By Guest Author, Lyn Horner
The first obstacle faced by would-be miners was getting to the gold or silver districts. At the time of the California Gold Rush, the Pikes Peak rush to Colorado, and the great Comstock Lode rush to Nevada, no railroad had yet reached those remote areas. Thus, fortune seekers had to travel either overland, often by covered wagon, or by sea to their destinations.
|Miners stocking up for their trip|
Several guide books offered advice to overland travelers, including what foods to take with them, and how much of each they would need. In Joseph Ware’s authoritative EMIGRANT'S GUIDE TO CALIFORNIA, he recommended the following: 824 lbs. flour, 725 lbs. bacon, 75 lbs. coffee, 160 lbs. sugar, 200 lbs lard and suet, 200 lbs. beans, 135 lbs. dried peaches and apples, and 25 lbs. salt, pepper and saleratus (baking soda). This was enough for four persons.
Conlin also discusses the diet of miners who took the Panama route. After traveling by steamship from Atlantic or Gulf coast ports to Chagres, Panama, voyagers trekked across the isthmus, then waited in Panama City for a berth on another ship to carry them north to San Francisco. Several American-run hotels and restaurants in the crumbling Panamanian city catered to the forty-niners. Food was plentiful but expensive. From diaries kept by some of the miners, Conlin also describes shipboard fare as “generally abundant”.
Once they reached their destination, miners’ diets ranged from near starvation to culinary excellence. Inevitably there were men who had no cooking experience, having depended upon women to cook for them. Quoting Conlin, “Some miners told of filling a pot with rice but no water, placing it on the fire, and wondering why the result was not an edible fluffy piéce. Another put about two pounds of rice in a small tea kettle, and as it commenced boiling he commenced bailing out the rice, till all the vessels in the cabin were full.” Others, who knew their way around a kitchen – or campfire – ate well. One miner’s biscuits were said to “almost sail through the air.”
Salt Lake City was an important source of food, especially fresh fruit, for mountain mining camps. Fruits were a necessity as a prevention for scurvy. One Silver City, Idaho, food provider called the Mormon capital “one vast peach orchard”. Apples, plums, grapes and various grains could also be purchased there. Once the country’s first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, an even greater variety of foodstuffs flowed in from both east and west.
Miners loved to eat out when given the opportunity. “Restaurants” quickly sprang up in even the roughest mining camps. They were plain, homey eateries, set up in tents or crude shacks. Hungry miners found respite and a solid meal in such places. As larger, more elegant establishments moved in, menus also became fancier. Meals of small game, oysters, broiled steaks, or galantines (a classic French dish; meat-wrapped paté cooked in stock and served cold in its own jelly) were obtainable, though pricey.
In the 1860s, Virginia City, Nevada, was the home of several fine eating houses: the Downievill Restaurant, the Virginia Restaurant (“supplied with the best the market affords”), and the New World Restaurant (“the VERY BEST the market affords”). There were many other less boastful establishments.
In Colorado, 1859, while some Pike’s Peakers went hungry, others enjoyed abundant food in Denver. One restaurant provided meals at $12 per week. The City Bakery in Auraria let the miners pay with gold dust, for “meals at all hours.” The mile high city was also home to several popular seafood restaurants, despite being more than a thousand miles from salt water.
|Hotel de Paris in Georgetown, Colorado|
Georgetown, Colorado, dubbed “Silver Queen of the Rockies,” was known for its Hotel de Paris. Opened in 1875 by Louis Dupuy, a French chef and former miner, the establishment became world famous for its fine cuisine and well appointed rooms. Today the hotel is a museum. Visit online at: Hotel de Paris
As Joseph Conlin states in his introduction, the miners life was a “bizarre juxtaposition of elegance and rawness that bemused so many visitors to the western mining frontier and, since, has intrigued historians.”