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Chapter 16: San Francisco.

Closing the passage by the Golden Gate, a city of white houses, spires, and pinnacles rises from the water-line, and rolling backward over flat and sand rift, strikes a headland on the right, and surging up two hills, creams round their sides, and runs in foam towards yet more distant heights. This city is San Francisco, seen from the ferry-boat; a port and town with ships and steamers, wharves and docks, in which the flags of every nation under heaven, from England to China, flutter on the breeze; a town of banks, hotels, and magazines, of stock exchanges, mining companies, and agricultural shows; a town of learned professors, eminent physicians, able editors, and distinguished advocates; a town of gamblers, harlots, rowdies, thieves; a refuge for all tongues and peoples, from the Saxon to the Dyak, from the Tartar to the Celt. [155]

Lovely the city is; striking in site, brilliant in colour, picturesque in form. The rolling ground throws up a hundred shafts and spires against the sky. A joss-house here, a synagogue there, suggest an oriental town. The houses, mostly white, have balconies adorned with semi-tropical plants, among which flit the witching female shapes. A stream of sunshine lies on painted wall and metalled roof. But one has hardly time to note the details of this outward beauty. You would scarcely have an eye for nice effects in Venice, if you chanced to enter that city while the doge's palace and cathedral were on fire.

This city is in one of her high fevers; her disease a great “development” in the Comstock lode.

Most persons in San Francisco are votaries of chance. Luck is their god. Credulous as an Indian, reckless as a Mexican, the lower order of San Franciscans puts his trust in men unknown and builds his hope on things unseen. Thousands of persons in this city, otherwise passing for sane, believe in this “development,” and are sinking all that they have saved by years of thrift in the several Comstock mines.

The Comstock lode lies on Mount Davidson, [156] in Nevada; though the mines are chiefly owned by San Franciscans. Some of these mines, such as the Ophir and the Mexican, have been worked for twenty years. The silver veins are long; four or five miles in length; but as no one has yet traced them out, their value is an unknown figure. From the stores of Virginia, built around the openings of these mines, the silver veins run up a gulch to Gold Hill, where they strike on beds of still more precious ore. Owned by rival companies, the mines are wrought on different plans. Much ore is found, and till a year ago owners of Ophir, Mexican, and Consolidated Virginia, had every reason to be satisfied with their gains. Of late, the yield of Mount Davidson has fallen off. The veins run deeper in the rock, needing more costly engines and more skilful labour. Prices have been depressed, and thrifty persons have been laying up their dollars in savings banks, instead of sinking them in Comstock mines.

Sharp as a shot has come a change.

“I'll tell you how it came about,” says a banker, sitting next to me at dinner. “Five or six of our worthy citizens, owning shares in Consolidated Virginia, met in a drinking-bar of Montgomery Street one [157] afternoon. Reports were in the papers, showing the amount of money in the savings-banks; no less a sum than fifty millions of dollars. Tossing off his whisky, one of our worthy citizens said to another, “Guess we ought to have that money out!” They all agreed with him; and having formed a ring, they are now engaged in operations for getting that money out of the savings-banks.”

These citizens understand the farmers, stockmen, and petty dealers whom they mean to fleece. In San Francisco every one is used to changes in the price of shares, and most of all in that of mining shares. With all the coolness of a Redskin, the White Californian will stake his fortune on a street report, begun by any person, spread abroad for any purpose, hardly caring whether the report be true or false. Like brandy in his veins, he feels the devilry that comes with sudden gain and loss. Here is no old and steady middle class, with decent habits, born in the bone and nurtured on the hearth; people who pay their debts, walk soberly to church, and keep the ten commandments, for the sake of order, if no higher rule prevails. In San Francisco, a few rich men, consisting of the various rings, are [158] very rich. Lick, Latham, Hayward, Sharon, are marked five million dollars each. Reese, Ralston, Baldwin, Jones, and Lux are marked still moreseven millions, ten millions, twelve millions each. Flood and Fair, Mackey and O'Brien are said to be richer still. The poor are very poor; not in the sense of Seven Dials and Five Points; yet poor in having little and craving much. A pauper wants to get money, and to get this money in the quickest time. Cards, dice, and share-lists serve him, each in turn. He yearns to be Lick or Ralston-owner of a big hotel, conductor of a prosperous bank; but he neither courts the labour nor endures the selfdenial which have crowned these speculators with wealth. He thinks all life a game of chance; he looks for dollars in the sink and sewer; and stakes his savings, when he has them, on a rise in stocks.

These worthy citizens, tossing their whisky in Montgomery Street, know the lighter and lower portion of their countrymen; and in that knowledge they proceed to form a ring.

A rumour spreads along the streets, and finds an echo in the evening papers, that a great and wonderful discovery has been made in the Virginia mine. [159] “ What is it?” gasps an eager crowd. With shrugs and smiles, of deep and hidden meaning, the proprietors of that mine affect surprise: “What is it? What is what? Pooh, pooh, beware of club gossip and newspaper lies!” Some sales take place: a rise is scored. Outsiders sniff a secret, which the ring (ha, ha!-you see!) are trying to conceal.

Next day inquiry quickens. Hints are dropped that the great secret, so far kept by three or four mining firms, is the discovery of a new vein of silver in the Virginia mine; a vein of pure and solid ore, so fine and solid that it may be minted on the spot, exactly as it leaves the mine. “ Bonanza!” cry the listeners to this tale; “a big bonanza!”

“ What is a bonanza?”

“Bonanza is a sailor's term,” the banker tells me, “meaning a fair wind, a bright day, a prosperous voyage. Our miners use the word for luck, a happy hit, a stroke of fortune. A bonanza is the Californian god, and you will find his temple in California Street.”

In California Street stands the Stock Exchange.

One grain of truth there may be in this rumour of a vein of silver having been found; but in a [160] week this grain has grown into a mound. A rush for shares takes place, and prices rise from day to day. The betting men come in, and stakes are laid in many of the drinking bars, that shares now selling for seventy or eighty dollars each will sell for five hundred in a month. The journals note these bets, as showing what the knowing ones think of the silver vein. Now every one begins to bet, and everyone who bets believes and buys. Who can resist the golden chance?

Mines only bordering on the big bonanza feel the charm of a good neigbourhood. No one pretends that new discoveries have been made in Ophir, Crown Point, and Yellow Jacket, but who can swear that veins of pure and solid silver do not run through all the Comstock mines? A miner of experience has been heard to say that every part of Mount Davidson is equally rich. Then up go Mexican, Ophir, Crown Point, Yellow Jacket. Mines still further off take fire, as one may say, and blaze like burning stars around these central suns. In six weeks everybody in San Francisco is rich and mad.

Eager for money, still more eager for excitement, [161] people feel a keen enjoyment in a rapid rise, a lurid passion in a rapid fall. Their mouths are full of wondrous tales. Paupers of yesterday are rich men this evening; millionaires of last week are to be sold up on Monday next. Such passages of fortune make the drama of their lives.

Four times within a dozen years, a craze has come on San Francisco, like the phrenzy which consumes her now. Fortunes have been won and lost almost as rapidly as though they had been staked on a throw of dice. A man may have a hundred shares in the Belcher Mine, his only wealth. One day they sell at a dollar each,--the man is worth twenty pounds; another day they sell at five hundred dollars each — the man is worth ten thousand pounds. This record of an actual fact is but a sample of the thousand stories told you at the Union and Pacific Clubs. Two years ago, when prices shot up suddenly, shares in Crown Point advanced in a few weeks from ten shillings a share to ninety-two pounds. A man of my acquaintance in this city held a thousand of these shares. In March they would have brought him five hundred pounds, in October they were sold for ninety-two thousand [162] pounds. In seven months the poor man had become a man of means; enriched by one of those strokes of fortune that a gambler loves even more than he loves minted gold.

Such cases are not rare, yet, as a whole, the gainers by these great financial fevers are the citizens who own mines. Five or six magnates of finance in San Francisco are said to have got one-third of those fifty million dollars under lock and key.

“Our fortunes kill us,” says a sage at the Pacific Club. “A slower rate of growth would suit us better; giving us more time to strike our roots. Not that our progress is what people think — a wonder of the earth. Considering what advantages we boast of soil and climate, mines and harbours, our advance is slow. Yes, slow. We are not overtaking Chicago and St. Louis, still less Philadelphia and New York. Still we have shot ahead beyond our strength, and suffer from the fevers and languors of a youth who grows too fast. Our railroad gave us fits. You smile! The fact is so. No sooner were the first cars seen in Oakland, than a rage of speculation broke along the Bay. The world, we thought, was coming to our coasts. Where would the people live ? Why [163] not provide them tenements and make a profit by the enterprise? We bought estates, we cut down forests, and we laid out cities, for the millions who were coming to our coasts. At every opening on the Bay, you see these visionary towns, with phantom streets and squares, chapels and theatres, schools and prisons. But the millions never came, and for the last five years each man in San Francisco has been carrying a dead city on his back. This great bonanza is another of our fits. There is a true discovery in the Comstock lode. The world is richer than it was three months ago, but we are poorer than we were five years ago. No Redman ever staked his dog, his lodge, his squaw in a more reckless spirit than that in which the White men of San Francisco are gambling with their wealth.”

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