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A Trip to California in 1856 - Part 6

by Isabelle Walton Lusk

Over the last year GuideLines has been publishing the memoir of Isabelle Walton Lusk. She traveled from Maine to California when she was 21, and wrote this memoir in her 90s. You can read the previous installments on the City Guides website where she describes meeting her chaperon Mrs. Lucille Barnard, arriving at the wrong hotel in New York, and being rescued from a hooped skirt mishap by the man who would become her husband (she refers to him as My Knight.) In this part, Isabelle has boarded the steamship that will take her to the Panama Railroad.

Part 6 - Life on 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. The poor first officer was almost crazy.

All the captain’s duties were left for the poor first officer, who had his own duties and was almost crazy. He could not furnish beds and pillows for the poor souls [who were duped into fraudulent first class tickets]. They slept on the tables and would have to get up early so the tables could be prepared for the early six-o’clock breakfast.

Our ship started sometime in the night, and was speeding down the coast. [The ship] was steady being so heavily loaded.

My Knight, being a gentleman, did not make any advances towards a future acquaintance. It was my business to do so to keep up our first meeting. As I wished to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Alice Judson, I made up mind to speak to him about introducing his friends. I was standing quite near him the next morning where some of us had gone on the deck for fresh air.

I spoke, “ Mr. Lusk, will you kindly introduce me to your friends? I like Mrs. Judson very much and would like to know her personally.” He was delighed, and immedidately introduced me to all of them. If they wondered how we knew each other, no one asked.

We all took breakfast together, the tables being filled two or three times. After that came the rush to the Purser’s Office for table and ice tickets. The first class passengers were allowed ice.(1)


Now what do you think Mrs. Barnard did? She went to a perfect stranger, not even knowing his name, and asked him to take care of her money [because] it was such a burden to her. But he completely refused. “I am a perfect stranger to you Madame. It is too many pieces and I might lose it and have not enough money to refund it. Give your money to the Purser, he will count it and give you a receipt. Then when you reach the Isthmus, he will give it back and it will be perfectly safe.”

She told me herself [about that encounter] and I scolded her good. ”You did not even know his name.” That woman was my chaperon.

That evening at the 5 o’clock dinner Mrs. Barnard and I sat down. I saw across the table Mr. Calvin Ellery, Mrs. Ashley’s brother, and Mrs. Ashley herself. I looked perfectly astonished then exclaimed, “Why Mrs. Ashley, is that you? I had no idea your were going to California.” I introduced [Mrs. Ashley and her brother] to Mrs. Barnard saying they were people I met at the Astor House.

Mr. Dangort our first officer [came by]. They all greeted him and Mr. Ellery asked where our Captain was. The first officer stammered a little as he answered that he was not present. “Oh what is the matter with him”, asked a lady down the table. The first offiicer stammered again saying, “He has the mumps.” I said, “Oh dear, I supposed we will all get them.” Someone said,” No, women and children do not get this kind.” And then some of the others were convulsed with laugher. [As I found out later], our captain was a drunken gambler, and cared for nothing but his rum bottle and a pack of cards. All his duties were left for the poor first officer, who had his own duties and was almost crazy.
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There is only one mention in Isabelle’s memoir of a ship name for the trip from New York to Panama, the Illinois. If she was indeed on this ship, it was a wooden side-wheeled steamer with two decks, three masts, and berths for 500 passengers. After the Civil War, this ship served as a quarantine station in Lower New York Harbor for immigrants with contagious diseases.

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 1856 ice freight was sent to cities in warm climates like Aspinwall - this ship's destination port. Ice was placed in the ballast, enabling a low freight cost so more people could afford ice in the tropics.

•Engraved map of Basin of the North Atlantic Ocean, by Keith Johnston, 1861, courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection. Image ID: 0373004

Copyright © 2011 San Francisco City Guides





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The route from New York to Panama went along the U.S. coast, then between the Bahamas and Cuba, with a stop in Kingston, Jamaica for coal. The trip took a little over a week. Source: The Panama Route: 1848-1869, John Haskell Kemble.

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