Pacific Railroad Traveler's Letter, San Francisco, California, William Smith, 1875.
Eight page traveler's letter from William Smith, a Genesco, Illinois attorney and real estate broker, to his sister Mrs. Celia Cooley Graves Graves, Franklinville, New York.* The letter, datelined San Francisco, California, May 8, 1875, reads, in part,
"... You see by this that I am now on the Pacific Coast. One week ago today at 5:30 PM I left Geneseo for this city with Amos and Lillie and we arrived here on Friday evening at dark. Just think of it, we travelled nearly 2,000 miles in five days. We travelled night and day and left the [railroad passenger] cars, once, and sometimes twice a day for meals, and then for a few minutes only. Well, I think I hear you say how awful tired you must all have been, when you got through, but to my astonishment we were not ... We got used to the motion of the cars and I was as comfortable all the day through as I could have been ... in our parlor. We occupied a splendid sleeping car all the way and had a jolly lot of passengers. There was some three or four hundred of them. There was eight cars with passengers, besides the other cars for baggage &c with two powerful engines to draw us. So you see we had a crowd of our own, and for hundreds of miles we saw no other persons except now and then a station with a few hovels about it. I had read a great deal about the desert plains, but I have a very imperfect idea about their appearance and the immensity of their extent, and no one can form anything of a correct idea about them by reading. They must be passed over to realize their extent and utter desolation. For hundreds of miles there is neither tree or shrub except sage bush and geese wood from about six inches to a couple of feet high and then only in spots. The soil is sand and gravel and the mountains, when we came to them, most of the way was naked rock and small stones, with no vegetation whatever and many of the rivers are so impregnated with alkali of some kind that neither man nor beast can drink the water without injury and after producing death. But when we came to the Rocky Mountains proper we now and then see a few evergreen bushes and now and then a small tree. But of all the scenery I ever saw before, it appears tame by the sight of what we passed through. It is impossible to give any kind of an idea about the immensity of them. We passed under ledges some 2 or 3,000 feet above us, and over ravines as high as Sherman in Wyoming T[erritory]. We were 8,242 feel above the sea [at] the highest railroad point in America (that was on the Rocky Mountains) and when we came to the Sierra Nevada Mountains (they are the west range of the Rocky) I got up at half past three in the morning so see the sights, for the conductor informed me that early in the morning we would pass the finest sights on the road, so I was up to see them. It was quite cool and chilly, so I put on overcoat and shell and took a seat on the platform to see ... It was bright star light and they appeared to be twice as large as I ever saw them before, owing to the clear and rarified atmosphere so high up in the mountains. Soon we came upon fresh snow and then to snow banks. I see we were moving up the side of the river and I looked up on the other side way up on the side of the mountain and saw a railroad with a snow shed and at the end of a tunnel in the mountain. Soon we came to a short curve in the road and I saw we were running on that road I saw [previously] ... now I looked over the river and way down several hundred feet was the road we had passed over. Soon we were in the snowshed, then in a tunnel, then a shed, next a tunnel and so on under a continual roof like a covered bridge for 22 miles and after an Egyptian darkness, for the tunnels are not lighted, through the cracks and windows in the sheds I could see deep canyons and mountain peaks all covered with snow. About the middle of the snow sheds we came to a railroad station and hotel. We stopped a few minutes and found everything frozen hard and cold as mid winter. This is the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the hotel is 7,017 feet above the sea level. From there we struck a down grade and ran very fast and soon came to the American River and the scenery was far above anything we had before seen ... so on we went and was soon below the snow and in a few miles everything was in full bloom ... before noon we passed gardens filled with cherry trees, red with ripe fruit and at the stations the boys were selling strawberries and cherries just picked.. How is that for a change of climate? I tell you Sis, it seemed to me as though I had just dropped from the clouds to a tropical climate. About noon we arrived in Sacramento City and from there to the head of San Francisco Bay. The farmers were cutting and stacking their hay and wheat, and now I am writing in my room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel with the window up and in my shirtsleeves as happy as a clam ... I have seen little of this city yet, and now intend to start Tuesday morning with others for Los Angeles, some five hundred miles south ... for that is the point I have in view for a future home ..."
Transcribed by and courtesy of Fred Schmitt.
*Letter from William Smith to his sister Mrs. C. C. Graves. Mrs. C. C. Graves is Mrs. Celia Cooley Graves – she and her brother were born in Palmer, Massachusetts – William to Jesse Smith and his first wife Nancy Mason, and Celia to Jesse and his second wife Cynthia. Amos Mason Smith was their brother, so presumably the Amos that William refers to is the same man. I have been able to find no living descendants of Jesse Smith ... (Their sister Harriet was my great great great aunt.) —L. Greene, Carlsbad, CA