Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 24

Journey to Philadelphia — Chesapeak and Delaware Canal — City of Philadelphia — Miss Wright’s Lecture

In the latter part of August, 1830, we paid a visit to Philadelphia, and, notwithstanding the season, we were so fortunate as to have both bright and temperate weather for the expedition. The road from Washington to Baltimore, which was our first day’s journey, is interesting in summer from the variety of luxuriance of the foliage which borders great parts of it.

We passed the night at Baltimore, and embarked next morning on board a steam-boat for Philadelphia. The scenery of the Elk river, upon which you enter soon after leaving the port of Baltimore, is not beautiful. We embarked at six in the morning, and at twelve reached the Chesapeak and Delaware canal; we then quitted the steam-boat, and walked two or three hundred yards to the canal, where we got on board a pretty little decked boat, sheltered by a neat awning, and drawn by four horses. This canal cuts across the state of Delaware, and connects the Chesapeak and Delaware rivers: it has been a work of great expense, though the distance is not more than thirteen miles; for a considerable part of this distance the cutting has been very deep, and the banks are in many parts thatched, to prevent their crumbling. At the point where the cutting is deepest, a light bridge is thrown across, which, from its great height, forms a striking object to the travellers passing below it. Every boat that passes this canal pays a toll of twenty dollars.

Nothing can be less interesting than that part of the state of Delaware through which this cut passes, the Mississippi hardly excepted. At one, we reached the Delaware river, at a point nearly opposite Delaware Fort, which looks recently built, and is very handsome. [This fort was destroyed by fire a few months afterwards.] Here we again changed our vessel, and got on board another of their noble steam-boats; both these changes were made with the greatest regularity and dispatch.

There is nothing remarkable in the scenery of the Delaware. The stream is wide and the banks are flat; a short distance before you reach Philadelphia two large buildings of singular appearance strike the eye. On enquiry I learnt that they were erected for the purpose of sheltering two ships of war. They are handsomely finished, with very neat roofs, and are ventilated by many windows. The expense of these buildings must have been considerable, but, as the construction of the vast machines they shelter was more so, it may be good economy.

We reached Philadelphia at four o’clock in the afternoon. The approach to this city is not so striking as that to Baltimore; though much larger, it does not now show itself so well; it wants domes and columns: it is, nevertheless, a beautiful city. Nothing can exceed its neatness; the streets are well paved, the foot-way, as in all the old American cities, is of brick, like the old pantile walk at Tunbridge Wells. This is almost entirely sheltered from the sun by the awnings, which, in all the principal streets, are spread from the shop windows to the edge of the pavement.

The city is built with extreme and almost wearisome regularity; the streets, which run north and south, are distinguished by numbers, from one to — I know not how many, but I paid a visit in Twelth Street; these are intersected at right angles by others, which are known by the names of various trees; Mulberry (more commonly called Arch-street), Chesnut, and Walnut, appear the most fashionable: in each of these there is a theatre. This mode of distinguishing the streets is commodious to strangers, from the facility it gives of finding out whereabouts you are; if you ask for the United States Bank, you are told it is in Chesnut, between Third and Fourth, and as the streets are all divided from each other by equal distances, of about three hundred feet, you are sure of not missing your mark. There are many handsome houses, but none that are very splendid; they are generally of brick, and those of the better order have white marble steps, and some few, door frames of the same beautiful material; but, on the whole, there is less display of it in the private dwellings than at Baltimore.

The Americans all seem greatly to admire this city, and to give it the preference in point of beauty to all others in the Union, but I do not agree with them. There are some very handsome buildings, but none of them so placed as to produce a striking effect, as is the case both with the Capitol and the President’s house, at Washington. Notwithstanding these fine buildings, one or more of which are to be found in all the principal streets, the coup d’oeil is every where the same. There is no Place de Louis Quinze or Carrousel, no Regent Street, or Green Park, to make one exclaim “how beautiful!” all is even, straight, uniform, and uninteresting.

There is one spot, however, about a mile from the town, which presents a lovely scene. The water-works of Philadelphia have not yet perhaps as wide extended fame as those of Marley, but they are not less deserving it. At a most beautiful point of the Schuylkill River the water has been forced up into a magnificent reservoir, ample and elevated enough to send it through the whole city. The vast yet simple machinery by which this is achieved is open to the public, who resort in such numbers to see it, that several evening stages run from Philadelphia to Fair Mount for their accommodation. But interesting and curious as this machinery is, Fair Mount would not be so attractive had it not something else to offer. It is, in truth, one of the very prettiest spots the eye can look upon. A broad weir is thrown across the Schuylkill, which produces the sound and look of a cascade. On the farther side of the river is a gentleman’s seat, the beautiful lawns of which slope to the water’s edge, and groups of weeping-willows and other trees throw their shadows on the stream. The works themselves are enclosed in a simple but very handsome building of freestone, which has an extended front opening upon a terrace, which overhangs the river: behind the building, and divided from it only by a lawn, rises a lofty wall of solid limestone rock, which has, at one or two points, been cut into, for the passage of the water into the noble reservoir above. From the crevices of this rock the catalpa was every where pushing forth, covered with its beautiful blossom. Beneath one of these trees an artificial opening in the rock gives passage to a stream of water, clear and bright as crystal, which is received in a stone basin of simple workmanship, having a cup for the service of the thirsty traveller. At another point, a portion of the water in its upward way to the reservoir, is permitted to spring forth in a perpetual jet d’eau, that returns in a silver shower upon the head of a marble naiad of snowy whiteness. The statue is not the work of Phidias, but its dark, rocky background, the flowery catalpas which shadow it, and the bright shower through which it shows itself, altogether make the scene one of singular beauty; add to which, the evening on which I saw it was very sultry, and the contrast of this cool spot to all besides certainly enhanced its attraction; it was impossible not to envy the nymph her eternal shower-bath.

On returning from this excursion we saw handbills in all parts of the city announcing that Miss Wright was on that evening to deliver her parting address to the citizens of Philadelphia, at the Arch Street theatre, previous to her departure for Europe. I immediately determined to hear her, and did so, though not without some difficulty, from the crowds who went thither with the same intention. The house, which is a very pretty one, was filled in every part, including the stage, with a well dressed and most attentive audience. There was a larger proportion of ladies present than I ever saw on any other occasion in an American theatre. One reason for this might be, perhaps, that they were admitted gratis.

Miss Wright came on the stage surrounded by a body guard of Quaker ladies, in the full costume of their sect. She was, as she always is, startling in her theories, but powerfully eloquent, and, on the whole, was much applauded, though one passage produced great emotion, and some hissing. She stated broadly, on the authority of Jefferson, furnished by his posthumous works, that “Washington was not a Christian.” One voice from the crowded pit exclaimed, in an accent of indignation, “Washington was a Christian.” but it was evident that the majority of the audience considered Mr. Jefferson’s assertion as a compliment to the country’s idol, for the hissing was soon triumphantly clapped down. General Washington himself, however, gives a somewhat different account of his own principles, for in his admirable farewell address on declining a re-election to the Presidency, I find the following passage.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who would labour to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the destinies of men and citizens. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Whether Mr. Jefferson or himself knew best what his principles were, I will not decide, but, at least, it appears fair, when repeating one statement, to add the other also.

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