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months in California, I cleared by professional work, over and above expenses, about one thousand dollars a month. This was in gold, and it is fair to remember that the worker was barely eighteen years of age. I am quite convinced that, but for what he learned at the Institute, he would not have gained a tenth of the sum named. Circumstances were undoubtedly favorable. There were then but few on the Pacific coast who could perform the simplest operations of engineering. A good share of city work was attainable, including the location of some of the minor streets and wharves; and there was suburban surveying and miscellaneous labor which, added to the rest, had the young graduate possessed the steadiness or continuity of purpose which not even the Institute could teach him, might easily have brought him fortune five times over. The force of the intended illustration is not nevertheless, weakened by this. I do not think there was any member of my class who, in the same circumstances, would not have done as well as I did; and am sure there were some who would have done better; so that I trust a substantial demonstration has been furnished of the practical advantages of the Institute and a right established to inscribe after it "Quod erat demonstrandum"
San Francisco in those days, was a bewildering, not to say a distracting city. Its most striking characteristic was its strangeness. You felt that, to every one you met in the streets, it was as strange as to you. There was nothing like it, had never been anything like it. Each new comer might fitly say—
"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and his men
Looked at each other with a mild surmise,
Silent upon a peak in Darien."
There was, to be sure, no silence and little contemplation
in the golden city; but every one seemed in as chronic a
state of amazement as the Spanish freebooter; and, as with
him, there mingled with the astonishment the insatiate thirst for gain. In the rush for it almost everybody was engaged in some unwonted and anomalous employment. There were clergymen doing the work of porters, and a college professor was waiter in a restaurant. Ladies by birth and culture took in washing, and young gentlemen of social distinction at home, peddled cigars and matches. These constant incongruities gave rise to a perversive air of burlesque or masquerade, which heightened the novelty of the situation. Vast saloons, open to the street, in which public gambling was going on day and night, the perpetual music of bands, the brisk chatter of a dozen different tongues, the diverse costumes of as many nationalities, lent to the scene wonderful vivacity and bustle; while blending with dapper new comers by ocean steamers, people who often possessed nothing but the clothes they stood in, came figures fresh from the mines, red-shirted, booted and hirsute, heavy laden with bowie knives and revolvers, with fierce faces shaded by Spanish hats, fit in a word to be painted by Salvator or Murrillo, and frequently owning gold to the value of tens of thousands, "dug from the bowels of the harmless earth," on the Sacramento or Tuolumne.
Within six weeks of our arrival the "confusion" was rendered "worse confounded." There came what proved at once San Francisco's greatest curse and greatest blessing —a prodigious fire. A day or two before we got in, there had been another. Nearly the whole place had gone down before the fiery tempest, and as we sailed up the bay our eager eyes—weary with the one hundred and sixty-five days of our passage round Cape Horn—fell on hundreds of tents whereof the burned out people had improvised habitations.
Six weeks, however, had been ample time to build the prostrate city up again; and this time, albeit somewhat of the ginger-bread order, there was no little attempt at architectural display. The facades of some of the gambling hells and tippling shops were quite gorgeous—as became such profitable establishments—and there were other edifices of almost equal pomp and splendor. Nearly all the structures however were of the flimsiest description—lathe and plaster, chiefly, although there were here and there buildings of the native adobe, or sun-dried brick, and a very few eastern brick warehouses, in one of which I slept on the morning of the fire.
On the whole, the city looked quite imposing; and remembering its aspect on the day of our arrival, there was something marvellously suggestive of Aladdin's palace in the change. The swiftness, however, with which the new city went up, was nothing to the magical rapidity with which it came down. To many the catastrophe was ruin, and to me it seemed scarcely less, since it involved the loss of a transit. Not, I need scarcely say, the transit of Venus. To me, at that time, it was one of much more importance. It came from Troy, too, and was made by Phelps & Gurley. It was just daylight on a hot morning in June, and a dozen of us were sleeping on the third floor of a brick warehouse just erected by a relative of mine for business purposes. This gentleman—who accepted misfortune, either for himself or neighbor with a sportive equanimity wondrous to behold—happened to be first stirring. I think I was next awake, for I remember my attention being attracted to the fact that my relative was busy at a box of mine, and that in truth he was arraying himself in a suit of my garments which happened to strike his fancy. Presently he went to a window and looked out, and, after a moment's deliberate consideration, observed affably, that if we wanted to get out alive, we might wisely bestir ourselves to that end without delay; since the street above us was in alight blaze and the flames would be upon us in a very few moments. No second hint was required it may well be believed. Quicker time was probably made by that company in dressing than any member of it had ever made before. In the safe, below, there was a large sum—a great many thousands—in gold dust and coin, besides valuable papers. To get the safe out of the building was the most important, and to this task all present vigorously devoted themselves. It was done, but by the time the heavy iron box was rolled into the street, burning fragments were falling all over us, and the warehouse was one vast sheet of flame. Only then did some one remember that a huge pipe stood close by the door filled with canisters of gunpowder. This dangerous neighbor was canted over and rolled into the bay.
Probably among the many narrow escapes in the San Francisco fires, none was closer to the "dangerous edge of things " than this. Our lives were all safe, but my transit —the only one I thought then in California, was gone. No time was left to rescue it from the burning building, and so with many valued note books which had been kept at the Institute, a respectable engineering library, and many draughting and other instruments, it was crammed into the hungry maw of the conflagration. In fact we had much ado to save ourselves. To go toward the flames or inland was impossible. But to fly straight away from them, as we were situated, had become equally so. For the streets themselves being of plank were now all on fire in that direction, and the only safety seemed in the bay. Two paths of escape had been open to us when we fell to work on the safe; but now both were cut off.
A story of a certain colored preacher in Virginia is so apposite here, that its citation may be excused. "Dar am but de two roads," he declared, "one am de broad and narrer road dat leadeth to perdishun; de oder am de narrer and de broad road dat leadeth to eternal destruction." "What's dat?" cried one of his hearers apprehensively. "Say dat again!" "De one am de broad and narrer road dat leadeth to perdishun; de oder am de narrer and de broad road dat leadeth to destruction." "If dat am de case," said the other, "dis nigger takes to de woods." These niggers took to the wharves; and, not until the one on which we had sought refuge had been cut away from the town with axes, were we really in a position of comparative safety. Even then constant vigilance was needful to keep the showers of sparks and blazing fragments, borne on a heavy gale of wind, from igniting the wharf; and night was fast coming on while we were still huddled on the end of the structure, blackened and begrimed from head to foot, and our clothes literally in rags, while the storm of fire still swept furiously on, and heavy explosions told from time to time how the firemen were vainly struggling, by blowing up buildings, to arrest the progress of the flames.
California is the country of countries, according to my experience, for making the best of a bad situation. Perhaps no more wretched plight could be conceived than that of the refugees on the wharf. All their personal property destroyed, their clothes in tatters, without food or drink, without money, and with nothing within reach to buy, even had they the means to purchase, their situation was doleful indeed. Yet comfort was at hand even here; and I have never ceased to recur to that time, when things around me have looked unusually dark and forbidding. On the end of the wharf were several sheds or low shanties which were barred or padlocked. One of our party, for the purpose of washing, descended by a boat ladder to the sea, and thus discovered a way of getting into these buildings from below. This was soon availed of, and there were found a great stock of ready made garments, boots, hats, in short all things requisite for a gentleman's wardrobe.
In a trice, after preliminary ablutions in the bay, the whole company were freshly attired from head to foot, the owner, I need hardly say, being compensated on his own terms afterward. Subsequently, in an adjoining building, cans of preserved meat, and baskets of claret and champagne were discovered, so that the inner man of the refugees was soon as well cared for as the outer. I chanced on a snug bench and slept for two or three hours with infinite satisfaction. On awakening, I found the sky pitchy dark. A noise came from the hovel nearest the bay, which had a second story and a glazed window. A light streamed from within, and amid the dull roar of the conflagration were heard sounds of revelry. The city on one side was a seething mass of fire; the sea, on the other, like the sky was of inky blackness. I got three barrels, and putting a board across two of them, perched the third on the platform thus made, and climbing to the top, looked in at the window.