Community Columns

Traveling around Cape Horn not enough for pioneer

When Charles Henry Huffman, called Henry, began his voyage around Cape Horn in September 1849, he knew he was headed for California and its gold riches. But he had no way of knowing what lay ahead in that strange new world, 17,000 dangerous miles away.

How astounded he would have been to learn that, in 20 some years, he would be living in a small California village named Modesto. And that there, he would build a large warehouse opposite the train depot on the corner of Eighth and I streets, described by historian Sol Elias as "one of the historic places of Modesto."

It became famous for being the site of the town's first July Fourth celebration, held in 1874, when a crowd of 1,500 people gathered inside, and a similar number outside, for patriotic festivities.

Even more amazing would seem his becoming the "Wheat King of Central California," the founder of another village called Merced and later the designer and builder of Merced's irrigation system.

He was 19 years old when, in New York, he signed on as second mate of a sailing ship called the Susan Drew, bound for California. Records in the J. Porter Shaw library of the Maritime Museum in San Francisco describe the ship, built in Massachusetts in 1839, which carried 36 passengers plus crew. It took 160 days to arrive on Feb. 26, 1850, in San Francisco. There, wrote Hubert Howe Bancroft in his "History of California," more than 500 ships were left "to swing at anchor in the bay, almost without guard," when their passengers, crews and even captains abandoned them for the lure of gold in the hills.

Many of those vessels were left to rot, some stripped and sunk, eventually becoming part of the landfill in the bay. Often referred to as the "Ghost Fleet," the "bones" of these ships became the city's foundation, particularly along the waterfront and the Embarcadero.

Henry Huffman was one of the crew members who deserted his ship, departing without collecting his wages. By the time he arrived at the mines, he was ill and endured the rigors of mining for only a few days. But being resourceful, he bought a wagon and mules and became a teamster, transporting supplies to the miners in the Mother Lode.

Huffman drove his wagon on the narrow, rutted Stockton-Sonora Road, which was one of the main routes to the southern mines from the valley. Rest stops such as Farmington developed to cater to the needs of weary travelers. Huffman was the first to team through Farmington, where he ultimately married Sarah Hewitt, future sister-in-law of Modesto's Robert McHenry.

Farmington, founded in 1848, is one of today's oldest functioning small historic towns in California. Once a Gold Rush boom town, it still has its original 1881 general store, 1889 cemetery and other historic buildings.

Huffman's next rest stop was probably at Eugene, a few miles from today's Oakdale. Eugene was founded by Daniel Kelliher and named for his son. Its meager remains include the Kelliher store, the 1892 Rosedale School, which closed in 1969, and a small 1886 cemetery. Subsequent stops that were Huffman destinations: the mining camps of the Mother Lode.

Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at columns@modbee.com.

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