Robert W. McCord was in his senior year at Dickinson College in 1849 when former Carlisle newspaper editor, George Fleming, formed a party of men to head to the gold fields in California. With thoughts of adventure, McCord dropped out of college and joined them.
“Ho! For California” headlined an item in the March 21, 1849 issue of the Carlisle Herald.
“A party of enterprising adventurers, from Carlisle, consisting of Messrs. Geo. Fleming, Esq., Col. Simon Alter, Samuel F. Gaenslen, Geo. Keller, Wm. Keller, John C. Williams, and William Humer, left this place on Monday morning last for California. The party proceeds via Pittsburgh to the rendezvous at Independence, Missouri, where they will probably join one of the large expeditions on the overland route to California.”
The editor also noted that “Col. Alter…was honored some days since with the appointment of Aid to his Excellency Gov. Johnson, bearing the title of Lieutenant Colonel. The Californians will please to respect him accordingly.”
A few days after Fleming’s party left for Pittsburgh, J. M. Kneedler, J. A. Bishop and Dickinson student Robert W. McCord left Carlisle to join them.1 The group split up at Fort Kearney, and Col. Alter joined McCord and Kneedler to pack the rest of the way to California.2 Alter was in the mines with McCord and Kneedler by August 1849,3 but when the U. S. Census of Placerville, California was taken on October 31, 1850 it showed that Alter and George Fleming were “traders” living with other miners.
Alter returned to Carlisle on March 24, 1851. The editor of the American Volunteer newspaper wrote that Alter:
"left here just two years ago in company of about a dozen of his townsmen, and took the overland route for California…It is said that the Major has been successful in his mining operations and that he will return to the golden shores of El Dorado after a lapse of a few weeks spent in visiting his numerous relatives and friends in this county. He is in the enjoyment of excellent health, looks well, appears to be in fine spirits, and speaks in glowing terms of California and its future prospects.”4
Simon Alter did return to California. By 1860, 53-year-old Alter had married. He and his wife Sarah were living in Kelsey, El Dorado County, California where he was listed on the U. S. Census as a “water trader.” In 1870 he was living in Placerville with his wife and several children and working as a miner.
The 1892 California Voter Register described Alter as 5’ 11” with a light complexion, blue eyes and grey hair. Alter died on January 24, 1899.5 The Mountain Democrat of Placerville, California printed his obituary in its January 28, 1899 issue.
“Col. Simon S. Alter, one of the oldest men and residents of the city, died Tuesday at his home on Sacramento Street. At the age of ninety-one the “grasshopper was a burden” that made him an easy prey to the prevailing scourge of pneumonia. He was a native of Pennsylvania, whence he came to this state in the very early fifties. He was for many years an agent of the Ditch Company in this city and was one of the most accommodating, genial and respected of our citizens. Some years ago as a remedy for failing health he removed to Los Angles, but returned and spent the last months of his life in Placerville. He leaves a wife, a son George, and a daughter Marian.”