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"A Few Hints on the California Journey."

by Susan Coolidge
[a.k.a. Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (1835-1905)]

Scribner's Monthly
May, 1873

A practical guide for ladies taking summer excursions from the East to San Francisco and Northern California viâ the Pacific Railroad.

[NOTE: Click on each engraving to see at full size.]

In the Spring of 1872, Sarah Chauncy Woolsey of New Haven, CT – who wrote the following and many other articles under the penname "Susan Coolidge" – and her good friend, the noted writer, novelist, and magazine editor, Helen Hunt Jackson, traveled together to California on the Pacific Railroad.  A detailed account of that same journey by Mrs. Jackson – who wrote under the penname "H.H." – is included in her book, "Bits of Travel at Home." —BCC

* * *

WHEN persons decide on taking a journey, their first desire is to get certain questions answered.  They wish to know exactly how, when, and where to go, what to carry in their trunks, and how much money the expedition is likely to cost.  These questions are not, so far as I know, answered by any of the existing sources of information with regard to the California trip.  At least, so we found when, last spring, we rather suddenly resolved upon a western journey.

Being quite ignorant of what lay before us, we went eagerly to work to collect facts.  We read guide-books and books of travel ; also sundry magazine articles illustrated by wood-cuts, in which ladies and gentlemen were depicted majestically dining or putting themselves to bed in Pullman cars.  At first sight the practical seemed to obtain in these articles.  Sifted closely, with that keen analysis which urgent need creates, they proved to consist mostly of glittering generalities by which the reader, taken rapidly from point to point, was introduced to peaks, cañons, and the wheat-yield of various sections of country, without hint as to dust, discomfort or fatigue.  There were, however, certain neat tables of figures with regard to the time and expense required for excursions to be taken after reaching San Francisco.  These we jotted down, with entire comfort and credence, for our future guidance.  One comes to disbelieve in newspapers – perhaps, when very old, in maps – but to the last day of her life, a woman will continue to accept with ready faith all statistics presented in tabular form.

Failing to find what we wanted in printed accounts, we tried the statements of returned travelers, taken, as the newspapers say, "from their own lips."  But here confusion dire began.  No two persons remembered alike, even with regard to such obvious matters as heat, food, the construction of cars.  We were advised to take no thick clothes, to take no thin clothes ; to be sure to stop, and by no means to stop, at various points ; to trust entirely to the eating stations on the road for our daily supplies, to carry with us, in hampers, everything we were likely to need.  The list of articles suggested as strictly necessary comprised spirit-lamps, tea-pots, saucepans, cups, saucers, knives, forks, spoons, tin pails, tea, sugar, wine, jelly, crackers – in short, an outfit for Alexander Selkirk.

Who was to lift all this load of ironmongery when changes of cars took place?  We gave up the conundrum in despair, and resolved to trust our own common-sense, and to ask no advice, but just take things as we found them and record the result for the benefit of such as should come after.  For, we said, a benevolent purpose blossoming from the midst of our perplexities, we will remember, we will report facts just as they are, and next spring's tourist to California shall not suffer all this wrong.

Of that resolution this article is the result.


We left New York on the 9th of May.  This was at least a month too late as seasons usually are, but, fortunately for us, the spring was a month late also.  So we lost less by the delay.  The best time for those who wish to see California in green perfection and overlaid with her marvelous mantle of wild flowers, is the last of March or first of April, just so soon as the dangers of snow on the Pacific Railroad are presumably over.  For those who do not object to a sea-voyage, a pleasanter way is to leave New York late in February, by the way of the Isthmus, reaching San Francisco in the height of the season, after a month's sail in tropical waters, and returning home in the summer across the plains.  This method has the advantage also of being the cheap.


The price of a ticket to San Francisco and back over the Union Pacific and Central Pacific roads is a little less than three hundred dollars.  To this must be added the expenses of seven or eight days' meals averaging three dollars a day, also the additional expense of a compartment in the Pullman car.  Without this latter the journey would be unendurably fatiguing ; with it, it is surprisingly comfortable.

Upon the margin of the long railway map furnished to travelers we read that a sleeping berth from New York to San Francisco can be procured for eleven dollars, which certainly sounds remarkably cheap.  But this does not mean a section, or even half a section : it refers to the minimum of space, that is, half of one of the berths, upper or under, three other persons occupying the remainder of the section.  Now few persons can be really comfortable with less than a whole section – certainly no lady traveling alone could be – and a whole section costs forty-four dollars.  It will be seen therefore that a compartment in the P.P.C. is a considerable item in the expenses of the trip.

Hotel charges in California are not so high as with us, being three dollars – sometimes two dollars and a half – a day.  Carriage fares are exceedingly dear, stage fares less than in the East, on the White Mountain roads for instance.  The Yo Semite excursion is an extremely costly one.  No one should undertake it without an allowance of from ten to fifteen days (at least) in time, and from one hundred and thirty to one hundred and fifty dollars in money.  It will then be easily seen, that it is safe to estimate the expense of two months of travel in California to vary from seven to eight hundred dollars, according as the traveler is or is not an economist.  To reckon it as less would be to mislead.  And this, observe, is in gold, and does not include any of the longer excursions Southern California, the Columbia River, Puget Sound ; all of which furnish points of great interest and beauty well worth the additional journey to see.


Two things are to be considered in packing a trunk for San Francisco – weight and climate.  Every article of baggage is weighed on the Pacific Railroad.  One hundred pounds are allowed to each passenger ; for every pound additional he is charged at the rate of fifteen dollars a hundred-weight.  A heavy Saratoga trunk is therefore undesirable as a traveling companion.  Fortunately it is easier to calculate the absolutely needful for California than for other places because her climates, as a general thing, are so cold.  Ladies in San Francisco wear furs in January and July equally, and find them as comfortable in one month as the other.  There is absolutely no use for piquès, muslin gowns, fluted wrappers and all the numberless appointments of our summer toilettes, unless one visits Southern California, or desires to spend some time in Sacramento and other warm places in the middle of the State.  The washing of such diaphanous articles is an expensive item, too, San Francisco laundries being in the habit of charging from three to five dollars a dozen, though the Chinamen, who wash very fairly, ask considerably less.  My advice to women therefore would be : provide yourself with a warm, substantial traveling dress, and take one other suit, silk or cashmere, something that will answer for the hotel dinner-table and for going about the city.  This is all you will need, unless you carry letters of introduction and propose to see something of San Francisco society, in which case a handsome dinner or evening dress might be necessary.  There will be warm days here and there, especially on the railroad coming home ; and for these, half a dozen linen or cambric waists should be provided, to be put on at any moment when the heat becomes oppressive.  You will also want a thick outside wrap, plenty of thick boots and gloves, a hat with a brim to it, a relay of grenadine veils, and, by all means, an old water-proof cloak, to be used in stages or on horseback as a protection against dust.

It is unnecessary to carry a special costume for the Yo Semite.  Ready-made suits intended for the purpose are sold in the San Francisco shops, and can be bought at an hour's notice.  Some ladies, however, take their old broad-cloth riding dresses, cut shorter and provided with loops and buttons to hold the skirt out of the way when walking, and find these convenient.

There are six days and five nights to be spent on the railroad between Chicago and San Francisco, so a large bag or small valise will be needed for use on the cars.  This will also come into play later in visiting the Yo Semite, where a trunk cannot be carried except under conditions of expense and trouble.  In this bag should be put, beside night-dress, change of linen, etc., plenty of clean collars, cuffs, pocket-handkerchiefs and stockings, a bottle of cologne, a phial of powdered borax, to soften the hard water of the alkali district, a warm flannel sack for the chilly nights – which even in midsummer must, in those high altitudes, be provided against, soap, brushes, combs, a whisk-broom, a pocket pincushion, a brandy flask, and small quantities of two or three of the simplest medicines.  Old and easy boots should be chosen for the journey.  I should advise everybody to be provided with two linen dusters.  Dust is the great foe to comfort on the Pacific Railroad.  No brushing, no shaking removes it.  It sifts, it penetrates, it pervades everywhere.  After two or three days you grow to hate yourself.  Some ladies whom we met wore barÈge caps, which drew tightly with an elastic cord over all their hair and kept it free from dust.  This was an admirable device, and I recommend it.
Advertisement in the Pacific Railroad Gazetteer, 1870. Advertisement in the Pacific Railroad Gazetteer, 1870.

Advertisements in the Pacific Coast Railroad Gazetteer, 1870.

With regard to luncheon-baskets : The food provided at eating stations on the Pacific Railroad is fairly good – wonderfully so, considering the uninhabited character of much of the country through which the road passes, and the isolation of many of the stations.  Almost everywhere west of Omaha we found excellent butter, and bread raised with yeast.  It is true that it was necessary to look at one's watch to tell whether it was breakfast, dinner, or supper that we were eating, these meals presenting invariably the same salient features of beefsteak, fried eggs, fried potato.  Sometimes the steak was a little tougher and was called antelope.  One grows very weary of this sameness of diet.  To this day we cherish grateful feelings towards the little village of Sidney, on account of certain cubes of fried mush which diversified a breakfast of unusual excellence.  There is an admirable eating-house at Evanston, also, and a good one at Summit, on top of the high Sierras.  Taking all in all, a traveler can get along very well without private supplies.  Still, there are times when they save embarrassment.  As, for instance, when the train is behind time, or when it stops for breakfast at nine, and for dinner and supper at twelve and half-past three respectively!  Or when, as happened to ourselves at Cheyenne, the rush of diners is so great that you find it impossible to catch the eye of the Chinese waiter till it is too late to make him of the slightest use.  At such times you are glad to have a lunch-basket, and fall back on your Albert biscuit, orange marmalade, or whatever simple stores it may contain.  These stores can be replenished at various points along the road if necessary.  At Omaha and at Ogden fresh rolls and cold roasted chickens are to be had ; at several other places crackers, canned meats, etc.


One of our chief perplexities before starting was to find out in what part of the Pullman car it was best to secure compartments.  We were expressly warned against the staterooms, as close and crowded, as also as being directly over the jolt of the wheels.  We had tried sections often enough on cars not bearing the name of Pullman, to be very sure that we should not find them comfortable habitations for seven long days and nights.  Yet there seemed no alternative; nobody told us that anything else could be procured.  Our delight, therefore, can be imagined, when, on entering the Pullman car at Suspension Bridge [station on the New York Central RR, 26 miles above Buffalo], we found it a double drawing-room car, and were told that for a little less than the price of a section apiece, we could become the happy occupants of one of the two delightful little rooms at the end.

These rooms occupy the whole width of the car, with the exception of a narrow passage-way on one side.  There are six ventilators in each, and four windows, two of which look out-doors, and two into the passageway, which has corresponding windows opening outward. On one side of the room is a long sofa, on the other two arm-chairs, whose backs are movable and can be tipped back to a convenient angle. There are lookingglasses on the walls.  There is plenty of room above and below for your bags, bundles, and baskets.  Between the two drawing-rooms is a dressing-closet, which is used by nobody in the car except the drawing-room occupants.  At bed-time the porter enters, pulls the sofa out into a roomy bed, manipulates the arm-chairs in some mysterious way so that they form another bed, produces sheets, blankets, pillows from repositories overhead, hangs curtains over doors and windows, presents you with a handful of clean towels, and departs, leaving you shut into as snug and secluded a bed-room as any one could desire.

If you are wise, and prepare for bed early, you can take possession of the dressing closet, bolt the door of the second drawing-room, and have the luxury of a sponge-bath. When a hotel-car is attached to the train, it is even possible to compass a pail of hot water.  The comfort and refreshment of such a bath after the dusty day can scarcely be overstated.

The price of a drawing-room from New York to Ogden is forty-eight dollars, which shared between two persons is somewhat less than a section for each would cost.  Each drawing-room contains berths for four persons, but when four persons occupy them they cease to be comfortable.  For two people, especially two ladies traveling alone, nothing on wheels has ever been invented which is so perfect.  I am told that it is possible on the New York Central to engage a Pullman drawing-room through to Chicago.  They should always be telegraphed for, if possible, a day or two in advance, as they are in demand, and no train carries more than two, or at most four.

Between Suspension Bridge [Niagara, NY] and Chicago, and on the Burlington and Quincy road, from Chicago to Omaha, hotel-cars are attached to the train.  These are infinitely ingenious in their fitting up, and most beautifully kept and appointed. They have compact kitchens which seem only just large enough to hold the jolly black cook, and yet contain everything which a housekeeper's heart could desire – range, ice chest, store closets, sink, coal bin, dresser for china – while the diningroom attached, with its little tables set out with fresh linen, and pretty plate and china, is so appetizing in its aspect that it would tempt an anchorite to be hungry. It is to be hoped that in time it may be found possible to carry these cars over the whole length of the road ; when that takes place, the comfort of the journey will be greatly increased.

One is often surprised to hear returned travelers speak so little of what would seem to be the inevitable fatigue of so long a journey.  The fatigue is, in truth, much less than would be expected.  This is partly due to the great comfort of the Pullman cars, and to their smooth motion, and also, as Mr. Nordhoff justly remarks in his recent book, to the slow running of the railroad trains.  The quiet, the absence of clatter, the being able to talk without raising the voice, are surprising reliefs.  And the freedom from jar, the skillful avoidance of shocks in starting and stopping the trains, is very noticeable.

The journey from Chicago to Ogden does not carry the traveler through noticeable scenery except in certain spots, as between Cheyenne and Sherman, and beyond Evanston, where are the Weber and Echo cañons.  At Ogden, which is the junction of the two Pacific roads, the Utah Railroad forks off, and by a short and beautiful ride of three hours brings you to Salt Lake City.  This is the point at which many people break the journey by a few days' rest.  I would advise every one to do so.  The Mormon hotels are sufficiently comfortable, and the city itself, standing beneath its rampart of mountains, with the great lake shining beyond, is most interesting, and well worth a visit.

From Ogden on, the scenery grows finer as you rise over the Sierra slopes and finally, cresting the summit, go down on the other side and glide across the wide plains of California toward the coast.  The through train reaches San Francisco in the evening, which is a pity, as one thereby loses getting a first view of the city from its water side, which is by far the finest.

There is nothing in San Francisco itself to detain the traveler many days.  The sail round the Bay, with its views of the Golden Gate and the fortified islands, is beautiful, and so is the drive to the Cliff House.  Every one should visit the Chinese quarter and the Chinese theater, the great blanket manufactories, and, if possible, the works of the Kimball Co., where specimens of the exquisite woods of California are to be seen.  The streets of the city are also entertaining, with their irregular and picturesque elevations, their profusion of flowers and shrubs, and their odd mixture of nationalities.
Nothing specially novel is to be found in the shops, excepting Chinese and Japanese wares, which are very pretty and tempting, and photographs of California scenery.  The Watkins photographs are too well known to require comment ; but I should like to mention that Mr. Muybridge, a photographer not so long before the public, will exhibit this spring a series of large Yo Semite views, finer and more perfect than any which have ever before been taken.  These views are chosen with all the discrimination and perceptive faculty of a true artist, – and give that last and rarest charm of photography, the atmospheric and cloud effects of the landscape.  No one visiting San Francisco should fail to see these pictures, which are on exhibition in Montgomery Street, not far from Watkins's gallery.


Of some of the shorter excursions to be taken from San Francisco, I can speak only by hearsay.  San Raphael, which stands picturesquely on the Bay, at the foot of Tamal Pais mountain, is said to be a delightful place, and we regretted not having spent a day or two there. Monte Diablo is reported to command a view which well repays the long drive necessary to see it.  The old mission towns of Santa Clara and San José, which are reached in two or three hours by the Southern Pacific Railroad, are interesting spots.  From San José, a day's staging over the summit of the Coast Range brings you to Santa Cruz, the favorite watering place of California.  I would advise any one with a few spare days at command to take this excursion, if only for the sake of the ride over the mountain, which is wonderfully fine.  Flower-lovers should not fail to do so, for such roses, geraniums, jessamines, and passion-flowers grow nowhere else as run riot in every little garden in Santa Cruz.

Ninety-six miles north of San Francisco lies the mysterious Geyser Valley, a narrow mountain cleft, filled with boiling springs and mineral deposits.  There are two ways of reaching this remarkable region – via Healdsburg, and via Calistoga ; and as the roads from both these places to the Geyser Cañon are wild and interesting, it is well to go by one and return by the other – going by Healdsburg, and coming back through the lovely Napa Valley.  The excursion can be taken in three days from San Francisco, and should not be missed by any tourist whose time is not very limited.

San Francisco Bay Area Railroad Map, Rand McNally, c. 1878.
San Francisco Bay Area Railroad Map, Rand McNally, c. 1878. (Click to Enlarge)



Almost every traveler to California arrives with a question in his mouth about the Yo Semite.  It is so incomparably the most beautiful thing to be seen, that everybody desires to see it, and yet the journey sounds so formidable that timid souls and feeble bodies shrink from the undertaking.  We, ourselves, experienced this dread.  There were moments when only the superior dread of having to plead guilty to cowardice held us to the plan.  Now we say, with a breathless realization of the loss which might have been, "Oh, if we had missed it."

Of the routes to the valley I can speak only of the one by which we ourselves went in and returned, namely, the Hutchings, or Big Oak Flat route.  We selected this because of its involving less horseback riding than any other.  On the Mariposa route it is necessary to ride thirty miles.  The Big Oak Flat stages carry you to the edge of the valley, whence a short nine miles in the saddle brings you to Hutchings' Hotel.

Our equipment was simple – a single extra dress, a single change of clothes.  There is a laundry in the valley, and it is better to have your clothes frequently washed than to burden yourself with unnecessary garments.  Our things were packed in a small valise.  All baggage goes down the trail in canvas sacks slung over a mule's back.  If you carry a trunk you must pay for an extra mule.  As I mentioned before, "Yo Semite suits" [see note below] can be bought in the San Francisco shops.  These are made of flannel or water-proof stuff, and comprise trowsers, a short skirt, and a loose shirt plaited in at the waist.  They are very well adapted for the dust and rough usage of the valley.  Still, I will mention, for the encouragement of any lady who does not care to burden herself with a special outfit for the excursion, that one of our party wore, in her traveling dress, a strong gray flannel, with cloak to match, rode on horseback in it for eight days, and, finally, brought it away in such respectable condition, that it answered for the return trip over the Pacific Railroad.
[NOTE: The "Yosemite Suit" was a skirted suit that buttoned back to allow easier access to a regular front facing horseriding saddle (as opposed to a side saddle) that in the late 1800's became an "early compromise for women cross-saddle riders in Yosemite Valley."  Such a compromise was necessary as at that time conservatives believed that women's rights and education would "unsex women and lead to infertility."  (Kaufman, Polly Welts. "National Parks and the Woman's Voice: A History." Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1996.)]

We made the trip to the valley in the public stages, and returned by a private carriage, and are therefore qualified to judge of the merits of both methods of travel.  I should unhesitatingly recommend the private carriage.  It does not (for a party) cost much more than the stages, and is greatly preferable, not only for its superior comfort, but for the greater freedom it allows with regard to hours of starting and stopping at night.  The stages are run on an arbitrary system, which does not take into account the convenience of passengers.  They leave generally by half past-four or five in the morning, lose two or three hours in halts in the course of the day, and by six p.m. deposit you at uncomfortable inns where you don't want to stop, while a few miles farther is a comfortable one where you would prefer to be.  With a private carriage and driver many of these discomforts can be avoided.

There are agencies in San Francisco where arrangements for private teams are made.  But if we were going again we should manage thus: We should write or telegraph to either Boyd's or McLane's livery-stables in Sonora, for a carriage to meet us on a given day at Milton, specifying the number of seats and horses required, and that the wagon must be one with all the seats facing forward.  The cost of such a wagon with two horses is fifteen dollars a day ; with four horses, twenty-five.  A party of, say five, will require four horses.  We should pay for the day spent in bringing the wagon down from Sonora to Milton, – for a day spent in going from Milton to the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees, – for a third day at the grove, towards the close of which, we should drive to Murphy's, – for a fourth, occupied in going from Murphy's to Garrote, – and for a fifth, from Garrote to Gentry's.  The fourth day's ride would take us through Sonora, and (here is the great advantage in asking the carriage from that place instead of Stockton) we should there obtain fresh horses for which we had telegraphed the day before, and which would enable us to get through to the edge of the valley in two days.  If, as many persons do, we stayed only four days in the valley, we should not send away the carriage, but let it await us at Gentry's, as we should have to pay for the four days it would consume in going and returning from Sonora.  But we should stay more than four days.  We should stay ten days, a fortnight month if we could, and telegraph for the carriage to come up for us when we wanted it.  Possibly a party might come along who wished to journey up in it, in which case, we should be saved fifty dollars.  Getting back to the railroad via Chinese Camp would occupy two days more, and there would be still a third to be paid for, which the wagon would spend in getting back to its stable.  So the expense of the whole, for our party of five, would be $300 – $6o apiece – which, in the event of another party taking the carriage up from Sonora, would be reduced to $5o each – the price of the journey by the regular stages.

Hotel expenses in the valley are three dollars a day.  You pay also two dollars and a half per day for your horse.  The party collectively pays five dollars a day for a guide.  Of the beauty, the rewardfulness of the place, I cannot trust myself to speak in an article so brief and so practical as this.  That another spot so exquisite exists on the face of this earth it is not easy to make those believe who have felt the spell of that perfect loveliness.  And it is a beauty which does not fade from the memory, but remains always, stirring the heart with strong pathetic pleasure, like the recollection of a beloved and absent friend.

On the way home we spent a week on top of the Sierras, where a deep basin of transparent blue water, fringed with pine forests and watched over by snow peaks, has received the name of Lake Tahoe.  This delightful spot ranks in our affections next to the Yo Semite.  It was there, one cool, delicious morning, that we received New York newspapers, and read accounts of the deadly, smiting heat of the Atlantic sea-board, accounts which it was hard to realize or believe while breathing that elastic and delicious atmosphere.

My last piece of advice to everybody who is thinking of the California journey is, Go! don't give it up!  For it is a sweet and compensating fact, that the pleasures of travel survive its pains.

"The tent removes; the vision stays."

The discomforts, the heat and dust, the weariness by the way, the trifling vexations, are soon forgotten ; while the novelty and freshness, the beautiful sights, the wider horizon, the increased compass and comprehension, remain to refresh us always.

[NOTE:  This May, 1873, article was originally published without illustrations.  The six engravings used to illustrate it here were selected and scanned from other articles about California which appeared in issues of "Scribner's Monthly" published in January and February, 1872, June, 1873, and The City of the Golden Gate, by Samuel Williams: pp. 266-285, July, 1875.]

Transcribed and annotated by, and courtesy of the Bruce C. Cooper Collection.

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