Wordsmith mines Gold Rush
At the time of the California gold discovery in 1848, Alonzo Delano was physically ill. While others were catching the “gold fever,” Delano just had a fever. Consulting his doctors, Delano was given a very curious prescription
The best remedy, the physicians claimed, was for Alonzo Delano to travel to California – on an ox-driven wagon.
With that odd medical order in hand, Delano lit out for California in the spring of 1849 with one of the many vagabond emigrants headed west. His account of the journey was published in 1854 as “Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings.”
Alonzo Delano was not a miner. Instead, he mined the miners as a merchant in various Mother Lode boomtowns. Mostly he failed and gravitated to San Francisco, where he established a business in 1850. There he prospered, eventually moving to Grass Valley, the golden heart of the Northern California mines. In Grass Valley, he set up additional shops and became a banker and Wells Fargo agent. He was a pioneer town father, serving as city treasurer in the town’s early days.
Delano was also a writer of note, whose sketches of gold-camp life rivaled Bret Harte and Mark Twain in popularity. Under his pseudonym “Old Block,” Delano wrote for a number of California newspapers about Gold Rush characters and incidents.
Among his writings was a description published in 1856 in “Old Block’s Sketch Book” of the devastating Sept. 13, 1855, fire in Grass Valley that destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and possessions.
Delano wrote glowingly of the calmness and determination of the townsfolk: “On the eventful night which laid our town in ruins, which left us no cover for our heads but the blue vault of Heaven; … did you hear one word of wailing – one single note of despair? No, not one.”
Delano modestly failed to inform his readers that he had been instrumental in the town’s recovery. One of the few items to survive the blaze was the Wells Fargo vault. As the town still smoldered, Alonzo Delano wheeled a tiny shed to the location of the now-incinerated Wells Fargo Office, near today’s Holbrooke Hotel. This rude structure would serve as the temporary office. The warm-to-the touch, ash-covered vault was unsealed, and the important documents and currency inside were untouched by the flames.
Delano gave hope to the weary population. And they would never forget. Marguerite Wilbur, a collector of his writings, wrote of Delano: “Grass Valley knew him best of all … not only as a writer but as a sober and sound citizen who worked for the good of the community. His wiry figure of medium height, lean and erect, with its keen eyes and enormous hooked nose was a familiar sight on the streets.”
Following the death of his first wife, some Grass Valley folk even tried to hitch him to entertainer Lola Montez. The attempt was unsuccessful.
While his whimsical stories and journalistic impressions were widely read, his serious narrative, “Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings,” has much greater historical resonance. Possessed of obvious literary skill, Delano also had the discipline to be almost microscopic in presenting detail.
His journal describes both triumph and tragedy, but it is not merely a collection of heroic tales and grim disasters. It is also a carefully crafted expression of the normal tribulations of Gold Rush society in particular, and of life in general. The writing is a mixture of humor and irony, fluff and substance, critique and observation. “Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings” provides one of the most complete analyses of the factors that motivated the Argonauts – defining the psychological contagion of “Gold Fever” as well as anyone.
Delano was so admired that upon his death in 1874, all the businesses in Grass Valley suspended operations in tribute. He was also distantly related to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Delano is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery, located near Lyman Gilmore School.
Gary Noy is the director of the Sierra College Center for Sierra Nevada Studies, a project that examines the history, science, arts and culture of the Sierra Nevada region. He is also the author of “Distant Horizon: Documents from the Nineteenth Century American West,” published by the University of Nebraska Press. For more information about the center and its programs, call 916-781-7184.
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