A Gold Rush Libation

As legend has it, the martini was invented for hard-fisted California gold miners in 1849, only back then it was called a “Martinez.” San Francisco was the major port, and gold-seekers journeyed from there to the gold fields on steamboats that plied the Sacramento River. Steamboat travel was heavy and speed was essential, if the ship lines wanted to make money. The fastest ship was the two-wheeler steamship Chrysopolis, which typically left the San Francisco docks at 7:00 a.m. By the time it reached the town of Martinez on the south side of the Carquinez Straight it needed to stop for wood and water, and sometimes it was laid over because of fog. When this happened, passengers left the ship for the saloons in town. Out of pure commercial necessity the ship’s bartender William Garson (or Garrison) was inspired to invent a way to keep paying passengers aboard. He hit upon the formula of 3 parts gin to 1 part Sonoma Valley Sauterne, sometimes substituting vermouth, adding an olive from the trees on the surrounding hills. He named the drink for the town. Miners drank it down and called for more—and remained on ship. Supposedly, Mark Twain introduced the drink to Chicago. Today martini aficionados sip from the wide brim of elegant cone-shaped crystal glassware fluting upward from a thin stem. Gold miners, who disdained “fancy drinks,” probably consumed theirs from something more akin to a jelly jar.

An Ace up the Sleeve

The mostly greenhorn gold rushers who invaded northern California in 1849 were quickly followed by those who came to “fleece” the miners of their hard-gotten gold: saloon owners, professional gamblers from Mississippi riverboats, and free-booting conmen who preyed on the lonely who were far from Continue reading An Ace up the Sleeve

The Elephant as Metaphor

The gold rushers who swarmed into California hoping— but failing— to find an easy fortune, boosted the folklore phrase “I’ve seen the elephant” into national usage during the 1850s. A metaphor unused and forgotten today, it once meant to experience something extraordinary and dangerous, and to Continue reading The Elephant as Metaphor


Bells began frantically ringing in Sacramento ten minutes past eleven o’clock on the night of November 2, 1852, when smoke was seen billowing from a millinery shop.  A gale wind had already risen that night, instantly fanning flames greedily fueled by boards, shingles, canvas, gunny-sacked grains; barrels of liquor, kerosene lamps and tallow candles. Firefighters rushed in, but without cisterns they were helpless to control a crackling, roaring wall of flame that some said was visible from 100 miles away. The inferno blasted sporadically across forty square city blocks, claiming 13 lives, devouring most structures yet by-passing others. Several new brick stores, supposedly impervious to flames, were demolished.  More than 80 percent of Sacramento was reduced to rubble; hundreds lost their homes, clothing, provisions and furnishings. The terrible conflagration, known ever afterward as The Great Fire, occurred on election night, prompting many citizens to suspect arson–but this suspicion was never proven.

Trick or Treat

As legend tells us, tomorrow is the night when spirits of the dead haunt the homes and neighborhoods they knew when they were alive, and need to be appeased lest they do some harm. On Halloween—as they have done since the Middle Ages in Europe—children in costume roam door to door saying “Trick or Treat,” Continue reading Trick or Treat