At the age of 79, in 1900, Melvin A. Halsted wrote about his adventurous life as a builder, founder of the Town of Lowell, railroad builder and school benefactor. His story in his own words will appear in three monthly installments this summer as Lowell prepares to celebrate its sesquicentennial.
When I was 10 years old the first train that carried passengers started from Albany to Schnectady, twenty two miles. The first engine did not weigh one ton. Flat rails were used, spiked on 6 by 6 timbers with ties four feet apart. The first passenger cars were stage coaches with bodies put on four low open cast iron wheels. That was 1831.
This same year the Mormon Church was started at Palmyra, N.Y., by Joseph Smith and Sidney Ridgon of Buffalo, N.Y. I will give a history of them some other time.
In 1836 we migrated to western New York. I worked on a farm for $7 a month. I worked seven months and got $49. I did not waste a cent that summer and went to school in the winter.
Our family moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1837, the same year Jackson left the presidency. Went to school that winter. Learned stonecutter's trade and drove horses on canal boat from Dayton to Cincinnati, then bought a farm on the Miami River one mile below Dayton in 1839.
In the winter of 1840-41, Miss M.C. Foster and myself united with the First Baptist Church at Dayton. I erected a house and a large barn before I was of age. In 1842 I got married to Martha C. Foster. That fall we visited Mrs. Halsted's father's family 25 miles south of Indianapolis. While she was visiting I went across Illinois 30 miles across Grand Prairie without seeing a house and struck the Illinois River at Beardstown, thence by way of Carthage to Nauvoo.
The Mormons had been at Nauvoo for two years. I stayed there one day and night. The Temple was up one story high. Did not see Joseph Smith. He had so much trouble with people that were not Mormons that his life was not safe, so he went in disguise. They had a temporary roof over the basement of the Temple and a baptismal fountain on the backs of twelve carved oxens that looked as natural as life.
The fountain was twenty feet long by twelve feet wide, oval at each end, and four feet deep. Stairs ran up to the top then down into the water, then out on the other side down stairs. They then baptized for each relative they knew of.
From there I went up the Mississippi River thirty miles to Burlington, Iowa, thence direct back to where Mrs. Halsted was, thence home to Dayton, Ohio.
In 1844, we went to Lake County, Indiana, and were so pleased with the country that the next year I sold out and moved there. I bought 80 acres of land off Simeon Beedle one mile east of West Creek on the state road. I then bought other land and broke so I had two hundred acres under cultivation before I sold the farm.
In 1848 I went where Lowell is and in company with O.E. Haskin erected a saw mill on the place where the brick flour mill now stands. There had already been some work done for a saw mill. The dam was partially built by A.R. Nichols and others. In the meantime the commencement of the dam had washed away. Just before this time O.E. Haskin and myself made arrangements with A.R. Nichols to buy the mill privileges and land so Nichols let his first payment go back to the Canal Company and Haskin & Halsted entered the east half of southwest quarter of section 23, town 33, range 9 west and deeded back part of the 80 acres as we agreed to A.R. Nichols.
The land referred to is where Lowell now stands. We put up a dam and got the saw mill running the winter of 1848. The next year we burnt400,000 bricks. As bricks sold slow, we built the first brick house in what was Lowell after that. I moved into the house the spring of 1850 (where I now reside).
April 2 of that same spring I started for California on horse back. Went to LaSalle on the Illinois River, took my horse aboard a steamer, went to St. Louis, then by steamer to St. Joseph, Mo.; bought oxen and wagon and started as soon as the grass was good; May 15th went northwest 250 miles to Grand Island, Nebraska; thence to Fort Kearney, thence 200 miles to junction of South and North Platte (several miles before we got to junction the cholera was fearful; hundreds died).
We stopped the wagon train long enough to bury them. One very sad case -- a mother with infant at the breast and six or seven small children. The mother was taken out of the wagon and buried amid the weeping of the husband, children and those present; thence three hundred miles to Fort Laramy, thence 150 miles to ferry North Platte, thence thirty miles to Sweet Water, thence to Independence Rock, thence Devils Gap.
About five miles south of the trail three of us went up a very high mountain while the teams were resting. This was July 12, 1850. The mountain averaged forty-five degree slope. The first mile brought us to perpetual snow. When the snow faces the shining sun it becomes like a deep bed of hail stone. We set our feet from four to six inches into it at every step. We went about a mile higher.
When we got to the highest peak we had a wonderful view. In that atmosphere we could see 100 miles and saw countless numbers of mountain peaks in all directions. The snow or hail freezes night and morning so we cannot go up. We got so high it was difficult to breath.
We then went to South Pass. The water now runs to the Pacific Ocean. Before this the water all ran into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. We then went to Little Sandy Creek, thence Big Sandy Creek, thence Big Sandy, thence junction Salk Lake Trail, thence across fifty miles of desert, starting at 4:00 in the afternoon, travel all night till noon next day, and arrived at Green River.
Rested that day, traded my oxen and packed thru from Green River to Bear River Steamboat Spring. The water is hot and steam puffs out of the rocks. Then to a flat wide valley full of very deep volcanic craters, thence to Raft River, thence to City of Rocks where the rocks are from one to two hundred feet high, then to 1000 Springs Valley. The place is 100 miles northwest of Salt Lake. We camped at City of Rocks six weeks. Afterwards fourteen men camped in same place and seven got killed in a fight with the Indians.
Then we went to Goose Creek, then to Goose Creek Mountains, thence to head of Humbolt River 300 miles to Sink or Spread, then fifty-five miles over a desert to the sink of the Carson River. The water does not sink. It is all taken up by evaporation.
The water at the mouths of both rivers spreads out in shallow lakes from one to three feet deep, ten miles wide. When the water is high, say two months in a year a crust of white salaratus half an inch thick, which I have used, will form on the sand smooth and hard. On this desert there is hundreds of dead oxen, horses and mules. A great many abandoned their wagons, tools, clothing, bedding, etc.
About 15 miles before we got to the Carson River there was a ridge of deep loose sand. Many animals could not get through and would just lay down. The people could not stay with them long without water, so they would take what provisions the men, women and children could carry and leave all after taking off the yokes and harness.
Here provisions were very scarce. There were some men who anticipated what the situation would be. When the migration struck the Carson 250 miles before we got to the mines they met the people with a few wagons of provisions.
A pie was $2; flour $200 per hundred; a single pound of anything -- tea, coffee, or sugar -- was $2. I paid $1 for a sweet potato and $1.50 for a pint of flour.
I went on up the river in company with many hundreds of others 150 miles when we came to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, thence 100 miles to the mines on the middle fork of the American River. While crossing the mountains there was some snow.
One night where we camped we saw in the morning near where we slept some grizzly bear tracks. It was attracted there by the smell of our cooking. It did not disturb us but crept softly away.
Here we were on the shores of Lake Bigler but he being a rebel the name was changed to Lake Taho [Tahoe].
When we got to the mines I worked a few days at $8 per day, then went to Sacramento seventy miles further by way of Sutter's saw mill where the gold was first discovered in the fall of 1848.
The saw mill was put up on the south fork of the American River especially for sawing lumber for a flouring mill nine miles east of Sacramento on the American River; the saw mill was fifty miles further up the river.
The gold was discovered while digging the lower race to the saw mill. The flour mill was never finished. The lumber that the mill cut was sold for $200 per thousand for rockers, long Toms, sluices and other appliances to separate gold from the gravel and sand.
I arrived at Sacramento in September, 1850. The cholera was very bad. I met D.C. Haskin. He introduced me to a ranchman. In cutting wood and doing other work I made $500 in six weeks. I went down the Sacramento River forty miles to get away from the cholera. When the cholers abated I went back to the city and bought and sold hay. wood, hides and many other things. I built a ferry boat that winter. Times were good and I made some money.
Part two of "The Autobiography of Melvin Halsted" will appear in June -- the story of Mr. Halsted's long and exciting return trip from California.
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