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Burlingtonians in the gold rush

Walker homestead Burlington MA
Walker property on Winn Street, opposite Peach Orchard Road. The Walkers later used the house as a squash house for the home.

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, October 9, 1979

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 016)

Burlingtonians in the Gold Rush

The healthy, young, imaginative and adventurous youth of Burlington were not immune to the gold rush out west. There is no record of just how many men and boys actually did leave town to seek their fortune. The Burlington Cemetery has a stone for George E. McIntire, who left here for the gold fields and died there in 1851. One of the Burlington Reeds also reached the coast but did not prosper. Other sons of Burlington families left home and were never heard from again. But a Walker and a Skelton did leave home, did reach California, did survive there for awhile, and did come back to tell about it.

There were three ways to reach the west coast in those earIy days:

  1. On a sailing ship around Cape Horn.
  2. On a ship to Panama, across the isthmus on foot and again by ship up the coast to San Francisco.
  3. By wagon train across the plains and the mountains.

James Walker, a descendant of an early Harvard College president, ventured out but soon booked a return passage on a ship to round the Horn in August of 1850. That trip home became a nightmare for young Walker. Off the coast of Central America, the ship’s water supply became critically short, and several attempts were made to reach shore to find fresh water. The final attempt to land through heavy surf was successful, water was found! The party of 12 returned to shore only to find that the captain of his ship had taken advantage of a favorable wind and had sailed away! Marooned on a hostile shore, the little party faced a dismal future several hundred miles from Vera Cruz on the Gulf. Walker was only one of the party who had not left his funds on board. He had about $700 in gold with him. The party  used it to buy some supplies and began the long grueling trek east. In the hot, humid, almost impenetrable jungle, the small company met hostile natives, civil war, mosquitoes by the thousands, snakes, huge spiders, cholera and death. Fourteen weeks after leaving the Pacific, five of the company finally reached the Gulf shore and comparative safety. Thence to Vera Cruz, New Orleans and Boston. James Walker lived to serve in Company G as a color sergeant during the Civil War. He died in Woburn in 1904.

The other young man who had a story to tell was Bradford Skelton. He left for the gold fields in December of 1851 and also crossed the isthmus, but in the opposite direction. He reached the Chagres River port early in January and with seven other men, hired three natives and a boat to take them up river. But it wasn’t that easy for much of the time. For part of the trip, Skelton had to cross through the same kind of jungle that had nearly killed Walker. A fortnight later he reached Panama City, where he had to wait a month tor a ship going north. He wrote from there: “It is very hot and the sweat drops while I am writing. There are vines on the walls full of blossoms, oranges and coconuts, all flourishing under the scorching sun. The city is very much damaged, no window glass, no wells, no chimneys, the water is all brought in on pack mules. I hope I leave it soon.”

By April of 1852, he was working a small claim only 10 miles from Sutter’s Mill, which was 50 miles from Sacramento. It’s clear that he did a lot of roaming in search of treasure. He wrote home from such mining towns as Indian Creek, Middletown, Alexander, South Fork Bernicia, Miners Flat, Garden Ravine and Celestial Valley. In one letter, he even mentions Hangtown, a name later changed to Placerville, but gives no hint as to the origin of the name. By the time the incredibly rich Comstock discovery was made in Nevada in 1859, Bradford had decided that California was not for him and had made his way back to Burlington. Here he married Almira Shedd in 1863 and went back to farming the old family homestead on Frances Wyman Road.