Santa Cruz County History - Disasters & Calamities

Voices of the Heart: Cora E. Drew, Poetess of the Plague
by Phil Reader

It can rightfully be said that Cora Drew was a young lady of exceptional courage and insight, and she would prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt during that desolate spring in 1877.

Her parents were Wallace and Sophia Drew, both natives of Canaan, Somerset County, Maine, who had come west in 1862 shortly after their marriage. The section of Maine from which they hailed was a lumbering region, so, naturally enough, upon arrival in California they settled in a similar district - the Santa Cruz mountains above the town of Gilroy. The young couple remained there for twelve years while Wallace worked in the woods. Meanwhile Sophia Drew gave birth to four children, a son and three daughters, of whom Cora, born April 6, 1864, was the eldest.

During the spring of 1874, the family moved to the village of Corralitos in Santa Cruz county where Wallace had been offered the position of foreman at the Ford and Sanborn Shingle Mill. Cora entered the Corralitos School, where records show that she was always in the upper ten percent of her class. She was, by all accounts, a bright and precocious child.

At the time, the mountain village was a small, tight knit community, where all activities centered around life at the numerous saw mills which were scattered throughout the nearby mountains. The families of these woodsmen shared collectively the rigors of existence in the often crude timber camps. They pulled together, helping one another through times of trial, but never was life more trying than during the spring and summer of 1877, when the dreaded Diphtheria swept through the settlements striking down countless children. Physicians from Watsonville had to be called in to minister to the young victims. Among those quick to respond were Doctors Martin and Irelan.

One of the first to be stricken by the disease was Cora Drew, who was now on the verge of her thirteenth birthday. In a matter of hours, her breathing became much labored as a high temperature raged within her body. The two doctors were immediately summoned to her bedside and attended her with great patience.

For days, Cora hung on tenaciously as her system began to deteriorate. The soaring fever caused her to lose all of her hair and finally rendered her totally blind. Yet she refused to give up and slowly began to rally. Although greatly weakened and bedridden, Cora was soon smiling widely and talking incessantly about her up coming birthday.

Meanwhile in other homes located around Corralitos, the pestilence was taking a heavy toll. On March 9th, in nearby Grizzly Flat, Wesley Tucker, a co-worker of Wallace Drew, lost his two year daughter Susie to Diphtheria. When told of the tragedy, Cora asked for a pen and sheaf of paper and wrote a short memorial poem to the child which she sent to the grief stricken parents. The Tuckers were so moved by the emotions conveyed by the verse that they forwarded it to theWatsonville Pajaronian, who published it with young Susie's obituary.

This was the first of several poems which Cora Drew wrote, from her bedside, about the many casualties of the epidemic that spring. A few would find their way into print.

On March 23, her one year old brother, Wallace Drew Jr. was taken ill and died within a matter of hours. To help herself and her parents manage the sorrow of their loss, and to better come to grips with her own continuing malady, Cora composed a long eleven stanza ballad to the memory of her brother. It is an impressive work, heavy with sentiment but at the same time filled with the optimism of youth and a strong belief in the future. Upon reading it, one cannot help but to be taken by the haunting imagery and poetic beauty of the final three verses.

The spring season dragged slowly by for the citizens of Corralitos, with the schools shut down and the saw mills running only on a part time basis. The death toll mounted and the grieving continued unabated.

During the first week of May, Cora's condition, for which the doctors held out so much hope, began to worsen and finally on May 14, 1877, she slipped into a coma and died. She was just 13 years old. The next day, her anguished parents, followed by a cortege of friends and neighbors, bore her body to Watsonville and buried her in a grave next to that of their infant son at the Odd Fellows Cemetery.

In time the pestilence passed out of Corralitos and life in the lumber camps slipped back towards normalcy, but it had exacted a heavy price. Prior to the plague, there had been twenty children enrolled at the tiny Corralitos School, but at the opening of school that fall there were only twelve students left. Eight of the children had succumbed to the disease.

The following year, the Drew family moved on to Felton, in the San Lorenzo Valley, where Wallace opened a livery stable and was later elected Constable of the district. In a manner befitting the situation, the citizens of Corralitos took it upon themselves to see that a bouquet of fresh flowers always marked the spot where Cora Drew, the poetess of the plague, was buried.

When notice of Cora's death appeared in the Watsonville Pajaronian , the following letter, signed simply "a friend" was appended to it.

"With sentiments that sadden the soul, we do offer tribute to the memory of her whose unexpected demise has brought desolation and grief to the hearts of fond and devoted parents and a circle of tenderly devoted friends. With cautious tread do we invade the sanctuary of private sorrow, still we cannot forebear a gentle utterance of profound appreciation of the childlike virtues of the lamented deceased, and our sincere sympathy with those who more directly feel the loss. Rarely have we met one like her, whose gentle nature and feminine graces, more deeply won for her the abiding love of parents, relatives and friends. To these we tender, in this hour of their anguish, our heart-felt condolences. May the time and memory, and the Christian hope, soothe and solace them, and especially may they, upon whose hearts and love one had impressed a living idea of all that in life is poetic, beautiful and true, find sweet solace in the precious thought that what is their loss is her gain. Sad commentary this upon life and its vain promises. In the weary pilgrimage, along the path of all, are to be found green mounds and broken shrines, where a thousand hopes have been wasted into ashes and shadows even which we would not forget. Loved and lamented one! While the tears of affliction shall ever moisten the sod that covers thee, may the dews of Heaven refresh thy mortal spirit!""

Also appearing with Cora's obituary was a short poem written by her parents.

"Cora darling, though you have left us,
And your loss we deeply feel,
But 'tis God that has bereft us,
And he can all our sorrows heal."


The first memorial poem by Cora Drew to find its way into print appeared in the Watsonville Pajaronian on March 16, 1877. It was written for Susie Tucker, the one year old daughter of her neighbors, William and Elizabeth Tucker.

"Sleep little Susie, Sleep!
Not in thy cradle bed,
Not on thy mother's breast,
But with the quiet dead.

Yes, with the angels blest
Susie, thy form will be,
And many weary one
Would glad lie down with thee."

Her longest and finest effort, written upon the death of her young brother, Wallace Jr., appeared in both the Watsonville Pajaronian and the Santa Cruz Sentinel during the first week of April, 1877. It contains several stanzas of exceptional poetic imagery as well as a maturity of insight into the nature of life that is developed far beyond the capacity of most youngsters her age. The piece also reveals much about her own suffering and her brave personal optimism.

"Dear brother, how we miss you
How we dreaded to have you go,
To an unknown world above us,
and leave us here in tears and woe.

Mother says that now in Heaven,
She believes her loved one dwells.
And the spirits of our dear ones,
help to guide us here below.

And, if that is so, darling brother,
Guide your erring sisters, feet,
Guide us in paths of truth and virtue,
That we may noble women make.

And, dear brother, if it is in thy power,
To intercede for those dear friends
That stood beside my bed of pain,
Trying to relieve my suffering
And bring me back to health again.

I would that God might bless them,
Here in this world below,
And in that heaven so pure and bright
His goodness ever know.

And Dr. Martin and Dr. Irelan, too
Who strove so hard to save me,
From death's cold embrace,
Sometimes, it seems, that death,
With skill and practice fought.

But those dear doctors
Who worked both night and day,
Against the grim destroyer that was
Eating my life away.

I would that God might bless them,
And I will bless them too,
For life seems very fair to me,
I'm thirteen years old today;
And if you were here dear brother,
How happy I would be.

But I know it would be madness,
For us to wish you back,
To suffer, oh! to suffer,
As you did here on earth.
For hours you suffered everything,
Till death did you relieve,
Oh! we could not wish you back,
To suffer death again.

But may thy dear hand lead me,
Through life's uncertain race
And bring me to thy holy hills,
And to thy dwelling place."

Cora's final poem, written just a few days before her death on May 14, 1877, can be found in the Watsonville Pajaronian. It is, in some respects, different from others which she composed in that it is polished in its poetics and emotionally more profound. The theme of the piece exposes an overwhelming sense of impending doom in her outlook.

Photo of the Monument to Cora Drew
Monument to Cora Drew
Watsonville Pioneer Cemetery

"I see my life before me,
Like paintings on the wall.
The faces of my loved ones,
Creep slowly down Heaven's hall.

Oh God, In thy mighty wisdom,
Protect me if you may.
Into thy bright and holy kingdom,
Please welcome me today.
My life on earth, so deep in pain
And sorrow's cup so full,
Yet I would welcome it again
To eternity's brief lull."

>>Continue with: Voices of the Heart: Memorial Roll

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Published by Cliffside Publishing, 1993. Copyright 1993 Phil Reader. Text and photographs reproduced with the permission of Phil Reader.

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