EASTPORT, Maine — Despite the distance and seemingly impossible logistics, Mainers were not immune from the “gold fever” of 1848-49, after news of the California Gold Rush made its way thousands of miles to Down East Maine.
Countless Mainers fled the state in a get-rich-quick frenzy, some boarding ships in Boston and New York that took them to the West Coast on a route around South America via Cape Horn. Others went overland, following well-established Westward Ho pioneering trails that began in Missouri and Mexico. Others crossed the Isthmus of Panama, long before the era of a canal.
Journalist, historian and historic preservationist Jan Eakins has been researching the “Mainers to ’49ers” phenomenon for years and has so far identified more than 200 men and women who left Washington County for California in 1848 and 1849, nearly half of them from Eastport and surrounding areas.
Among them was Thomas J. Smith, a ship captain from the seaside Washington County community of Milbridge. As local legend goes, shortly after Capt. Smith moved his family into a new home, he was infected with Gold Rush fever and decided to head west. To pacify his wife, he had their new home disassembled and put on board his ship, which he sailed to California with the intent of reassembling the building upon their arrival.
After a long journey at sea, Smith found that the excitement of the Gold Rush was over. So he reversed course, set sails and returned to Milbridge, where he had his house reassembled where it stands today, at 87 Main St., now home to The Cinnamon Stick gift shop.
Eakins is currently researching a book steeped in what she considers a virtually untapped resource of documents and photographs tucked away in Maine’s attics and archives; artifacts that reflect the history of thousands of Mainers who chased the Gold Rush and the effect that obsession had on families and communities.
Eakins will present an overview of her research at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 19, at the Institute at Christ Church on Key Street in Eastport. She hopes that her presentation will help to identify descendants who can offer accounts of family Gold Rush adventures through letters and photos, some of which may find their way into a book that she has in the works.