Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 32

Journey to Niagara — Hudson — West Point — Hyde Park — Albany — Yankees — Trenton Falls — Rochester — Genesee Falls — Lockport

How quickly weeks glide away in such a city as New York, especially when you reckon among your friends some of the most agreeable people in either hemisphere. But we had still a long journey before us, and one of the wonders of the world was to be seen.

On the 30th of May we set off for Niagara. I had heard so much of the surpassing beauty of the North River, that I expected to be disappointed, and to find reality flat after description. But it is not in the power of man to paint with a strength exceeding that of nature, in such scenes as the Hudson presents. Every mile shows some new and startling effect of the combination of rocks, trees, and water; there is no interval of flat or insipid scenery, from the moment you enter upon the river at New York, to that of quitting it at Albany, a distance of 180 miles.

For the first twenty miles the shore of New Jersey, on the left, offers almost a continued wall of trap rock, which from its perpendicular form, and lineal fissures, is called the Palisados. This wall sometimes rises to the height of a hundred and fifty feet, and sometimes sinks down to twenty. Here and there, a watercourse breaks its uniformity; and every where the brightest foliage, in all the splendour of the climate and the season, fringed and chequered the dark barrier. On the opposite shore, Manhatten Island, with its leafy coronet gemmed with villas, forms a lovely contrast to these rocky heights.

After passing Manhatten Island, the eastern shore gradually assumes a wild and rocky character, but ever varying; woods, lawns, pastures, and towering cliffs all meet the eye in quick succession, as the giant steam-boat cleaves its swift passage up the stream.

For several miles the voyage is one of great interest independent of its beauty, for it passes many points where important events of the revolutionary war took place.

It was not without a pang that I looked on the spot where poor Andre was taken, and another where he was executed.

Several forts, generally placed in most commanding situations, still show by their battered ruins, where the struggle was strongest, and I felt no lack of that moral interest so entirely wanting in the new States, and without which no journey can, I think, continue long without wearying the spirits.

About forty miles from New York you enter upon the Highlands, as a series of mountains which then flank the river on both sides, are called. The beauty of this scenery can only be conceived when it is seen. One might fancy that these capricious masses, with all their countless varieties of light and shade, were thrown together to show how passing lovely rocks and woods, and water could be. Sometimes a lofty peak shoots suddenly up into the heavens, showing in bold relief against the sky; and then a deep ravine sinks in solemn shadow, and draws the imagination into its leafy recesses. For several miles the river appears to form a succession of lakes; you are often enclosed on all sides by rocks rising directly from the very edge of the stream, and then you turn a point, the river widens, and again woods, lawns, and villages are reflected on its bosom.

The state prison of Sing Sing is upon the edge of the water, and has no picturesque effect to atone for the painful images it suggests; the “Sleepy Hollow” of Washington Irving, just above it, restores the imagination to a better tone.

West Point, the military academy of the United States, is fifty miles from New York. The scenery around it is magnificent, and though the buildings of the establishment are constructed with the handsome and unpicturesque regularity which marks the work of governments, they are so nobly placed, and so embosomed in woods, that they look beautiful. The lengthened notes of a French horn, which I presume was attending some of their military manoeuvres, sounded with deep and solemn sweetness as we passed.

About thirty miles further is Hyde Park, the magnificent seat of Dr. Hosack; here the misty summit of the distant Kaatskill begins to form the outline of the landscape; it is hardly possible to imagine anything more beautiful than this place. We passed a day there with great enjoyment; and the following morning set forward again in one of those grand floating hotels called steamboats. Either on this day, or the one before, we had two hundred cabin passengers on board, and they all sat down together to a table spread abundantly, and with considerable elegance. A continual succession of gentlemen’s seats, many of them extremely handsome, borders the river to Albany. We arrived there late in the evening, but had no difficulty in finding excellent accommodation.

Albany is the state capital of New York, and has some very handsome public buildings; there are also some curious relics of the old Dutch inhabitants.

The first sixteen miles from Albany we travelled in a stage, to avoid a multitude of locks at the entrance of the Erie canal; but at Scenectedy we got on board one of the canal packet-boats for Utica.

With a very delightful party, of one’s own choosing, fine temperate weather, and a strong breeze to chase the mosquitos, this mode of travelling might be very agreeable, but I can hardly imagine any motive of convenience powerful enough to induce me again to imprison myself in a canal boat under ordinary circumstances. The accommodations being greatly restricted, every body, from the moment of entering the boat, acts upon a system of unshrinking egotism. The library of a dozen books, the backgammon board, the tiny berths, the shady side of the cabin, are all jostled for in a manner to make one greatly envy the power of the snail; at the moment I would willingly have given up some of my human dignity for the privilege of creeping into a shell of my own. To any one who has been accustomed in travelling, to be addressed with, “Do sit here, you will find it more comfortable,” the “You must go there, I made for this place first,” sounds very unmusical.

There is a great quietness about the women of America (I speak of the exterior manner of persons casually met), but somehow or other, I should never call it gentleness. In such trying moments as that of fixing themselves on board a packet-boat, the men are prompt, determined, and will compromise any body’s convenience, except their own. The women are doggedly stedfast in their will, and till matters are settled, look like hedgehogs, with every quill raised, and firmly set, as if to forbid the approach of any one who might wish to rub them down. In circumstances where an English woman would look proud, and a French woman nonchalante, an American lady looks grim; even the youngest and the prettiest can set their lips, and knit their brows, and look as hard and unsocial as their grandmothers.

Though not in the Yankee or New England country, we were bordering upon it sufficiently to meet in the stages and boats many delightful specimens of this most peculiar race. I like them extremely well, but I would not wish to have any business transactions with them, if I could avoid it, lest, to use their own phrase, “they should be too smart for me.”

It is by no means rare to meet elsewhere, in this working-day world of our’s, people who push acuteness to the verge of honesty, and sometimes, perhaps, a little bit beyond; but, I believe, the Yankee is the only one who will be found to boast of doing so. It is by no means easy to give a clear and just idea of a Yankee; if you hear his character from a Virginian, you will believe him a devil: if you listen to it from himself, you might fancy him a god — though a tricky one; Mercury turned righteous and notable. Matthews did very well, as far as “I expect,” “I calculate,” and “I guess;” but this is only the shell; there is an immense deal within, both of sweet and bitter. In acuteness, cautiousness, industry, and perseverance, he resembles the Scotch; in habits of frugal neatness, he resembles the Dutch; in love of lucre he doth greatly resemble the sons of Abraham; but in frank admission, and superlative admiration of all his own peculiarities, he is like nothing on earth but himself.

The Quakers have been celebrated for the pertinacity with which they avoid giving a direct answer, but what Quaker could ever vie with a Yankee in this sort of fencing? Nothing, in fact, can equal their skill in evading a question, excepting that with which they set about asking one. I am afraid that in repeating a conversation which I overheard on board the Erie canal boat, I shall spoil it, by forgetting some of the little delicate doublings which delighted me — yet I wrote it down immediately. Both parties were Yankees, but strangers to each other; one of them having, by gentle degrees, made himself pretty well acquaninted with the point from which every one on board had started, and that for which he was bound, at last attacked his brother Reynard thus:-

“Well, now, which way may you be travelling?”

“I expect this canal runs pretty nearly west.”

“Are you going far with it?”

“Well, now, I don’t rightly know how many miles it may be.”

“I expect you’ll be from New York?”

“Sure enough I have been at New York, often and often.”

“I calculate, then, ’tis not there as you stop?”

“Business must be minded, in stopping and in stirring.”

“You may say that. Well, I look then you’ll be making for the Springs?”

“Folks say as all the world is making for the Springs, and I except a good sight of them is.”

“Do you calculate upon stopping long when you get to your journey’s end?”

“’Tis my business must settle that, I expect?”

“I guess that’s true, too; but you’ll be for making pleasure a business for once, I calculate?”

“My business don’t often lie in that line.”

“Then, may be, it is not the Springs as takes you this line?”

“The Springs is a right elegant place, I reckon.”

“It is your health, I calculate, as makes you break your good rules?”

“My health don’t trouble me much, I guess.”

“No? Why that’s well. How is the markets, sir? Are bread stuffs up?”

“I a’nt just capable to say.”

“A deal of money’s made by just looking after the article at the fountain’s head.”

“You may say that.”

“Do you look to be making great dealings in produce up the country?”

“Why that, I expect, is difficult to know.”

“I calculate you’ll find the markets changeable these times?”

“No markets ben’t very often without changing.”

“Why, that’s right down true. What may be your biggest article of produce?”

“I calculate, generally, that’s the biggest, as I makes most by.”

“You may say that. But what do you chiefly call your most particular branch?”

“Why, that’s what I can’t justly say.”

And so they went on, without advancing or giving an inch, ‘till I was weary of listening; but I left them still at it, when I stepped out to resume my station on a trunk at the bow of the boat, where I scribbled in my note-book this specimen of Yankee conversation.

The Erie canal has cut through much solid rock, and we often passed between magnificent cliffs. The little falls of the Mohawk form a lovely scene; the rocks over which the river runs are most fantastic in form. The fall continues nearly a mile, and a beautiful village, called the Little Falls, overhangs it. As many locks occur at this point, we quitted the boat, that we might the better enjoy the scenery, which is of the widest description. Several other passengers did so likewise, and I was much amused by one of our Yankees, who very civilly accompanied our party, pointing out to me the wild state of the country, and apologizing for it, by saying, that the property all round thereabouts had been owned by an Englishman; “and you’ll excuse me, ma’am, but when the English gets a spot of wild ground like this here, they have no notions about it like us; but the Englishman have sold it, and if you was to see it five years hence, you would not know it again; I’ll engage there will be by that, half a score elegant factories — ’tis a true shame to let such a privilege of water lie idle.”

We reached Utica at twelve o’clock the following day, pretty well fagged by the sun by day, and a crowded cabin by night; lemon-juice and iced-water (without sugar) kept us alive. But for this delightful recipe, feather fans, and eau de Cologne, I think we should have failed altogether; the thermometer stood at 90 degrees.

At two, we set off in a very pleasant airy carriage for Trenton Falls, a delightful drive of fourteen miles. These falls have become within the last few years only second in fame to Niagara. The West Canada Creek, which in the map shows but as a paltry stream, has found its way through three miles of rock, which, at many points, is 150 feet high. A forest of enormous cedars is on their summit; and many of that beautiful species of white cedar which droops its branches like the weeping-willow grow in the clefts of the rock, and in some places almost dip their dark foliage in the torrent. The rock is of a dark grey limestone, and often presents a wall of unbroken surface. Near the hotel a flight of very alarming steps leads down to the bed of the stream, and on reaching it you find yourself enclosed in a deep abyss of solid rock, with no visible opening but that above your head. The torrent dashes by with inconceivable rapidity; its colour is black as night, and the dark ledge of rock on which you stand, is so treacherously level with it, that nothing warns you of danger. Within the last three years two young people, though surrounded by their friends, have stepped an inch too far, and disappeared from among them, as if by magic, never to revisit earth again. This broad flat ledge reached but a short distance, and then the perpendicular wall appears to stop your farther progress; but there is a spirit of defiance in the mind of man; he will not be stayed either by rocks or waves. By the aid of gunpowder a sufficient quantity of the rock has been removed to afford a fearful footing round a point, which, when doubled, discloses a world of cataracts, all leaping forward together in most magnificent confusion. I suffered considerably before I reached the spot where this grand scene is visible; a chain firmly fastened to the rock serves to hang by, as you creep along the giddy verge, and this enabled me to proceed so far; but here the chain failed, and my courage with it, though the rest of the party continued for some way farther, and reported largely of still increasing sublimity. But my knees tottered, and my head swam, so while the rest crept onward, I sat down to wait their return on the floor of rock which had received us on quitting the steps.

A hundred and fifty feet of bare black rock on one side, an equal height covered with solemn cedars on the other, an unfathomed torrent roaring between them, the fresh remembrance of the ghastly legend belonging to the spot, and the idea of my children clinging to the dizzy path I had left, was altogether sombre enough; but I had not sat long before a tremendous burst of thunder shook the air; the deep chasm answered from either side, again, again, and again; I thought the rock I sat upon trembled: but the whole effect was so exceedingly grand, that I had no longer leisure to think of fear; my children immediately returned, and we enjoyed together the darkening shadows cast over the abyss, the rival clamour of the torrent and the storm, and that delightful exaltation of the spirits which sets danger at defiance. A few heavy rain drops alarmed us more than all the terrors of the spot, or rather, they recalled our senses, and we retreated by the fearful steps, reaching our hotel unwetted and unharmed. The next morning we were again early a foot; the last night’s storm had refreshed the air, and renewed our strength. We now took a different route, and instead of descending, as before, walked through the dark forest along the cliff, sufficiently near its edge to catch fearful glimpses of the scene below. After some time the patch began to descend, and at length brought us to the Shantee, commemorated in Miss Sedgwick’s Clarence. This is by far the finest point of the falls. There is a little balcony in front of the Shantee, literally hanging over the tremendous whirlpool; though frail, it makes one fancy oneself in safety, and reminded me of the feeling with which I have stood on one side a high gate, watching a roaring bull on the other. The walls of this Shantee are literally covered with autographs, and I was inclined to join the laugh against the egotistical trifling, when one of the party discovered “Trollope, England,” amidst the innumerable scrawls. The well known characters were hailed with such delight, that I think I shall never again laugh at any one for leaving their name where it is possible a friend may find it.

We returned to Utica to dinner, and found that we must either wait till the next day for the Rochester coach, or again submit to the packet-boat. Our impatience induced us to prefer the latter, not very wisely, I think, for every annoyance seemed to increase upon us. The Oneida and the Genesee country are both extremely beautiful, but had we not returned by another route we should have known little about it. From the canal nothing is seen to advantage, and very little is seen at all. My chief amusement, I think, was derived from names. One town, consisting of a whiskey store and a warehouse, is called Port Byron. At Rome, the first name I saw over a store was Remus, doing infinite honour, I thought, to the classic lore of his godfathers and godmothers; but it would be endless to record all the drolleries of this kind which we met with. We arrived at Rochester, a distance of a hundred and forty miles, on the second morning after leaving Utica, fully determined never to enter a canal boat again, at least, not in America.

Rochester is one of the most famous of the cities built on the Jack and Bean-stalk principle. There are many splendid edifices in wood; and certainly more houses, warehouses, factories, and steam-engines than ever were collected together in the same space of time; but I was told by a fellow-traveller that the stumps of the forest are still to be found firmly rooted in the cellars.

The fall of the Genesee is close to the town, and in the course of a few months will, perhaps, be in the middle of it. It is a noble sheet of water, of a hundred and sixty feet perpendicular fall; but I looked at it through the window of a factory, and as I did not like that, I was obligingly handed to the door-way of a sawing-mill; in short, “the great water privilege” has been so ingeniously taken advantage of, that no point can be found where its voice and its movement are not mixed and confounded with those of the “admirable machinery of this flourishing city.”

The Genesee fall is renowned as being the last and fatal leap of the adventurous madman, Sam Patch; he had leaped it once before, and rose to the surface of the river in perfect safety, but the last time he was seen to falter as he took the leap, and was never heard of more. It seems that he had some misgivings of his fate, for a pet bear, which he had always taken with him on his former break-neck adventures, and which had constantly leaped after him without injury, he on this occasion left behind, in the care of a friend, to whom he bequeathed him “in case of his not returning.” We saw the bear, which is kept at the principal hotel; he is a noble creature, and more completely tame than I ever saw any animal of the species.

Our journey now became wilder every step, the unbroken forest often skirted the road for miles, and the sight of a log-hut was an event. Yet the road was, for the greater part of the day, good, running along a natural ridge, just wide enough for it. This ridge is a very singular elevation, and, by all the enquiry I could make, the favourite theory concerning it is, that it was formerly the boundary of Lake Ontario, near which it passes. When this ridge ceased, the road ceased too, and for the rest of the way to Lockport, we were most painfully jumbled and jolted over logs and through bogs, till every joint was nearly dislocated.

Lockport is beyond all comparison, the strangest looking place I ever beheld. As fast as half a dozen trees were cut down, a factory was raised up; stumps still contest the ground with pillars, and porticos are seen to struggle with rocks. It looks as if the demon of machinery, having invaded the peaceful realms of nature, had fixed on Lockport as the battle-ground on which they should strive for mastery. The fiend insists that the streams should go one way, though the gentle mother had ever led their dancing steps another; nay, the very rocks must fall before him, and take what form he wills. The battle is lost and won. Nature is fairly routed and driven from the field, and the rattling, crackling, hissing, spitting demon has taken possession of Lockport for ever.

We slept there, dismally enough. I never felt more out of humour at what the Americans call improvement; it is, in truth, as it now stands, a most hideous place, and gladly did I leave it behind me.

Our next stage was to Lewiston; for some miles before we reached it we were within sight of the British frontier; and we made our salaams.

The monument of the brave General Brock stands on an elevated point near Queenstown, and is visible at a great distance.

We breakfasted at Lewiston, but felt every cup of coffee as a sin, so impatient were we, as we approached the end of our long pilgrimage, to reach the shrine, which nature seems to have placed at such a distance from her worshippers on purpose to try the strength of their devotion.

A few miles more would bring us to the high altar, but first we had to cross the ferry, for we were determined upon taking our first view from British ground. The Niagara river is very lovely here; the banks are bold, rugged, and richly coloured, both by rocks and woods; and the stream itself is bright, clear, and unspeakably green.

In crossing the ferry a fellow-passenger made many enquiries of the young boatman respecting the battle of Queenstown; he was but a lad, and could remember little about it, but he was a British lad, and his answers smacked strongly of his loyal British feeling. Among other things, the questioner asked if many American citizens had not been thrown from the heights into the river.

“Why, yes, there was a good many of them; but it was right to show them there was water between us, and you know it might help to keep the rest of them from coming to trouble us on our own ground.”

This phrase, “our own ground,” gave interest to every mile, or I believe I should have shut my eyes, and tried to sleep, that I might annihilate what remained of time and space between me and Niagara.

But I was delighted to see British oaks, and British roofs, and British boys and girls. These latter, as if to impress upon us that they were not citizens, made bows and courtseys as we passed, and this little touch of long unknown civility produced great effect. “See these dear children, mamma! do they not look English? how I love them!” was the exclamation it produced.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:50