History of a Wandering Yankee: Chinatown

After returning from the Cliff House, Frank and Nell visited San Francisco’s celebrated Chinatown, at that time the largest in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants traveled to the United States via San Francisco’s Angel Island Immigration Station and other Pacific ports in the 19th century. Many of them came to work in mines or built railroads. Like many other migrants, Asian immigrants faced routine discrimination from their neighbors. Frank makes a few comments about the “savage” customs and activities he observes in that are typical of the era. I wonder what Frank’s New York cousins thought about Chinatown and its people…

[May 1900]

To one unaccustomed to living in a seaport the shipping would be of great interest, as here all kinds of vessels can be seen, loading and unloading, going to, or coming from Chinese, Japanese, Australian, Alaskan and European ports.

The Union Iron Works employ about 2000 men in the building of war vessels for the Government.

Chinatown_Barton
Loren Barton, Chinatown Market, San Francisco, ca. 1924. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I muse not forget to speak of Chinatown, for this is one of the most interesting places to see in all Frisco. It covers an area of about 12 blocks, and the population is variously estimated at from 20- to 40,000. Here the Chinaman lives very nearly the same as in his native cities. All the stores, restaurants and theatres are run by the Chinese. We did not attend the theatre, but were told that the performance is continuous, and that their orchestral discord is nearly always fatal to the visitor, although they themselves seem to enjoy it very much. The Chinese New Year, which occurs in January and February, is the best time to visit Chinatown. We had during this their season of festivities, visited Chinatown in Los Angeles, which is the same as in Frisco, though smaller. On that occasion, early in last February, we were part of a company setting out to see the sights of a Chinese New Year. Their streets were well lighted by the characteristic Chinese lantern, some of them several feet in diameter. From the balconies, which are built in the second story mostly, we saw and heard several bands of Chinese musicians, each endeavoring to make a more discordant noise than his neighbor: some drumming on cocoanut shells:- some striking copper plates, some blowing on a poor apology for a fish horn. While listening to this soulful music we heard a heart-rending shriek and though some one had been driven mad, or had committed suicide, but it was proved to be only a new piece of music coming in on the home stretch, a sort of cocoanut shell with a violin attachment. Continue reading “History of a Wandering Yankee: Chinatown”

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History of a Wandering Yankee: Cliff House and Sutro Baths

After Frank and Nell arrive in foggy San Francisco, it doesn’t take long before they begin to explore the city. The Felters were particularly excited about visiting sights along the coastline like the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, and Seal Rocks. I like the description of the water slide (“chute”) and the different ways bathers ride the copper chute down into the pool. As Frank says, “tis a most fascinating sport!” The Cliff House and Sutro Baths were both sadly destroyed by fires in 1907 and 1966.

Cliff House and Seal Rocks
Frank and Nell could have looked out this very same window out onto the Pacific Ocean! Cliff House and Seal Rocks, circa 1905. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

[Spring 1900]

Our trunks come and we unpack and rest ourselves, ready for the morrow’s excursions.

Recollecting that we are almost alone in a great city, we get a City map and guide book, lest we may lose ourselves.

There is a splendid car service in Frisco, and one can get a good idea of the City by patronizing the car lines, on some of which, by their system of transfers, you can ride an hour of two for a nickel.

Frisco has many hills, and the cars, mostly cable, have to climb grades as steep as 26%, which is a rise of 26 feet in every 100 feet of travel.

Cliff House
Cliff House, circa 1902. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

During our stay in Frisco we rode out to the Cliff House many times. This Hotel is built on a projecting rock at the entrance to Golden Gate and can be seen many miles out at sea.

From the balcony which faces the ocean, and which is entirely enclosed in glass, one can get a beautiful view of the Pacific in all kinds of weather and look down into the water as it breaks into foam and spray against the cliff below.

Seal Rocks.jpg
Seal Rocks circa 1898. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

A few hundred feet out are some large rocks which are often covered with thousands of seals and from that fact are called Seal Rocks.

Close to the Cliff House is the entrance to the famous Sutro Baths, and the Museu, the largest salt water baths in the world. There are seats surrounding the tanks which will accommodate 10,000 spectators. The building is 500 feet by 250 feet. The main tank is 300 feet long, and this, with five smaller ones, ’tis said will hold 2,000,000 gallons of water, and will accommodate thousands of bathers.Here one can sit for hours and watch the bathers dive off the high perches, -swim about, -or slide down the chutes. The water is heated to different temperatures in the different tanks, and one can choose any degree of heat desired. Depth of water varies from two feet to eight feet in order to accommodate women and children as well as the strong swimmer. The tanks can be emptied and filled by the action of the tides. Twenty-five cents admits one to the building and pays for a bathing suit. We were particularly interested in the chutes, which consist of a slide commencing 18 or 20 feet above the water, and extending downward in an almost vertical line about twelve feet, and then gradually curving until it reaches the surface of the water  horizontally.

Sutro Baths
Sutro Baths, circa 1898. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

This slide is covered with copper plates, and when in use, a stream of water is constantly flowing over its surface which makes it extremely slippery. The bather mounts the stairs to its top, and looks down. If ’tis his first trial, he puts one foot over, then the other and holds on the sides with both hands, then after waiting four or five minutes, he either tries to get back and give it up, or else takes a long breath and lets go. In less than three seconds he has slid down and gone under water several feet. If the individual happens to be of the female persuasion she invariably screams when she starts and of course goes under water with her mouth wide open. This is more interesting to the spectators than to her, but she comes up all right, and after a while her friends persuade her to try it again, and go down head first. This takes lots of nerve, but is entirely successful, and as she comes down with tremendous speed, is shot out and skims gracefully along the surface of the water half across the tank, -all in a few seconds. Having acquired the nerve and the proper method, ’tis a most fascinating sport, and some parts of the day an almost continuous stream of bathers is shooting down this steep incline: sometimes several going down together holding to each other as in a chain.

Sutro Baths today
The ruins of the Sutro Baths as seen in 2012. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

During afternoon and evening there are concerts, and this immense building is filled sometimes with the sweet strains of a dream ragtime. Here one can find ample accommodation and amusement for several days, as there is a Hotel, a restaurant, theatre, museum, and picture gallery, all enclosed in this class covered structure.

I could write a week of the beauties and sights of San Francisco, and then not do justice to the subject. In many respects Frisco is like all large cities, having its system of Public Parks, its museums, observatories, theatres and churches, fountains, libraries, Art galleries, public buildings, cemeteries, race-tracks, etc., etc.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.

 

History of a Wandering Yankee: Arrival in San Francisco

In the beginning of his 20 page (single spaced!) letter detailing his adventures in Alaska to family in New York, Frank Felter describes why he and his wife Nell wanted to take this trip. Their journey begins as they depart from their home in Los Angeles and travel to San Francisco by steamer, where they would stay for several days before heading further north. I can imagine how exciting it would have been to see San Francisco slowly appear through the fog on that spring day!

Folsom wharf.jpg
The Felters probably arrived in San Francisco at a wharf like the one on Folsom Street. Photo Credit: San Francisco Public Library.

Los Angeles, Cal. Dec. 1900

To Uncle, and to all our dear friends and relatives, East of the Rocky Mountains.

Having promised to write you something about our trip to Alaska, I will set about it without any preliminary remarks other than these:-

We did not to with the definite idea of bringing back half, or even a third of the “Klondyke Wealth” in our strong boxes, and of having a guard of thirty or forty well armed men to escort us back to civilization.

We did not set out with the purpose of melting the ice and snow with red paint, or of eventually reaching the North Pole.

We had no intention of taking the trip because it was popular, and to enable us to say we had “done” this, or had seen that wonderful thing.

We never for a moment entertained the thought of telling yarns about the frozen North, and impossible stories stories of occurences which never happened. We never considered any of the above inducements for journeying to Alaska. Our sole purpose was the somewhat selfish one of enjoying ourselves: of traveling by restful and easy stages, stopping here and there as our whims and caprices might direct us, and with the general idea of having a good time and a continuous holiday.

With this end in view we started out on the first of May,- left the beautiful city of the Angels and boarded the Steamer for San Francisco. Some of our friends went down to see us off, and they were so thoughtful and kind as to inform us that the Captain prophesied a rough trip. We kept up our spirits however, in the face of this news, and started off with the firm belief that the passage would be a smooth and delightful one.  Strange as it may seem, the wind began to moderate shortly after starting, and during the whole of the trip the weather was unexceptionable. The Captain said there must be a Mascot on board, for all the indications had pointed toward a very rough passage. We had a very pleasant time on board, reading, walking on the deck, or swapping stories with the other passengers. Continue reading “History of a Wandering Yankee: Arrival in San Francisco”

History of a Wandering Yankee

Port Chilkoot
Gil Smith, Port Chilkoot, Alaska, n.d., watercolor, Image credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

For the next several months, I will be posting parts of a travelogue written by Frank L. Felter as he traveled through Alaska at the turn of the century. Frank is a very distant relative- my cousin six times removed (he is the cousin of my great, great, great, great grandfather). After his trip, he wrote all about it in a long letter to my family living in New York. Frank lived in Los Angeles and I doubt he traveled back east often. This letter/manuscript is incredibly detailed and has been a really interesting read. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!

I’ll try to post the letter a page at a time, so expect to see many more posts after this one! I’ll end this post with the introduction my grandfather, Charles Sargent, wrote when he transcribed the original copy.

Map_of_maps__Alaska_and_British_Columbia_showing_the_Yukon_Cariboo_Cassiar_with_a_portion_of_the_Kootenay_gold_fields
Alaska and British Columbia showing the Yukon, Cariboo, Cassiar, with a portion of the Kootenay gold fields. 1901. Image source: University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Over one hundred years ago, the attached travelog was written by Frank Felter describing a trip he and his wife, Nell, made in the year 1900 from Los Angeles to Skagway, Alaska utilizing steamers and railroads. His vivid descriptions and attention to details reflect the fact that he must have taken copious notes along the way. His motivation to write this travelog was to tell his upstate New York cousins (Ostego County) about his experiences on the trip.

Since my “original” copy of this manuscript suffers from successive copying, I have had it retyped with absolutely no editing.

Frank and Nell left Los Angeles on May 1, 1900 and returned to L.A. on August 26 after extended lay overs in San Francisco, Portland and Skagway. On Sept. 18, 1900, after his return, Frank wrote a letter to his upstate New York cousins Frank and Mary Sargent (my grandparents) which stated:

“Have had lots of fun and seen lots of queer sights. Someday I think I’ll write a short story of my travels and have it printed and call it ‘History of a Wandering Yankee,’ sell it for 2¢ ea., 3 for a nickel. Would it pay do you think or had I better stick to my present occupation and mend shoes.”

I hope future generations will get their 2 cents worth as I have.

Incidentally, Frank Felter was the grandson of Hiram Hammond, my great, great grandfather.

Charles R. Sargent
Baltimore
February 2004

Are You a Cowboy or a Colonel?

“’Jim,’ said he, ‘here are two gentlemen going to Deadwood, Dakota. What is it that has occurred at Deadwood lately? Haven’t the Indians scalped the whole population?”
“’No,’ said Jim, throwing himself back in his chair and lifting his eyes to the ceiling with an air of deep meditation. ‘It is in Colorado where that took place, it was not in Dakota.’”
“’Then the cow-boys have taken possession of the city, and burnt the whole of some quarter.’’”
“’No; that was in Montana.’”
“’Ah yes, you are right. It is a flood: I remember now. The river overflowed and carried away all the city. It was last month.’”
“’Ah! After all, it is some weeks since that. The post-office must be restored and reopened.’” (2)

For such a cool book that was really popular in its day, you have to do some searching to find out more about Edmond Mandat-de Grancey and his book, Cow-boys and Colonels. Originally written as a series of newspaper articles about the French baron’s travels in the Dakota Territory, it was popular enough to have been published as a book in 1887, translated into English, and made de Grancey a successful travel writer for the rest of his life (he later wrote travel stories from trips to the Eastern U.S., Ireland, and a couple of other locations too). 75 years later, it was republished by Yale University as part of their Western Americana series but has since been out of print and isn’t easy to find.

I came across this book purely by chance, one of those happy accidents that you read about in book introductions or articles about discoveries in dark and dusty libraries. Well, McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland is a little dark and dusty, and it is where this story began for me. A few years ago, I was there on the sixth or seventh floor to get some books for a paper I was writing.

books
My adventure began in a row just like this. Photo Credit: UMD Libraries

If I remember right, I was walking down a row of books looking for the right call number, and I happened to notice the faded title on a book: Cow-boys and Colonels. That was enough to get me to take the book off the shelf.

It was a rebound copy, pretty worn and unremarkable looking, but for some reason I decided to open it up and read the first few pages. Well, that was enough to get me hooked. I sat down on the floor and  ended up reading the first chapter right there in the stacks before I decided to check the book out and be on my way. I wish I had more lucky library stories like this one! I think its always worth it to wander and browse around your library, there’s always something you’ll never, ever find on the internet or in a catalog, you just have to look at the shelf.

In the busy-ness of graduate school, Cow-boys and Colonels sat on my bookshelf for two years before I picked it up again. I kept on renewing it hoping that I’d have to time to read it but never did. But before I knew it, I had graduated and had to return all my books back to the library. As I packed the book into my backpack to take back to UMD, I remembered how cool it was and that I never had a chance to read it. So, I wrote down the title and added it to my list of books to read for fun now that I wasn’t in school anymore. Half a year after that, I finally got my own copy of the book, a Christmas present from my father-in-law. He has his own farm in Missouri and I don’t think he’d mind having a ranch in the Dakotas, so I think the book title stuck out to him too. I’m finally finished reading now, three and a half years after I discovered it. Well, it was definitely worth the wait! Continue reading “Are You a Cowboy or a Colonel?”