Christmas in the Mines, 1851

From "The Shirley Letters", Louise A. K. S. Clappe

From our log cabin, Indian Bar, January 27, 1852

Imagine a company of enterprising and excittable young men, settled upon a sandy level, about as large as a poor widow's potato patch, walled in by sky-kissing hills--absolutely compelled to remain, on account of the weather, which has vetoed indefinitely their Exodus--with no place to ride or drive, even if they had the necessary vehicles and quadrupeds, -- with no newspapers nor politics to interest them, -- deprived of all books but a few dog-eared novels of the poorest class,--churches, lectures, lyceums, theaters and (most unkindest cut of all!) pretty girls, having become to these unhappy men mere myths,--without one of the thousand ways of passing time peculiar to civilazation, --most of them living in damp, gloomy cabins, where Heaven's dear light can enter only by the door,--and, when you add to all these disagreeables the fact that, during the never-to-be-forgotten month, the most remorseless, persevering rain which ever set itself to work to drive humanity mad, has been pouring doggedly down, sweeping away bridges, lying in uncomfortable puddles about nearly al the habitations, wickedly insituating itself beneath un-umbrella-protected shirt-collars, generously treating to a shower-bath and the rheumatism sleeping bipeds, who did not happen to have an India-rubber blanket,--and, to crown all, rendering mining utterly imposible,--you cannot wonder that even the most moral should have become somewhat reckless.

The Saturnalia commenced on Christmas evening, at the Humboldt, which on that very day, had passed into the hands of new proprietors. The most gorgeous preparations were made for celebrating the two events. The bar was re-trimmed with red calico, the bowling alley had a new lining of the coarsest and whitest cotton cloth, and the broken lamp-shades were replaced by whole ones. All day long, patient mules could be seen descending the hill, bending beneath casks of brandy and baskets of champagne, and, for the first time in the history of that celebrated building, the floor (wonderful to relate, it has a floor) was washed, at a lavish expenditure of some fifty pails of water, the using up of one entire broom, and the melting away of sundry bars of the best yellow soap; after which, I am told that the enterprisisng and benevolent individuals, who had undertaken the Herculean tasks, succeeded in washing the boards through the hopeless load of dirt, which had accumulated upon them during the summer and autumn. All these interesting particulars were communicated to me by "Ned," when he brought up dinner. That distinguished individual himself was in his element, and in a most intense state of perspiration and excitement at the same time.

About dark, we were startled by the loudest hurras, which arose at the sight of an army of India-rubber couts, (the rain was falling in riversful,) each one enshouding a Rich Barian, which was rapidly descending the hill. This troop was headed by the "General," who--lucky man that hi is--waved un high, instead of a banner, a live lantern, actually composed of tin and window-glass, and evidently indetded by its maker to act in no capacity but that of a lantern! The "General" is the largest and tallest and--with one exception, I think, the oldest man upon the river. He is about fifty, I should fancy, and wears a snow-white beard of such immense dimensions, in both length and thickness, that any elderly Turk would expire with envy, at the mere sight of it. Don't imagine that he is a reveler; by no means; the gay crowd followed him, for the same reason that the king followed Madam Blaize, "because he went before."

At nene o'clock in the evening, they had an oyster and champagne supper in the Humboldt, which was very gay with toasts, songs, speeches, etc. I believe that the company danced all night; at any rate, they were dancing when I went to sleep, and they were dancing when I woke the next morning. The revel was kept up in this mad way for three days, growing wilder every hour. Some never slept at all during that time. On the fourth day, they got past dancing, and, lying in drunken heaps about the bar room, commenced a most unearthly howling; --some barked like dogs, some roared like bulls, and others hissed like serpents and geese. Many were too far gone to imitate anything but their own animalized selves. The scene, from the description I have had of it, must have been a complete illustration of the fable of Cierce and her fearful transformations. Some of these bacchanals were among the most respectable and respected men upon the river. Many of them had resided here for more than a year, and had never been seen intoxicated before. It seemed as if they were seized with a reckless mania for pouring down liquor, which, as I said above, everything conspired to foster and increase.

Of course, there were some who kept themselves aloof from these excesses; but they were few, and were not allowed to enjoy their sobriety in peace. The revelers formed themselves into a mock vigilance committee, and when one of these unfortunates appeared outside, a constable, followed by those who were able te keep their legs, brought him before the Court, where he was tried on some amusing charge, and invariably sentenced to "treat the crowd." The prisoners had generally the good sense to submit cheerfully to their fate.

Towards the latter part of the week, people where compelled to be a little more quiet from sheer exhaustion; but on New Year's day, when there was a grand dinner at Rich Bar, the excitement broke out, if possible, worse than ever. The same scenes in a more or less aggravated form, in proportion as the strength of the actors held out, were repeated at Smith's bar and "Ithe Junction."

Nearly every day, I was dreadfully frightened, by seenig a boat-load of intoxicated men fall into the river, where nothing but the fact of their being intoxicated, saved many of them from drowning. One morning, about thirty dollars worth of bread, (it must have been "tipsy cake," which the baker was conveying to Smith's Bar, fell over-board, and sailed merrily away towards Marysville. People passed the river in a boat, which was managed by a pulley and a rope, that was strainid across it from Indian bar to the opposite shore.

...Now, however, the Saturnalia is about over. "Ned" and "Choch," have nearly fiddled themselves into their respective graves,--the claret (a favorite wine with miners) and oysters are exhousted,--brandied fruits are rarely seen, and even port wine is beginning to look scarce. Old callers occasionally drop in, looking dreadfully sheepish and subdued, and so sorry,--and people are evidently arousing themselves from the bacchanal madness, into which they were suddenly and so strangely drawn.