It was early morning when William H. Brewer and his geological survey team arrived in New Almaden, a town just south of San Jose. They had left the Santa Cruz Mountains the day before and arrived above the fog just in time for a breathtaking view of the Santa Clara Valley. It was “the most picturesque road we had yet traveled” on their trip through California, wrote Brewer in his journal.
In today’s entry, he wrote:
There are three mines within a region of six miles, all in the same ridge, which is about 1,700 feet high, lying parallel with the high chain of mountains behind, and separated from the Santa Clara Valley by a still lower chain of foothills.
We rode to the Enriquita Mine, about six miles from camp, by a trail over the hills. It is the poorest of the three, and lies about midway between the other two, the three being in a direct line. We introduced ourselves to the superintendent and engineer, Mr. Janin, who showed us every attention, going into the mine with us. It is much like New Almaden in character, but vastly poorer. Its owners are one set of disputants for the title of New Almaden also, so of course there is much feeling between the two mines. Four sets of claimants are lawing for New Almaden, and two more wait behind, to claim of these claimants should the latter be successful—a pretty “kettle of fish,” to be sure.
The year was 1861 and Brewer was the chief botanist handpicked by state geologist Josiah D. Whitney to lead California’s first Geological Survey, which lawmakers had hoped would lead to vital mining information – 1849 had made the Golden State rich with prospectors heading to the Wild West in search of fortune. He documented his team’s travels and adventures in letters to his family and friends, which were later compiled and published by the Yale University Press.
Enter Tom Hilton, whose blog, Up and Down California (named after the published compilation of Brewer’s letters), brings Brewer and his journey along the first California Geological Survey to 2011. Technically, the blog is Brewer’s – it is his words that fill each blog post with stories of the Golden State’s mountains, valleys and coastlines – but it’s Hilton’s fascination with the 14,000-plus miles of California that Brewer and his team explored 150 years ago that breathes new life into the journey. Not only can readers read about the past as if they were the present, but they can also see the similarities between both times’ political and economical struggles.
Hilton, an avid hiker and New Jersey native who’s been living in the Bay Area for the last 35 years, said his experiences backpacking in the Sierra Mountains inspired him to find out more about the land. His curiosity led him to reading Brewer’s published journals, Up and Down California in 1860 to 1864.
Though the Sierras only appear in 20 pages of the 500-page publication, Hilton said he was drawn into the rest of Brewer’s writings.
“It’s a vision of…a California before the freeways, before strip malls,” said Hilton. “When I read it, the rest of it was just fascinating to me because as a picture of that time and place, there’s something so immediate about it. [Brewer]… was just in awe of the natural beauty.”
He began the project as a way to build “a more complete, deeper understanding of California.” The blog adds “a temporal dimension [and] conception” to the survey, and Hilton hopes people who live in the areas Brewer visited will get “a more multi-layered connection with where [they] live.” He started the blog with the spirit of the old “build it and they’ll come” idea, but joked, “and maybe they won’t come…I never have an idea which of my obsessions will be of interest to anybody else.”
On the blog, Hilton pairs Brewer’s original text with modern-day photos of the survey team’s camp locations as a way for readers to see how much the landscape has changed. From people’s personal blogs about their family history to databases of historical documents provided by universities, in addition to sites like Flickr and Wikipedia, Hilton said the amount of available resources online that made this project possible “are just staggering.” Though he plans on taking road trips to see as many of the survey’s campsites as possible, the Internet has made it all the more easier to collect images of places he wouldn’t be able to visit himself.
Readers can get a glimpse of what Brewer may have seen from his ship as he arrived in San Luis Obispo’s port, then see photos of the plants he collected that day on his November 25, 1860 entry. A week later, Brewer’s in Los Angeles visiting California politician Benjamin Davis Wilson, who lives near San Gabriel Mission (“Our host, uneducated, but a man of great force of character, is now worth a hundred or more thousand dollars and lives like a prince, only with less luxury.”) Accompanying that entry are photos of the Wilson ranch Brewer visited. In an entry a few days later, Brewer describes L.A. as “a city of some 3,500 or 4,000 inhabitants, nearly a century old, a regular old Spanish-Mexican town…The grapes are famous, and the wine of Los Angeles begins to be known even in Europe…”
As Brewer writes about his and his crew’s travels and discoveries, he also opens the door to history as it unfolds: The day they sailed into San Francisco through the Golden Gate Bridge, they “found news of Lincoln’s election when we landed, an unprecedented quick trip of news,” writes Brewer. “I have been out to see fire-works, processions, etc., in the early part of the evening, so it is now late.”
“I’m constantly thinking about how different it is and how many parallels there are,” said Hilton of comparing Brewer’s times with modern times. “The way he describes the [Civil War] secessionists, it’s not unlike the Tea Partyists. Things have changed, but a lot of basic political struggles continue in some other value.”
Despite the possibilities of all-encompassing web research, “there’s still information [that has] to be gotten the old-fashioned way,” said Hilton. Eventually he wants to see Brewer’s original field journals, which are housed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, to see what else the botanist included in his letters.
The state government called it quits on the California Geological Survey after lawmakers voted to cut it out of the 1867 budget – the Legislature was more interested in the survey’s ability to find gold in the ground than in the team’s important findings in paleontology, geography and zoology. By the following year, all work on the project came to a halt, and in 1874, the entire project was abandoned. Whitney ended up using his own money to fund the publishing and printing of the remaining survey results (the state had paid for the first three volumes of the survey). But through Brewer’s words and Hilton’s dedication to the survey team’s quest, the adventure – and significant discoveries – of the first California Geological Survey lives on.