This is the first column in a three-part series.
Among the myriad challenges of beginning a new life in a new land, sometimes just getting there is a story in itself. Take, for instance, the Auerbach brothers — and the teenager who clocked over 10,000 miles before turning east to Utah.
As a young boy living in Fordon, Prussia, Samuel H. Auerbach often stopped along the riverbank to watch sailing vessels navigate the long and busy Vistula River.
“Those boats, barges and log rafts outfitted with straw-thatched shanties floating down the muddy waters of the great river to the Baltic Sea held a wonderful fascination for me,” the German Jewish pioneer merchant wrote in detailed recollections.
“The sailors were stout, robust men who told stories of great adventures, and I wished I might go on a sea voyage to faraway lands.”
Samuel, born in 1847, was one of seven siblings. His beloved father traded in horses and cattle and was a teacher at a local college. When Samuel was 4 years old, he awakened temporarily blind at the same moment his father died from injuries sustained in a wagon mishap.
To help support the bereaved family, Auerbach’s older brother Frederick immigrated to New York in 1854. Riding the crest of California’s gold rush, he sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco, the state’s northern mother lode and the mining boomtown of Rabbit Creek. He opened a tent store for miners; partnered with another immigrant brother, Theodore; and sent money and letters home instructing Samuel to learn English.
“English was in truth a magic language for me,” Samuel wrote.
In early June 1862, Samuel got his wish to travel.
Promising to write and heed his mother’s advice to “leave drink, cards and women alone,” the adventurous 15-year-old traveled to Hamburg. Dazzled by the harbor’s “thousands of high masts and riggings,” he boarded the Borussia liner bound for America.
“The steerage quarters were congested, dark, dingy, dimly lit by faint-flamed lanterns, poorly ventilated and ill smelling,” he wrote. “When the boat rocked and pitched during rough weather, it was a terrible ordeal to remain below deck.”
Landing in New York City was breathtaking.
“The Civil War was in progress. New York was a martial city dotted with tents. Soldiers marched up and down the streets to the fife and drum of military music. Immigrants were offered $1,000 to enlist in the Union Army,” Samuel recorded. “Slave trafficking was unknown to me. The matter of buying and selling human beings like cattle made a profound impression.”
Samuel took in a whirlwind tour, including the lights and sounds of Broadway, and then headed West. He sailed on a side-wheeler crammed with hundreds of hopeful gold miners and merchants toward the Isthmus of Panama — the steamboat captain wary of Confederate ships.
Docking in Aspinwall (Colòn), Panama, Samuel discovered yellow fever was rampant and most water undrinkable. He also tasted his first sugarcane and in high spirits rode the newly built Panama Railway across the 50-mile Isthmus to the Pacific.
“The roadbed was in poor condition, the ground low and swampy, and water rose to the rails, but the dense jungles were more beautiful than anything else I had ever pictured,” he wrote. “Orchids bloomed in hues. Monkeys played and parrots, macaws, and toucans of every conceivable color abounded.”
Reaching the Pacific, Samuel embarked on a voyage on the 1,450-ton steamboat Orizaba. At dining tables mounted overhead with iron rods, Samuel ate hardtack and drank coffee sweetened with brown sugar resembling sand.
Warned of the Confederate steamship Alabama, the Orizaba sailed without lights at night. Passing close to Costa Rica and El Salvador, the ship loaded coal and fruits in Acapulco, hoisted beef cattle for fresh meat and the crew buried a body at sea, “far away in a place never to be visited by family or friends,” Samuel wrote.
On Aug. 17, 1862, an exhausted Samuel sailed into San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bay, boarded a coach to Rabbit Creek, greeted his brothers and went to bed.
Eileen Hallet Stone, author of “Hidden History of Utah,” may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources: unpublished manuscript pages graciously shared by the late Stan Sanders.