The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 15.

Preliminary remarks on re-entering the States — Americanisms — A little slang — Liquoring up — Eccentricities in dress — A ‘cute chap down east — Conversation on eating — A Kentucky gal — Lake Champlain — Delaval’s — A noisy serenade — Albany — Beauties of the Hudson — The Empire City.

It has been truly observed that a reliable book on the United States yet remains to be written. The writer of such a volume must neither be a tourist nor a temporary resident. He must spend years, in the different States, nicely estimating the different characteristics of each, as well as the broadly-marked shades of difference between East, West, and South. He must trace the effect of Republican principles upon the various races which form this vast community; and, while analysing the prosperity of the country, he must carefully distinguish between the real, the fictitious, and the speculative. In England we speak of America as “Brother Jonathan” in the singular number, without any fraternal feeling however, and consider it as one nation, possessing uniform distinguishing characteristics. I saw less difference between Edinburgh and Boston, than between Boston and Chicago; the dark-haired Celts of the west of Scotland, and the stirring artisans of our manufacturing cities, have more in common than the descendants of the Puritans in New England, and the reckless, lawless inhabitants of the newly-settled territories west of the Mississippi. It must not be forgotten that the thirty-two States of which the Union is composed, may be considered in some degree as separate countries, each possessing its governor and assembly, and framing, to a considerable extent, its own laws. Beyond the voice which each State possesses in the Congress and Senate at Washington, there is apparently little to bind this vast community together; there is no national form of religion, or state endowed church; Unitarianism may be the prevailing faith in one State. Presbyterianism in another, and Universalism in a third; while between the Northern and Southern States there is as wide a difference as between England and Russia — a difference stamped on the very soil itself, and which, in the opinion of some, threatens a disseverance of the Union.

Other causes also produce highly distinctive features in the inhabitants. In the long-settled districts bordering upon the Atlantic, all the accompaniments and appliances of civilisation may be met with, and a comparatively stationary, refined, and intellectual condition of society. Travel for forty hours to the westward, and everything is in a transition state: there are rough roads and unfinished railroads; foundations of cities laid in soil scarcely cleared from the forest; splendid hotels within sound of the hunter’s rifle and the lumberer’s axe; while the elements of society are more chaotic than the features of the country. Every year a tide of emigration rolls westward, not from Europe only, but from the crowded eastern cities, forming a tangled web of races, manners, and religions which the hasty observer cannot attempt to disentangle. Yet there are many external features of uniformity which the traveller cannot fail to lay hold of, and which go under the general name of Americanisms. These are peculiarities of dress, manners, and phraseology, and, to some extent, of opinion, and may be partly produced by the locomotive life which the American leads, and the way in which all classes are brought into contact in travelling. These peculiarities are not to be found among the highest or the highly-educated classes, but they force themselves upon the tourist to a remarkable, and frequently to a repulsive, extent; and it is safer for him to narrate facts and comment upon externals, though in doing so he presents a very partial and superficial view of the people, than to present his readers with general inferences drawn from partial premises, or with conclusions based upon imperfect, and often erroneous, data.

An entire revolution had been effected in my way of looking at things since I landed on the shores of the New World. I had ceased to look for vestiges of the past, or for relics of ancient magnificence, and, in place of these, I now contemplated vast resources in a state of progressive and almost feverish development, and, having become accustomed to a general absence of the picturesque, had learned to look at the practical and the utilitarian with a high degree of interest and pleasure. The change from the lethargy and feudalism of Lower Canada and the gaiety of Quebec, to the activity of the New England population, was very startling. It was not less so from the reposeful manners and gentlemanly appearance of the English Canadians, and the vivacity and politeness of the French, to Yankee dress, twang, and peculiarities.

These appeared, as the Americans say, in “full blast,” during the few hours which I spent on Lake Champlain. There were about a hundred passengers, including a sprinkling of the fair sex. The amusements were story-telling, whittling, and smoking. Fully half the stories told began with, “There was a ‘cute ‘coon down east,” and the burden of nearly all was some clever act of cheating, “sucking a greenhorn,” as the phrase is. There were occasional anecdotes of “bustings-up” on the southern rivers, “making tracks” from importunate creditors, of practical jokes, and glaring impositions. There was a great deal of “liquoring-up” going on the whole time. The best story-teller was repeatedly called upon to “liquor some,” which was accordingly done by copious draughts of “gin-sling,” but at last he declared he was a “gone ‘coon, fairly stumped,” by which he meant to express that he was tired and could do no more. This assertion was met by encouragements to “pile on,” upon which the individual declared that he “couldn’t get his steam up, he was tired some.” This word some is synonymous in its use with our word rather, or its Yankee equivalent “kinder.” On this occasion some one applied it to the boat, which he declared was “almighty dirty, and shaky some” — a great libel, by the way. The dress of these individuals somewhat amused me. The prevailing costumes of the gentlemen were straw hats, black dress coats remarkably shiny, tight pantaloons, and pumps. These were worn by the sallow narrators of the tales of successful roguery. There were a very few hardy western men, habited in scarlet flannel shirts, and trowsers tucked into high boots, their garments supported by stout leathern belts, with dependent bowie-knives; these told “yarns” of adventures, and dangers from Indians, something in the style of Colonel Crockett.

The ladies wore their satin or kid shoes of various colours, of which the mud had made woeful havoc. The stories, which called forth the applause of the company in exact proportion to the barefaced roguery and utter want of principle displayed in each, would not have been worth listening to, had it not been from the extraordinary vernacular in which they were clothed, and the racy and emphatic manner of the narrators. Some of these voted three legs of their chairs superfluous, and balanced themselves on the fourth; while others hooked their feet on the top of the windows, and balanced themselves on the back legs of their chairs, in a position strongly suggestive of hanging by the heels. One of the stories which excited the most amusement reads very tamely divested of the slang and manner of the story-teller.

A “‘cute chap down east” had a “2–50” black mare (one which could perform a mile in two minutes fifty seconds), and, being about to “make tracks,” he sold her to a gentleman for 350 dollars. In the night he stole her, cut her tail, painted her legs white, gave her a “blaze” on her face, sold her for 100 dollars, and decamped, sending a note to the first purchaser acquainting him with the particulars of the transaction. “‘Cute chap that;” “A wide-awake feller;” “That coon had cut his eye-teeth;” “A smart sell that;” were the comments made on this roguish transaction, all the sympathy of the listeners being on the side of the rogue.

The stories related by Barnum of the tricks and impositions practised by himself and others are a fair sample, so far as roguery goes, of those which are to be heard in hotels, steamboats, and cars. I have heard men openly boast, before a miscellaneous company, of acts of dishonesty which in England would have procured transportation for them. Mammon is the idol which the people worship; the one desire is the acquisition of money; the most nefarious trickery and bold dishonesty are invested with a spurious dignity if they act as aids to the attainment of this object. Children from their earliest years imbibe the idea that sin is sin — only when found out.

The breakfast bell rang, and a general rush took place, and I was left alone with two young ladies who had just become acquainted, and were resolutely bent upon finding out each other’s likes and dislikes, with the intention of vowing an eternal friendship. A gentleman who looked as if he had come out of a ball-room came up, and with a profusion of bows addressed them, or the prettiest of them, thus:— “Miss, it’s feeding time, I guess; what will you eat?” “You’re very polite; what’s the ticket?” “Chicken and corn-fixings, and pork with onion-fixings.” “Well, I’m hungry some; I’ll have some pig and fixings.” The swain retired, and brought a profusion of viands, which elicited the remark, “Well, I guess that’s substantial, anyhow.” The young ladies’ appetites seemed to be very good, for I heard the observation, “Well, you eat considerable; you’re in full blast, I guess.” “Guess I am: its all-fired cold, and I have been an everlastin long time off my feed.” A long undertoned conversation followed this interchange of civilities, when I heard the lady say in rather elevated tones, “You’re trying to rile me some; you’re piling it on a trifle too high.” “Well, I did want to put up your dander. Do tell now, where was you raised?” “In Kentucky.” “I could have guessed that; whenever I sees a splenderiferous gal, a kinder gentle goer, and high stepper, I says to myself, That gal’s from old Kentuck, and no mistake.”

This couple carried on a long conversation in the same style of graceful badinage; but I have given enough of it.

Lake Champlain is extremely pretty, though it is on rather too large a scale to please an English eye, being about 150 miles long. The shores are gentle slopes, wooded and cultivated, with the Green Mountains of Vermont in the background. There was not a ripple on the water, and the morning was so warm and showery, that I could have believed it to be an April day had not the leafless trees told another tale. Whatever the boasted beauties of Lake Champlain were, they veiled themselves from English eyes in a thick fog, through which we steamed at half-speed, with a dismal fog-bell incessantly tolling.

I landed at Burlington, a thriving modern town, prettily situated below some wooded hills, on a bay, the margin of which is pure white sand, Here, as at nearly every town, great and small, in the United States, there was an excellent hotel. No people have such confidence in the future as the Americans. You frequently find a splendid hotel surrounded by a few clapboard houses, and may feel inclined to smile at the incongruity. The builder looks into futurity, and sees that in two years a thriving city will need hotel accommodation; and seldom is he wrong. The American is a gregarious animal, and it is not impossible that an hotel, with a table-d’hôte, may act as a magnet. Here I joined Mr. and Mrs. Alderson, and travelled with them to Albany, through Vermont and New York. The country was hilly, and more suited for sheep-farming than for corn. Water-privileges were abundant in the shape of picturesque torrents, and numerous mills turned their capabilities to profitable account. Our companions were rather of a low description, many of them Germans, and desperate tobacco-chewers. The whole floor of the car was covered with streams of tobacco-juice, apple-cores, grape-skins, and chestnut-husks.

We crossed the Hudson River, and spent the night at Delaval’s, at Albany. The great peculiarity of this most comfortable hotel is, that the fifty waiters are Irish girls, neatly and simply dressed. They are under a coloured manager, and their civility and alacrity made me wonder that the highly-paid services of male waiters were not more frequently dispensed with. The railway ran along the street in which the hotel is situated. From my bedroom window I looked down into the funnel of a locomotive, and all night long was serenaded with screams, ringing of bells, and cries of “All aboard” and “Go ahead.”

Albany, the capital of the State of New York, is one of the prettiest towns in the Union. The slope on which it is built faces the Hudson, and is crowned by a large state-house, the place of meeting for the legislature of the Empire State. The Americans repudiate the “centralization” principle, and for wise reasons, of which the Irish form a considerable number, they almost invariably locate the government of each state, not at the most important or populous town, but at some inconsiderable place, where the learned legislators are not in danger of having their embarrassments increased by deliberating under the coercion of a turbulent urban population. Albany has several public buildings, and a number of conspicuous churches, and is a very thriving place. The traffic on the river between it and New York is enormous. There is a perpetual stream of small vessels up and down. The Empire City receives its daily supplies of vegetables, meat, butter, and eggs from its neighbourhood. The Erie and Champlain canals here meet the Hudson, and through the former the produce of the teeming West pours to the Atlantic. The traffic is carried on in small sailing sloops and steamers. Sometimes a little screw-vessel of fifteen or twenty tons may be seen to hurry, puffing and panting, up to a large vessel and drag it down to the sea; but generally one paddle-tug takes six vessels down, four being towed behind and one or two lashed on either side. As both steamers and sloops are painted white, and the sails are perfectly dazzling in their purity, and twenty, thirty, and forty of these flotillas may be seen in the course of a morning, the Hudson river presents a very animated and unique appearance. It is said that everybody loses a portmanteau at Albany: I was more fortunate, and left it without having experienced the slightest annoyance.

On the other side of the ferry a very undignified scramble takes place for the seats on the right side of the cars, as the scenery for 130 miles is perfectly magnificent. “Go ahead” rapidly succeeded “All aboard,” and we whizzed along this most extraordinary line of railway, so prolific in accidents that, when people leave New York by it, their friends frequently request them to notify their safe arrival at their destination. It runs along the very verge of the river, below a steep cliff, but often is supported just above the surface of the water upon a wooden platform. Guide-books inform us that the trains which run on this line, and the steamers which ply on the Hudson, are equally unsafe, the former from collisions and “upsets,” the latter from “bustings-up;” but most people prefer the boats, from the advantage of seeing both sides of the river.

The sun of a November morning had just risen as I left Albany, and in a short time beamed upon swelling hills, green savannahs, and waving woods fringing the margin of the Hudson. At Coxsackie the river expands into a small lake, and the majestic Catsgill Mountains rise abruptly from the western side. The scenery among these mountains is very grand and varied. Its silence and rugged sublimity recall the Old World: it has rocky pinnacles and desert passes, inaccessible eminences and yawning chasms. The world might grow populous at the feet of the Catsgills, but it would leave them untouched and unprofaned in their stern majesty. From this point for a hundred miles the eyes of the traveller are perfectly steeped in beauty, which, gathering and increasing, culminates at West Point, a lofty eminence jutting upon a lake apparently without any outlet. The spurs of mountain ranges which meet here project in precipices from five to fifteen hundred feet in height; trees find a place for their roots in every rift among the rocks; festoons of clematis and wild-vine hang in graceful drapery from base to summit, and the dark mountain shadows loom over the lake-like expanse below. The hand wearies of writing of the loveliness of this river. I saw it on a perfect day. The Indian summer lingered, as though unwilling that the chilly blasts of winter should blight the loveliness of this beauteous scene. The gloom of autumn was not there, but its glories were on every leaf and twig. The bright scarlet of the maple vied with the brilliant berries of the rowan, and from among the tendrils of the creepers, which were waving in the sighs of the west wind, peeped forth the deep crimson of the sumach. There were very few signs of cultivation; the banks of the Hudson are barren in all but beauty. The river is a succession of small wild lakes, connected by narrow reaches, bound for ever between abrupt precipices. There are lakes more beauteous than Loch Katrine, softer in their features than Loch Achray, though like both, or like the waters which glitter beneath the blue sky of Italy. Along their margins the woods hung in scarlet and gold — high above towered the purple peaks — the blue waters flashed back the rays of a sun shining from an unclouded sky — the air was warm like June — and I think the sunbeams of that day scarcely shone upon a fairer scene. At mid-day the Highlands of Hudson were left behind — the mountains melted into hills — the river expanded into a noble stream about a mile in width — the scarlet woods, the silvery lakes, and the majestic Catsgills faded away in the distance; and with a whoop, and a roar, and a clatter, the cars entered into, and proceeded at slackened speed down, a long street called Tenth Avenue, among carts, children, and pigs.

True enough, we were in New York, the western receptacle not only of the traveller and the energetic merchant, but of the destitute, the friendless, the vagabond, and in short of all the outpourings of Europe, who here form a conglomerate mass of evil, making America responsible for their vices and their crimes. Yet the usual signs of approach to an enormous city were awanting — dwarfed trees, market-gardens, cockney arbours, in which citizens smoke their pipes in the evening, and imagine themselves in Arcadia, rows of small houses, and a murky canopy of smoke. We had steamed down Tenth Avenue for two or three miles, when we came to a standstill where several streets met. The train was taken to pieces, and to each car four horses or mules were attached, which took us for some distance into the very heart of the town, racing apparently with omnibuses and carriages, till at last we were deposited in Chambers Street, not in a station, or even under cover, be it observed. My baggage, or “plunder” as it is termed, had been previously disposed of, but, while waiting with my head disagreeably near to a horse’s nose, I saw people making distracted attempts, and futile ones as it appeared, to preserve their effects from the clutches of numerous porters, many of them probably thieves. To judge from appearances, many people would mourn the loss of their portmanteaus that night.

New York deserves the name applied to Washington, “the city of magnificent distances.” I drove in a hack for three miles to my destination, along crowded, handsome streets, but I believe that I only traversed a third part of the city.

It possesses the features of many different lands, but it has characteristics peculiarly its own; and as with its suburbs it may almost bear the name of the “million-peopled city,” and as its growing influence and importance have earned it the name of the Empire City, I need not apologise for dwelling at some length upon it in the succeeding chapter.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31