Tuesday, May 22, 2012


By Guest Author, Lyn Horner

Lyn Horner
Years ago, while cruising the American history shelves in a used book store, I came across a book titled:  BACON, BEANS, AND GALANTINES, Food And Foodways On The Western Mining Frontier. Written by Joseph R. Conlin, it’s a thoughtful study of how well old time miners ate and how they obtained their food. Today I will pass on a few tidbits from this fascinating book.

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.”



  1. Lyn, interesting post. I visualized miners living on hardtack and jerky and contracting scurvy.

  2. Caroline, thank you for having me here again on Sweethearts Of The West. It's always a pleasure.

    I, too, was surprised to learn how well some miners ate. Of course this wasn't the case with all of them. Many existed on a far less appetizing diet.Some even starved to death in the midst of plenty because they had no funds to buy food and were too proud to ask for help. Sad to read about those poor souls.

  3. Interesting. It makes sense that expensive restaurants would cater to miners, after all, they were bringing in the gold that supported them. Fun info.

  4. Paty, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about miners' eating habits.

  5. Hi Lyn. This is an exceptionally great and informative post for me as my stories are held in the 1849 gold rush era and after. One is on a wagon train west. I popped over to Amazon and ordered that book. It is always such a challenge to put in what kind of meal they are cooking or eating.


  6. Hi Lyn, Great read. I too was surprised at the variety of food offered in those days. The sequel I'm writing takes place in a fictitious mining town near Central City, CO. Gained some interesting info and will take a look at that book.

  7. Love the history Lyn. I know it takes time to capsulize this kind of history and thank you much for your time and effort!

  8. LYN--I've read stories of women who cooked for gold miners and ended up richer than the miners. People have to eat--and some people were smarter and catered to the needs of the miners instead.
    The amount of food the wagon train people had to take was astounding! But of course it didn't last the whole way.
    Your post today was so very good--thanks, Lyn...and come back to visit us the Sweethearts.

  9. Wonderful information, Lyn. I've been to Virginia City...awesome place.

    It cracks me up that they didn't learn to cook before undertaking such an adventure. Dang, it isn't rocket science LOL.

    This is very good info for me as I am hoping to set my second YA quasi-paranormal with the Donner Party. No gore though...


  10. Paisley, I hope the book helps you. It's so difficult to find little details that put readers in the time and place of our stories. When I spot an unusual book like Conlin's, I grab it.

    Cheri, part of Darlin' Druid is set in Alta, high up in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. Alta was a bustling mining town in 1872, but I had a dickens of a time digging up details about it. Best of luck with your research.

    Thanks, Char. I'm glad to see you here. We need to talk. Soon!

    Celia, you're so right. Merchants, saloon keepers and restaurant owners were the ones who benefitted most from the mining booms. Well, except for a very few lucky prospectors who struck it rich. So glad you like my post!

    Tanya, lucky you, getting to visit Virginia City! It's one of many historic places I'd love to see. You're brave to take on a subject like the Donner Party. I'd cry my eyes out researching, much less writing about it. When I read about the Mormon handcart companies that got caught in the mountains over winter, I balled for days. Those poor people!

  11. Lyn, thanks so much for this post--it's especially timely for me with my own book, Much Ado About Miners, which you have already helped me with. I enjoyed your book and the scenes in Alta, and it was apparent that you'd done considerable research, enriching the story immensely.

    Hard work and a hearty appetite--they do go together, don't they. I know Silver City, Idaho, had quite a few good eateries, including some of the saloons. Interesting that they'd get peaches from SLC when there were orchards around Boise City at the time. Maybe they didn't grow peaches, though.

  12. The Frenchman who went from being a miner to being a restaurateur made a sound choice. Gold and silver plays out, but everyone has to eat.

  13. Jacquie, I'm glad to be of help. Yes, I did do a lot of research on Alta, SLC and the Jordan River Valley. I like to make the settings as real as possible, as do you I know. Regarding peaches and other fruits, it's quite possible other places besides SLC were supply points. Apparently from Conlin's research, SLC was simply the biggest supplier.

  14. Alison, no argument there. Even miners who found their glory hole often lost everything to gambling, drink and/or unscrupulous investors -- exemplified by Blake Stanton in my novel Darlin' Druid. A good many miners were murdered to gain control of their claims.


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