Hellacious California!

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CRITIC Hinton Rowan Helper left a lasting impression on how Californian culture is still viewed to this day through one mordant comment:

I will say, that I have seen purer liquors, better segars [cigars], finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier courtezans here, than in any other place I have ever visited; and it is my unbiased opinion that California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable in America.

Gary Noy draws on Helper’s gleeful sentiment for the title of his book Hellacious California!: Tales of Rascality! Revelry! Dissipation! and Depravity! and the Birth of the Golden State, sharing the view that California’s origin story is a combination of greatness and immorality. The book teems with bittersweet compounds of 19th-century nefariousness, including — but not limited to — gambling, knife fights, the demon drink, con artistry, and prostitution.

. . . .

Gracious dining and gluttony was also at its peak right after the Civil War, with residents binging on jackass rabbit and codfish. I respect Noy’s ability to evenly weigh the temptations of the era. There are the “bad things” that affect the self (e.g., demon drink, gambling, tobacco), and those that affect others (e.g., divorce, knife fights, sex slavery). There is heavy content on Old California’s call for political change and the depth of the unhappiness with elected leadership. Most social issues stemmed from political corruption, especially corruption brought by the railroads. Nineteenth-century state government was also not big on quality law enforcement. Instead, San Francisco local citizens formed their own vigilance committees. Miners and local townspeople created their own form of justice.

In the same way that many civilians helped one another, others tried to harm each other. Many people belonging to the lower-class scammed and tried to “eat the rich.” Wealthy individuals spent incredible amounts of money on luxurious things they did not necessarily value. Arabella Huntington, widow of Central Pacific Railroad founder Collis P. Huntington, stepped into her carriage after attending an art gallery. Soon after, a gallery employee chased the carriage to let Mrs. Huntington know she had forgotten her handbag, which contained “eleven pearl necklaces valued at more than $3.5 million, the equivalent of $108 million today.”

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Having lived in California a long time ago and having close relatives and friends who still live there, PG can assure one and all that the California you will find today has changed from the California described in the OP.

In some respects.

And in some places.

California was and is a big place with lots of variations in climate, people and cultures.

San Francisco is not Fresno. Los Angeles is not Barstow. Quite a number of residents of each of these four cities are vociferously happy that they don’t live in one of the other three cities mentioned.

California includes both Hollywood and Death Valley (parts of which are shared with Nevada).

In the last half of the 19th century, a great portion of California qualified as nearly or completely uninhabited mountains and deserts that would have been described as useless and dangerous wastelands at the time. If California felt too settled, you could always go east to Nevada (which has places a bit more welcoming than Death Valley) or Arizona for more alone time.

The first transcontinental railroad was started in 1863, while the Civil War was still being fought, beginning in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and and ending in Oakland, California, in 1869.

Prior to that time, if you wished to travel from one coast of the United States to the other, you either took a miserable, long, dirty and dangerous horse-powered trip across the United States or, if you had more money, you took a ship that landed in either Nicaragua or Panama, crossed one of those countries on foot or by horse, hoping to avoid catching any tropical diseases, then boarded a ship on the other side and completed your journey to the opposite coast of the US.

Either the land or the sea route included significant dangers to life and/or health.

Some people became very rich in both the East and the West from their involvement in building the railroad. Others didn’t.

Some people in the East and West got very rich by financing the construction of the railroad and others lost their shirts, banks and fortunes.

Most US government politicians and employees received bribes for their services in picking the route and funding the construction of the railroad. State politicians sometimes participated in the bribing and at other times collected bribes. There were competing bribers who promoted one route over another because they owned a lot of land on one prospective route or another.

All this is to say that California, its residents and elected officials participated in the disorganized and corrupt parts of building the railroad, but residents and elected officials in other parts of the country did the same.

California residents and residents of other states also organized and performed the incredible engineering and construction feats necessary to build a railroad across vast uninhabited deserts and high, little-known mountains.

Imported Chinese laborers were also essential to the construction. During the crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains, some parts of which were snow-covered all year and others snow-covered much of the year, some of the Chinese dug tunnels into the deep snow along the route and built snow caverns in which to eat and sleep under the snow to avoid the freezing winds that blew almost constantly. Such shelter was necessary for their survival because death by freezing was a real danger to workers of all nationalities.

For visitors to The Passive Voice from outside the United States, the transcontinental railroad was a bit over 1,900 miles (over 3,000 km), longer than the distance from London to Moscow. (Yes, the Trans-Siberian Railway is longer.)

The book that describes this great effort that PG read a few months ago and greatly enjoyed is Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose. If you’re interested in more detail, PG highly recommends this book.

4 thoughts on “Hellacious California!”

  1. Empire Express by David Bain is another good book about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. There was, as PG suggests, a great deal of corruption and inefficiency in the project. In Bain’s telling, however, the West to East consortium (called the Central Pacific) was a much better run operation than the East to West consortium (called the Union Pacific).

    • That was my impression from the Ambrose book as well.

      One point Ambrose talked about was that one of the ways the insiders made money on the east-to-west part of the project was based upon one of the ways the federal government was helping to fund the building of the railroads.

      On at least some parts of the East-to-West line, the railroad received title to a square mile of land right beside the railroad route for every two miles of track they built. This 640 acres (still called a “Section” in the Midwest) could be sold by the railroad after that part of the track was finished. Some of the railroad insiders snapped up quite a few of these alternate sections at low prices before anyone else had a chance to purchase them.

      When I was young, my father worked for a man whose ancestor had been an attorney working for the area railroad (not part of the trans-continental line) while it was being built. The attorney and a financial partner bought quite a few of these sections on a rail line that ran through some very good farm land and became quite wealthy as a result.

      One of the visible indicators of the attorney’s wealth was the largest barn I have seen anywhere. Among its other features, the barn included small pens built for horses. The pens were built from black walnut, found today only in very expensive furniture. I understand that the farm, featuring the barn, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

  2. I wonder if therd’s a book coming about the senility and death of the Golden State.
    Or at least the “golden” part.
    The gold mines are long gone and the silicon ones are rethinking their residence.

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