XXIII

A California coal mine⁠—​A Hartford coal mine⁠—​Mysterious subterranean canal on the isthmus.

Some twelve years ago or so, in the early days of Californian immigration, a curious little business humbug came off about six miles from Monterey. A United States officer, about the year 1850, was on his way into the interior on a surveying expedition, with a party of men, a portable forge, a load of coal, and sundry other articles. At the place in question, six miles inland, the Lieutenant’s coal wagon “stalled” in a “tule” swamp. With true military decision the greater part of the coal was thrown out to extricate the team, and not picked up again. The expedition went on and so did time, and the latter, in his progress, had some years afterward dried up the tule swamp. Some enterprising prospectors, with eyes wide open to the nature of things, now espied one fine morning the lumps of coal, sticking their black noses up out of the mud. It was a clear case⁠—there was a coal mine there! The happy discoverers rushed into town. A company was at once organized under the mining laws of the state of California. The corporators at first kept the whole matter totally secret except from a few particular friends who were as a very great favor allowed to buy stock for cash. A “compromise” was made with the owner of the land, largely to his advantage. When things had thus been set properly at work, specimens of coal were publicly exhibited at Monterey. There was a gigantic excitement; shares went up almost out of sight. Twelve hundred dollars in coin for one share (par $100) was laughed at. About this time a quiet honest Dutchman of the vicinity passing along by the “mine” one evening with his cart, innocently and unconsciously picked up the whole at one single load and carried it home. Prompt was the discovery of the “sell” by the stockholders, and voluble and intense, it is said, their profane expressions of dissatisfaction. But the original discoverers of the mine vigorously protested that they were “sold” themselves, and that it was only a case of common misfortune. It is however reported that a number of persons in Monterey, after the explosion of the speculation, remembered all about the coal-wagon part of the business, which they said, the excitement of the “company” had put entirely out of their heads.

An equally unfounded but not quite so barefaced humbug came off a good many years ago in the good old city of Hartford, in Connecticut, according to the account given me by an old gentleman now deceased, who was one of the parties interested. This was a coal mine in the State House yard. It sounds like talking about getting sunbeams out of cucumbers⁠—but something of the sort certainly took place.

Coal is found among rocks of certain kinds, and not elsewhere. Among strata of granite or basalt for instance, nobody expects to find coal. But along with a certain kind of sandstone it may reasonably be expected. Now the Hartford wiseacres found that tremendously far down under their city, there was a sort of sandstone, and they were sure that it was the sort. So they gathered together some money⁠—there is a vast deal of that in Hartford, coal or no coal⁠—organized a company, employed a Mining Superintendent, set up a boring apparatus, and down went their hole into the ground⁠—an orifice some four or six inches across. Through the surface stratum of earth it went, and bang it came against the sandstone. They pounded away, with good courage, and got some fifties or hundreds of feet further. Indefinable sensations were aroused in their minds at one time by the coming up among the products of boring, of some chips of wood. Now wood, shortly coal, they thought. They might, I imagine, have brought up some pieces of boiled potato or even of fresh shad, provided it had fallen down first. They dug on until they got tired, and then they stopped. If they had gone down ten thousand feet they would have found no coal. Coal is found in the new red sandstone; but theirs was the old red sandstone, which is a very fine old stone itself, but in which no coal was ever found, except what might have been put there on purpose, or possibly some faint indications. The hole they made, however, as my informant gravely observed, was left sticking in the ground, and if he is right is to this day a sort of appendix or tail to the well northwest corner of the State House Square. So, I suppose, anyone who chooses can go and poke down there after it and satisfy himself about the accuracy of this account. Such an inquirer ought to find satisfaction, for “truth lies in the bottom of a well” says the proverb. Yet some ill natured skeptics have construed this to mean that all will tell lies sometimes, for⁠—as they accent it, even “Truth lies, at the bottom of a well!”

Still a different sort of business humbug, again, was a wonderful story which went the rounds about fifteen years ago, and which was cooked up to help some one or other of the various enterprises for new routes by Central America to California. This story started, I believe, in the New Orleans Courier. It was, that a French Doctor of Vera Paz in Guatemala, while making a canal from his estate to the sea, discovered, away up at the very furthest extremity of the Gulf of Honduras, a vast ancient canal, two hundred and forty feet wide, seventy feet deep, and walled in on both sides with gigantic masses of rough cut stone. The Doctor at once gave up his own trifling modern excavation, and plunged into an explanation of this vast ancient one, as zealously as if he were probing after some uncertain bullet in a poor fellow’s leg. The monstrous canal carried him in a straight line up the country, to the southwestward. Some twenty miles or so inland it plunged under a volcano!

But see what a French doctor is made of!

Cutting down the great, old trees that obstructed the entrance, and procuring a canoe with a crew of Indians, in he went. The canal became a prodigious tunnel, of the same width and depth of water, and vaulted three hundred and thirty five feet high in the living rock. Nothing is said about the bowels of the volcano, so that we must conclude either that such affairs are not planted so deep as is supposed, or that the fire-pot of the concern was shoved one side or bridged over by the canallers, or that the Frenchman had some remarkably good style of Fire Annihilator, or else that there is some mistake!

Eighteen hours of incessant travel brought our intrepid M.D. safe through to the Pacific Ocean; during which time, if the maps of that country are of any authority, he passed under quite a number of mountains and rivers. The trip was not dark at all, as shafts were sunk every little way, which lighted up the interior quite well, and then the volcano gave⁠—or ought to have given⁠—some light inside. Indeed, if the doctor had only thought of it, I presume he would have noticed double rows of street gas lamps on each side of the canal! The exclusive right to use this excellent transit route has not, to my knowledge, been secured to anybody yet. It will be observed that ships as large as the Great Eastern could easily pass each other in this canal, which renders it a sure thing for any other vessel unless that shrewd and grasping fellow the Emperor Louis Napoleon, has got hold of this canal and is keeping it dark for some still darker purposes of his own⁠—as for instance to run his puppet Maximilian into for refuge, when he is run out of Mexico⁠—it is therefore still in the market. And my publication of the facts effectually disposes of the Emperor’s plan of secrecy, of course.