Friday, October 14, 2016

A'Cousining in San Francisco with Julian Walbridge Rix, Landscape Painter, Part 1, by Susan Kinsella


Julian Walbridge Rix, about age 21 (~1872)
In the spring of 1868, Julian Walbridge Rix, just 17 and traveling alone, arrived in San Francisco, California for the second time in his life from his home in far-off Vermont.  This was no simple undertaking. For one, it was expensive. His Aunt Clara had sent him the $400 needed to finance the trip, equivalent to more than $11,000 in today’s dollars.

With comings and goings, this was actually the third time Julian had crossed the continent. The first time, he had just turned two years old. His mother, Chastina Walbridge Rix, and his Aunt Clara Walbridge were bringing him to San Francisco to reunite with his father, Alfred Rix. That time took a month, sailing by steamer from New York to Panama, crossing the mountains of the isthmus by mule, and then sailing up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco. Alfred and several of Julian’s uncles from both sides of the family, as well as more than 20 additional young men from their Vermont farming area, had left more than a year earlier to join the Gold Rush. 

Four years after arriving in San Francisco, Julian’s mother died and his Uncle Dustan Walbridge took him back across Panama to Peacham, Vermont to live with his grandmother and get a good New England education. But once done with his schooling, Julian immediately returned through Panama. The thirteen years he lived here in San Francisco formed the direction and foundation of his life, and that’s where we meet up. 

SUSAN: Julian, I’m so thrilled to meet you! Did you know that we’re second cousins three-times-removed?

JULIAN: Well, I’m right proud to meet you, too, ma’am. But, truth be told, I had no idea that you even existed. 

SUSAN: Of course you didn’t. I wasn’t alive in your day. In fact, we were born almost exactly 100 years apart. 

JULIAN: What makes you want to look me up now, then?

SUSAN: I notice that we have both lived our formative years here in San Francisco and I thought it would be fascinating to compare our experiences. For example, I know that you were born in Vermont. What brought you here?

JULIAN: The first time, I didn’t have much say in it. My mother was what was called in Vermont a “California widow” after my father and uncles left for the gold fields in 1851. A little over a year later, when I was two, we crossed the continent through Panama and joined him. How did you get to this fine city? 

SUSAN: I grew up in New York State, near where your mother’s cousin, Daniel Taylor, lived near Batavia. In my late 20s, I wanted to see more of the world and go as far west as possible, so I joined a cousin who was driving to California. It took us about five days to drive all the way across the country but I could have flown here in just a few hours. 

JULIAN: Drive? Fly? You must be just shootin’ your mouth off. 

Julian was born on December 30, 1850, the great-nephew of my great-great-great-grandmother Phebe Walbridge Taylor. Her son, my great-great-grandfather, Daniel Rockwell Taylor, was Julian’s mother’s first cousin. Julian’s mother, Chastina Walbridge Rix, was part of Phebe’s large family in Wolcott, Vermont, where Phebe had been born and married before moving with her husband 400 miles away to western New York (or “York,” as they called it). But the family was very close and determinedly stayed in touch over the distances and decades by writing frequent letters and visiting back and forth every few years. We are fortunate to still have a number of those letters and have included several stories from them on this TaylorBakerCousins blog. 

SUSAN: I’ve seen a daguerreotype of the house you lived In when you were here the first time as a youngster. In fact, you’re standing in front of the house, on the sidewalk, with your dog. Here, look at this. Do you remember that house at all?

JULIAN:  Bosh, you’ve got a picture?!? Let me see it. Well, I’ll be! That’s the old homestead on Market Street, just a few doors up from the corner with Kearny Street! Look, there’s my Ma and my Pa, and my little brother, Neddy. And my aunts and uncles up on the balcony! Wherever did you find this?

A daguerreotype of the Rix home in 1855, made by Robert H. Vance. Parents Alfred and Chastina are at the front door, with baby Edward in the carriage by the steps, next to 4-year-old Julian with his dog on the sidewalk. Chastina’s brother Dustan and her sister Clara are standing on the balcony. Two of Alfred’s brothers are also in the photo. The wooden sidewalk was the only one on Market Street between Kearny and Montgomery Streets. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California

SUSAN: It’s in a museum in Oakland, the city across San Francisco Bay that was just being founded when this picture was taken. 

JULIAN: That was a great neighborhood. Lots of houses of all sizes, dirt packed hard in the streets except for a big sand hill a block away in the middle of Market Street. Wagons had to detour up a block to Geary Street to get around it. ‘Course when it rained, the streets all turned to mud. I remember the water wagon coming ‘round to fill the water barrel that we had in our kitchen. Everybody walked to a nearby barber shop to take baths once a week. Great location – we were only two and a half blocks from the Bay. 

SUSAN: But now, you know, your house is no longer there and Market Street is in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. It’s lined with stores and office buildings, many of them more than 20 stories tall. And Market Street is paved, extending at least six more blocks into the Bay now. 

Lotta's Fountain, San Francisco
I know that place where Julian’s family house used to be. Several years ago, when my son Alex was in high school, we got up in the middle of the night on April 18th and drove in to San Francisco to join a crowd at Lotta’s Fountain. We were all there at 5:12 a.m. to commemorate the anniversary of the great 1906 earthquake that had flattened and burned down much of San Francisco. Lotta’s Fountain had been a meeting point for the desperate earthquake survivors back then. Since Lotta’s Fountain was installed on Market Street in 1875, Julian would have known it. However, the great earthquake occurred after he had died. I had not realized, when I was there for that earthquake commemoration, that Lotta’s Fountain is only a few doors down from where Julian’s family home had stood.

Despite the century that exists between us, I am delighted to find that Julian and I share a love for this beautiful, fascinating city of San Francisco, and for the land of California.  

JULIAN: I loved San Francisco. Lived there all through my twenties. Such an exciting place. Pretty tough to make a living there, but trying to was so full of grand adventures. 

SUSAN: I know, it’s still exciting even though it’s completely different now. I arrived here in the late 1970s with only $100, carrying my clothes in a paper bag. I felt like it was a crucible, putting me through the fire and forming me as I tried to find work and a path to my future. 

When Julian arrived at 17, he went to live with his father, Alfred Rix, and stepmother, an Irishwoman named Margt, and their children. Julian’s brother, Edward (Ned), four years younger, had been living nearby with his Aunt Clara and her husband, Russell Rogers, and now he moved in with his brother and his father’s family, too. 

JULIAN: Do you know Laurel Hill Cemetery out on Lone Mountain, on the edge of the city? My mother is buried there. When I first went to see her grave, I was angry that my father hadn’t had the decency to put a stone marker on it to honor her. 

SUSAN: Oh, Julian, I don’t know how to tell you this. I do know Lone Mountain but it is no longer a cemetery. What happened to it is shocking.

Soon after Julian arrived in 1868, he went to his mother’s gravesite on the outskirts of the city. Despite the plot being precisely described by the funeral home that had buried her, Julian had trouble finding it. Eventually he realized that it was overgrown and anonymous because his father had never placed a headstone for her, only outlining the plot with some random boards that had not fared well in the eleven years since her death. Julian vowed that when he had enough money, he would place a stone to commemorate her and make her grave one of the most elaborate in the whole cemetery. I do not know whether he actually got to do that.

More than a hundred years later, I lived on Lone Mountain, possibly right near where Chastina had been buried. But now there is no cemetery. In the early 1900s, the city of San Francisco, bursting at its seams, voted to move its cemeteries south, beyond its borders, in order to make room for the city’s expansion out to the Pacific Ocean. After decades of civic arguments (so typical of San Francisco!), the transfer of nearly 47,000 bodies was accomplished by the early 1940s. Most likely Chastina was not identified, especially if she had not had a stone placed on her grave. Even elaborate crypts and mausoleums were broken up and their marble used to reinforce seawalls, while their inhabitants were moved to a new city just south of San Francisco that is mostly graveyards. 

Eventually, Lone Mountain became the site of a Catholic women’s college and then of the University of San Francisco, a private Catholic Jesuit school. My apartment on Lone Mountain was right behind the university’s law school and a block from Golden Gate Park. Julian and I probably walked many of the same streets, although the lanes of the cemetery that he knew were quite different from the residential streets of my neighborhood. 

My apartment building on Grove Street when I lived on Lone Mountain. The arrow points to the bay window of my apartment, with my kitchen window just to the right of it. My Mom (Aunt CB) used to climb out my bay window onto the fire escape to smoke cigarettes when she visited. 

JULIAN: What?!? You lived where my mother’s grave was? Why, that’s a sacrilege! 

SUSAN: Yes, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know the history at the time; I didn’t know that it had been a cemetery. But now I realize why the coffeehouse down the street was called Sacred Grounds.



Susan Kinsella said...

In addition to consulting many different sources, I want to give great thanks and special appreciation to Lynn A. Bonfield, an archivist at the California Historical Society and San Francisco State University, who researched and co-authored Roxana’s Children: The Biography of a Nineteenth-Century Vermont Family (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), about Chastina Walbridge Rix’s family, which includes my family, as well. It is here that I first met Julian Walbridge Rix. Lynn also transcribed, edited and published Alfred and Chastina’s joint journal, New England to Gold Rush California: The Journal of Alfred and Chastina W. Rix, 1849-1854 (The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2011), a treasure trove of commentary for our Taylor family that mentions letters to and from (some corresponding to the letters that we hold), as well as visits with, several of our direct ancestors.

Susan Kinsella said...

It boggles me to consider the trip that Chastina and Clara made with baby Julian to get to San Francisco. Still, they were able to pay for first class tickets on the steamer that took them from New York to Panama. Julian’s Uncle Ira Rix traveled on the same ship in steerage.

Once in Panama, the group took a train for 20 miles, enchanted by the birds, flowers and foliage in the dense tropical forest along the way. The next morning, they were rowed for hours by “hardy natives” in a small boat up a jungle river, the caws of parrots echoing around them. After that, they transferred to mules for the 24-mile mountain crossing to Panama City. Chastina paid a native man $14 (equivalent to nearly $450 today) to carry Julian on forest footpaths, while she rode a mule side-saddle on a separate trail and rarely saw her baby until they reached the other side at the end of a very long day. Clara, more adventurous, rode astride her mule, wearing bloomers. In Panama City, they were eventually able to catch another side-wheel steamer up to San Francisco, although more than 50 of their fellow-passengers succumbed to yellow fever along the way and were buried at sea.

Julian's father, Alfred, and his band of more than two dozen Vermont farmers, had crossed through Nicaragua more than a year before. And these were the "easy" versions of the cross-country trip, taking 4-6 weeks. Many others who couldn't afford the "short-cut" through Central America took months to go around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America. Whew!

Pat Herdeg said...

Wonderful story!! I love the back and forth between the two San Franciscoans of different centuries. Such great work and research for Julian's life story. And, the painting you picked to top the blog is fantastic!