article picture

A Trip to California in 1856 - Part 5

by Isabelle Walton Lusk

In her 90s, Isabelle Lusk wrote about her journey from Maine to California. At the time of her writing, she had lost her sight and much of her hearing. As she wrote her memoir on a manual typewriter, using onionskin paper, she often did not hear the carriage return bell. She typed over many of her remembrances and parts of this memoir are lost. In Parts 1-4, Isabelle described her background and trip preparations, meeting her traveling companion, and finding her way to the steamship. You can find the earlier installments on the City Guides website.

Part 5 - Off to Panama

When the dinner bell rang, Henry was sound asleep but little Charley was wakeful. I told [Mrs. Barnard] to go out and find some places at the table and I would come when Charley fell asleep.

[When I went to dinner], I saw the Spanish lady and her husband beside her. I saw Mrs. Barnard sitting opposite My Knight, as I called him.(1)

[Also at he table were] Mr. Dick Judson and his wife Alice. Mr. Judson had a furniture store in Sacramento. He had been there for some time and thought he would sell and go into business in Massachusetts. At the first snow, he was in a panic, sold his business, and took what he could pack. There was an old lady next to Mrs. Barnard, and a girl of about 12 years. So there we all met and were delighted to fill our table. My Knight was opposite Mrs. Barnard, Mr. Judson opposite me. Mrs. Barnard it seems was very much taken with My Knight.(2)

I learned later from Alice, as we became great friends, that she and Dick and My Knight were on the deck [later] that evening. My Knight said to them, "I am going to marry that girl." Dick said, "How do you know she is a girl, she might be a married woman." "No Dick. No married woman ever laughed like that." So you see, it was my laugh that caught me a husband.(3)

As the dinner table was cleared away, what a hurrah there was. Poor middle-aged women crying, trying to find a place to lay their heads. It seems that many of them had paid for 300 dollars for bogus [first class] tickets. There were a number of them on the boat, or down in steerage.

article picture

I will tell you of one I knew well later, dear Aunty Haskel, one of those Yankee women with an education not of books but always loving, kind, and generous. Her husband was in business in San Francisco and sent for her. They had no children, so alone she came to New York and at the station was met by a smooth individual who piloted her to an office for tickets. And sold bogus ones.(4) Poor souls [these women], they had never slept on anything harder than feather beds, and now had to sleep on the hard boards of the dinner table. Without anything under them, and only their cloaks over them, and their carpet bags for pillows.

Two other maiden ladies were the same. They were twins going out to California to their brother. One was a dressmaker and the other a milliner. They were going to open shops there and make their fortunes. But they had been tricked as Aunty Haskel. They had no place for their toilet except the general washroom used at the second-class side of the ship.

It seemed we were overloaded. Our steamer was only allowed nine hundred passengers and we were twelve hundred, making 300 without a place to lie down. (5) The poor first officer was almost crazy. He could not furnish beds and pillows for the poor souls but he gave them tickets to the first class tables.

All slept on the tables would have to get up early so the tables could be prepared for the early six-o’clock breakfast for first class.

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)In Part 3, as she is getting out of a carriage, Isabelle is rescued from a hooped skirt mishap by Mr. Salmon Lusk.

(2)The dining room of a ship was either in a house on the upper deck, or enclosed on the main deck. It was the largest room on the ship and served breakfast, lunch, dinner, and tea — it was the social center. Diners were at long tables and benches bolted to the floor. At the first dinner at sea, passengers vied for coveted spots next to the Captain. The places found at that first meal were often not changed for the rest of the trip. Source: Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and The Great Atlantic Steamships, Stephen Fox

(3)It is unclear in her memoir why Salmon Lusk, from Kentucky and apparently living in Sonoma, was on this ship. It appears that Lusk and the Judsons knew each other in California.

(4)In 1847, Congress subsidized two steamship companies so mail could be sent back and forth to each side of the country via the Panama route. Within a few years competition had increased for passengers between the official steamship lines and other companies. Source: To California by Sea: A Maritime History of the California Gold Rush, James P. Delgado

The New York Herald printed a caution in 1859, "Beware of ticket swindlers, bogus passage offices, and companies falsely styling themselves as mail companies." One of the steamship lines issued a warning to buy through tickets only from responsible houses.

After leaving the dock, passengers had their tickets checked. Those without tickets were brought back to the dock. When they got to Panama, tickets were checked again before traveling across the Isthmus. Some people found they had been swindled and did not have real tickets. Source: The Panama Route: 1848-1869, John Haskell Kemble

(5)The SS North Star sailing around this time, had 925 listed passengers. However with the crew and those not listed, it was estimated there were 1200 on board. "The decks were encumbered with trunks for the entire voyage…At night the benches and decks were appropriated for sleeping passengers." Source: The Panama Route: 1848-1869, John Haskell Kemble

Send comments and questions to
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.