The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 6.

A suspected bill — A friend in need — All aboard for the Western cars — The wings of the wind-American politeness — A loquacious conductor — Three minutes for refreshments — A conversation on politics — A confession — The emigrant car — Beauties of the woods — A forest on fire — Dangers of the cars — The Queen City of the West.

I rose the morning after my arrival at five, hoping to leave Boston for Cincinnati by the Lightning Express, which left at eight. But on summoning the cashier (or rather requesting his attendance, for one never summons any one in the States), and showing him my hill of exchange drawn on Barclay and Company of London, he looked at me, then at it, suspiciously, as if doubting whether the possessor of such a little wayworn portmanteau could he the bonâ fide owner of such a sum as the figures represented. “There’s so much bad paper going about, we can’t possibly accommodate you,” was the discouraging reply; so I was compelled patiently to submit to the detention.

I breakfasted at seven in the ladies’ ordinary, without exchanging a syllable with any one, and soon after my kind friend, Mr. Amy, called upon me. He proved himself a friend indeed, and his kindness gave me at once a favourable impression of the Americans. First impressions are not always correct, but I am happy to say they were fully borne out in this instance by the uniform kindness and hospitality which I experienced during my whole tour. Mr. Amy soon procured me the money for my bill, all in five-dollar notes, and I was glad to find the exchange greatly in favour of England. He gave me much information about my route, and various cautions which I found very useful, and then drove me in a light “waggon” round the antiquated streets of Boston, crowded with the material evidences of prosperity, to his pretty villa three miles distant, in one of those villages of ornamental dwelling-houses which render the appearance of the environs of Boston peculiarly attractive. I saw a good deal of the town in my drive, but, as I returned to it before leaving the States, I shall defer my description of it, and request my readers to dash away at once with me to the “far west,” the goal alike of the traveller and the adventurer, and the El Dorado of the emigrant’s misty ideas.

Leaving American House with its hall swarming like a hive of bees, I drove to the depôt in a hack with several fellow-passengers, Mr. Amy, who was executing a commission for me in the town, having promised to meet me there, but, he being detained, I arrived alone, and was deposited among piles of luggage, in a perfect Babel of men vociferating, “Where are you for?” “Lightning Express!” “All aboard for the Western cars,” &c. Some one pounced upon my trunks, and was proceeding to weigh them, when the stage-driver stepped forward and said, “It’s a lady’s luggage,” upon which he relinquished his intention. He also took my ticket for me, handed me to the cars, and then withdrew, wishing me a pleasant journey, his prompt civility having assisted me greatly in the chaotic confusion which attends the departure of a train in America. The cars by which I left were guaranteed to take people to Cincinnati, a distance of 1000 miles, in 40 hours, allowing time for refreshments! I was to travel by five different lines of railway, but this part of the railway system is so well arranged that I only took a ticket once, rather a curious document — a strip of paper half a yard long, with passes for five different roads upon it; thus, whenever I came upon a fresh line, the conductor tore off a piece, giving me a ticket in exchange. Tickets are not only to be procured at the stations, but at several offices in every town, in all the steamboats, and in the cars themselves. For the latter luxury, for such it must certainly be considered, as it enables one to step into the cars at the last moment without any preliminaries, one only pays five cents extra.

The engine tolled its heavy bell, and soon we were amid the beauties of New England; rocky hills, small lakes, rapid streams, and trees distorted into every variety of the picturesque. At the next station from Boston the Walrences joined me. We were to travel together, with our ulterior destination a settlement in Canada West, but they would not go to Cincinnati; there were lions in the street; cholera and yellow fever, they said, were raging; in short, they left me at Springfield, to find my way in a strange country as best I might; our rendezvous to be Chicago.

At Springfield I obtained the first seat in the car, generally the object of most undignified elbowing, and had space to admire the beauties among which we passed. For many miles we travelled through a narrow gorge, between very high precipitous hills, clothed with wood up to their summits; those still higher rising behind them, while the track ran along the very edge of a clear rushing river. The darkness which soon came on was only enlivened by the sparks from the wood fire of the engine, so numerous and continuous as to look like a display of fireworks. Just before we reached Albany a very respectable-looking man got into the car, and, as his manners were very quiet and civil, we entered into conversation about the trade and manufactures of the neighbourhood. When we got out of the cars on the east side of the river, he said he was going no farther, but, as I was alone, he would go across with me, and see me safe into the cars on the other side. He also offered to carry my reticule and umbrella, and look after my luggage. His civility so excited my suspicions of his honesty, that I did not trust my luggage or reticule out of my sight, mindful of a notice posted up at all the stations, “Beware of swindlers, pickpockets, and luggage-thieves.”

We emerged from the cars upon the side of the Hudson river, in a sea of mud, where, had not my friend offered me his arm, as Americans of every class invariably do to an “unprotected female” in a crowd, I should have been borne down and crushed by the shoals of knapsack-carrying pedestrians and truck-pushing porters who swarmed down upon the dirty wharf. The transit across occupied fully ten minutes, in consequence of the numerous times the engine had to be reversed, to avoid running over the small craft which infest this stream. My volunteer escort took me through a crowd through which I could not have found my way alone, and put me into the cars which started from the side of a street in Albany, requesting the conductor, whose countenance instantly prepossessed me in his favour, to pay me every attention on the route. He remained with me until the cars started, and told me that when he saw ladies travelling alone he always made a point of assisting them. I shook hands with him at parting, feeling real regret at losing so kind and intelligent a companion. This man was a working engineer.

Some time afterwards, while travelling for two successive days and nights in an unsettled district in the west, on the second night, fairly overcome with fatigue, and unable, from the crowded state of the car, to rest my feet on the seat in front, I tried unsuccessfully to make a pillow for my head by rolling up my cloak, which attempts being perceived by a working mechanic, he accosted me thus: “Stranger, I guess you’re almost used up? Maybe you’d be more comfortable if you could rest your head.” Without further parley he spoke to his companion, a man in a similar grade in society; they both gave up their seats, and rolled a coat round the arm of the chair, which formed a very comfortable sofa; and these two men stood for an hour and a half, to give me the advantage of it, apparently without any idea that they were performing a deed of kindness. I met continually with these acts of hearty unostentatious good nature. I mention these in justice to the lower classes of the United States, whose rugged exteriors and uncouth vernacular render them peculiarly liable to be misunderstood.

The conductor quite verified the good opinion which I had formed of him. He turned a chair into a sofa, and lent me a buffalo robe (for, hot though the day had been, the night was intensely cold), and several times brought me a cup of tea. We were talking on the peculiarities and amount of the breakage power on the American lines as compared with ours, and the interest of the subject made him forget to signal the engine-driver to stop at a station. The conversation concluded, he looked out of the window. “Dear me,” he said, “we ought to have stopped three miles back; likely there was no one to get out!”

At midnight I awoke shivering with cold, having taken nothing for twelve hours; but at two we stopped at something called by courtesy a station, and the announcement was made, “Cars stop three minutes for refreshments.” I got out; it was pitch dark; but I, with a young lady, followed a lantern into a frame-shed floored by the bare earth. Visions of Swindon and Wolverton rose before me, as I saw a long table supported on rude trestles, bearing several cups of steaming tea, while a dirty boy was opening and frizzling oysters by a wood fire on the floor. I swallowed a cup of scalding tea; some oysters were put upon my plate; “Six cents” was shouted by a nasal voice in my ear, and, while hunting for the required sum, “All aboard” warned me to be quick; and, jumping into the cars just as they were in motion, I left my untasted supper on my plate. After “Show your tickets,” frequently accompanied by a shake, had roused me several times from a sound sleep, we arrived at Rochester, an important town on the Gennessee Falls, surrounded by extensive clearings, then covered with hoar frost.

Here we were told to get out, as there were twenty minutes for breakfast. But whither should we go when we had got out? We were at the junction of several streets, and five engines, with cars attached, were snorting and moving about. After we had run the gauntlet of all these, I found men ringing bells, and negroes rushing about, tumbling over each other, striking gongs, and all shouting “The cheapest house in all the world — house for all nations — a splenderiferous breakfast for 20 cents!” and the like. At length, seeing an unassuming placard, “Hot breakfast, 25 cents,” I ventured in, but an infusion of mint was served instead of the China leaf; and I should be afraid to pronounce upon the antecedents of the steaks. The next place of importance we reached was Buffalo, a large thriving town on the south shore of Lake Erie. There had been an election for Congress at some neighbouring place the day before, and my vis-à- vis, the editor of a Buffalo paper, was arguing vociferously with a man on my right.

At length he began to talk to me very vivaciously on politics, and concluded by asking me what I thought of the late elections. Wishing to put an end to the conversation, which had become tedious, I replied that I was from England. “English! you surprise me!” he said; “you’ve not the English accent at all.” “What do you think of our government?” was his next question. “Considering that you started free, and had to form your institutions in an enlightened age, that you had the estimable parts of our constitution to copy from, while its faults were before you to serve as beacons, I think your constitution ought to be nearer perfection than it is.” “I think our constitution is as near perfection as anything human can be; we are the most free, enlightened, and progressive people under the sun,” he answered, rather hotly; but in a few minutes resuming the conversation with his former companion, I overheard him say, “I think I shall give up politics altogether; I don’t believe we have a single public man who is not corrupt.” “A melancholy result of a perfect constitution, and a humiliating confession for an American,” I observed.

The conversations in the cars are well worth a traveller’s attention. They are very frequently on politics, but often one hears stories such as the world has become familiarised with from the early pages of Barnum’s Autobiography, abounding in racy anecdote, broad humour, and cunning imposition. At Erie we changed cars, and I saw numerous emigrants sitting on large blue boxes, looking disconsolately about them; the Irish physiognomy being the most predominant. They are generally so dirty that they travel by themselves in a partially lighted van, called the Emigrants’ car, for a most trifling payment. I once got into one by mistake, and was almost sickened by the smell of tobacco, spirits, dirty fustian, and old leather, which assailed my olfactory organs. Leaving Erie, beyond which the lake of the same name stretched to the distant horizon, blue and calm like a tideless sea, we entered the huge forests on the south shore, through which we passed, I suppose, for more than 100 miles.

My next neighbour was a stalwart, bronzed Kentucky farmer, in a palm-leaf hat, who, strange to say, never made any demonstrations with his bowie-knife, and, having been a lumberer in these forests, pointed out all the objects of interest.

The monotonous sublimity of these primeval woods far exceeded my preconceived ideas. We were locked in among gigantic trees of all descriptions, their huge stems frequently rising without a branch for a hundred feet; then breaking into a crown of the most luxuriant foliage. There were walnut, hickory, elm, maple, beech, oak, pine, and hemlock trees, with many others which I did not know, and the only undergrowth, a tropical-looking plant, with huge leaves, and berries like bunches of purple grapes. Though it was the noon of an unclouded sun, all was dark, and still, and lonely; no birds twittered from the branches; no animals enlivened the gloomy shades; no trace of man or of his works was there, except the two iron rails on which we flew along, unfenced from the forest, and those trembling electric wires, which will only cease to speak with the extinction of man himself.

Very occasionally we would come upon a log shanty, that most picturesque of human habitations; the walls formed of large logs, with the interstices filled up with clay, and the roof of rudely sawn boards, projecting one or two feet, and kept in their places by logs placed upon them. Windows and doors there were none, but, where a door was not, I generally saw four or five shoeless, ragged urchins, whose light tangled hair and general aspect were sufficient to denote their nationality. Sometimes these cabins would be surrounded by a little patch of cleared land, prolific in Indian corn and pumpkins; the brilliant orange of the latter contrasting with the charred stumps among which they grew; but more frequently the lumberer supported himself solely by his axe. These dwellings are suggestive, for they are erected by the pioneers of civilization; and if the future progress of America be equal in rapidity to its past, in another fifty years the forests will have been converted into lumber and firewood — rich and populous cities will have replaced the cabins and shanties — and the children of the urchins who gazed vacantly upon the cars will have asserted their claims to a voice in the councils of the nation.

The rays of the sun never penetrate the forest, and evening was deepening the gloom of the artificial twilight, when gradually we became enveloped in a glare, redder, fiercer, than that of moonlight; and looking a head I saw the forest on fire, and that we were rushing into the flames. “Close the windows, there’s a fire a-head,” said the conductor; and after obeying this commonplace direction, many of the passengers returned to the slumbers which had been so unseasonably disturbed. On, on we rushed — the flames encircled us round — we were enveloped in clouds of stifling smoke — crack, crash went the trees — a blazing stem fell across the line — the fender of the engine pushed it aside — the flames hissed like tongues of fire, and then, leaping like serpents, would rush up to the top of the largest tree, and it would blaze like a pine-knot, There seemed no egress; but in a few minutes the raging, roaring conflagration was left behind. A forest on fire from a distance looks very much like ‘Punch’s’ picture of a naval review; a near view is the height of sublimity.

The dangers of the cars, to my inexperience, seemed by no means over with the escape from being roasted alive. A few miles from Cleveland they rushed down a steep incline, apparently into Lake Erie; but in reality upon a platform supported on piles, so narrow that the edges of the cars hung over it, so that I saw nothing but water. A gale was blowing, and drove the surf upon the platform, and the spray against the windows, giving such a feeling of insecurity, that for a moment I wished myself in one of our “‘coon sentry-boxes.” The cars were very full after leaving Cleveland, but I contrived to sleep soundly till awakened by the intense cold which attends dawn.

It was a glorious morning. The rosy light streamed over hills covered with gigantic trees, and park-like glades watered by the fair Ohio. There were bowers of myrtle, and vineyards ready for the vintage, and the rich aromatic scent wafted from groves of blossoming magnolias told me that we were in a different clime, and had reached the sunny south. And before us, placed within a perfect amphitheatre of swelling hills, reposed a huge city, whose countless spires reflected the beams of the morning sun — the creation of yesterday — Cincinnati, the “Queen City of the West.” I drove straight to Burnet House, almost the finest edifice in the town, and after travelling a thousand miles in forty-two hours, without either water or a hair-brush, it was the greatest possible luxury to be able to remove the accumulations of soot, dust, and cinders of two days and nights. I spent three days at Clifton, a romantic village three miles from Cincinnati, at the hospitable house of Dr. Millvaine, the Bishop of Ohio; but it would be an ill return for the kindness which I there experienced to give details of my visit, or gratify curiosity by describing family life in one of the “homes of the New World.”

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