The 1850s


Hawthorne comments briefly on the railroad's growing impact on the countryside, while Thoreau, in three works, comments on travel by boat, road, and train in New England. Melville in Moby-Dick uses metaphors which allude to the modern systems, while his short stories include an extended criticism of the railroad's dangers and social dislocations. Whitman celebrates the Brooklyn ferry boat, railroads including the Union Pacific, and the Suez Canal, built later in the century. Chesnutt points to the metaphor lying behind the Underground Railroad. Two detailed accounts of steamboats on the Mississippi by Melville and Twain highlight the best years of that industry. Davis gives snapshots of industry-focused transportation in western Virginia. Cather's historical account of New Mexico's history begins with no organized transportation and ends with the diffusion of railroads in the 1880s.


 

24

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Title: The Blithedale Romance

Date: 1852

Systems: Railroad

Context: Contemporary, near and in Boston

During the narrator's visit to Boston he discusses how one can learn much about the city by looking at its alleyways, and the back views of its residences. Then he says, "The posterior aspect of any old farmhouse, behind which a railroad has unexpectedly been opened, is so different from that looking upon the immemorial highway, that the spectator gets new ideas of rural life and individuality in the puff or two of steam-breath which shoots him past the premises. In a city, the distinction between what is offered to the public and what is kept for the family is certainly not less striking" (Ch. 17). This is an odd note on the intrusion of the railroads on the settled countryside.

The "steel engine of the Devil's contrivance, a philanthropist" (Ch. 9) is a passing example of the incidental use of a train metaphor as a mindless automaton, an echo of Clifford Pyncheon's "steam-devil" phrase from Seven Gables.

Edition used: New York: Modern Library, 1937.


25

Author: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Title: Cape Cod

Date: 1852 and 1864 (magazine) Written: 1852 ff.

Systems: Stage coach, steamer, sailing boats

Context: 1849 and early 1850s, Massachusetts

Thoreau's steamboat ride across Boston harbor to the Cape is delayed by a storm, so he takes the "cars" (railroad) to the southern end and gets a nine-passenger stage coach, "that almost obsolete conveyance." In the cars he can't read his guidebook "as fast as [he] traveled," but he can keep up in the coach. Thoreau comments on the good humor among the passengers, even though they are strangers, and he notes no "foolish respect" for "wealth and station," a note on the democratic nature of the conveyance ("Stage-Coach Views"). At the end of the book, he goes from the Cape to Boston on a little steamer, although a two-sail schooner also made regular trips.

"Shipwreck," the first chapter, sets part of the tone for the book. A brig has been wrecked, and Thoreau, among others, searches the shore for bits of its cargo and bodies. This motif continues in "Wellfleet Oysterman," where the title character reports on the rescue of most of the Franklin's passengers when that boat stuck on a sand bar the year before. In "The Beach Again," more comments on searching the shores for cargo (e.g., soap, bolts of cloth) and bodies; big pieces of a ruined ship are sold for salvage, while seeds are planted. Other, more pleasing views of boats are from a distance, as when he climbs a hill to see the mackerel fleet, or sees the smoke on the horizon from steam boats.

Thoreau also describes the infrastructure of the boating industry. He devotes a chapter to the light house, describing the light itself in technical detail and echoing the keeper's sense of responsibility for this job. In "The Sea and the Desert" we hear about a government project of planting beach grass to preserve the Provincetown harbor.

At Provincetown the drifting sand is such a problem that the coach wheels are one to two inches wider than the typical five inches; however, he only saw one horse and cart in two days. People walk or ride saddle horses.

Edition used: Thomas Y. Crowell, Apollo Editions, 1961.


26

Author: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Title: "Walking" or "The Wild"

Date: 1862 Written: 1850s

Systems: Road, steamboat

Context: Early 1850s, Massachusetts

As the title suggests, this essay is on Thoreau's favorite mode of travel. Throughout he emphasizes the mid-nineteenth-century usage of the word "road" to denote where people walk, rather than where vehicles go. "The village is the place to which the roads tend, a sort of expansion of the highway, as a lake of a river. It is the body of which roads are the arms and legs, - a trivial or quadrivial place, the thoroughfare and ordinary of travellers." When he is engrossed in thoughts it is "as perchance he is walking on a railroad, then indeed the cars go by without his hearing them. But soon, by some inexorable law, our life goes by and the cars return."

In the essay Thoreau describes a painted panorama of the Mississippi River whose features include steamboats "wooding up," Indians crossing to the west, and legends of Dubuque and Wenona's Cliffs - all of which involve "thinking more of the future than of the past or present." This will be a new heroic age, in contrast to a previously discussed panorama of the Rhine and its medieval remnants.

Edition used: New York, Modern Library, [1937] 1965.


27

Author: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Title: "Life without Principle"

Date: 1863 Written: 1850-5

Systems: Railroad, road construction

Context: 1850s, Massachusetts

In a paragraph complaining about America's obsession with business, Thoreau uses the train as a symbol of "infinite bustle." "I am awakened almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath." As another example of the same obsession we are told about a man who leads an ox team which is drawing a heavy hewn stone swung under the axle - "Such is the labor which the American Congress seeks to protect." Tunnelling through a mountain is another instance of the community's raising money for silly purposes, when it should be hiring a man to mind "his own business." Thoreau later questions whether it was worth while to fill a ship with Italian juniper berries and bitter almonds since the ship sank off New York with many lives lost.

Thoreau compares the closed mind which is "profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things" with a detailed description of road construction. "Our very intellect shall be macadamized, as it were, - its foundation broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; if you would know what will make the most durable pavement, surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds which have been subjected to this treatment so long."

Edition used: New York: Modern Library, [1937] 1965.


28

Author: Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Title: Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale

Date: 1850

Systems: Sailboats, steamboat, canal, railroad

Context: Contemporary, Great Lakes, whaling in Pacific ocean

Most of the novel takes place on the whaler Pequod, which is essentially a factory ship. Ishmael, the narrator, gives extended accounts of the Pequod's operations from how a whale is first sighted to closing down the try-pots once the barrels are filled with oil. We also get details on navigation in the open seas by quadrant, compass, log and line, comments on the use of maps, and examples of how encounters with other whalers become part of the chase for Moby-Dick and for other whales.

For whaling and "the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American Canals and Railroads… the native American liberally provides the brains, and the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles" (Ch. 27). The international crew of the Pequod seems at first to echo this observation, but Ishmael's admiring portraits, especially of Queequeg, the lead harpooner, and Ahab's madness turn the dichotomy upside down.

Land-based means of transportation are referred to briefly, and often metaphorically. The "Town-Ho's Story," Ch. 54, includes digressions on the economy and culture of the Great Lakes (but not much on shipping) and the Erie Canal, chiefly on the picturesqueness of where it goes. Ahab uses a railroad metaphor for his obsession: "The path of my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run" (Ch. 37). The rowing energies of the crew of Fedallah's small boat are "like a horizontal burst boiler out of a Mississippi steamer," an allusion to dangerous explosions on such boats (Ch. 48). Passing references are also made to the royal car on English railways as a metaphor for one digressive chapter (Ch. 90) and to "the mighty iron Leviathan of the modern railway" whose regular schedules are like the way "doctors time a baby's pulse" (Ch.134).

Edition used: New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1967.


 

29

Author: Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Title: Short stories

Date: 1850s

Systems: Train, steamboat, carriage

Context: Contemporary, New York City and New England

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Melville is less optimistic about the railroad's value as an agent of positive change, especially when economic class is taken into account. The poor can listen and watch, but they cannot ride.

"Cock-a-Doodle-Doo! Or the Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano" (1853) attacks railroads and steamboats with some vigor. This sketch opens with a rant about the dangers of locomotives and steamers. Overlooking a panorama of rolling country, the narrator thinks about "What a horrid accident was that on the Ohio, where my good friend and thirty other good fellows were sloped into eternity at the bidding of a thick-headed engineer, who knew not a valve from a flue. And that crash on the railroad just over yon mountains there, where two infatuate trains ran pell-mell into each other, and climbed and clawed each other's backs; and one locomotive was found fairly shelled, like a chick, inside of a passenger car in the antagonist train; and near a score of noble hearts, a bride and her groom, and an innocent young infant, were all disembarked into the grim hulk of Charon, who ferried them over, all baggageless, to some clinkered iron-foundry or other."

This "miserable world" is run by "the thousand villains and asses" who manage the railroads and steamboats, whom he would hang, draw and quarter, and "set them to stokering in Tartarus." His grandfather saw no need to travel so fast, but the "gigantic gadfly of a Moloch… the character murderer, the death monopolizer!" just goes through the country crying "'More, more, more!'" This technological and economic conspiracy is compared to the narrator's single-minded creditor (he's bankrupt). The troubles mount: he got rheumatism in his shoulder when he gave up his sleeping birth on a crowded North River boat to a sick lady, and stayed in the drizzle all night.

The story has a couple of outsider's views of the railroad. While eating a breakfast, "Ah, here comes the down-train: white cars, flashing through the trees like a vein of silver. How cheerfully the steam-pipe chirps! Gay are the passengers. There waves a handkerchief - going down to the city to eat oysters, and see their friends, and drop in at the circus." Less favorable is a poor family which lives in a shanty near where the track passes close to a mountain and cuts a swamp. "Straight as a die the railroad cut it; many times a day tantalizing the wretched shanty with the sight of all the beauty, rank, fashion, health, trunks, silver and gold, drygoods and groceries, brides and grooms, happy wives and husbands, flying by the lonely door - no time to stop - flash! here they are - and there they go! - out of sight at both ends - as if that part of the world were only made to fly over, and not to settle upon. And this was about all the shanty saw of what people call 'life.'" For Melville, at the middle of the century the railroad was seen as exclusive and not as a democratic knitter of the country.

Other stories point out similar class distinctions amid the carriage trade. "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853) has the frustrated lawyer-narrator take a trip around New York City to gather his composure. He drives to the upper part of the town and through the suburbs in his "rockaway," then to Jersey City and Hoboken, New Jersey, and Manhattanville and Astoria, New York. "In fact, I almost lived in my rockaway for the time."

"The Two Temples" (Written 1854) is an allegorical story which finds more real charity in a London theater than in a New York church. Part of the contrast is between the "noble string of flashing carriages" of the wealthy and greedy church goers in New York and the "indescribable crowds" of London pedestrians, "the unscrupulous human whirlpools… dire suckings into oblivion."

"The Tartarus of Maids" (1855) has a narrator visiting a surrealistic paper factory in the "Woedolor" mountains of New England during the winter. In the opening scene, he turns from "the traveled highway, jingling with bells of numerous farmers - who, availing themselves of the fine sleighing, were dragging their wood to market - and frequently diversified with swift cutters, dashing from inn to inn of the scattered villages." He has to get through a narrow path through the mountains, "perilously grazing its rocky wall, I remembered being in a runaway London omnibus, which in much the same sort of style, though by no means at an equal rate, dashed through the ancient arch of Wren." He sees the factory at a distance he picks his way "down the dangerous declivity - horse and man both sliding now and then upon the icy ledges."

Edition used: Great Short Works of Herman Melville. New York: Harper & Row (Perennial Classic) 2nd ed., 1970.


 

30

Author: Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Title: Leaves of Grass

Date: 1890-91 edition Written: 1855-1891

Systems: Railroad, canal

Context: Contemporary, East coast

Four of Whitman's most famous poems celebrate ferry boats, interstate railroads, and the Suez canal as symbolic and psychological forces in nineteenth-century America. In most of his other poems, Whitman's visions of his world are chiefly of people walking in cities and in the countryside, even though he writes about that world from mid-century to the last decade.

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856) presents visions of flags and sails, large and small steamers, the big steam-tug, and pilot boats in the harbor of "mast hemm'd Manhattan," a harbor which displays the "flags of all nations." The harbor is subject to the tides and currents and it is surrounded by the hills of Brooklyn with their foundries and chimneys. The ferry boat is both a vantage point and a refuge from the city. It carries crowds with their "usual costumes" from the city to their homes in the Brooklyn suburb, and it brings them together on the boat, furnishing "parts toward eternity" and "toward the soul."

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865-6) is a memoir on the anniversary of Lincoln's assassination. Its central movement is the funeral procession, "Night and day journeys a coffin. / Coffin that passes through lanes and streets." Somewhat curiously, except for the word "depot," Whitman does not explicitly point out that the coffin moved by train from Washington to Illinois, a fact that his readers would have known and remembered. As with many of Whitman's poems, a central theme is the unity of the States ("long panoramas of visions") and the train's progress lets him give snapshots along the coffin's path. Lincoln's death is linked to the ghosts of the war dead, "the white skeletons of young men."

"Passage to India" (1871) is an enthusiastic picture of a technologically unified world. "In the Old World the east the Suez Canal, [1869] / The New by its mighty railroad spann'd, [1869] / The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires," i.e., the transatlantic cable [1866]. These three fulfill God's purpose to span the earth, "connected by network, / The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage … / The lands to be welded together." The railroad "surmounting every barrier" carries freight and passengers along the Platte, to the Laramie plains and Wahsatch mountains to the "clear waters of lake Tahoe," "Tying the Eastern to the Western sea, / The road between Europe and Asia." This realizes Columbus's and da Gama's dream of a passage to India. It will overcome the "unnatural" separation of peoples, and "Nature and Man shall be disjoin'd and diffused no more." Whitman's brief history of India from Alexander the Great's time shows how the passage unifies time as well as space; it is a "Passage to more than India," which heralds a new, spiritual world.

"To a Locomotive in Winter" (1876) is a centennial celebration of the railroad, "Type of the modern - emblem of motion and power - pulse of the continent." The short poem begins with a direct address to the locomotive, with its "black cylindric body," which starts with the "great protruding head-light" and ends with the "pennants" of smoke at the rear. The personification expands to the "metrical, now swelling pant and roar" and its "lawless music"; it is a "Fierce-throated beauty," whose laughter is "like an earthquake, rousing all." Because the train is fixed on tracks, it has a "law of thyself complete" yet it has no "sweetness debonair." Despite these limits, it is headed across prairies and lakes "To the free skies unpent and glad and strong."

Aside from these poems, Whitman's early verse (1855-1860) has occasional references to railroads, urban drays and express wagons, sailing ships including clippers and the Great Eastern, Mississippi steamboats, and oarsmen on the lakes. Several of his later poems use sailing ships as metaphors for the state ("Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood" 1876), and for his approaching death ("Old Age's Ship & Crafty Death's" 1890). In "Years of the Modern" (1865), the "average man … colonizes the Pacific, the archipelagoes / With the steamship, the electric telegraph …"

The word "road" in the middle of the century denotes where people walk rather than where vehicles go - see "Song of the Open Road" (1856) and "By the Roadside" (1854) for examples.

Edition used: New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1973.


 

31

Author: Charles Chesnutt (1858-1932)

Title: "The Passing of Grandison"

Date: 1899

Systems: "Underground railroad," Steamboat

Context: Early 1850s, Kentucky, Boston, Canada

Young slave holder Dick Owens determines to impress his girlfriend by "running one of his father's Negro men off to Canada." He is sure that so gallant and dangerous a feat will win her affection; what he doesn't anticipate is that the slave in question, Grandison, will be annoyingly faithful and refuse to "escape," on a trip they take to Boston and Canada. Because Owens must seem not to assist Grandison in his getaway, nothing short of paying Canadian kidnappers can pry Grandison from his master's side. Once this arrangement is made, Owens returns home sans slave to be greeted by an angry father, and to win his bride. The narrator notes that Owens's return to Kentucky was "as rapidly as the conveyances of the day would permit." To Dick Owens's dismay however, Grandison escapes from freedom and drags himself from Canada back to Kentucky: "keeping his back steadily to the North Star, [he] made his way, back to the old plantation, back to his master, his friends, and his home." "It's as good as one of Scott's novels!" declares the elder Owens, and the tearful master fetes Grandison as if he were the prodigal son.

And yet, the rejoicing slave holder comes "near to losing his belief in the fidelity of the negro to his master" when, three weeks later, Grandison is missing. And not only Grandison, but his wife, two brothers, a sister, and his father and mother. We learn that Grandison's time amongst the abolitionists has not been wasted; despite the "magnitude of the escaping party," they cannot be caught: "strangely enough the underground railroad seemed to have had its tracks cleared and signals set for this particular train." The "railroad" is metaphorical; most travel using it was by wagon or on foot. The pursuers catch their last glimpse of Grandison and his fugitive family as they wave from the stern of "a small steamboat which was receding rapidly from the wharf [at the south shore of Lake Erie], with her nose pointing toward Canada."

Edition used: The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories. Ridgewood, NJ: Gregg, 1967.


 

32

Author: Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Title: The Confidence Man: His Masquerade

Date: 1857

Systems: Steamboat

Context: Contemporary, Mississippi valley

Melville uses the metaphor of the "captain of fools, in this ship of fools" to set up a Mississippi-river steamboat as a microcosm of the Mississippi valley and, to some degree, American society. The April Fool's Day setting, and a general atmosphere combining carnival and con game are the vehicle for allegory and social satire which are the main materials of the book.

"Though her voyage of twelve hundred miles extends from apple [the upper Midwest] to oranges [the South], from clime to clime, yet, like any small ferry-boat, to right and left, at every landing, the huge Fidèle still receives additional passengers in exchange for those that disembark; so that, though always full of strangers, she continually, in some degree, adds to, or replaces them with strangers still more strange…" As the boat moves down the river, "Those staring crowds on the shore were now left far behind, seen dimly clustering like swallows on eaves; while the passengers' attention was soon drawn away to the rapidly shooting high bluffs, and shot-towers on the Missouri…" The people (the men) on board are likened to Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims in a long list which begins, "Natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure" and ends, "hard-shell Baptists and clay-eaters [poor white southerners]; grinning negroes, and Sioux chiefs solemn as high-priests. In short, a piebald parliament, an Anacharsis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man." This whole business is compared with the diversity of trees in the forest (Ch. 2).

In addition to establishing this metaphor, Melville gives various details about how the steamboat is constructed and used. The story opens with a man with no luggage and no porter moving from the St. Louis wharf to the lower deck where he sees a reward poster for an Eastern imposter, one of many confidence men seen or referred to in the novel. The lower deck has the barber's quarters under the smoking saloon and across from the bar, two doors down from the captain's office. The covered, top deck has "shop-like windowed spaces" which are like a "Constantinople arcade or bazaar" (Ch. 1). The boat has two tiers of small windows above the water line which seems like "some whitewashed fort on a floating isle." Once on board, the crowd of new passengers moves off into "quartettes, trios, and couples, or even solitaries" (Ch. 2). In the third chapter, a "grotesque negro cripple" comes on board and spends his time begging for pennies, even having people throw coins in his open mouth - in a way, this man is the oddest person among the crowd - the rest spend most of their time talking and negotiating. In effect, Melville depicts a boat which is similar to the main street of a small town.

Melville turns a few details about the boat and its customs into social commentary. The steamboat is soot-streaked, but the negro body-servant makes sure that the gentleman's gloves can stay white and clean (Ch. 7). The ladies' saloon has elegant sofas, but men use it freely, so privacy is not respected (Ch. 8). One "cabin" has tables for card games like whist, but not gambling, but the more significant confidence games such as fraudulent investments are an ongoing motif (Ch. 10). Down a corridor is the "emigrant's quarters," which are nearly empty since they are going down river. The lighting is very poor, only skylights, but that's ok since the emigrants only spend their nights there, it's a "pine barren's dormitory, of knotty pine bunks, without bedding," with the bunks suspended from the ceiling, three high, on ropes. "They were beds devised by some sardonic foe of poor travelers, to deprive them of that tranquility which should precede, as well as accompany, slumber. - Procrustean beds, on whose hard grain humble worth and honesty writhed" (Ch. 15). Once the boat passes Cairo, Illinois, they are into Yellow fever country (a serious health risk) and where slavery exists on both banks. Melville sets this transit at nightfall and in the exact center of the book (Ch. 23). After that point, references to the boat itself fall far into the background.

Edition used: Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.


 

33

Author: Mark Twain [Samuel Langhorn Clemens] (1835-1910)

Title: Life on the Mississippi

Date: 1883 Written: Part in 1874-75 as "Old Times on the Mississippi"

Systems: Mississippi steamboat, railroad

Context: 1857-1861 as a pilot; contemporary visit in 1882

Twain brings together his early career as an apprentice and then pilot with a detailed analysis of the end of the steamboat era in the face of the railroads. He thus gives us a comprehensive, insider's history of the rise and fall of a significant, regional transportation system.

The bulk of the first half, and Twain's main narrative, concerns how he learned as a man in his early twenties to become a river pilot during the "flush times" of steamboating. From Cincinnati he pays $16 to take the Paul Jones to New Orleans; after two weeks there he becomes an apprentice to Bixby, an experienced pilot. He will pay $500 out of his first wages which should be $150-$200 a month. He assumes it will be easy to learn the route. Bixby calls out the landmarks and explains the crossovers, but Twain finds that everything looks the same, and he can't recall the details. He begins to understand the skills involved when the pilot finds a plantation landing in pitch dark (Ch. 6). Twain finds that the river seems completely different when they come downstream and thinks, "Now, if my ears hear aright, I have not only to get the names of all the towns and islands and bends, and so on, by heart. but I must even get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and obscure wood-pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles…" (Ch. 7). He really has to know the river as well as "the front hall at home"; "in order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know" (Ch. 8). As he gets the hang of it, he says "The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book." But, by understanding so well, he loses something: "All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!" (Ch. 9).

This was his favorite profession, because "a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived on earth." They got high pay - some up to $900 a trip or $1,800 a month on the Missouri (Ch. 14). They created a Pilot's Benevolent Association with retirement and burial benefits, minimum wages; they got exclusive control of delivering the mail and shared proprietary information about the state of the river to create a monopoly. They fostered formal training and apprenticeships. Eventually insurance underwriters would only accept Association pilots, and they were able to drive up freight rates. Despite the success, the days of riverboating's glory were numbered in the face of railroads and barges "at the tail of a vulgar little towboat" (Ch. 15). Final chapters in this section cover fast runs up and down the river, and a slow boat, "the John J. Roe, was so slow that when she finally sunk in Madrid Bend it was five years before the owners heard of it" (Ch. 16); an account of plantation owners who cut ditches to rechannel the river, and the explosion of the Pennsylvania which lost four of eight boilers and sent at least 40 of the 300-400 passengers to Memphis hospitals (Ch. 20).

With the rise of professionalism in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Twain found a reading public interested in how young men got into their trades. Since Twain was a famous literary person, Life on the Mississippi also appealed to an audience fascinated with the Artist's Life.

Twain's return to the river after twenty-one years' absence leads to a rather formal economic and cultural history of the valley in the early 1880s, filled with a lot of nostalgia. His first stop after getting off the train is St. Louis where only six boats were berthed next to the miles of empty wharfs. The waterfront is in bad repair, and muddy. Steamboating, he says, grew for thirty years after 1812 and dwindled to nearly nothing in the next thirty (i.e., to 1872). "It killed the old-fashioned keel-boating, by reducing the freight trip to New Orleans to less than a week. The railroads have killed the steamboat passenger traffic by doing in two or three days what the steamboats consumed a week in doing; and the towing fleets have killed the through-freight traffic by dragging six or seven steamer-loads of stuff down the river at a time, at an expense so trivial that steamboat competition was out of the question" (Ch. 22).

A couple of charming pictures. An old packet he takes was "a venerable rack-heap, and a fraud to boot; for she was playing herself for personal property, whereas the good honest dirt was so thickly caked all over that she was righteously taxable as real estate. There are places in New England where her hurricane-deck would be worth a hundred and fifty dollars an acre. The soil on her forecastle was quite good - the new crop of wheat was already springing from the cracks in protected places… The soil of the boiler-deck was thin and rocky, but good enough for grazing purposes." He decides "to give up the novelty of sailing down the river on a farm" (Ch. 23).

Up the river, near Winona, Minnesota, he admires the tranquil beauty of the cliffs. "Until the unholy train comes tearing along - which it presently does, ripping the sacred solitude to rags and tatters with its devil's war-whoop and the roar and thunder of its rushing wheels - and straightaway you are back in this world." He remembers that this is the road "whose stock always goes down after you buy it, and always goes up again as soon as you sell it" (Ch. 58).

In Chapter 60 Twain reports that the St. Paul train station "seemed somewhat overdone" when built, but soon was seen as being too small; sixteen railroads meet in Minneapolis, and sixty-five passenger trains arrive and depart daily.

Edition used: New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.


 

34

Author: Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910)

Title: "Life in the Iron Mills"

Date: 1861

Systems: Barges, railroad

Context: Contemporary and 1830s, Western Virginia

The frame narration, somewhat like the description of the English mill town in Dickens' Hard Times, describes the iron works: "Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river… The long train of mules, dragging masses of pig-iron through the narrow street." The story itself takes place thirty years earlier, when the mill had "the great order for the Lower Virginia railroads there last winter; run usually with about a thousand men." Later in the story, when Hugh Wolfe is in jail for theft, he hears the rumble of carts on the market day, a symbol of both the freedom he misses and the ordinary commercial life which his poverty has excluded him from. The river valley brings together boat traffic, carriages and carts, and the railroad - a crucial combination for early American industrial expansion.

Edition used: Paul Lauter, et al., eds. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Lexington, MA, D. C. Heath, 1990.


35

Author: Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Title: Death Comes for the Archbishop

Date: 1927

Systems: Wagon, train

Context: 1848-1888, New Mexico

Cather charts nearly a half-century's history of the Roman Catholic Church in what became New Mexico, and she shows the railroad as exploiting and as bringing progress to the West. At the start there are "no wagon trails, no canals, no navigable rivers," and trade and travel are on horseback or by pack mules ("Prologue"). A rare wagon train arrives at Santa Fé from Galveston harbor or the eastern U.S. with special cargo such as furniture or fruit tree saplings, and the gradual development of wagon roads is mentioned occasionally. The Colorado gold rush leads Father Vaillant to construct a special wagon "capable of carrying a great deal, yet light enough and narrow enough to wind through he mountain gorges beyond Pueblo, - where there were no roads at all except the rocky ravines cut out by streams that flowed full in the spring but would be dry now in the autumn." Vaillant takes "his strange Episcopal carriage" on an extended mission to the gold camps and towns (Ch. 8). In the final scenes in 1888, the archbishop's open buggy (in which he gets a chill and cold which leads to his death) lets him see the completed cathedral - "he had come with the buffalo, and he had lived to see railway trains running into Santa Fé." When Vaillant, now a bishop, dies in Colorado, others in the church hierarchy take trains from Chicago and New Mexico for the funeral. An elderly Navajo takes the "cars" at Gallup and arrives in Santa Fé the same day, a trip that took two weeks in the old days (Ch. 9).

Edition used: New York: Modern Library, 1955.

 

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