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Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
ALL railroad systems are perplexing to a stranger, and the American is about the most. What with State divisions, and impassable rivers, and competing lines, and the enormous distances you have to travel over, it would be hard to steer one's course aright through the railroad labyrinth, even if you had available local timetables to steer by. But what makes the matter worse is, that nowhere except at the railway stations, and not always there, can you find any time-table at all. There is no revealed evidence as to American railroads, and so you have to base your faith on natural laws, and support it by undesigned coincidences from the reports of hotel-keepers and fellow-travellers. Still, as in matters of more importance, knowledge so derived is not conclusive, and you may possibly argue falsely.
I myself was a case in point. On the walls of the Galt House at Louisville, there hung an advertisement, brilliant with all the colours of the rainbow, stating in every variety of type that the shortest route to Cairo,
St. Louis, Kansas, and the Pacific Ocean was by the Ohio and Mississippi and Illinois Central, and that the express train started nightly at eight o'clock. The report was confirmed by collateral testimony on the part of the landlord, and trusting to it I set forth on my journey, under the belief that, barring accidents, I should be carried to my destination without unnecessary stoppage. The train was in truth an express one, and throughout the night I slept luxuriously in the sleeping cars, rocked to sleep, not unpleasantly, by the swaying motion of the train as we dashed onwards through the level lands of Indiana.
But joy in this instance did not come with the morning. It is not pleasant at any time to be woke up at five A. M.; still less to be tumbled out, chilled, half-awake, and out of humour, on the platform of a lonely road-side junction; and least of all to be then and there informed that the branch train does not leave for fourteen hours. The fact was, that, according to the appropriate American phrase, "I had not made good connexions," and the result of my error was, that I had to spend a livelong broiling summer day at Odin Junction. In the "Dame aux Perles" of the younger Dumas there is a long account of how the artist-hero, in his hunt after the pearl-clad duchess, was detained (if I remember rightly, by want of funds) for some awful period at a railway junction in the plains of Galicia. The story had well-nigh faded out of my
memory, but as I stood there, shivering on the platform of Odin City Junction, the whole narrative rose to my mind, and I recalled with dismal distinctness how the luckless Oscar or Adolphe loitered about that dreary lonely station, where there was nothing to read, nobody to speak to, nothing to do, nowhere to walk, nothing even to watch for except the arrival and departure of the trains. There may seem no great hardship in being kept a day in a strange place, when you can spend some hours at least in strolling about and making yourself acquainted with it; but the fatal peculiarity of my case was, that when you had once walked up and down the platform you literally knew the whole country as well as if you had been settled there for years. It is impossible to conceive a country more hopelessly and irredeemably flat and bare and unbroken. As far as the eye could reach, the rich green pasture-lands of Illinois stretched away unchequered by a single tree, like the surface of a vast billiard-board. I have read somewhere that when you stand on the sea-shore you can see fifteen miles of water ahead. If so, from the platform of the station, which was raised a foot or so above the ground, you must have seen fifteen miles of plain in every direction. In the far distance, on either side of the line, there rose a grey belt of trees where the prairie ended and the swamps began; but this belt, and the telegraph poles, and a score or two of scattered houses, were the
objects which rose above the dead level. The narrow single track of the railroad seemed to be drawn out like a line of wire till it dwindled out of sight, the two furthest points visible at either extremity being in one straight line with the spot on which I stood, and for miles and miles away you could watch the railway trains after they had left the station.
In half a dozen years there will probably be a large town at Odin Junction, and already, as the inhabitants told me, the city had made a surprising start; but as yet it required an American's faith in the doctrine of development to foresee the coming greatness of Odin. You could number its houses on the one hand. There was the station, the hotel, one settler's house alongside, and two shells of houses all wooden by the way in the process of building. Within a walk you could see about as many more scattered over the fields. And this was all. The odd fact, however, about this, as about all new American settlements, was, that it had not to develop from a village into a town; but that it has started into existence as the fragment of a city. So, here in Odin (why the Junction should be named after the Northern god I could not discover), there was an hotel large enough for a town of a thousand inhabitants. The one completed settler's house was as pretty and comfortable a cottage ornée, with its snow-white hall and green Venetian blinds and neat outhouses, as would see in Boston; and the two houses in the
course of building will be, when finished, of a like size and look. The ground was already marked out for the church and the schoolhouse; and you could see that the buildings were carefully arranged so as to form the main street, with the railroad passing through it. When that is finished, there will run out Walnut and Chestnut Streets parallel to it, intersected at right angles by the numbered thoroughfares, and the houses now built or building will take their places naturally in Odin city.
It must not be presumed, however, that the whole of these reflections were made upon the platform. Odin Junction, like many other things in America, turned out better on near acquaintance than at first sight. The hotel, like all hotels in the Free States, was clean and comfortable, and as the owners were Germans the cooking was wholesome. Somehow or other the day passed lazily. We breakfasted at six, dined at twelve, had tea at six, and supped at eight. All these were strong substantial meals, each the counterpart of the other, and consisting of steaks, eggs, ham, cakes, and coffee. Our company at table was composed of one or two travellers detained like myself, of the railway officials, guards, clerks, and porters, of the workmen who were putting up the houses hard by, and of the landlord's family. Eating took up a good deal of time, and the process of digestion occupied a good deal more, and watching the new houses building was a quiet and not laborious amusement. The builder was an Englishman,
who had emigrated young, had been an overseer in Alabama, then turned cattle driver in Kansas, had made money there, set up a store in St. Louis and failed, and now, when an old man, was beginning life again as a carpenter. He had not touched a tool for years, as he told me, and had never learnt the trade of carpentering, but he had a knack that way, and when he came to Illinois and found there was no carpenter round about Odin, he turned his hand to the trade, and seemed sanguine of building the whole of the city. He had orders on hand already, he told me, for twelve houses. Most of the inhabitants in Odin were Germans, and preferred talking German to me when they found I understood it, but the children spoke English, and hardly understood their mother-tongue.
There was one beauty, and one beauty only about the scenery. On that flat pasture prairie-land, and beneath that burning sun, the shadows cast by the passing clouds swept to and fro in deep dark masses. In our own hilly, wooded, hedge-divided country you never witness the sight of a cloud-shadow projected in its full glory. It is only in the Roman Campagna and in the western prairies that this spectacle is possible. Watching the clouds pass lazily, I speculated on an idea that often crossed my mind in America. What must be the effect on a nation's character of being born and reared and bred in a country where there is nothing old to reverence, and nothing grand about the
scenery, where even such beauty as there is, is so protracted and extended that it becomes monotonous by repetition. One obvious effect has been produced already, and I think inevitably. The single grand feature about American scenery is its vastness; and so for the American mind, sheer size and simple greatness possess an attraction which we in the Old World can hardly realize. There is much that is absurd about the manifestation of this sentiment, and English critics have taken hold freely of its ludicrous side. But I am not sure that there is not also something grand about it. When a settler at Odin boasted to me of the future greatness of the city, the boast struck me at first as ridiculous, but I reflected afterwards that it was this pride and this belief in future greatness which had settled and civilized the New World whereon I trod. And so the day passed by and night came on almost at once, as it does in these southern countries after the sun's setting.
A long night again on the rail, and then another early waking, this time not on a platform, but in the middle of a swamp. Some eight miles above Cairo the whole country was under water, and the line was flooded. However, alongside the embankment, in the midst of a forest standing knee-deep in water, there was a flat, platform-shaped barge, with a steam-engine in the middle, which, in some mysterious way I am not engineer enough to explain, propelled the raft, for it was nothing else. We were a long time getting off, as
the train was loaded with medical stores, on their road to Corinth, in expectation of a second battle. It was hard work, shoving the unwieldy cases down the steep embankment; and harder still dragging on board the coffins, of which there were numbers, sent by friends far away, to receive the remains of soldiers who had died at Pittsburgh Landing. Whatever may be the faults of Americans, they work hard when they are about it; and, in the course of a short time, the raft was loaded, till it sank flush with the water's edge. Fortunately the water was not deep; and, moreover, I had firmly impressed upon myself the advice which a Northern friend gave me when I set out on my journey, that the one thing needful in American travelling is unquestioning faith. I presume that, in ordinary times, a road runs through the forest over whose track we sailed. At any rate, we followed an opening through the trees. Our raft, which was about as unwieldy in steering as the Monitor (judging from what I saw of that much over-vaunted miracle), had a way of jamming herself in between trunks of trees, and then had to be strained round by ropes back into the current. At other times she got aground, and had to be punted off with poles; and when she was clear afloat, she would run foul of floating "snags" and swing round the way she was wanted not to go. Happily the current was so rapid that it carried us over every difficulty, and, somehow or other, dodging our heads constantly, as we passed under the
overhanging branches, we made way slowly. It was a pretty scene enough, in the bright fresh morning, when the leaves wore the first green tint of spring, and the shadows of the great trees were reflected in the water beneath the rays of the rising sun. So, winding our way through the forest swamp, we came out on the Ohio river, and there transhipped ourselves and our freight on board a steamer, which bore us down the rapid stream to the point where its waters joined the Mississippi, at the city of Cairo.
There are some places in the world which, when you get to, your first thought is how shall I get away again; and of these Cairo is one. A Yankee legend states, that when the universe was allotted out between heaven, earth, and hell, there was one allotment intended for the third department, and crowded by mistake into the second; and that to this topographical error Cairo owes its terrestrial existence. The inhabitants boast, with a sort of reckless pride, that Cairo is also the original of the "valley of Eden," in which the firm of Chuzzlewit and Co. pitched their location; and a low hut is pointed out, which is said to be the identical one that Dickens had in his mind, when he described the dwelling where Mark Tapley immortalized himself. The description of the Chuzzlewit journey down the Mississippi is utterly inconsistent with this hypothesis; but I felt it would be cruelty to deprive my informant of the one pleasant reminiscence which his city could afford. The
Mississippi and the Ohio meet at an acute angle, and on the low narrow neck of land which divides the two, stands Cairo. The whole town is below the level of the river, and would be habitually under water, were it not for the high dykes which bar out the floods. As it is, Cairo is more or less flooded every year, and when I was there the whole town was under water, with the exception of the high jetty which fronts the Ohio. On this jetty, the one great street of the town, the railroad runs, and opposite the railroad are the hotels and stores, and steam-boat offices. On the land side of the jetty there stretches a town of low wooden houses standing, when I saw them, in a lake of sluggish water. Anything more dismal than the prospect from the windows of the St. Charles Hotel, out of which I looked over the whole city, can hardly be conceived. The heat was as great as that of the hottest of the dog-days with us; and the air was laden with a sort of sultry vapour we scarcely know of in England. A low mist hung over the vast waters of the Mississippi and the Ohio, and stole away across the long unbroken line of forest which covered their muddy banks. The sun burnt down fiercely on the shadeless wooden city; and whenever there came a puff of air, it raised clouds of dust from the dry mounds of porous earth of which the jetty is formed. The waters were sinking in the lagoon, and the inhabitants paddled languidly in flat-bottomed boats from house to house, looking to see what damage
had been done. A close fetid smell rose from the sluggish pools of water, and fever seemed written every where. Along the jetty alone there were signs of life, and even that life was death-like. Long trains of empty luggage vans were drawn upon the rails on which the poorer settlers had taken refuge, when they were driven out of their dwellings by the flood, and in these wretched resting-places whole families of women and children, mostly Irish, were huddled together miserably. The great river steamboats were coming-up constantly from the camp before Corinth, bringing cargo loads of wounded and sick and disabled soldiers, who lay for hours upon the jetty, waiting for means of transport northwards. There were piles, too, of coffins not empty ones this time but with the dead men's names inscribed upon them, left standing in front of the railway offices. The smoke of the great steamboat chimneys hung like a pall over the town, and all day and all night long you heard the ringing of their bells and the whistling of their steam as they moved to and fro. The inhabitants were obviously too dispirited to do what little they could have done to remedy the unhealthiness of their town. Masses of putrid offal, decaying bones, and dead dogs, lay within eye-sight (not to allude to their proximity to the nasal organ) of the best dwellings in the city. The people in the street seemed to loaf about listlessly, the very shopmen, most of whom were German Jews, had barely
energy enough to sell their goods; and in all Cairo there was not a newspaper printed, a fact which, in an American city, speaks volumes for the moral as well as the physical prostration of the inhabitants. The truth is, that the town is a mere depôt for transhipping goods and passengers at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and the great Illinois Central railroad. There is money to be made there, and therefore people are always found to come and settle at Cairo for a time. But the time, either by choice or stern necessity, is always a very short one. At first, the wounded soldiers from the army at Shiloh were sent up to Cairo, but the mortality amongst them was found to be so great, that the hospitals were closed, and the sick shipped up the river to Louisville and St. Louis, far away as they lay from the scene of action.
It had been my purpose to go on from Cairo to the camp of the western army, and the battle-field of Pittsburgh Landing. Shortly, however, before my arrival, I found that very stringent orders had been issued by General Halleck, then in command, against allowing civilians to visit the army on any pretence, and an attempt to obtain a pass would have necessitated a reference to head-quarters at Washington, and consequently a delay of many days at Cairo. There were ague and fever in the bare idea, and so unwillingly I turned mysteps northwards to the States of the free West.
Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=dicey2.html