San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter XXVI.

HARRISTON, Miss., Monday, November 23, 1891. Went to Fayette with my mother to call upon Captain J. J. Whitney and other relatives. We had a smash-up on the way down from Tillman and narrowly escaped death. The smoking car jumped off the track near Red Lick, and nearly threw the rest of the train down from a high embankment. All the passengers had to get into the baggage car and on the tender, and go on to Harriston in that way. Among the passengers on the train were Miss Mary Calhoun and Mr. Bat. Wade. This reminds me of the time when this railroad was being built, and of the rides that I frequently took with other small boys on the construction train and on the hand cars with the section hands. The existence of the road from Natchez to Jackson is due to the perseverance and untiring energy of General William T. Martin of Natchez, aided by a few friends. It was completed about ten years ago. When I left here the town of Harriston was not thought of. It is the junction of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley road and General Martin's Natchez and Jackson narrow gauge, about two miles from Fayette. Among Harriston's prominent citizens are H. M. Quin, T. M. Carter, Dr. Campbell, W. G. and S. D. McNair, James M. Lowe, and others.

Mother and I remained in Fayette all day. I had the the pleasure of meeting many old friends in the quiet little county seat of Jefferson County. Among those were Captain Whitney, unquestionably one of the ablest lawyers in the State; Doctors Truly and Caradine, Mr. Campbell, Mr. F. H. Culley, Mrs. Guilminot, and several others. Mrs. Guilminot has a very charming daughter, Miss Nona Guilminot. She promises to become the belle of Fayette.

Tuesday, 24th. Mrs. F. W. Sharbrough, my sister, arrived here this morning from Campbellsville, via Vicksburg, on her way up to Brazilla to visit mother. She has little William, the namesake, with her.

Wednesday, 25th. Went to Port Gibson to visit our cousins, the Hastings'.

Thursday, 26th. Attended the Thanksgiving services and dinner in Port Gibson, and returned home with Quitman in the afternoon. Got caught in a terrific rain storm near Tillman, and reached home thoroughly drenched. We were nearly killed by lightning during the storm. A large oak within fifty feet of the buggy was knocked into splinters right ahead of us. Those Mississippi thunder and lightning storms and cyclones are dangerous things. I have a distinct recollection of the manner in which they used to stir things up when I lived here many years ago.

Saturday, 28th. Went hunting with Cousin Tommy Rowan. Between us we bagged sixteen squirrels and a number of birds, principally yellow hammers and sap sucks.

Monday, 30th. Dined with Mrs. Elizabeth Montgomery, and her father, Colonel Pattison.

Mrs. Montgomery is the lady to whom I am indebted for some of my earliest lessons in reading, writing, geography and the other ordinary branches. I attended her school at her home, Bannockburn Plantation, for several years when I was a small boy; and I considered it an honor to be entertained by my first teacher, and talk over the days when I used to compete for the head of the class--but seldom got there--with Cousin Charlie B. Darden, Misses Cora and Clara Nesmith, Robert Mosley, Otis Benbrook, Early, and Tommy Nesmith, and several others.

Miss Clara and I generally managed to hold our places at the other end of the class, while Charlie and Miss Cora carried off all the medals and other prizes. I always had an idea that Charlie and Miss Cora would make a match, but Walter Wade came along and captured his prize, and Charlie is still single. I am told, however, that he goes down to Flower Hill quite often, "to see Dr. Davenport."

One of the doctor's pretty daughters is the attraction, I think.

St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans, December 4, 1891. Arrived here at 10 o'clock this morning. Came via Jackson and the Illinois Central Railroad. My visit to Mississippi has affected me in a manner that is not easily described. I was charmed beyond my fullest expectations to get back amid the scenes of my youth, but I thought that I had been roaming around the world on sea and land enough to get rid of every symptom of homesickness. I am now beginning to think that those renewals of old friendships and acquaintances, those family gatherings at the old home, those meetings with relatives, some of whom are beautiful young ladies who have grown up from mere children, and made their débuts in the last eight or ten years, were more than I was prepared for. When I left San Francisco five weeks ago, it was with an intention to pay a visit to mother and my relations, and then return to the service of the Pacific Mail.* With that object in view I passed my examination and got my certificate for first officer.

[*Note: This was long before Collis P. Huntington, the giant octopus, got to be president of the Mail Company. Mr. George Gould was president then, and he treated the officers like human beings at least.]

Now that I am going back to San Francisco I have not the least desire to return to duty on board ship again.

I have heard the assertion all my life, that a man who has sailed on salt water for a few years cannot content himself at any occupation on shore.

Now, that is utter nonsense--all bosh, to use the proper term for such ridiculous ideas.

The originator of this absurd theory was, no doubt, some poor, homeless sailor who had not a friend or a family tie in the world, and knew not how to go out and make friends.

Sailors are accused of having "a wife in every port," but that is utterly false, and I wish to deny it on behalf of hundreds of my friends who go to sea for a living. Sailors as a rule are not half as bad as the dudes and "gentlemen of leisure" who have a much better chance to be honest and decent. The sailor who goes on an occasional spree, and gets drunk or beer, is called "a drunken tar." But the dude who gets drunk on champagne, and makes a hog of himself among ladies, is styled "a gentleman."

There are very few sailors, however, who do not live in hopes of being able some day to live on dry land like other people, and build up homes for good wives whom they expect to find among the beautiful girls they see when they go uptown from their ships. The writer is no exception to this rule.

Saturday, December 5. Left New Orleans on the 5 P.M. Southern Pacific Express for San Francisco.

Sunday, 6th. Breakfasted at Houston, Tex., and got some dinner, such as it was, at San Antonio.

I hope the Southern Pacific Railroad Company will eventually recognize the necessity of an improvement in the eating accommodations along this line. It should run dining cars like other railroads. The menu at the meal stations along through Texas and Arizona consists of whit-leather steak, overdue eggs, bad-smelling butter, corn dodgers, and "boot-leg" coffee. It is the same at every eating place, including the price, seventy-five a meal.

The only redeeming feature along here in connection with the railroad is the color line, which is drawn just a trifle finer than in any other part of the South.

In all of the States south of Mason and Dixon's Line there are laws compelling the railroad companies to carry separate passenger coaches for negroes, with signs on them reading: "This car for negroes."

This is done for sanitary purposes, as the African odor is very unhealthful. In hot weather it is unbearable.*

[*Note: The now defunct race of fanatics who made Mr. Lincoln believe that the color of the African was "only skin deep" never offered any satisfactory explanation of the sickening stench. This rank odor is evidently in the flesh and blood of the negro, and not alone in the dye, because it is noticeable in all cases where negro blood exists. This proves that the infusion of white blood into the black race does not improve the latter, but merely degrades the former.]

In Texas the sign reads: "This car for niggers."

Crossing the Desert, Tuesday, 8th. After crossing the Colorado River at Yuma we entered a barren, sandy desert, which reminds me of the great desert of Egypt. This is the Colorado Desert. In prehistoric times this great basin was undoubtedly a part of the Gulf of California. Scientific men have demonstrated this beyond a question or doubt. Mr. W. S. Chapman of San Francisco has devoted a great deal of attention to the Colorado Desert, and has spent considerable money investigating the subject, in order to show the cause of its existence and point out a remedy for the evil that it is doing the surrounding country for miles and miles on all sides.

"The great aim and desire of my life is to flood the Colorado Desert and relieve the surrounding country of those destructive droughts."--Chapman.

According to Mr. Chapman the desert is the cause of the droughts in this region. Concerning its origin, Mr. Chapman has written a long article from which I am pleased to quote the following extracts:

"The great Colorado Desert was, in prehistoric times, a part of the Gulf of California. The Colorado and Gila Rivers emptying into the gulf below Fort Yuma, carry vast quantities of sand, which, being deposited in the gulf, have been beaten back by the tides until an effectual dam or barrier has been formed across the narrow part of the gulf, entirely shutting out the water, and thus leaving the upper portion--which is now the desert--without connection with the ocean. There being no supply of water from any source to counteract the waste by evaporation, which is very great in that hot latitude, this resulted in time in the extinction of this large portion of the gulf.

"The large, dry basin is very deep. In many places it is 270 feet below the level of the sea. This forms what may be appropriately called a furnace. At times it becomes so hot that to lay the hand upon the wagon-tire or any metallic substance will almost instantly cause a blister.

"When this basin or furnace, which contains about four thousand square miles, was kept full of water, it supplied moisture to the atmosphere by evaporation. The cool waters from the ocean, brought in by the tides, constantly gave out their refreshing moisture, and modified the hot climate to an extent little thought of at the present time.

"Careful, intelligent observations will satisfy anyone that the extinction of those cooling waters brought destruction to vegetation all over Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah."

Mr. Chapman goes on to explain how the desert causes the droughts.

Says the scientific gentleman: "Those desiccating north winds which visit us, to the detriment and often the ruin of our entire crops, are caused by this furnace. That this fact may be the more readily comprehended, let us imagine a fire covering four thousand square miles, and kept continuously burning. The result can be only this: An immense volume of heated air must ascend rapidly. This hot air, rushing mainly in a northerly direction, comes in contact with cold currents of air and becomes compressed, not unlike a squeezed sponge. This dry compressed air, or squeezed sponge, starts back, expanding again as it rushes along on the surface of the earth. As it expands it absorbs all the moisture from the vegetation that it comes into contact with."

Mr. Chapman is talking of two plans for refilling the desert with water. Both of his plans are good, and either one, if carried out, would result in increasing the crops and the value of many thousands of square miles of land to the extent of many times the cost of the experiment. One of Mr. Chapman's plans is to cut a canal from the Gulf of California and fill the hot basin with cool salt water. The other plan is to dam up the Colorado River at a point above Yuma, and turn that stream into the desert, and fill the sandy furnace with fresh water.

I am personally acquainted with Mr. Chapman. His daughter married Mr. Jesse Grant, son of the General. I have conversed with several prominent Californians with reference to Mr. Chapman's plans, and they all seem to favor the undertaking of one of them.

No one with whom I have talked on the subject seems to have any doubt as to the beneficial results which would naturally follow the flooding of this basin.

Mr. Chapman and his friends are confronted, however, with a gigantic opposition to their laudable undertaking, viz: The Southern Pacific Railroad.

To this, like everything else that anyone ever suggested, or ever will suggest, for the benefit of California, Messrs. Huntington, Crocker and Company object. And they will back their objections with seventy millions of dollars of the public's coin that they (Huntington, Crocker and Company) have defrauded the government out of. They have a few miles of railroad track across the desert, and, when Mr. Chapman turns in the water it will necessitate the building of a few miles of trestle-bridge, or the moving of a few miles of track, all of which the government would gladly pay for. But Mr. Huntington objects, and all of that region must suffer the consequences, unless we overrule his objections. Take a look into this enterprise, Mayor Sutro, and let us have your valuable opinion on the subject. I am sure that the Examiner will be on the side of the people and Mr. Chapman. The New York Herald and the World favor legitimate improvements, also.

Possibly we might persuade "King" Huntington to allow the United States Government to build some boats to ferry his trains over the desert after it is turned into a lake. Huntington could then place his friend Captain Searle in command of the inland fleet.

Palace Hotel, San Francisco, Wednesday, December 9. Arrived here about nine o'clock this morning.

After the twenty-five hundred mile ride from New Orleans, across the plantations of Louisiana, the plains of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the scorching desert and the hot San Joaquin Valley of California, I think a little rest is the next thing in order. During this long, dusty, tiresome journey I endeavored to make up my mind to give up my position in the Pacific Mail, and try something else. Steamship travel is certainly more agreeable than long trips by rail, but I should prefer being in some position that would not necessitate any traveling either way, unless I felt disposed to take a little pleasure trip.

There is nothing that I have seen during ten years of travel that would suit me as well as a home of my own.

It is quite true that we see many things during our travels which remind us of home, and make us wish that we possessed homes that we could live in like the rest of civilized mankind. But it seems to me that the longer one roams around the world, and the more one sees and thinks of what one should like to have, the further away grows the vision of realized hope.

Tuesday, December 22, 1891. My leave of absence expires to-day, and I will be expected to report for duty. If I go to sea again, it will be three years before I will be entitled to another furlough. I have been talking with my friend, Mr. George H. Rice, with reference to my intentions for the future. Mr. Rice, besides being a representative of the class commonly called self-made men, is a thorough gentleman. No matter how, when, or where you find him, he is invariably the same. When he speaks it is always with perfect frankness and truthfulness. And his actions, to the very minutest details, are in perfect keeping with his words. Like his friend, Mr. A. N. Towne, Mr. Rice came of an excellent family. Both of those gentlemen commenced life for themselves, after reaching manhood, with a capital stock on hand consisting chiefly of common sense and sufficient energy and personal courage to live up to their convictions. To-day Mr. Towne is a vice president of the railroad, and Mr. Rice is traffic manager of the Pacific Mail S.S. Co. and the Occidental and Oriental S.S. Co. The opinion of the latter gentleman I deem valuable to me at the present time.

A Type of the True Mother; or, the Highest Degree in Society.

When I told Mr. Rice that I did not wish to go to sea any more, he advised me to think well before coming to a definite decision.

In his frank way Mr. Rice said to me: "You have been with us a long time now; you have certificates entitling you to promotion, and you have a splendid chance to become captain of one of the steamers in a few years. Therefore, I would, if I were you, consider all of these facts before giving up a certainty for an uncertainty."

Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License