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Gold rush stories are great places to find drama and intrigue. The History Room at the Chicopee Library holds a series of letters that tell the fascinating story of the Gold Rush adventures of one Longmeadow resident. The letters are filled with the optimism of a young man, Gilbert Billings, ready for an adventure, and the worried warnings of his father, Lyman, left behind at home.


Gilbert Billings was born in the eastern portion of Longmeadow to Lyman and Roxanna Billings on May 17, 1831. He was 20 years old when he sailed off for California, likely inspired by stories he had heard recently of the chance to make a fortune in gold. In 1851, there was no easy land passage across the country, so he sailed from New York toward South America.


Early in his journey, on October 31, 1851, Billings wrote to his father from onboard the ship, Daniel Webster, “I did not think of writing until I arrived at San Juan De Nicaragua but all letter writing must be finished before leaving this boat in order that she take them back to New York. We sailed from New York Wednesday Oct. 22nd at 3 o'clock p.m. and my health has been good since, though I expected to be very sea sick, but thank God for my good health..."



Billings was apparently traveling with two companions whom he knew from Longmeadow, Wadsworth and Gilbert Lord, who had been sick on the voyage. Billings noted that he had paid the higher price ($100) to travel in a first-class cabin rather than steerage ($50-$75) because he hoped he would be less likely to become seasick. He felt that he would save money by purchasing steerage accommodations when he got to "the other side" - that is the Pacific Ocean. The cost of the voyage was fairly expensive, especially for a farmer’s son. The country was still recovering from the economic panic and crisis of 1837 and 1839. Using an inflation calculator, the $100 spent on the first leg of the voyage would be equivalent to approximately $3,870 in buying power in 2023.



Billings wrote of two events that surely worried his family back at home. First, he wrote that he accepted a dare to ascend the main mast of the ship and touch the brass ball on the top. He took the dare and won $10. Second, he explained that after arriving in Nicaragua and before embarking on the next leg of the journey, which required a trip up the San Juan River, the captain warned passengers of dangerous trouble ahead. He wrote, "While the passengers were preparing to leave the boat, the Captain received a letter from the Pacific side ... to the following effect: that a mob had broken out up the river and the passengers would be murdered if they ventured to go on," and the only other way to go was to go by way of Chagres in Panama, some six hundred miles below. Billings wrote that they decided that the "The mob" was "humbug."




Ultimately, news arrived that the steamship North America was on the other side ready for her passengers to San Francisco. The letter ends with Billings explaining that he along with some three hundred passengers and a “Mr. Vanderbilt”, the owner of the route and many ships, were going to leave in "the little steamboat" to travel up the San Juan River to the Lake and then cross to the Pacific Ocean.


The “Mr. Vanderbilt” that Billings was referring to was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous American business magnate. Many gold prospectors traveled west via Panama, crossing the isthmus on mule back. Vanderbilt had the idea of crossing Central America via Nicaragua. This route to California was several hundred miles shorter than the Panama route. He invested in the American Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company. Mr. Vanderbilt's company crossed Nicaragua via the San Juan River, Lake Nicaragua, and a twelve-mile road (later to be a canal) to the Pacific. Gilbert Billings didn’t know it at the time, but by 1853 this same “Mr. Vanderbilt” would be worth an estimated $11 million for capitalizing on his preferred route of transport from New York to California.


It took just sixteen days for Gilbert Billings’ letter from Nicaragua to reach his family in Longmeadow. His father, Lyman, wrote back on November 22, 1851. He wrote of the health of family members and commented that he "ment" to tell his son before he left "about taking care of your health, that is for you to wear flannel wool shirts next to your body." He also advised his son "not to run any dangerous risks, such as climbing to the 'Brass Ball.' He went on to share advice from an acquaintance who was a sailor. He told his son about markets being "rather dull" and listed the price of turkeys and chickens. He did mention that another local young man in the gold fields had sent his father six hundred dollars:"I don't write this to you thinking of dunning you for money. I hope you will not think so." His father also heard that California is "a place for music" and wondered whether his son might make some money playing a fiddle there but cautioned, "... I do not advise you to use the fiddle unless profitable." He concluded with a remark that most parents would appreciate --"I hope any advice will be accepted."


On February 23, 1852 Billings’ sister, Beulah, and father wrote to him. Beulah wrote that she was well and working in the mill and was making $2/week. There was plenty of snow and it was good sleighing. Billings’ father let him know that he had been to the post office several times for a letter from him and, "began to think that something was the matter, you not writing." His father had heard stories of men being killed over arguments related to digging for gold. He cautioned, "I hope that you will not get into any trouble with anyone."


A year after Gilbert Billings left Longmeadow, sister Beulah wrote that their grandmother was ill, and in December 1852 his father wrote that she had died with "dysenteric symptoms." In the rest of his rather lengthy letter, Lyman shows how clearly worried he was for his son’s safety. He mentioned stories that he had heard and read about California and wrote down many of his concerns and questions for his son.

On February 6th, 1853, Billings wrote from Auburn, California, which today is the home of the Gold Rush Museum. Concerning his grandmother, he acknowledged that when he left for California, "I never expected to see her again." He continued, "She lived to a good old age, more years than I expect to see." He went on to report, "Ever since I've been mining I have made but two decent week’s work and last week was one of them. They were not much, but if I could do as well all of the time, I would not complain. Two of us took out Seventy two Dollars last week which made 36 a piece. We done about the same one week previous. The rest of the time we have made a little better than board, clothes and tools. No telling what I may happen to hit upon hereafter." He also went on to describe the relatively high prices of food, candles, and powder.






On March 9, 1853, Billings wrote to his father that he had taken "another start to better his situation if possible." On traveling from Auburn to Sacramento he ran into his cousin Horace and friend, Gilbert Lord, with whom he had set sail nearly a year and a half earlier. In a letter from Buck’s Ranch dated April 18, 1853, Billings explained that he left Marysville, California on the 8th, and was working his way toward Rush Creek. He began the trip with "some Mexicans, going with a pack train of mules loaded with provisions etc. for the same place. They are hired to take the cargo by some white men who are taking the goods to sell, and are along with us. We have had rather of a tedious time of it, stormy, bad trail, deep snow etc. We have about 30 miles of snow, crossing the high mountains between Maryville and Rush Creek."



Billings described feeling ill, having leg swelling "the same as when my leg was hurt and I have the erysiphelas [sic]." He also expected higher costs for room and board but also remarked that the weather would be better in a month and, ever hopeful, commented "if I can get a good claim, that will pay as well as it ought to for coming here" then it would be all worthwhile.


Unfortunately, the next and last letter from Billings was from San Francisco on Dec. 11, 1858 - over 5 1/2 years later. It is as if a few chapters had been torn out of this story. He informed his father that he would be returning home by steamer.


So what became of Gilbert Billings after his Gold Rush adventure? Apparently, he had enough money for the trip back to Massachusetts where he was able to purchase a farm and marry. The 28-year-old Gilbert Billings married Lucinda Richardson, 22, in February of 1860. They settled down to farm in the Chicopee area. The 1860 Federal census for Chicopee indicates that Billings’ personal estate was valued at $400. The 1860 non-population census data for Holyoke shows that he had real estate including 8 acres of improved land valued at $1300 and farming implements valued at $50. Compared to the other 59 farmers in Holyoke on the same census schedule page, his farm ranked 58th in value and the value of his equipment placed him at the bottom of the list as well. He had one horse, three "milch" cows, and one pig. He was growing Indian corn, oats, tobacco, Irish potatoes, and hay.


This all suggests that Gilbert Billings did not come back from California a wealthy man. While we learn from census records that Lucinda had one child, the child must not have lived long. Without children to assist with work on the farm, Gilbert and Lucinda were likely busy with farm chores. However, Gilbert was not too busy to devote time to town politics and he was the Chicopee town surveyor for fifteen years. He was also a genealogist and a historian. For a time he organized Billings family reunions. He also hosted well-attended husking bees - gatherings to husk corn - and dances at his barn!




Gilbert Billings died in September 1916 at age 85; His wife Lucinda died that same year. One wonders whether Gilbert ever told stories about his trip to California at grange meetings, before the start of Chicopee Town Meetings, Billings family reunions, or at husking bees.

-Contributed by Al McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member, with support from Betsy McKee


Notes:

The Chicopee Library Special Collections librarian provided digital images of a portion of the Billings documents including transcribed letters, deeds and genealogical information to the Longmeadow Historical Society. This story would have been difficult to produce without their generous assistance.


Want more stories of local connections to the California Gold Rush? See "Is There A Doctor In The House?" at www.longmeadowhistoricalsociety.org as well as the Pioneer Valley History Network’s work on the Pioneer Valley & the California Gold Rush at https://pioneervalleyhistorynetwork.org/project/gold-rush-stories/


Image Sources:


“Daniel Webster (1851 steamship) at Point Isabel, Texas, March 30, 1861” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository


Jocelyn, Albert H. Government map of Nicaragua: from the latest surveys ordered by President Patricio Rivas and Genl. William Walker ; executed under the supervision of the Señor Fermín Ferrer, Governor of the Western Department. New York: A.H. Jocelyn, 1856. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004629018/.


Parsons, Charles, Artist, and George Victor Cooper. Sacramento city, Ca. from the foot of J. Street, showing I., J., & K. Sts. with the Sierra Nevada in the distance / C. Parsons ; drawn Dec. 20th by G.V. Cooper ; lith. of Wm. Endicott & Co., N. York. United States Sacramento California, ca. 1850. New York: Published by Stringer & Townsend. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/93511486/.


Cooke & Lecount, Publisher. A newly constructed and improved map of the State of California: shewing the extent and boundary of the different counties according to an act passed by the Legislature April 25th,with a corrected and improved delineation of the gold region. composeds by Tassin, J. B., Cartographeriler San Francisco: Published by Cooke and Lecount, . San Francisco: Lith. by Pollard & Peregoy, 1851. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018588046/.






Longmeadow Historical Society's Emerson Photographic Collection is a treasure trove of photographs documenting Longmeadow in the early 20th century. Paesiello Emerson led a fascinating life and took up photography as a hobby in his older age. Most of his photos are of houses and streets in town, but occasionally something of a completely different nature captures your attention.





When recently exploring photographs in the collection I came across an image that sparked my curiosity. It is of what appears to be a casket draped in black fabric and covered with floral arrangements. A distinguished gentleman poses above it while standing at a lectern. It is from a funeral at the First Church that was documented by Paesiello Emerson on June 7, 1909. I wanted to learn more about the deceased and the church’s minister at that time. This was the funeral of Charles S. Allen, a prominent Longmeadow citizen. The minister was Reverend Henry L. Bailey.





The deceased, 61-year-old Charles Salisbury Allen, was born on October 22, 1847, in Windsor, CT. After living in Hartford his family moved to Longmeadow in the fall of 1864. Charles’ father, Brinton Allen, purchased the Henry Keep large stock and dairy farm on Green Street, an old name for what is now the southern end of Longmeadow Street.





Charles S. Allen, who later resided at 892 Longmeadow Street, became a very active member of the Longmeadow community. Mr. Allen ran a grocery store at 776 Longmeadow Street, today the location for the Spa on the Green. He was also engaged in farming, had a coal and wood yard, owned several rental properties, and for many years was the postmaster. He was married and had seven children. He died following surgery for a perforated peptic ulcer complicated by an intraabdominal abscess. This was in the pre-antibiotic era.





The minister in the photo, Reverend Henry Lincoln Bailey became the ninth pastor of the First Church in 1901.



Springfield Republican, November 14, 1901


Bailey was born in Brattleboro, Vermont May 8, 1865, and graduated from Middlebury College and the Hartford Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1889 and served in India and Vermont before coming to Longmeadow in 1901. Reverend Bailey resigned from his pastorate after 15 years in the fall of 1916 coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the First Church. He resided at 169 Crescent Road until his death on January 21, 1943.





Reverend Bailey remained active as a guest pastor, served as editor of the Springfield Weekly Republican for eight years, and also as a Longmeadow town moderator. Both Charles S. Allen and Henry L. Bailey are buried in the Longmeadow Cemetery. -Contributed by Lenny Shaker, Longmeadow Historical Society Sources: Longmeadow Historical Society Springfield Republican Google Maps


This week the Longmeadow Historical Society recognizes Longmeadow Dental Care for their support of History Notes.

On June 9, 1933, brothers Joseph C. and Eugene L. Marcure of Springfield confessed to burning a 300-foot barn in the Longmeadow meadows the previous Wednesday. Excerpts from the Springfield Republican outline the events of the day:


  • “Joseph said that he and his brother had gone to the “flats” in Longmeadow early Wednesday morning to shoot bullfrogs…It was while they were at this sport that they said they formulated the idea of setting fire to the barn which overlooked the river just for the sake of seeing a big blaze.” The two agreed to go home, then meet later in the evening to burn the building.

  • The two men became intoxicated. “Joseph said…that he and his brother set fire to the structure with matches between 11 and 11:30 Wednesday night and then, after extinguishing their automobile headlights, proceeded back to Emerson road from where they watched the fire for a while as they stood on a hilltop.”

  • The brothers decided to return to the barn to mix with the other automobiles that had been attracted to the blaze. On the way, they encountered a “Longmeadow recluse,” Berkeley H. Taylor, who tried to take down the license number of their vehicle. Both parties were armed. Shots were exchanged and Berkley Taylor was seriously injured.

  • “Following the shooting, Joseph said that he drove his car at full speed toward the railroad tracks and that two or three cars were waiting at the crossing for an approaching train to pass. The red light signals were against the automobile traffic but Joseph said that he stepped on the accelerator and shot over the tracks just missing the onrushing locomotive by scant yards.” The brothers then returned to their homes in Springfield.

The Marcure brothers admitted to shooting Berkeley Taylor, but they denied any intention to murder him. On September 20, 1933, Joseph and Eugene Marcure were sentenced to 4 to 7 years in prison for their actions.


In the newspaper articles, Berkeley Taylor was described as an eccentric and living in a “home-made shack near the scene of the fire.” Berkeley Taylor was charged with possession of an unregistered weapon. When he refused to provide surety of $1,000 due to his poverty, or to ask anyone else to provide it for him, he was committed to jail. On September 20, 1933, he received a sentence of probation due to extenuating circumstances.


The author first learned of these events and of Berkeley Taylor when a descendant of the Marcure family contacted the Historical Commission in 2016 searching for information about the burned barn, which was said to be located between Emerson Road and Birnie Road. I consulted with Historical Society board members and, unfortunately, we were not able to conclusively provide a location for the barn. The fire and all of those involved had disappeared from local memory. But the inquiry made me curious to know more about Berkeley Taylor. Who was this eccentric, impoverished man who was living in a home-made shack in the meadows? The archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society had no information on him, but a search on the online databases GenealogyBank and Ancestry revealed a busy and interesting life.




Berkeley Taylor was born June 12, 1895 to Palmer and Lena Taylor. The family moved from Springfield to 812 Longmeadow Street when Berkeley was young, and he was raised in Longmeadow. Newspaper articles reveal that Berkeley was active in youth activities at First Church and the Longmeadow Tennis Club.


Longmeadow did not have a high school in the early 1900s so Berkeley, like all Longmeadow teenage students, hopped a trolley car and traveled to Springfield for his education. Berkeley graduated from Springfield Technical High School in 1914.


Berkeley may have been Longmeadow’s first scoutmaster. According to an article in the June 22, 1916 Springfield Republican, “The boys’ club, which has been under the charge of Berkeley H. Taylor, has disbanded and the boys have decided to become Boy Scouts. They are called troop 7 of the Springfield district of the Boy Scouts of America. Berkeley Taylor, who was in charge of the club, will be scout master.”




On June 4, 1917, Berkeley Taylor registered for the draft. At some point, probably in 1918, Berkeley joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant.


In the fall of 1917, Berkeley learned to fly at the Curtiss Flying School in both Hammondsport, NY and Newport News, VA, and he received his pilot’s license by the end of October, 1917. He became an aviation instructor, working first at Mineola, NY, then at Wichita Falls, TX.

On March 25, 1918, Berkeley crashed his airplane during a training exercise. According to the Springfield Republican, “While giving a lesson March 25 looping the loop and other difficult maneuvers the machine went into a tail-spin and not being sufficiently high in the air to make the turn crashed to the earth.” Berkeley was injured, but he recuperated and was transferred to Miami, FL. After the war ended, Berkeley remained in the Marine Corps Reserves until 1927.

According to newspaper articles and Marine Corps records, after the war Berkeley shows up in many places: Fort Gamble, WA; Brookline, MA; Quantico, VA; Washington, D.C.; and Longmeadow, MA. He flew one of the earliest mail routes for the post office. He never lost his love of flying and in October, 1920 he was employed by the Aeromarine Plane and Motor Company in Keyport, NJ.

On July 12, 1930, Berkeley Taylor was testing an experimental airplane designed by the Springfield Aero-Marine Company when the plane crashed to the earth from a 40-foot altitude. The Springfield Republican reported that “Taylor, a mechanic at Dunn field, escaped with slight injury, but the plane was badly damaged when it came in contact with a tree.” Because the plane was unlicensed, Berkeley’s pilot’s license was suspended. When he tried to renew his license, he was turned down after a physical examination showed that he was unfit to fly. The medical report stated that Berkeley had a nervous disposition and had survived four serious airplane accidents.

Unable to fly, Berkeley was living in the meadows when he encountered Eugene and Joseph Marcure. Shortly after receiving his probation sentence on September 20, 1933, Berkeley Taylor was in McLean, VA where he married a widow, Narcissa R. Gorham on October 7. Due to the timing of the marriage, it is highly likely that the two had known each other during Berkeley's earlier travels.

In 1935, Berkeley found work in the Veterans Work Program on a project to complete the Overseas Highway connecting Key West with the Florida mainland. He was assigned to Veterans Work Program Camp 1, which was located on Windley Key, FL. On Labor Day, 1935, a Category 5 hurricane wiped out the three veterans camps in the keys and Berkeley was one of at least 259 World War I veterans who lost their lives during the storm.

We are grateful to the inquiry by the descendant of the Marcure family which led us to this forgotten tale of crime, service, aviation, and tragedy.

-Contributed by Beth Hoff, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member


Sources: Springfield Technical High School Yearbook, 1914 Springfield Republican: Jun. 12, 1914; Jun. 22, 1916, Aug. 21, 1917; Sept. 13, 1917; Oct. 15, 1915; Dec. 7, 1917; Apr. 11, 1918; May 4, 1918; Oct. 4, 1920; Jul. 25, 1930; Nov. 14, 1930; Oct. 23, 1931; June 9, 1933; July 11, 1933; Sept. 14, 1933; Sept. 20, 1933 Find A Grave U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 Virginia, U.S., Marriage Registers, 1853-1935 Archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society




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