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Gold Rush Letters of Father & Son

In the golden age of boating on Lake Champlain, so my father told me, steamboats made regularly scheduled landings at Crown Point (NY) by night as well as in the daytime.  All freight came by boat. Lumber from many mills in the back country and pig iron from the charcoal blast furnace in that town were shipped in canal boats to Whitehall and through the Champlain Canal and by the Hudson River to markets in Troy and Albany and places more distant.  When the Lake froze over whatever goods moved had to be freighted over its icy surface.  Travelers rode the thirty-odd miles in sleighs to Whitehall, which was the railroad terminus.  There they could take trains to Troy.  In summer there were packet boats on the canal to carry passengers.

We who are accustomed to several means of transportation, all of them swift and comfortable, may be appalled to think of the length of time and the relative discomfort of a trip to the city in those times.  We are likely to think the people living there during the middle decades of the last century stayed at home and were provincial. Such was not the case, however, — at least for people of means, such as the Hammonds and other well-to-do families, who made frequent trips to Troy and Albany and New York City and Boston, for business and to exchange visits with relatives and friends. There was much travel back and forth.  These people received and read a surprisingly large number of newspapers and magazines by means of which they kept themselves informed on matters of business, politics, and general culture.

One must have been a great lover of music to make the arduous trip to New York to attend a concert, yet Mr. Hammond wrote to his son, John,  November 22nd, 1850, ~~

“Thomas (another son) and I have been to the great city of New York to hear Jenny Lind sing, returned home last week much gratified.”

This Charles Franklin Hammond, of Crown Point, together with two of his brothers and sundry nephews and relatives, was engaged during the middle of the nineteenth century in extensive exploitation of the iron and timber resources of that locality in the eastern Adirondacks.  Hammonds & Co. carried on, also, a large business in general merchandise to supply their numerous employees and others of the community.  They also had interest in a banking firm in Albany, Higbie, Hammonds, & Co.  His son John and Robert Eliot, a youth from Albany, worked in their employ.

A little over one hundred years ago the country was astir with excitement over the discovery of gold in California.  These two young men caught the “gold fever” and made the perilous trip overland to that distant and little known land.  Young Hammond was twenty-one years old at the time, Eliot only nineteen.  The account of their adventures as told in their own letters and narratives is an intensely interesting story, filled with adventure and scenes of frontier life.  The letters written by John’s father while they were in California give an insight into an epoch in which people lived very differently – so differently that we cannot readily recreate the background against which the figures moved.  His letters take us back among the people of those times into the intimacy of the Hammond home.  One learns from them what people were thinking about and how business was being done in that rural community in northern New York.  The political geography of North America was vastly different then.  One sense the affectionate nature of this father, his warm interest in all sorts of people around him, and his love of young people. A sampling of some of the more representative topics is given in the following pages.

John Hammond and Robert Eliot left Crown Point in February, 1849, and reached Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the head of navigation on the Arkansas River, about the end of March.  Already they had met much adventure and had miraculously escaped death by cholera.  Letters from them at Fort Smith dated April 2nd and 9th and 15th were received at Crown Point.