By Tom Lamia
A friend in California occasionally sends me books. One that arrived six months ago became fallback reading recently. My eyes were opened by its connections to several hallmarks in my life thus far, including where I now live (Maine), where I was born (Santa Monica, California), and my ten-year residence at 54 Charles Street in the West Village.
The book, Lincoln’s Confidant, by Wayne C. Temple, is a biography of Noah Brooks, born in Castine, Maine, in 1830. Brooks was a fluid and prolific writer who found writing easier than working (as he put it), so pursued a “have pen, will travel” career as a journalist, novelist, poet and biographer and, in the process, associated with far more than his share of the great men of his era, including Horace Greeley, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Abraham Lincoln. His life was lived on both American coasts and in the prairie heartland as well as in Boston, San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C. Once into the story, I began to appreciate that being Lincoln’s trusted confidant was only one of his remarkable life achievements.
Noah Brooks was the Washington correspondent for a Sacramento newspaper during most of Lincoln’s presidency. He had met Lincoln in Dixon, Illinois, in 1856 when they both campaigned for John C. Fremont, that year’s Republican presidential nominee. A friendship was formed based on a mutual regard for storytelling and politics. Brooks went on to California as a pioneer/adventurer (he and three friends, including his nephew, Frank Kidder Upham, bought a wagon to carry their goods and “three yoke of oxen” to pull it as they walked from Kansas to California). Once there, he offered his services as a writer, editor and publisher to all who would listen and immersed himself in community affairs to spread the word of the availability of his talents. This led to the job that took him to Washington and the opportunity to resume his friendship with Lincoln.
Brooks had a very strong connection to coastal Maine, one that permeated his work, travels and friendships. The youngest of eight children, his ancestral line dated to Plymouth Colony in 1635. Shipbuilding was the family trade. Just prior to the War of 1812, his father, Barker Brooks, established himself as a shipbuilder in Castine, then a part of Massachusetts. Both his parents died tragically in 1838; Brooks was an orphan at seven. Fortunately his two older sisters very soon married prominent Castine men, enabling the Brooks household to be maintained. One of these men was S. K. Upham, the father of Frank Kidder Upham, who was at Brooks’s side for much of his life.
Brooks was a reader fascinated by history, poetry, geography and tales of adventure. Soon after graduating from Castine’s version of high school, he left for Boston to find work as a journalist, a profession that would dominate his life and earn for him honors, reputation and good fellowship, but never wealth or property.
From Boston he traveled to Dixon, Illinois, where he met Lincoln, as mentioned. Next he homesteaded in Kansas to pursue his commitment to the Free State movement. Failing as a farmer/activist, he began the journey to California and the writing, editing and publishing activities that took him to Washington and to Lincoln.
Brooks used “Castine” as his journalistic pen name and wrote about Castine using a pseudonym, “Fairport,” in his works of fiction, always showing a deep appreciation for his early life there. He returned regularly to the town in warmer months (he had an aversion to Maine winters). Once his works of fiction allowed him to earn an income in any place of his choosing, he built in Castine a house (the “Ark”) with a large library, and settled in.
It was not to be. He had been captured by the romance and climate of California. His nephew, Frank Kidder Upham, who had trekked with him in 1859 to California and pursued a career in journalism in the Bay Area, chose, in 1864, to make the U.S. Army his career. After his retirement from the Army, Upham was in 1892 named to the post of treasurer of the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in West Los Angeles. The position came with a small but very pleasant home (the “Rose Cottage”) on the 120-acre property. Brooks rented a house in nearby Santa Monica in which to do his writing, and made annual visits there. These continued until just before Brooks’s death in 1903. The Upham girls went to school in Santa Monica and Brooks would commute with them to and from the Rose Cottage, thus enjoying a full family life.
At this point in my reading it seemed possible that my former neighbor on Charles Street, Frank Upham (born in Santa Monica; daughter named Brooks) could be part of this story. My wife, Susan, sent a message to Frank, who, it seems, is a direct descendant in the Brooks/Upham family line, but was not aware of this biography of his forebear. It is a small world, indeed.