Like a Hole in the Head — part 3

Portrait

John Bidwell in 1865.

 

John Bidwell was proud of what he called his “self-possession.” He prided himself on keeping calm and cool during a crisis. Decades after the wreck of the steamboat Belle he recollected the incident as an example of this trait.

The following quote comes from Dictation From General John Bidwell, collected by Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1891.

I think it is presence of mind that helps people out of emergencies. When I see men in a flurry, I am generally able to keep cool. For instance: I was going up the river on a steamer; was very tired when I went on board and secured my berth and went to bed. Suddenly there was a collision* and our steamer sunk five minutes afterwards. It was crowded with men at the time, so crowded that they had to make beds on the deck. I went out to see what was the matter, returned to my stateroom, gathered my things together, and got out on the hurricane deck. Put my clothes there and commenced helping others up as fast as I could.

The other steamer came up to help us, and the men commenced jumping off while the boat was ten or fifteen feet below us, one on top of the other. The sailors were catching and throwing them aside just like pieces of wood. I did not like the looks of the thing, and waited until our steamer had almost gone down before I jumped making one easy step over. It is not bravery, it is something that is forced upon you as a necessity. I generally manage to keep perfectly cool in case of fire and such things.

*It was a boiler explosion and not a collision

The hurricane deck is the uppermost deck on a steamboat, where you could catch a breeze in the evenings.

In this version of the story, Bidwell doesn’t mention the blow he received from the piece of flying iron. This tale is all about him calmly assessing the situation, then stepping from the hurricane deck, valise in hand, to the deck of the rescuing boat.

If you are picturing a large and fancy Delta Queen-style steamboat, you will want to moderate your imagination. We don’t have a picture of the Belle, but it probably looked more like this:

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Steamboat San Joaquin, circa 1890.  Meriam Library Special Collections

or maybe this:

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Steamboat Dover on the Sacramento River, 1910. Meriam Library Special Collections

rather than this:

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The Great Mississippi Steamboat Race, by Currier and Ives

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Like a Hole in the Head — part 2

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Sacramento Daily Union 8 March 1856

Luckily for Major Bidwell, the Sacramento Daily Union was in error.

After the explsion of the steamboat Belle, John Bidwell was taken back to Sacramento and to a doctor.  Evidently (if the newspaper notice can be trusted that far) he eventually went back to Chico. He either had a relapse, or needed further care, because by March 10  he was back in Sacramento.

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Sacramento Daily Union 10 March 1856

Bidwell, as one of the oldest American residents in California, the owner of a vast rancho, and a former state senator, was one of the best known men in California. He was certainly the most prominent passenger on the Belle when the accident occurred. So his name was newsworthy.

Portrait

Republican Congressman John Bidwell of California, 1865.

He would go on to serve in Congress in 1865-66. Even though nearly ten years had past since his encounter with a piece of flying iron from the exploded boiler, the scar he received was still easy to discern on his forehead.

This photograph of John Bidwell as a newly arrived representative to Congress can be found in the National Archives.

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Like a Hole in the Head

 

Portrait

Republican Congressman John Bidwell of California, 1865.

Have you ever seen a photograph of John Bidwell that so clearly showed him with a hole in his head?

This photograph, taken at the Mathew Brady studio in Washington, D.C. in 1865, shows the injury he suffered in a steamboat accident in 1856. It’s a photo that we do not often see.

Annie, I have heard, did not care for pictures that showed her husband’s scar. In the following two photos, one from 1867 and one from 1885, the scar is visible but very faint, and I suspect the photographs have been touched up.

 

Bidwell sustained his injury when the boiler of the steamboat Belle exploded on the Sacramento River, as he was traveling upriver from Sacramento City to Chico Landing. The accident occured on the morning of February 5, about ten miles from the city.

Bidwell told the story of the accident to his biographer, Rockwell D. Hunt. In John Bidwell, Prince of California Pioneers, Hunt writes that Bidwell was sitting by the stove, reading the morning newspaper when:

At that instant an explosion in the engine took place. He immediately grasped the side of the berth with both hands, holding his breath to avoid the hot steam. He was virtually paralyzed, and was unable to break the cabin window for a moment; but his strength soon returned, and he stuck his head out of the window. The wound inflicted on his head by flying iron — he never knew just what hit him — was a severe fracture of the external skull about the size of a twenty-five cent piece; but his recovery was complete.Of the few passengers on the boat he said nearly all were killed, also the captain and the clerk, and the pilot was seriously injured.

The story of the explosion and loss of the Belle was widely reported in the newspapers. Here is the beginning of an article from the Sacramento Daily Union. 

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Sacramento Daily Union, 6 February 1856.

The article goes on to say that there were about forty passengers on the boat and at least twenty of those were dead, wounded, or missing. Survivors were picked up by a steamboat coming downriver. The fate of pets on board did not go unreported.

A canary bird belonging to Mr. Mix was in a cage placed on a table in the cabin, at the time of the explosion. Although the table was almost entirely demolished by being cleared by portions of the boiler, the bird and cage escaped uninjured, with the exception of the latter being slightly bent. The bird is now singing as sweetly as ever at the Orleans, the accident having merely disturbed its plumage.

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Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Planning a trip 140 years ago? The Chico Weekly Enterprise for August 29, 1879 gives you these options:

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The train schedule is pretty decent, better than it is now, and look at all the places you could get to by stagecoach. Oroville! Colusa! Centerville and Helltown!

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Through in one day to Prattville (a lovely place at Big Meadows to spend the hot summer days), for the fare of $8. That must have been a considerable sum in 1879, when many workers only made $1.00 to $1.50 a day.

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Extra! Read All About It!

 

Or, On searching for information in old newspapers. You might find something fun like this—

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This is only half of the advertisement for the circus, from the Chico Weekly Enterprise for August 29, 1879. It goes on to announce:

Performing Royal Bengal Tigers!   Performing Bison! (as shown)

Performing Huanacos, from the Pampas of Patagonia!  Educated Zebras!

and A School of Performing Dogs!

Doesn’t that sound fabulous?

I have done my share of perusing old newspapers on microfilm, but that’s a tedious and eye-straining business. How much nicer to access newspapers at home on a computer, especially when you can enter a search term and actually find what you are searching for.

CWE18790829.1.1-102-65-669-599-334wThe California Digital Newspapers Collection is a treasure. So many papers! So easy to search! So easy to clip and save an article! And at last, the CDNC has added a Butte County newspaper. It now carries the Chico Weekly Enterprise for 1873-79.

Unfortunately, the coverage is spotty. For reasons unknown to me, only a few dates in a few months are there. For full coverage of the Chico Weekly Enterprise 1869 to 1907, go to Digital Reel at CSUChico Meriam Library.

Digital Reel has all the microfilm for all the various Butte County newspapers, from the Butte Record to the Weekly Mercury. That’s great. The only problem is that Digital Reel is difficult to search. If you have a date it’s fine, but searching for a name or a term will turn up with misses when you know there has to be something there.

CWE18790829.1.3-186-6322-605-777-302wI’m hoping that CDNC will be adding more Butte County newspapers as time goes by. What a boon that will be.

In the meantime, I enjoyed looking at the Chico Weekly Enterprise for August 29, 1879. Here are a few tidbits from the past.

 

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Back to Blogging

newyearsresolutions

I must apologize — I haven’t written anything for a month.  I thought about it from time to time, but I never even managed to sit down and wish my readers a Merry Christmas. At least it’s not too late to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope 2019 brings you good times and happy days.

A fun holiday time was had by all at the Bidwell Mansion Association “Christmas with the Bidwells” event on December 7th. I write short dramatic vignettes that our volunteer actors portray inside the mansion. Here is our wonderful crew:

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Our merry mob of Mansion actors. Left to right: Alex Hilsee (Katie), Nick Anderson (John Bidwell), Robyn Engel (Annie Bidwell), Mike Swann (“Cheyenne” Dawson), Kathryn Aarons (Minnie), Matthew Dick (Guy Kennedy)

And yes — that’s how short Annie Bidwell was — 4′ 8″, just like Robyn.

I had hoped to have my new picture book biography on Peter Lassen out by now, but I ran into a snag. My friendly neighborhood graphic designer, Carla Resnick, sent the pages off to the printer over a month ago. We weren’t happy with the proof that came back — the colors were off. And in a book that has color illustrations on every page, that’s important.

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First proof on the left with the brown too reddish. Improved version on the right.

Carla adjusted the colors and the next proof looks better. But we can’t expect anything to happen over the holidays, and it will be 2019 before I have a new book to show.

It was a busy month — December always is. I always add a bunch of extras at Christmastime — sewing, baking, decorating, and shopping for the grandkids. The fires in our community added many opportunities to volunteer and help out, so I was doing some of that kind of thing.

On three successive Saturdays the A-team (A for ANCHR) did three presentations on our new book, Ten Miles Of Roadside Archaeology Along The Old Humboldt Wagon Road. Here we are making a donation toward the restoration of the Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise.

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Left to right: Josie, myself, Michelle Rader, Ron Womack, Dave Brown, Arno Martini — the A-team

DSCF6488 (2)The “check” is drawn on the Bank of Butte County and signed by John Bidwell himself!

Josie Reichschneider-Smith, on the left, didn’t want it to be just any old generic check, so she came up with this special edition.

And I promise that you will see a new blog entry here before another month goes by!

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Got History?

Front coverYou can get yourself some great local history with ANCHR’s new book, Ten Miles of Roadside Archaeology Along the Old Humboldt Wagon Road, by Gregory F. White, with contributions by Ron Womack, Josie Smith, David Brown, Michelle Rader and myself, Nancy Leek.  The book covers a lot more than ten miles of that historic road, with chapters on

  • John Bidwell’s road-building venture (by yours truly)
  • the lure of the Nevada and Idaho mines
  • hooligans and heroes of Ten-Mile House
  • wagon ruts and rock fences and how to preserve them
  • the Humboldt Road labor force, and
  • Frank Bidwell Durkee’s push for the new road.

The core of the book is Greg White’s in-depth original report about his archaeological study of a ten-mile stretch of the road affected by the 2016 Santos Fire. It’s an up-close look with fascinating finds and insights.

If you are ready for a ride on the Old Humboldt Road, then look for this book, coming soon to a museum or bookstore near you.

The ANCHR team will be doing presentations at the following events:

  • Saturday, Dec. 1:  ANCHR Annual Meeting and Luncheon at Shelly’s Creative Catering — 11 a.m. ($20 per person for the luncheon)
  • Saturday, Dec. 8: Butte County Historical Society, Ehmann Home, Oroville — 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, Dec. 15:  Chico History Museum — 10 a.m.

See you there!

 

 

 

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