Charles Camden

Charles Camden
Charles Camden, circa 1880.

He was one of the more successful businessmen of 19th Century northern California. He was arguably the most successful businessman of Shasta County during this period. His name was Charles Camden and he lived for decades inside what is now known as Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. The Camden House, in the park's Tower House Historic District, bears the name of he and his wife Philena.

The seventh son of Joseph and Ann Smith Camden, Charles Camden was born in England on January 29, 1817. At age 17, he sailed west and worked for several years in New York City. Eventually, he found his way to South America where he worked as an engineer in such places as Chile and Peru. Struck with Gold Fever, in 1849 Charles sailed up the coast to northern California, meeting one
Levi Tower during his travels. The two became best friends and business partners and ultimately found their way to the gold fields of the Klamath Mountains. On the banks of Clear Creek in what is now the park's Tower House Historic District, both men purchased property where they hoped and intended to make a living.

Levi's sister
Philena came out from Rhode Island in 1852 and Charles and Philena immediately took a liking to each other. They married the same year. The written record suggests that the life-long couple had a deep affection for each other. In his autobiography, Charles refers to Philena as "my dear wife," while in one 1855 journal entry, writing about Charles' recent return from a trip to San Francisco, Philena writes that, "Charles had been well and seemed much pleased to get home and entered the house singing 'Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.' He brought me a very handsome present of a set of jewelry of which I am much pleased not so much for their intrinsic value but for the fine regard in which he seems to hold me."

Not only did Charles' love life blossom in the 1850s; his numerous business ventures succeeded as well. Charles conducted goldmining operations along Clear Creek and took out around $80,000 in gold, amounting to about one million dollars today. He also purchased and improved Levi Tower's toll road from the town of Shasta and increased the price of the toll. This was a busy roadway and his income from tolls were substantial. Another successful enterprise was Charles constructing a water ditch that provided water to his house and farm, his mining operations, and to downstream users who paid him for water use. This water ditch is today known as the
Camden Water Ditch and a one-mile self-guiding interpretive trail gives you the opportunity to learn more about it.

Charles' business ventures and household benefited from the use of servants, and in the 1850s, a Native American girl whom he named
Kate Camden served as nursemaid for Charles and Philena's three daughters. Kate was likely an indentured servant for the Camden family, which means she was forced to work for them for a certain amount of time. Although there is no official record of how Kate came to live and work for the Camdens, indentured servitude amongst indiginous Californian girls was very common during this time. Charles did seem to value Kate; he taught her to read and write, which was uncommon for a white man to do for his indigenous servant. Charles likely thought that by taking Kate in as an indentured servant, he was actually benefitting her and "civilizing" her.

While Levi Tower is known more for his fruit orchards than Charles, when Levi's businesses failed in the mid-1850s Charles actually purchased Levi's property and then leased it back to him. After Levi's death in 1865, Charles then took over this land in earnest, turning it into a successful and diversified farming operation of his own. Charles passionately managed the farm, which he referred to as the "Home Ranch," well into old age.

Relatively frugal with his money, Charles, Philena, and their three girls lived in a small house for several years. Finally, around 1870, he added onward and upward to the house. This house is today known as the Camden House. Also around this time, the couple and their three daughters began spending winters in Oakland where the girls received formal education. Everyone continued to spend summers at the Home Ranch for decades.

Preceded in death by Philena, Charles remained in decent health until just before his own passing. He died at age 95 in 1912. Charles and Philena Camden are buried next to each other in the "Millionaire's Row" section of a cemetery in Oakland.

 
Black and white photo of Charles, Philena, and three daughters, sitting around a table in front of the Camden House.
"Afternoon tea on the front lawn." This circa 1880 photo shows Charles and Philena with their thre daughters drinking teac around a table in the front yard of the Camden House.
 
Camden House and front yard amidst smoky skies above. The house is painted white.
The Camden House survived the fire! Although the Carr Fire started nearby on July 23, 2018, fire management staff saved the historic home from destruction. This photo is from July 28th and you can see very smoky skies and the partial burning of the front yard fence and front yard soil.
 
 
 

Last updated: October 28, 2022

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