Charles Nordhoff (1830-1901) was born in Prussia and grew up in the United States where he became a prominent journalist. He traveled in Hawaii and throughout the U.S. and was a reporter for eastern newspapers. He was the author of, among other works, California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence (1872). The book is still widely read and in its time captured large audiences in the United States, England, and Canada, becoming the most influential of the many travel guides produced in the second half of the nineteenth century to persuade people to migrate to California. Nordhoff himself eventually settled in California, living for a time in Ojai and retiring in Coronado. His guidebook provides a fascinating look at California in the decades after the Gold Rush but before the transformations wrought by later developments like the coming of the oil industry and the entertainment industry.

Charles Nordhoff
Charles Nordhoff

            Nordhoff initially wrote California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence as a series of articles published in Harper’s Magazine, the New York Tribune and the New York Evening Post. In the Preface to the book, Nordhoff says that his purpose is to persuade Americans thinking of tourism or migration to turn from any thoughts they may have of going to Rome, the Alps, or Paris and “think also of their own country, and particularly of California, which has so many delights in store for the tourist, and so many attractions for the farmer or settler looking for a mild and healthful climate and a productive country.”

Major Western railway lines during Nordhoff's time
Major Western railway lines during Nordhoff’s time

Nordhoff does not volunteer the information that his writing has been done on commission for the Central Pacific Railroad. This unstated fact is perhaps the best way to resolve what otherwise seems to be a contradiction.

Roughly the first half of the book dwells upon the scenery a well-off tourist will encounter while making the journey from Chicago to San Francisco on board the new transcontinental railroad, opened in 1869, and the comfortable accommodations which are available. Most of the second half of the book, on the other hand, is addressed to Easterners who might be persuaded to consider moving west permanently, either as farmers or as residents of the growing number of health and retirement communities being established in the state, based on agriculture, particularly in the mild climate of Southern California, which was thought to have medicinal properties in according to nineteenth century assumptions about the value of sunlight.

The only large interest these two audiences would have had in common would have been willingness to use the railroad. A secondary feature of both audiences would have been their similar economic capacities. The tourists would have needed sufficient funds to pay for traveling in great comfort. The farmers, retirees and health-seekers would not have needed quite as much money to achieve their goals, as long as they had enough cash for a down payment and could borrow money, but they still would have needed significant means. Nordhoff was not addressing laborers heading west, even those who might travel in the low-cost sections of the trains.

In his first chapter, Nordhoff says, “Though California has been celebrated in books, newspapers, and magazines for more than twenty years, it is really almost as little known to the tourist…as it was to Swift,” who wrote, quoting Swift, that his mythical kingdom of Laputa was an “unknown tract of America westward of California.”

The typical New Yorker, Nordhoff claims, lives in a city “overridden by a semi-barbarous foreign population,” has to endure “incapable servants, private as well as public,” and must put up with “dirty streets, bad gas, beggars … improper conveyances” and “high taxes, theft, and all kinds of public wrong.” Such a person, Nordhoff argues, ought to consider moving west. “There are no dangers on the beaten track to California,” and at journey’s end in San Francisco the traveler will find elegant hotels and restaurants as fine as any in the East, along with well-maintained roads both in and outside the city, and inspiring sights nearby like Yosemite, the Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Nevada.

Without seeing such places, Nordhoff maintains, no American can “honestly say that he has seen his own country, or that he even has an intelligent idea of its greatness.” And the journey by rail from New York to San Francisco can be completed in a mere seven days. Fare: Chicago to San Francisco $118, plus $3 per day for sleeping car.

Nordhoff assumes that the traveler will avail himself of the fine accommodations available in the new Pullman cars, which make the journey to California comfortable not only for men traveling alone but also for families. Moving along at a comfortable twenty-two miles per hour, the trains offer fascinating views of the passing scene, fine dining, comfortable berths for sleeping, and “all the sedentary avocations and amusements of a parlor at home.”

Pullman car interior
Pullman car interior

Nordhoff’s lush description of the Pullman experience seems of a piece with the portrayals of the world outside the train that follow. These mark the start of the numerous invocations of the “railway sublime” – a category identified by later literary scholars — which are found throughout the book and which adapt older forms of romantic description of landscape to the experience of seeing everything from a train window. Nordhoff takes up such portrayals slightly west of the Mississippi: “And from the hour you leave Omaha, you will find every thing new, curious, and wonderful; the Plains, with their buffalo, antelope, and prairie-dogs; the mountains, which, as you approach Cheyenne, lift up their glorious snow-clad summit; the deep canyons and gorges which lead from Wasatch into Ogden, and whose grim scenery will seem to you, perhaps, to form a fit entrance to Salt Lake; the indescribable loveliness and beauty of the mountain range which shelter the Mormon capital; the extended, apparently sterile, but, as long-headed men begin to think, really fertile alkali and sage-grub plain; the snow-sheds which protect the Central Pacific as you ascend the Sierra; and, on the morning of the last day of your journey, the grand and exciting rush down the Sierra from Summit to Colfax, winding around Cape Horn and half a hundred more precipitous cliffs, down which you look out of the open ‘observation-car’ as you sweep from a height of 7000 feet to a level of 2500 in a ride of two hours and a half.”

Trestle on Central Pacific Railroad
Trestle on Central Pacific Railroad

Nordhoff adds: “A grander or more exhilarating ride than that from Summit to Colfax, on the Central Pacific Railroad, you can not find in the world. The scenery is various, novel and magnificent.” Similar evocations of the sublime appear throughout Nordhoff’s book. Many are well written, enjoyable and informative; and they do capture the truth that the landscape is awe-inspiring. But all the descriptions are marshaled to generate the single conclusion sought by the railways executives who have commissioned Nordhoff. He writes: “On the plains and in the mountains the railroad will have seemed to you the great fact. Man seems but an accessory; he appears to exist only that the road may be worked; and I never appreciated until I crossed the Plains the grand character of the old Romans as road-builders.” Further: “The ‘Great American Desert,’ which we school-boys a quarter of a century ago saw on the map of North America, has disappeared at the snort of the Iron Horse.” And: “One can not help but speculate upon what kind of men we Americans shall be when all these now desolate plains are filled; when cities shall be found where now only the lonely depot or the infrequent cabin stands…. No other nation has ever spread over so large a territory or so diversified a surface as ours.”

Nordhoff provides a long chapter voicing his admiration for the dynamic “railroad capitalists” who developed the “magnificent and daring” Central Pacific Railroad that takes the traveler to the end of his journey. He re-tells in heroic terms the by that time well-known story of a group of Sacramento merchants who not only opposed the pro-slavery Democratic Party of San Francisco to establish the Free-Soil Republican Party in California but then also managed the financing and construction of their half of the Transcontinental route, which Nordhoff calls “probably the greatest feat of railroad building on record.” Strategically he concludes his chapter with a description of the Central Pacific main offices in Sacramento, the headquarters of a company that “now employs more men than all the other manufacturers in California,” more than 7,000. He adds purposively that the headquarters building in Sacramento also happens to house “the most complete land-office in the United States — not excepting that at Washington.” From this building the Central Pacific markets the thousands of parcels of land given to it by the federal government as partial payment for constructing the Transcontinental Railroad.

Group portrait of a Central Pacific maintenance crew in Sacramento
Group portrait of a Central Pacific maintenance crew in Sacramento

More tour-related information follows. Nordhoff advises visitors to San Francisco to be sure to visit the Cliff House with its stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, a local animal park where one can see “a good collection of grizzly bears, and other wild beasts native to California,” Japanese shops, and Chinatown. He emphasizes that, both within San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area, there are well-maintained, “macadamized” toll roads built by energetic private operators who have not relied upon the “slow-moving Government.” He characterizes San Francisco as a very safe city and says that, even Chinatown, for all its strangeness, is “perfectly safe and orderly; and you need no protection, even for ladies and children, in going to the theatre or elsewhere”, although he does recommend, if visiting an opium den or touring the area late at night, that it is best to go with a policeman.

Cliff House, San Francisco, before 1907
Cliff House, San Francisco, before 1907

Nordhoff points out that excellent stagecoach service connects San Francisco to Yosemite, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Napa Valley with its vineyards, and even Stockton and Merced. And he praises the coastal steamer service that is the best means to reach Los Angeles, San Diego, and other parts of the south. He points out the varieties of beautiful and sometimes exotic plant life, including Live Oak trees, California poppies, flourishing rose bushes, palms, orange trees, and eucalyptus trees brought from Australia. He advises that water is plentiful in many areas, and that, where it is scarce, windmills and artesian wells can be used. In contrast to the east, there are “no malarious fevers, no musquitoes (sic), no poisonous reptiles.” He also mentions sights that the tourist should see on the return journey from California. For example, “Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake, and Virginia City, you should see on your way home.” And he includes long descriptions of the gold country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where one can see the large-scale, spectacular, hydraulic mining operations that have supplanted placer mining.

Dale Creek Bridge, California
Dale Creek Bridge, California

Around halfway through his book, Nordhoff shifts from addressing tourists to encouraging travellers to settle in California. Great expanses of cheap land are already available, he advises, and more will be cultivable thanks to the increasing adoption of irrigation in areas like the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Tulare and Kern valleys. Some of the land is still un-appropriated; here, one can “graze stock freely.” Additional lands can be purchased for reasonable prices at the land offices run by the government and the railroad. Under the terms of the federal Homestead Act, Nordhoff acknowledges, settlers can obtain up to eighty acres of land for free.

But, not surprisingly, Nordhoff emphasizes the potential of railroad lands. He claims, “the railroad land office in Sacramento has an organization so perfect that a farmer searching for land can obtain there, without delay, the most precise and detailed information, not only as to location, but as to quality and distance from the railroad and from settlements. Moreover, the titles are perfect, which is not always true of lands held under the old Spanish grants.” Nordhoff adds that the railroad companies will offer a purchaser five years’ credit. And, lest his point be lost, he writes that, for the man thinking of starting a farm, “A day or two in the Sacramento railroad land-office would give him more information about the disposable land in California than a more tedious and costly search among the three or four Government land-offices located at different points, and each concerned with only a part of the state.”

Nordhoff advises settlers to avoid purchases from developers of land colonies; the prices are too high. But he is enthusiastic about the strategy of settlers who already know each other banding together, buying adjoining areas of land, and developing everything cooperatively. He singles out Anaheim, settled by Germans in 1857, to which he devotes an entire chapter of his book, as an instructive and inspiring example. Here, he notes, some fifty families have settled and established a prosperous economy based on vineyards. Nordhoff says he hopes to see numerous additional colonies of the same type established elsewhere in the state through strategic purchase of railroad lands.

Display ads for Central Pacific Railroad
Display ads for Central Pacific Railroad


Reading California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence today, one can easily understand why, in his era, Charles Nordhoff was a popular, widely influential journalist, and why his guidebook is still worth reading. But his work is also a reminder of how much of the early writing about California was promotional in intent.



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