GOHS exhibit explores Oneonta's '49ers

Sarah Eames | The Daily StarEdward Rowley, right, a volunteer with the Greater Oneonta Historical Society who helped curate an exhibit about the area's connections to the 1849 Gold Rush in California, gives a tour to Melonie Walcott, left, of Albany, and Henry Spliethoff, center, of Rennselaer, during an opening reception Sunday, Aug. 18.

ONEONTA — The Greater Oneonta Historical Society hosted an opening reception Sunday, Aug. 18, for its newest exhibit, the “The Oneonta '49ers.”

Curated by Bob Brzozowski, Sarah Livingston, Tom Murphy and Ed Rowley, the exhibit tells the stories of six Oneonta men — Leroy Chamberlin, Daniel Hammond, Collis Huntington, George Murray, Egbert Sabin and Carleton Watkins — who made the trek to California in search of gold.

“None of them were miners,” said Brzozowski, GOHS executive director.

Huntington was 27 years old when he led the expedition, arriving in California on Aug. 30, 1849. He established stores in outlying mining camps, which he later consolidated into a single store in Sacramento, Brzozowski said.

Twenty-six-year-old Hammond worked part time in the gold fields and part time at Huntington’s store at Dry Diggings, a camp on Weber Creek. He was assisted by Chamberlin, who was 21 or 22 at the time of his departure from Oneonta, Brzozowski said.

Chamberlin served briefly as a militia lieutenant in the Civil War and became a rancher in Amador County, California, after the war. 

Murray, a bookkeeper for Solon and Collis Huntington in their Oneonta store, had to borrow money to make the journey, Brzozowski said. He opened his own book and stationary store on the prestigious Montgomery Block of San Francisco and later became deputy treasurer for the city and the county of San Francisco, according to Brzozowski.

Sabin, the 19-year-old son of a clerk in the Huntington brothers’ store, was sent on the expedition by his father.

Watkins, the only one of the group not employed by Huntington, borrowed money from Solon Huntington and Dr. Samuel Case to finance his trip, Brzozowski said.

Watkins was instrumental in establishing California as a free state instead of a slave state, Brzozowski said, and became a prolific photographer.

“He was really the first photographer who saw photography as an art and not just a means to document things,” Brzozowski said.

The exhibit includes a digital slideshow of 60 of Watkins’ best-known photographs, including several of Yosemite before it was established as a national park.

Watkins started going blind in his 80s and lost all of his possessions in the 1906 earthquake, Brzozowski said. He died in an asylum, where he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

Huntington cultivated a legacy in the railroad industry, helping to organize the Central Pacific Rail Road Company in 1861, Brzozowski said. On May 10, 1869, the tracks of the Central Pacific were joined with those of the Union Pacific to complete the first transcontinental railroad.

“It’s a real window into Oneonta and the people here,” Rowley said. “And why they left or why they stayed.”

“The Oneonta '49ers” will be on display at the Oneonta History Center through mid-November. For more information, call 607-432-0960 or visit oneontahistory.org.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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