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A Trip to California in 1856 - Part 3

by Isabelle Walton Lusk

In the first two parts of Isabelle Walton's memoir, she traveled from Maine to New York City, and was separated from her chaperon on the way to their hotel. She mistakenly went to the luxury hotel Astor House, while Lucille Barnard was at another hotel.

Part 3 - Isabelle dines at the Astor House, meets her future husband

I sat a moment and said do you think it is possible they took Mrs. Barnard to another hotel? That might be, or my coach took me to another hotel. I asked quickly what hotel is this?

"Why, this is the Astor House," [said Mrs. Ashley]. [I thought], I suppose their coach will take me to the [steamer].

[She also said], "The city is full of foreigners who have come from over the seas to go to California. If they keep coming, Americans will have to move out and give them the country. They do not seem to have much respect."(1)

Dinner was soon announced. Dinner [consisted] of soup, fish salad, wines, tea, and coffee. I ordered a salad, a slice of roast beef, mashed potatoes, turnips. The beet pickles I like were there. Then a piece of custard pie of banana and a cup of tea.

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Isabelle playing cards, some 60 years after her cross-country journey. This photo was probably taken by her son, Charles, an avid photographer.(2)

There were not many at the table. [When the waiter] brought my tea, it was all prepared. But when I tasted the tea, [I] then sat up and pushed it away. The tea was more than half liquor of some kind. Mrs. Ashley said to me, "Don’t you like the tea?" "No madam, I do not care for it. I do not have mixed drinks." [Mrs. Ashley said], "My dear, you do not need a chaperon as you seem to be able to take care of yourself." At two o'clock her brother came for her and they went away.

I was the only woman on the Astor House coach [to the ship], the rest of the [men] talked in a language I did not understand. They all jumped out and went about their business. The driver was already shouting for return passengers, so I started to get out over the wheel. I made a jump and [my] skirt caught on something on the back seat and held me tight behind the wheel, my toes just touching the wharf. With all my strength I tried to raise myself and could not make it to save me. I tried making noise. My hoops held me tight and I could not leverage from my feet.(3) Suddenly I felt myself raised up from the coach and heard a pleasant voice of a man. His wide sombrero already in his hand. His long auburn beard, a heavy gold nugget on his watch chain.

I stepped back with a curtsey, and said "Thanks my brave Knight, I am indebted [to you] for coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress." With a flourish he said "Salmon Brooks Lusk of Georgetown, Brown County, Kentucky, at your service." [I said] "Isabelle Walton from the state that pries up the sun every morning at four o'clock."

"Ah, Maine and Kentucky [he said], again as in 1829."(4)

[Then] my bonnet shook out of my skirts, and I muttered half aloud "Drat." Shocked at my own coarseness, I looked up to meet the blue-gray eyes. Then [we] both burst into peal after peal of laughter. Then it came over me with a shock: Laughing with a stranger. Although he had done me an inestimable [favor], abashed, I stood back. "Thank you sir," and fled up the deck of the ship.

I asked a porter where the staterooms were. He pointed down a flight of stairs. I found Mrs. Barnard wandering around in the dim light trying to find our stateroom. She was quite relieved to see me, and had worried a little but thought I knew enough to find my way to the boat. "I supposed they took you to the wrong hotel, Isabelle, which one?" [I told her] the Astor House. "Good gracious me, did you have dinner there?" I told her yes, and fortunately enough money to pay for it. But she never smiled and did not seem to get the joke.(5)

People were falling over her carpetbag and jostling us right and left trying to find their staterooms. I found ours at last.

You can read Parts 1 and 2 on the City Guides website. The next part of A Trip to California in 1856 will be published in a future GuideLines issue. Thanks to Eric Bennion and Frances Lusk Bennion for sharing this memoir.

(1) The presidential election of 1856 was contentious because of slavery and immigration issues. John Fremont, the first Republican Party nominee, was an abolitionist. Democrat James Buchanan won as a compromise candidate but ended up alienating both sides on the slavery issue. Former president Millard Fillmore was the third-party candidate from the anti-immigration American Party, also called the Know Nothings. The Know Nothing Party was started by people fearing that the country was being overrun by the large number of German and Irish immigrants in the 1840s.

(2) Family lore says that Charles, who moved to San Francisco in February 1906 for his job as a PG&E accountant, rushed to the office on the morning of April 18. He saved company records from the subsequent fire.

(3) Hooped skirts were popular in the 1850s because they replaced concentric hoops with the multiple (and often heavy) petticoats women wore at that time to have a full skirt. They posed problems in sitting, navigating passageways, and getting up. Isabelle mentions at an early point in her memoir that she did not like hoops. Source: pba.org/programming/programs/tia_history/hoopskirt/

(4) This reference to Maine and Kentucky in 1829 is lost in the present day. If anyone knows the reference, please email guidelines@sfcityguides.org.

(5) John Jacob Astor built the hotel in 1836. His two great-grandsons co-owned the Astor House in the 1890s. One owned the south half while the other owned the north half. In 1913 the heirs of the south half tore down their portion to build an office building. The north half stood until the 1920s when it was replaced by a taller building. Source: "Where Lincoln Tossed and Turned," New York Times 9/27/2009.

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