, but pork was still the number one commodity exported from the public landing, being shipped as far as Europe, the by-products being put to good use by Proctor & Gamble as soap and candle wax.
The odor of the city had gone from barnyard offal to industrial waste. It wasn’t necessarily what you’d call an improvement, especially to a farmer. As they roamed downtown, the men tried not to look like a bunch of rubes from the frontier, which in fact, they were.
Industrialization teemed around them. The soot in the air burned the lungs and eyes. Appalachian coal powered this manufacturing burg, though a favorable west wind frequently sent the ashy plumes upstream to the town of Fulton. The hundreds of gas lights must have impressed them – what an improvement over the hickory-bark torches they used back home!
Prowling through the streets, the men saw an incredible variety of merchandise and craned their necks at the tall buildings crammed together in a solid mass – so different than the one- and two-story log cabins and open spaces they were used to.
Charles Cist’s 1851 directory listed nearly 400 occupations in the city, and the number of each, including, curiously, “Thieves…..42.” There were German sausage shops, confectionaries, bakeries, basketry, jewelry, tobacco shops, metal and glass wares, booksellers, milliners, musical instruments, daguerreotypes, guns, and an enormous variety of food available from over 500 grocers.
Butchers sold fresh meat at five large markets set in the middle of the broad avenues. Shoes and boots were a major product, given the ready availability of hides from meat processing. The men may have been sorely tempted to purchase new boots, hats, coats and other ready-made apparel, but they would carefully conserve the cash they had borrowed dearly to pay their way to California. Homespun, handmade duds would just have to do.
Though each had contributed $300 to finance this venture, prices for transportation were going up; they had no idea just how much. None of the men had ever been in spitting distance of so much cash and it made them nervous about pickpockets on the river, and in the towns along the route. They would have to get used to carrying their piles of gold around, though. They were going to be rich men, after all.
Heading eastward, they could have marveled at the city’s water works. The pump house stood at river’s edge at the end of Front Street, next to the new railroad station for the Little Miami line, the only rail service into Cincinnati. The railroad itself was a curiosity to the frontiersmen – iron horses did not come anywhere near Blackford County, Indiana.
The city reservoir loomed above the station, capable of holding 1.5 million gallons of Ohio River water, but ready for replacement; the residents were using daily upwards of two million gallons. A system of cisterns and hydrants dotted the urban area, dedicated to extinguishing fires, which were fortunately less frequent now, as brick structures replaced wood.
Cincinnati’s situation on the Ohio River was very nearly the halfway point between Pittsburgh, the source, and Cairo, the mouth, where it emptied into the Mississippi. It was the heyday of the steamboat era, with about 600 steamers plying the network of western rivers, and Cincinnati was a shipping dynamo.
Besides the river traffic, two canals carried freight in and out of the city: the Miami traversed the state north to south bringing goods from Lake Erie; the Whitewater brought in goods from Indiana. In mid-century, the city absorbed a large number of European immigrants, primarily German, who quickly assimilated, and secondarily the Irish. It was a cosmopolitan place, doing business around the world.
But the Indianans hadn’t come to be dazzled by city life. It was a mere distraction on the way to their true destination, the place everyone was talking about, the land of gold – California! They were impatient to be on their way.
Feature image: The Public Landing in Cincinnati 1850 (Public Domain)