JSNH&B home • Spring 2012 • vol. 4 no. 2

From Over the Purple Hills, or Sketches from Travel in California

Caroline Churchill

Denver: Mrs. C.M. Churchill, Publisher, 1883

There was never any doubt where Caroline Churchill stood on an issue.Caroline Churchill

Forceful and energetic, Churchill was an editor, publisher, author, and leading advocate for women’s rights in the American West. She also wrote two valuable descriptions of California and the west in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Caroline Nichols Churchill was born in Canada in 1833 and emigrated to the United States in 1846. Briefly married, she was on her own after the untimely death of her husband in 1862. Contracting tuberculosis, Churchill was advised to seek a drier climate. Choosing California, she journeyed westward in 1869. Her health and spirits restored, Caroline Churchill plunged into state politics. Incensed by a California bill that would punish and regulate “immoral women,” Churchill worked incessantly to defeat the legislation. She was particularly outraged that women would be held accountable for certain immoral activity, while men would not be deemed responsible for the same behavior.

The experience made Caroline Churchill especially aware of the inequities faced by women in the west. In 1879, now relocated to Denver, Colorado, Churchill began publishing a newspaper called the Colorado Antelope. The journal advocated women’s suffrage and other feminist causes. The newspaper also carried local history and travel articles, but was primarily focused on women’s issues. In the beginning, Churchill was a lonely voice in the wilderness. Within three years, however, the Colorado Antelope had gained in profitability and popularity to the point where it began more frequent publication under a new name, Queen Bee. Churchill supported prohibition, equal education for women, financial support for women with dependent children, and voting rights. In 1893, partly due to her efforts, women earned the right to vote in Colorado.

Caroline Churchill in later life

Caroline Churchill also wrote and published two very instructive narratives of travels in the American West. In 1874, Little Sheaves, a collection of letters describing her trips throughout California and Nevada from 1870 - 1873, was issued. Over the Purple Hills, or Sketches from Travel in California (1883) presented an account of Churchill’s rail journeys from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe and from Visalia to Placerville, California, in 1874. The narrative also provides a report of undated visits to the Yosemite Valley and Salt Lake City. With a reputation for truthfulness and forthrightness, Caroline Churchill’s travel writings are an honest addition to the expedition literature of the American West.

Caroline Churchill continued to champion women’s rights until her death in 1926 at age 93.

The following selection from Over the Purple Hills, or Sketches from Travel in California presents Churchill's impressions of the jewel of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe

quoteI can only express myself in exclamations. unquote

Now for the first time I walk out upon the wharf to take a look at the matchless waters of Lake Tahoe. I can only express myself in exclamations. The water is so clear that one can see to the depth of fifty feet any object that is visible at that distance in the open air. When at a distance from the lake I had not been much impressed with its superiority over other bodies of water. To be sure the green, purple, blue and white lines were rather wonderful; but one must get acquainted with this delightful sheet of water to appreciate it. Map of where Lake Tahoe is locatedThe lake is thirty-six miles in length and fifteen in width; lies partly in the Golden and partly in the Silver State; is literally cradled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, six thousand four hundred feet above the level of the sea. All along the northern shore there are springs of boiling hot water coining to the surface, containing lime, magnesia, sulphur. The hot baths are delightful, the water possessing just the requisite properties for cleansing both the cuticle and all kinds of clothing. One comes from the bath as white and pure as a new kid glove. Notwithstanding these hot springs, which can be seen boiling up between sheets of melted lava, the body of the lake water is extremely cold. No animal life exists except that which is indigent to northern latitudes.

A Finny Community

There are plenty of trout, whitefish and salmon trout, I am told. The trout do not stroll about alone, but are always seen in shoals. A finny community of these graceful fishes is one of the most beautiful sights associated with these transparent waters. The water is so clear from foreign substance, so cold and void of insect life, that it is a wonder how the fishes manage to subsist. No vegetation is seen growing in any part of this lake, the bottom being melted lava or rocks. Dead fishes are occasionally seen lying upon their backs, showing no signs of decay.... Lake Tahoe in the 1880s

There have been thirteen human lives lost upon this water within a few years; not a body has ever been recovered. It is supposed that, the water being so cold, no gasses form, and the bodies are preserved, never rising to the surface. Upon this lake there is a beautiful little steamer, of sixty-four tons burden, drawing about three feet of water. This boat wears the brand of the Central Pacific Railroad, as nearly everything does upon the Pacific coast, being called the Governor Stanford. At eight o'clock every morning this steamer leaves Hot Spring wharf for Tahoe City and all the points of interest upon the lake....

Clear Water

quote…the reason the beautiful tints are so fine and distinct is because of the water being so perfectly pure. unquote

From Hot Springs to Tahoe City the distance is nearly ten miles, and is a most enchanting voyage. The water is so clear that it is impossible to detect the surface except by the ripples made by the steamer, or in case some foreign substance should chance to be borne along on the surface; and leaning over the side of the steamer gave one the impression of being propelled through the air. The boat was not heavily loaded, and seemed to glide upon the surface like a bird. The agitation caused by the movement of the boat made a most charming picture, giving the steamer the appearance of being trimmed with white and pearl-gray lace upon a deep blue satin background, thickly spangled with silver buttons. The water is blue as indigo where it is over a hundred feet deep, and green as a piece of beautiful green silk where it is only fifty and seventy-five feet. Where the green and blue waters join a line of the most delicate purple is the result; and the reason the beautiful tints are so fine and distinct is because of the water being so perfectly pure. Lake Tahoe 1860No person can conceive or imagine the perfection of color and its wonderful beauty without first beholding it. There are places which are known as beyond the soundings, where the water is so deep that exquisite blue and violet is turned to a blue-black, and is called the black waters. Where the water is fifty feet deep we are shown the coral beds, so called from their resemblance to coral, but really beds of pumice stone, which have been for ages subject to the action of volcanic fires, and at last settled down, been overcome by another element, become the bed of a lake which is decidedly cool; and when earth's changes shall drain Tahoe of its crystal waters, it will leave something such a valley as Yosemite, minus, however, the grand rocky formation of that valley. The shadow of the smoke coming from the steamer could be seen at the depth of fifty feet as plainly as if it had fallen upon a board walk.

People and Property

Lake Tahoe in 1860

Thus far I have been so enchanted with the waters of this lake that I have entirely overlooked the surroundings, almost forgotten that it had any; but it lies in a fairy land, being enclosed in an unbroken chain of hills covered with brown and fringed with mountain pines. The distance around the lake is about one hundred miles; but at intervals all along the shores are public houses, giving accommodations to the tourist in a variety of locations. There are stage lines, post-offices and telegraph lines in all directions. Beautiful women and children, in, gay dresses, are seen playing croquet, swinging, and participating in all manner of outdoor games, fishing and hunting pebbles, for there are no little shells to be gathered on these shores....

Emerald Bay

In our steamboat route we pass a place known as Emerald Bay. Here, in one view, the blue water, the violet and the most exquisite green, all come before the sight in rotation. It seemed to me that the waters of this bay, and the hills around must be peopled with spirits, faries, or some unearthly beings. One realizes that this lake lies near heaven; it is the only way to satisfy the imagination in regard to its unearthly colors and indescribable beauty.... there is a bluff rising perpendicular from the water's edge three or four hundred feet, and-the water is said to be a hundred feet deep at its base. Cave Rock at Lake Tahoe 1860Crossing over from Emerald Bay to this bluff is termed spanning the Rubicon. Just around one point there is standing a rough stone image, which a little stretch of the imagination will convert into a grizzly sitting on his launched, with paws drooping.... Here the whistle of the steamer was sounded so that the passengers might listen to the echo. Further on we were shown a cave, a singularly conspicuous formation, standing with its entrance very properly toward the lake. It stands alone at the foot of the hills, upon the bank, as if for the convenience of water; is a mass, I should think, seventy-five or a hundred feet in height, having the general outline. of an old-fashioned mud oven; the entrance is shaped like the mouth of an oven and is said to lead to a room thirty feet deep. Some of the gods may have done their baking in this locality while planning the design for Tahoe and experimenting upon its exquisite colors. At Glenbrook, a lumbering point, the steamer ties up for the night. Here we fully realize that this beautiful lake can be desecrated by practical purposes.... There is a rumor to the effect that the railroad company intend some day to tunnel the mountain at this point to save the vast yearly expenditure for snow sheds. If this tunneling is ever accomplished, it will be an easy matter to conduct the waters of Lake Tahoe to the cities of Sacramento, San Jose, and San Francisco, furnishing them with the best water in the world. Then an extra pipe could be laid from the Hot Springs, thus giving them water for cleansing purposes that if properly used would cleanse the dirty pool of politics. Sacramento would have occasion to rejoice....