Usually I choose a Gutenberg book based on ancestors I’m researching, or perhaps the area they lived or came from. This book just kinda fell into my lap, or rather my reader. I didn’t have a particular subject in mind, or era, or geographic area, when I went looking. Page after page of books scrolled by and nothing in particular caught my eye until I saw this title: The Treasure of Hidden Valley, published by Chicago: Forbes & Company in 1915. It sounded mysterious, intriguing, maybe even a little dangerous. So I downloaded it. The book didn’t disappoint. It did contain mystery, intrigue, danger, and even some romance.
Set in the early 1900’s, it’s about a young man who left his Uncle after they disagreed about his destiny. His Uncle had his life all planned out, right down to his job and who he should marry. The young man, Roderick, didn’t agree, so after a heated discussion they parted ways.
A letter from his deceased father, riding cross county on a train to Wyoming, meeting new people, learning a new profession out West, and eventually encountering a young woman rancher, take up most of the book. I’ll leave the treasure part alone and focus on what struck me about the book.
Roderick eventually ends up in San Francisco in mid April of 1906. Does that date ring a bell with you? It didn’t with me, until I read the following about him sitting on an iron bench in a little park very early in the morning:
THE contrast between the scenes in this gay city and the quiet hill life away up among the crags, the deep canyons and snow-clad peaks of southern Wyoming was indeed remarkable.
It was the morning of April eighteen, 1906, and the night had almost ended. There was a suggestion of purple on the eastern horizon—the forerunner of coming day. The crescent moon was hanging high above Mt. Tamalpais.
The town clock tolled the hour of five and still Roderick waited. Presently he was filled with a strange foreboding, a sense of oppression, that he was unable to analyze. He wondered if it presaged refusal of the great love surging in his heart for Gail Holden, the fair rider of the ranges, the sweet singer of the hills. An indescribable agitation seized him.
The minutes went slowly by. His impatience increased. He looked again at his watch and it was only a quarter after five. The city was wrapped in slumber.
Then suddenly and without warning Roderick was roughly thrown from his seat and sent sprawling onto the grass among the shrubbery. He heard an angry growling like the roar from some rudely awakened Goliath of destruction deep down in earth’s inner chambers of mystery—a roar of wrath and madness and resistless power. The ground was trembling, reeling, upheaving, shaking and splitting open into yawning fissures, while hideous noises were all around. Buildings about the park were being rent asunder and were falling into shapeless heaps of ruin.
That time period in San Francisco could only be The Great Earthquake. The author did a good job interweaving Roderick’s story amongst the devastation and destruction surrounding him. I knew it was bad, but after following Rockerick around through the city, and seeing it through his eyes, I had a new understanding of just how horrific it was.
The author ended the book with an Afterword, more details about the earthquake, in case “my readers will care to peruse a more detailed description of that tragic happening.” A small excerpt:
IT was on April 18, 1906, that San Francisco was shaken by a terrible earthquake which in its final effects resulted in the city being cremated into cinders and gray ashes…
…The trembling, gyrating, shaking and swaying vibrations, the swiftly following outbursts of fire, the cries of those pinned beneath fallen débris and of the thousands who were seeking to escape by fleeing into the parks and toward the open country, produced the wildest pandemonium.
It was the dawn of a new day abounding in hideous noises—detonations of falling masonry, the crash of crumbling, crushing walls, the shrieks of maimed and helpless victims—and all the people stupefied with a terrible fear, women weeping in hysterical fright and everyone expectant of they knew not what, unable to think coherently or reason, yet their voices filling the stricken city with cries and moans of heart-rending terror and lamentation. And all the while there came up from somewhere an unearthly threatening roar that awed the multitude into unnatural submissive bewilderment.
There is a description of what was in the newspapers of the day, “You have read in the newspapers that the cosmic disturbances of the San Francisco earthquake extended entirely across the continent. Indeed the shocks were felt distinctly in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other Atlantic points.” Clear across the continent – the aftershocks were felt clear across the the whole United States? My high school history class didn’t supply details about the vastness of the earthquake, nor the destruction and devilish fire that consumed so much of the city. Or perhaps I was just too young to comprehend.
At any rate, my mind was stretched thinking about relatives in the middle of the US, or especially on the East coast who had relatives in San Francisco. How long did it take for them to make contact? Some must have never had contact from their loved ones. And the anxious days and weeks of waiting. How sad to never know for sure what happened to them.
What I learned from reading the book and living with the characters is our ancestors faced trials and tribulations that we might not think about unless we look in the newspapers and history books of the places they lived. And I’m not talking about Ancestry’s life story feature which throws in a couple historical sentences, like my 5 yr old g-grandmother watching stocks in the newspaper.
Use Gutenberg books, the Internet Archive, Google books or newspapers, newspapers.com, or local historical societies to learn about the time and place your ancestors lived. It may give you a new perspective on their lives and the challenges they faced, or what they endured.