NIU Libraries Digitization Projects
Lincoln/Net Prairie Fire Illinois During the Civil War Illinois During the Gilded Age Mark Twain's Mississippi Back to Digitization Projects Contact Us
BACK

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


Previous section

Next section

Racine City.

OF my journey through Illinois it is not necessary that I should speak. One journey in the West is the exact counterpart of the other, and I have said already all that I have to say on the subject. The point of my destination was the city of Racine, where I happened to have friends settled. It lies just beyond the extreme northern frontier of Illinois, while Cairo is at the extreme south. I travelled straight, almost as the crow could fly, along the line of which General McClellan was chairman not long ago, with even less profit to the unfortunate shareholders than he has afforded to American people. Yet such are the enormous distances in the West, that travelling almost without stopping, at the rate of some five-and-twenty miles an hour, my journey occupied a day and a half.

Very few of my readers will probably be aware that there is such a city in the world as Racine, still less where it is placed. It must be a map of pretty recent date to have the name inscribed on it. It will be sufficient, however, to say, that it is on the western

-- 121 --

shore of Lake Michigan, sixty miles north of Chicago city, and if the reader does not know where the lake and the city are, he can find them by referring to his atlas. There is nothing remarkable or worthy of description about Racine, and it is for that very reason — pardon the paradox — that I wish to describe it. Years ago, there was a man who invented a machine which turned out hexameters, — real Latin ones, not nondescript ones of the Clough or Longfellow type. There was no meaning in them, but the words placed in the machine were so selected that, in whatever order they happened to turn out, they arranged themselves in hexameters. If you had wanted to give a specimen of a machine-made hexameter, you would not have picked out a line in which, by some strange chance, there was a faint glimmering of sense or poetry, but one with the true standard meaningless monotony. Now all western cities seem to have been turned out by a city-making machine, warranted to produce a city of any size, at the shortest notice, and therefore, in describing the cities of the West, any average one will stand for all — the more average a one the better. Private circumstances, moreover, caused me to see a good deal of Racine; and, indeed, made my stay so pleasant there, that I shall always think gratefully of the dull little town on the shores of the great inland sea.

Racine stands upon the Root river. Whether the town is named by translation from the river, or the

-- 122 --

river from the town, is a moot point on which the historians of the place are divided. Some persons suggest that the connexion between the names of the town and river is purely accidental, and that the city was named after the great French tragedian. It may well be so. There is no limit to the eccentricities of American nomenclature, and there are probably a dozen towns in the United States named after Racine, Rousseau, and Corneille. Whatever doubt there may be about the reasons to which Racine owes its name, there is as yet no legendary uncertainty about its birth and origin. There are men of middle age, now living in the place, who have lived through the whole life of the city, and who yet came here as full-grown men. A quarter of a century ago, when General Jackson, as Democratic President, suppressed the State Bank of the Union, which owed its origin to the Whigs, hundreds of new private banks sprang into existence, and deluged the country with an extemporized currency. There followed a period of wild speculation, chiefly in the lands of the North-Western territories. Steamboats were then first coming into full use, and, through the chain of the great lakes, hundreds of thousands of emigrants from Europe and the Eastern States were carried by steamboats to the western shores of Lake Michigan. After a time the banks failed; there was a commercial crisis, the speculators were ruined, but the emigrants remained. The

-- 123 --

prairie land was fertile, the Indians were few and peaceable, and communication with the civilized world was cheap and expeditious. In a few years, the country was colonized far and wide, and towns sprang up in every direction. It was then that Milwaukee, and Chicago, and Racine were founded. Veni, vidi, edificavi, should be the motto of Western settlerdom, so rapid is the growth of cities in the West. From some cause or other, of the three sister cities Racine has been the least prosperous. Chicago and Milwaukee have gone ahead so fast that Racine has been altogether distanced in the race, and bears the reputation in the West of a sleepy, humdrum place. To an Englishman, however, its quarter of a century's growth appears wonderful enough.

Along the shores of the lake there stretches a low, steep, sandy cliff, and upon its summit stands the city of Racine. Looking out on the great lake, there is little at first to tell you that you are not standing on the shore of the ocean. There is no trace of tide, and the breeze brings with it no savour of the salt sea; but the horizon on every side is bounded by water alone. Great ships, with snow-white sails, may be seen passing the lake the far distance, and when the wind blows from roar and splash, as though they had been driven across the ocean. The Root river, too, with its docks and warehouses, and schooners and swing-bridges, has a

-- 124 --

sea-port air about it, which, if not the real marine article, is a wonderful imitation. Along the brow of the cliff runs the Main-street of Racine, and, as usual, a series of streets parallel with, and at right angles to, Main-street, completes the town. The whole place looks very new — newer even than it ought to look after some six and twenty years of existence. Houses in this part of the world are short lived. All Western cities hold to the earth by an easily-snapped cable. As fast as a settler makes money, he pulls down his house, and builds up a new one. If a householder gets tired of his position, he puts his house on wheels and decamps to another quarter. The lake has of late made inroads on the cliffs of Racine, and, when I was there, many of the residents on the sea-shore were moving their houses bodily to a safer locality. What with frequent fires, and a passion for house-building, there are probably few dwellings in Racine which remain such as they were when they were first built; and the settlers are now far older than their houses. Thus the Main-street of Racine is one of the most straggling and irregular of thoroughfares. Every now and then there is a block of stone office buildings, which would not be out of place in Broadway or in Cannon-street. Next door, perhaps, there is a photographic establishment, consisting of a moveable wooden hut; and, in the aristocratic extension of Main-street, a sort of suburban avenue, there is every style and grade of building. The favourite order

-- 125 --

of architecture is a sort of miniature model of the Madeleine at Paris, in wood. Even the office where the local dentist tortures his patients, is entered beneath a Corinthian portico, supported by fluted wooden pillars, of six feet in height. But amidst these wooden dwellings, each standing in its own garden, there are to be found stone mansions such as you might see in Palace Gardens, or in the more aristocratic terraces of Upper Westbournia. Then there is a public square, a park, a court-house, a dozen churches and chapels, and meeting-houses of every denomination. The town is rather at a stand-still at present, in the matter of internal improvements, as, by different jobs and speculations, the corporation has contrived to run itself about eighty thousand pounds into debt. The street-lamps, therefore, as in many of the Western cities, are not lit, though there is a gas-factory in the town; and the roads are left pretty much as nature made them. However, better times are expected for Racine. A line was to be opened within a few weeks of my visit, connecting it directly with the Mississippi, and then it is hoped that it will compete successfully, in the grain trade, with its rival Milwaukee, and that the harbour, on which twelve thousand pounds have been expended by the town, may become the great port for the Eastern traffic.

It is curious, as you stroll about the streets of Racine, or for that matter, of any other small Western city, to

-- 126 --

notice the points of dissimilarity between it and an English county town. The differences are not very marked ones. You never see in England a High-street like the Main-street of Racine, but each single house might stand in an English street without attracting especial notice. There are some slight features, however, about the place, which would tell you at once you were out of England. The footpath is made of planks; the farmers' carts, with which the street is filled, are very skeletons of carts, consisting of an iron framework supported by high narrow wheels, on which a small box is swung, barely large enough for the driver to sit upon. Big names are in fashion for designating everything. The inns are houses or halls, the butcher's is the meat market, the dentist calls himself a dental operator, the shops are stores, marts, or emporiums, and the public-houses are homes, arcades, exchanges, or saloons. There is nothing indeed corresponding to the old-fashioned English public-house. The bar-rooms, of which there is a plentiful supply, are, externally, like common shops, except that the door is covered by a wooden screen, so that the drinker is not exposed to the gaze of the passers in the streets. Here, by the way, as everywhere in the States, you never see a woman even in the poorest of bar-rooms. The shops themselves are about as good or as poor as you would find in a town of the like size (Racine has 12,000 inhabitants) at home. What is un-English about them is the number

-- 127 --

of German labels and German advertisements exhibited in their windows.

The amusements of Racine are about as limited as if it stood in our midland counties. Judging from the posters of ancient date which hung upon the walls, a passing circus, an itinerant exhibition of Ethiopian minstrels, and an occasional concert, were all the entertainments afforded to the inhabitants. Some of the street advertisements would have been novelties to English townsfolk. A Mrs. Francis Lord Bond was to lecture on Sunday evenings on spiritualism: a fancy fair was to be held for the Catholic convent of St. Ignatius, and a German choralverein was to meet weekly for the performance of sacred music. Then, even in this remote and far away corner of the States, there were the war advertisements. The Mayor announced that a great battle was expected daily before Corinth, and requested his townspeople to provide stores beforehand for the relief of the wounded. The Ladies' Aid Committee informed the female public of Racine that there would be a sewing meeting every Friday in the Town Hall, where all ladies were requested to come, and sew bandages for the Union soldiers; every lady to bring her own sewing-machine. Then, too, there was the requisition of the Governor, calling for recruits to fill up the gaps in the ranks of the Wisconsin regiments, who were cut to pieces on the field of Shiloh.

Of course, a town of the importance of Racine must

-- 128 --

have a press. In more prosperous days there were three dailies published there; but times were bad, and the dailies had collapsed into weeklies. These were the Advocate, the Press, the Democrat; and a German paper, the Volksblatt. As a sample of a Western country newspaper, let me take a copy I picked up of the Racine Advocate. It is of the regular unwieldy English four page size, and costs six shillings annually, or fire halfpence a single number, and is headed with a poetical declaration of faith, that

"Pledged but to truth, to liberty and law,
No favours win us, and no fears shall awe."

The advertisements, which occupy two of the four pages, are chiefly of patent medicines, business-cards, and foreclosure sales. The local news, as in all American country papers, is extremely meagre, and there are no law reports or accounts of county meetings. The politics of the papers are staunch Republican and anti-slavery, and the leading articles are well written, and all on questions of public not local politics, such as the Confiscation Bill, General Hunter's Proclamation, and Federal Taxation. There was a short article headed "L. L. D. Russell," which bore traces of Irish origin. "It was with no little satisfaction," so the Advocate stated, "that the loyal people of the North saw the announcement that ‘Our Own Correspondent’ had engaged passage back to England. We

-- 129 --

pity the readers of the Times who have got to unlearn all that they have been taught to believe of us for a year past. We'll venture a prediction, that in less than six months the Times will discharge the L. L. D., and make him the scapegoat of its malice and traitor bought attacks on the Federal Government." With the exception of this outburst on the subject of Mr. Russell, the language of the Advocate was sensible and moderate enough. There were letters from the war, copied out of New York papers, and lists of the killed and wounded in the Wisconsin regiments; but fully one page of the paper was occupied by short tales and poems. When I say that their headings were, "How the Bachelor was Won," "A Girl's Wardrobe," "Gone Before," and "Katie Lee," the reader will have no difficulty in realizing to himself what the description of intellectual varieties afforded by the Advocate consisted of. If he cannot do so by the light of his own experience, let him read any number of the Family Herald, and he will do so at once without crossing the Atlantic. Before I leave the subject of journalism at Racine, let me mention one incident I learnt about it, which is characteristic of the old as well as of the new country. The Racine Advocate built a handsome block of buildings, which quite eclipsed the office of the Press. Unfortunately, the proprietor of the Press discovered that the windows

-- 130 --

of the Advocate's new printing-room could be shut out from the light if a taller store was erected alongside; and so he built an office next door to the Advocate, in order to block up its windows! Country editors, it seems, remain the same race of men in the New World as in the Old.

Society in Racine is still in a primitive stage. Dinner parties are unknown, and balls are events of great rarity; but tea-parties, to which you are invited on the morning of the day, are of constant occurrence. Probably there is as much scandal and gossip here as in an Old World country-town; but there are not, as yet, the social divisions which exist with us. If you inquire the names of the owners of the handsomest houses in Racine, you will find that one, perhaps, began life as a stable-boy, another was a waiter a few years ago in an hotel of the town, and a third was a bricklayer in early life. On the other hand, some of the poorest people in the place are persons who were of good family and good education in the Old World. A short time ago, the two least reputable members of the community were an ex-member of a fashionable London club and a quondam English nobleman. This very mixture of all classes which you find throughout the West gives a freedom, and also an originality, to the society in small towns, which you would not find under similar circumstances in England. If I were asked whether I

-- 131 --

would like to live in Racine, my answer would be an emphatic negative; but if the choice were put to me, whether I would sooner live there, or in an out-of-the-way English county-town, I am afraid that nothing but patriotism would induce me to decline Racine.

-- 132 --

Previous section

Next section


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
Powered by PhiloLogic