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Five or six men were within playing cards, by the light of candles stuck in empty champagne bottles, and regaling themselves at intervals from full ones. Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned was the only parallel to it. Probably, nearly every man there was " ruined" by the fire for the half-dozenth time. But what cared they? No Frenchman was ever more ready than those early Californians to say "vive la bagatelle." What must be, must be, and there was no use in crying over spilt milk. In the morning the flourishing city was a mere blackened waste. It had melted, in the words of a hackneyed, but appropriate passage "into thin air," and with Prospero we might say: "And like the baseless fabric of this vision The cloud capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this unsubstantial pageant faded Leave not a wreck behind."
The difference being that, in six weeks more, San Francisco was built again. Moreover, there were a great many "wrecks" in the shape of innumerable packages of merchandise, which were scattered about over the burnt district, as if they had been tossed on a sable shore by an angry sea. An auction sale had been advertised to take place in our building within three days of the fire. It might be supposed that this was of necessity postponed; but no one would suppose so who knew the resources and indefatigable pluck of those, early pioneers. Within those three days a large warehouse, built of bamboo and China mattings on the site of the old one, "rose like an exhalation." Nor were there lacking materials for the sale. The other day a representative American, of the nil admirari kind, happened to be in London, and was taken to the British museum. The place is now a perfect wonder-house of ancient and modern scientific and artistic curiosities. "Well," said our countryman to his companions, scratching his head, "We've got all these things in the States; only they're kind o' scattered round." And so it was with the articles for the auction sale; they were all there, only they were "kind o' scattered round." Unfortunately my transit was not of the number.
On our way to the golden city we had touched at the accepted home of "Robinson Crusoe" the island of Juan Fernandez, a most picturesque and romantic spot, as the few who have seen it can testify. Such" a visit was not to be forgotten, but I was especially reminded of it, not long after, by an impressive incident. Perhaps there is no more thrilling moment in the history of Robinson Crusoe than that in which he discovers the famous foot-print on the shore. I am certain that there was no more thrilling moment in my experience in California than that in which Friday's footprint was brought most vividly to my mind. It was soon after the fire, and I had gone down to the beautiful region of Santa Clara, which was then, comparatively speaking, uninhabited. I was running lines, to locate certain land claims, and, having been on a previous day in a woody valley, miles from any dwelling, had agreed to meet my party, (we having separated at night to go in different directions,) at a given hour on the same spot. I was earlier than my appointment, and reached a monument of stones set up at a station covered by the compass the day before. All of a sudden I saw a foot-print. It was larger than Friday's or that of any of his tribe. I soon saw many others, indicating that the owner of the feet which made them, had been curiously inspecting our engineer's work, perhaps with a view of taking a hand in it. It cost not much reflection to persuade me that I was on the track of a huge grizzly bear, or that the straight line which represents the shortest distance from one point to another would be an excellent geometrical figure for me forthwith to describe in the expected direction of my companions. This might prove worse than the fire, since, in case of an unpleasant collision there would be no friendly wharf to fall back upon, or means of making secure the retreat. I suppose that by this time Santa Clara is as free from bears as Central Park, or rather more so; but they were then among the most serious dangers of the wayfarer. The brute who visited our station was said to have killed and maimed several men, soon after, before he was despatched. The neighborhood was also quite well provided with wild cats, and coyotes, the wolves of the plains, whose music lent a lively interest to one's nightly slumbers among the otherwise 'silent redwoods. On the whole, what with the conflagrations of the town and the wild beasts of the plains, life in California in those days did not lack the excitement of danger.
Nor were these the only sources of peril. The earlier land-surveyors had to encounter others that were unpleasantly frequent. The notions of bounds and metes entertained by the native or Mexican population at that time were singularly vague; while their views as to the treatment of persons holding different or opposing ideas on such subjects to their own, were on the other hand remarkably definite and unanimous. As a rule too, land claims overlapped each other in every direction, so that you could hardly get on a piece of ground anywhere but that there were several claimants to it. Hence the appearance in those regions of a surveyor's party with their instruments was apt to be as enlivening to the inhabitants as a red rag to a bull; and the additional interest, created by the proceedings of a generous supply of brigands, who used to plunder the expresses and stages, as well as single passengers, was hardly needed to give zest to a professional wanderer's every day life. Perhaps considering all these things, including grizzlies, it was not surprising that land surveyors should have been so proverbially scarce in the early times in California. Demand produces supply, and since then, our modern El Dorado has been quite as richly endowed with men of that calling, as other and older parts of the country.
I have glanced at these little episodes of personal adventure which I must not weary you by extending, not of course, because of their value or intrinsic importance, but only as exemplifying the opening of one among many careers which have begun at Troy, and in the Polytechnic Institute, and as affirming cordial and grateful testimony to the benefit derived from teachings here received. I could tell truly of some subsequent failures, and they might not be without their lesson. John Hunter used to say that the art of surgery would not advance until professional men had the courage to publish their failures as well as their successes; James Watt insisted that the thing most wanted in mechanical engineering was a history of failures; and Humphrey Davy declared that the most important of his discoveries had been suggested to him by his failures. However, this may be, I can bear witness that while my humble successes were so largely due to the Institute, for my failures she has been in no sense responsible. In undertaking various pursuits, in various times and places, I can conscientiously say, I have always felt stronger and better for such exact science and such mental discipline as were here acquired and passed through; and, without entering upon the vexed question of the comparative advantages of classical and scientific culture, I may venture to assert that in a country like this, and for the present at least, if the thorough acquisition of both be out of the question, the master of science alone is likely to bear the palm of success from the mere proficient in classics. For the scientific work to be done in this western hemisphere is practically endless, and it is not California alone that should be an El Dorado for the American engineer, and geologist and chemist. Here is no narrow field for their energies, no limited arena for their discoveries and achievements. The whole boundless continent is theirs, and it is a peculiar glory and honor to this lovely city of Troy that she possesses a fountain head—so to say—of such knowledge and power, a school of such exceptional solidity, antiquity, and thoroughness, which sends forth its young athletes to build cities, to hew down forests, to level mountains, and to pluck forth countless riches from the bosom of the earth, to the profit and progress of our whole common country. Troy may not be a capital, indeed, but we may say to her, as the witch said to Banquo, "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none." Though Romulus, the founder of Rome, was the son of Mars, he was likewise the offspring of Ilia. The Trojan priestess bore the child who reared the Imperial city, that "sat on the seven hills, and from her throne of beauty ruled the world." And surely it is better than imperial laurels to be the seat of a noble and constantly augmenting knowledge; the centre where come, in ever increasing numbers, young experts, who, as it is attested by the Polytechnic diploma, are rendered "competent to perform duties," and "to enter upon employments which will aid farmers, mechanics and manufacturers, in the application of science to their respective vocations, and which will contribute to the dissemination of useful knowledge among the industrious part of the rising generation."