Travel in the United States
NO people travel more than the Americans, whether inside of their own country or outside of it. Locomotion belongs naturally to the restless, shifting phases of the national temperament. Migration at home has become so general a habit, that cases of strong local attachment are almost exceptional ; while to have visited Europe is one of the understood requirements of our conventional gentility. It is accepted as implying a higher degree of culture, and no doubt does remove certain families somewhat farther from their antecedent history. Even our farmers are beginning to have their little after-harvest trips to the sea-shore, the Hudson, Niagara, or the West. The old men, whose boast it was that their lives had been spent within a radius of twenty or thirty miles, are going unhonored into their graves.
This habit of travel will certainly increase, as our means of communication penetrate farther and touch more attractive regions. It is already so fixed, however, — so much of a physical necessity, — that we might expect to find a certain correspondence between its demands and the facilities furnished for its gratification. The latter, in fact, are among the most obvious indices of a people’s civilization. Given their homes, hotels, and methods of locomotion, and you may infer their degree of education and the character of their political system. The muleteer of Spain belongs as naturally to a superannuated church and a decayed dynasty, as the Prussian railway to the order and precision of a military power, or the American hotel to a gregarious people recklessly bent on keeping up appearances.
Admitting the want, let us consider how it is supplied. Any material feature of the national life can best be examined by contrasting it with the same thing in other countries ; yet we find ourselves obliged to go back of the external facts at the start, and to compare qualities which are to a great extent the result of political causes. In the first place, there is this broad distinction between our national government and that of every prominent European power : the former stands as far as possible aloof from any interference with the private and personal interests of the citizen ; while the latter descends to inspect and regulate his education, his labor, his travel, and even his amusement. In Europe, the practical part of life is reduced to a system which has the exactness and something of the monotony of a machine ; in the United States, there is the mere skeleton, or rudimentary outline, of a system, barely sufficient, in some respects, to be distinguished from no system at all. Our public life is regulated rather by the natural cohesive power of material interests, than by the ordering hand of government.
The prominent faults which we find adhering to the two systems, and inherent in them, are these : in Europe, the government, in its anxiety to regulate all the movements of life, and protect its subjects from imposition, speculation, and the fluctuations of labor and trade, surrounds the individual with so many restrictions that his activity is more or less circumscribed, and his development hampered; while here, the government is so anxious to leave the individual entirely free, that in many respects it does not furnish him with adequate protection. Personal independence, on the one hand, and a slowly matured and carefully guarded order, which makes easy much of the practical business of life, are the corresponding benefits.
The ear of the public has been so stuffed with compliments to American enterprise, American self-reliance, and American practical talent, that the public has not yet discovered how incomplete and fragmentary is the practical side of our character. We are swift in all things, but thorough in very few. We are practical, it is true, up to the demands of our most pressing necessities, but beyond that point chaos begins. There is something sublime in the courage with which we confront great physical obstacles, and that astounding faith in the future which, abolishing the pioneer, plants fullblown civilization, with all the modern improvements, in the very heart of the wilderness. So long as we are content to behold general results, we are dazzled, and this is our most coveted state ; for the genuine American has little taste for the examination of details which may subdue, if not overcloud, his visions.
Thus, the history of our railroad construction is marked by rapidity, daring, and a wonderful use of resources. Our roads have not only reached the utmost limit of settlement, leaving an immense network of communication behind them, but have pushed out beyond the last pioneer, and precede emigration. Under such circumstances, no one can expect the safe and massive works of Europe. The labor must be reduced to a minimum, the bridges and culverts must be of a slight, temporary character, and the running stock not very elegant or substantial, that the losses from the expected accidents may not be too severely felt. Practical talent would seek to make up for these deficiencies by a careful system of operation, — by signals, close and intelligent inspection of machinery, and a schedule of running time which would cover the ascertained possibilities of delay; but just here is the point where our practical quality begins to deteriorate. Our rule seems to be, that a hastily built road may be carelessly managed. There is probably no line in the country upon which greater regularity and security might not be obtained, without the least increase of its expenditures.
Notwithstanding the combinations entered into by companies which connectively form rival lines between the East and the West, and the obvious interest of each to establish a claim to regularity, there is a great amount of delay and detention on all lines. We have known six accidents to occur on one trip from New York to Cincinnati. There have been seasons when accident — or at least failure to make connections with other roads — threatened to become the normal condition of the New York and Erie, the New York Central, the Central Ohio, and many other roads. Having travelled extensively on all the chief thoroughfares of the country during the past twelve years, we are convinced that the chances of arriving at one’s destination in accordance with the programme set forth in the published time-tables have been diminished, rather than increased, during that period. The traveller who takes a through ticket from New York to St. Louis has a possibility of detention at Pittsburg, which amounts to a probability at Columbus or Indianapolis. The rate of speed on express trains has not been increased, (on some roads it has been slightly lessened.) the margin of time allowed for delays would seem to be ample, and the fact of irregularity must spring from a defective system of management.
All that we have said on this point will apply with equal force to the question of safety. We have many roads whereon the annual losses from accidents amount to a sum which, applied to die protection and proper organization of the road, would render accidents very rare. Our variable climate and extremes of temperature are physical disadvantages, it is true ; but these exist to a greater extent in Russia, and yet on the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow, four hundred miles in length, and opened to travel in 1852, the life of a single passenger has not thus far been sacrificed ! On this road there are thirty-three stations; the shortest stoppage is five minutes, and the longest (at Tver, for meals), forty-five minutes ; the whole journey, including stoppages, is made in exactly twenty hours. We do not complain that the trains upon our roads are too slow, that they do not accomplish the forty miles per hour of English or French express trains ; but we insist that they are bound to establish a schedule of running time upon which the travelling public may depend, with a tolerable certainty of its correctness. In proportion as they approach a system which will avoid irregularities, they will offer greater security to life.
The consideration of comfort opens a wide field, which every reader may partly illustrate from his own experience. Our American ideas of comfort are, to a certain extent, conventional. We are gregarious, but not social ; we rejoice in arrangements which allow a great number to crowd together into the same enclosure, and then we become silent and uncommunicative. The American railway-car is popular, it cannot be denied. We proudly point to it as an example of security against murders of the Franz Müller order, forgetting the number of platform deaths to which it gives rise. We prefer to be silent in a large company, and sleepy in a vile atmosphere, to being social with six or eight fellow-passengers in a separate compartment. We have but one class for all travellers, — except a few emigrant cars on certain lines, — and this is believed to be democratic. One car, or sometimes two, kept tolerably clean and comfortable for ladies, may be enjoyed by the married man or him “ intending marriage.” In others, the refined and the brutal, the clean and the filthy, the invalid and the swearing, tobacco-squirting rowdy, are packed together. Some of the latter, in winter, when one’s feet rest in an ice-bath of bitter air, and one’s bead reels in a burning, disoxygenized atmosphere, can only be compared to one of the outer circles of Dante’s Inferno. On many of the Western roads, the single gentleman is forced into such a moving stable. We have seen a gentleman on the Ohio and Mississippi Road knocked down by a slung-shot in the hands of a brakeman, because he wished to enter the almost empty ladies’ car, the only other car on the train being crammed to suffocation by drunken and riotous soldiers. This gentleman, covered with blood, was then thrown among the latter, neither conductor nor any other official at the station in East St. Louis taking the slightest notice of the outrage.
We have frequently seen trains leave New York, on the Hudson River Railroad, with four cars, all the seats filled, and a hundred persons standing in the aisles. The latter were obliged to stand thus for a distance of from twenty to sixty miles, until seats were furnished them by the departure of other passengers. Even where enough cars are furnished to seat all, they may be filled with narrow iron torture-screws, as on the Camden and Amboy, (seats which only admit persons of moderate size,) or the seats may be so crowded, as on many other roads, that each traveller’s knees are painfully wedged against the back of the seat in front. The obligation of the companies to furnish a seat for every ticket sold is universally evaded ; their liability to damages arising from unnecessary delays has never, we believe, been fairly tested. We know of one instance, where a lecturer started from New York to fulfil an engagement at Syracuse. There was no accident, but a careless or incompetent conductor succeeded in failing to connect at Albany. The lecturer, thus obliged to return to New York, presented his ticket for Syracuse at the Hudson River Railroad office, and, as he had used just half its value, requested a return ticket for the other half. This was peremptorily refused : the company had received three dollars more than its own dues, and kept the money.
We are frequently told that the business of the roads will not allow them to offer better accommodations, or to establish a more thorough system of operations. This is an uncandid plea, and scarcely needs examination. Mr. Quincy1 has shown that, in cases of competition between English railways, a reduction of fares to one eighth of the ordinary rates only occasioned a diminution of one half of one per cent in the annual dividends. So, on the other hand, travel will increase in proportion as it becomes safe, regular, and comfortable. If a railroad company will take the sums expended in consequence of accidents, given away in free passes, devoted to furthering or preventing State legislation (as the case may be), to fighting rival lines, and to all forms of secret service, and apply those sums strictly to the improvement and organization required by the interests of the travelling public, there will be a swift return to it for the investment. Whichever main line of travel between the East and West first classifies its accommodation with corresponding rates of fare, reforms the refreshment stations along its route, and takes special precautions to prevent detention, will soon acquire a monopoly of the through travel.
It is a little singular that the success of the sleeping-car has not suggested other changes in the direction of comfort. This invention yields to its owners an annual dividend of from twentyfive to seventy-five per cent on their investments, in addition to the indirect gain of the railroad companies. The luxury of lying at full length in an atmosphere not absolutely poisonous by night, and of having space for legs and freedom from filth by day, has reconciled the public to the exorbitant rates demanded for the use of these cars. Only in the first-class cars of European railways can one travel as comfortably by night.
In like manner, the popularity of the very few refreshment stations where the traveller learns to expect decent fare and reasonable charges should teach the fact that, although the American stomach is long-suffering and patient, it has not yet wholly lost its power of discriminating between the palatable and the abominable. Good coffee is so rare, even in our hotels, that we cease to expect it; but such instances as Poughkeepsie and Springfield, where one may obtain sandwiches, cold fowl, oysters, and wholesome ale, teach one to forego the withered cakes, sickly-looking apples, and indescribable pies of other places where ten minutes are allowed for “ refreshments.” There is one dining-hall for travellers in the United States, —at Meadville, Pennsylvania. The restaurant of “Mugby Junction” originated with us, and its present existence in England may be referred to the spread of American ideas. In that amusing sketch, Dickens has done no more than justice to the admirable system adopted on the French railways. It is as difficult to find a bad dish at a French railway restaurant there as it is to find a good one here. Who, that has travelled much in Germany, can forget the cups of smoking bouillon, each accompanied with its crisp, delicious roll, which so gratefully soothe the yearning stomach, and yet leave the appetite fresh for the later meal ? But if we prefer cakes, candies, and dyspepsia, who shall say us nay ?
When we speak of the manifold conveniences of European travel, we are told to see our own country as well, to encourage home enterprise, enjoy home scenery, and make ourselves familiar with our own great store of resources. This is all very well, and the sense of novelty will carry you once over the ground; but we doubt whether many would repeat a journey in America for pure pleasure. Upon most of our thoroughfares, travel is simply an unwelcome necessity. There is one car upon the Boston and Fall River Road, wherein, by contrast, it becomes a delight; for two hours you enjoy air, light, and comfort, — then the old bore takes you up again.
If we could detect any general indication of an improvement in these matters, we might forbear complaint. But in our railroads, as in our hotels, we find deterioration rather than improvement. This is owing to the great increase of travel and traffic, without a corresponding increase in the accommodations to meet it. When all the hotels are sure to be filled to the extent of their capacity, rivalry ceases, and the public, happy in being accommodated at all, meekly accepts whatever is set before it. The proprietor, who makes from one hundred thousand to half a million dollars per annum, becomes sublimely indifferent to the comfort of his guests; and the railroad which employs all its rolling stock, and intends to buy but very little more until prices come down, puts on the airs of an absolute power. Corporations, with us, are controlled by a few individuals, and we endure in all the practical relations of life an amount of tyranny which would not be tolerated a single day were its character political. Our corporations are more despotic, dishonest, and irresponsible than in any other country of the civilized world. Our politicians, of whatever party, repeat the old phrases indicative of mistrust of corporations ; yet we find the latter controlling entire States, electing their own legislatures and members of Congress, demoralizing voters, and exercising other dangerous privileges, in utter defiance of the public interest. We are silent under impositions of this kind which would raise a popular tempest in many countries of Europe.
The quiet, patient submission of the American people to imposition is a source of continual surprise. This weakness, more than any other characteristic, increases the difficulty of establishing a convenient, well-regulated life among us. We endure alike the servant’s disregard of contract, and the arbitrary rule of corporations. This winter we have enjoyed the astoundingspectacle of a single individual coolly interrupting the travel and trade of a large portion of the country. There is the greatest lack of self-defence among us ; in fact, public opinion is rather against the man who complains. This is a morbid manifestation of our selfreliance. We seem to look upon resistance or protest as implying an inability to endure so much as others. Mr. Lowell, writing from Italy a dozen years ago, says : “ I am struck by the freshness and force of the passions in Europeans, and cannot help feeling as if there were something healthy in it. When I think of the versatile and accommodating habits of America, it seems like a land without thunderstorms....On the whole, I am
rather inclined to like this European impatience and fire, even while I laugh at it, and sometimes find myself surmising whether a people who, like the Americans, put up quietly with all sorts of petty personal impositions and injustices, will not at length find it too great a bore to quarrel with great public wrongs.” The subfile truth of this last sentence will be felt by every one who remembers the cowardly spirit of concession throughout the North during the first three months of the year 1861.
Travel in the United States is at present less agreeable than in Europe, from another cause. Not only all the country west of the Alleghanies, but a great deal of that along the lines of the Eastern roads, has not yet grown out of its early stage of development. Nature is in the transition period, shorn of the lonely grace of the wilderness, and not yet clothed in the complete robes of cultivation. Nature, in this phase, looks shabby and unattractive. The stumps of fresh clearings, the undrained roughness of swamps, the spindling trees left here and there as forlorn monuments of the original forests, and the first laborious evidences of man’s occupation, are all unsightly features, One may travel a thousand miles without escaping from them. Outside of the nooks of old settlement, we have few finished landscapes. West of the Missouri River, where the surface of the earth rises into beautiful undulations, and trees are only seen along the river-bottoms, this ragged, shabby character of the landscapes disappears. The fields have the smoothness of a long-settled country ; the trees grow up, taking their perfect characteristic forms; and the young forests which issue from the earth wherever it is saved from fire will rise inwalls and mounds of exuberant foliage, instead of the naked scaffolding of trunks and boughs which they appear where a wooded country has been cleared. This part of the Republic will present, in thirty or forty years, the finished beauty which other parts will scarcely offer in a hundred years.
Most of our inland cities and towns have as yet only a material interest ; they are simply so many evidences of growth. They have neither history, monuments, nor individual peculiarities. The smaller towns look as if one individual had built them all on contract, at the same time. The age of a place may instantly be determined by a glance at its dwelling-houses. The Grecian portico indicates thirty years ; the (socalled) Swiss cottage, of clapboards, twenty; the square block, with square box on top, fifteen ; the bracketed, towered, irregular mansion, ten ; the mansard-roof, to-day. These towns imitate and intensify the monotony of the landscapes around them. It would be difficult to find more uninteresting lines of travel than from Buffalo to Chicago, from Pittsburg to St. Louis, or from Cincinnati to Detroit. Yet those who are familiar with the railroads of Belgium know how charming those dead Flemish levels have become, through varied cultivation and traces of the changing habits of centuries.
Much of our scenery is thus waiting until its natural tameness, or the offensive features of its transition state, shall be remedied by time. Over great tracts of territory we have not been greatly favored in regard to scenery. Except the White Mountain group, the Adirondacks, and the Catskills, we have few picturesque mountain regions this side of Colorado. The Alleghany range is singularly devoid of sublimity ; its long, uniform walls weary the eye. In the Southern States, when you have named the Shenandoah Valley, East Tennessee, and the mountain region of North Carolina, you have almost exhausted the catalogue of fine scenery. The Mississippi — except in its upper course — and the Missouri are the tamest of rivers.
But the scenery of the western half of the Republic fully makes up for the deficiencies of the eastern. From that meridian line where the peaks of the Rocky Mountains first rise above the horizon of the Plains, to the shore of the Pacific, there is no region without its beauties and its wonders. The States and Territories lying within this limit have a character of landscape wholly their own. They are not mere repetitions of the old lands, suggesting to us the magic of a past which our people can never really possess. The world-wide landscapes of the mountain Parks, the lakes of Utah, the mile-deep canons of the Colorado River, the Yosemite Valley, and the isolated mountain pyramids of Oregon, are unlike any other scenery in the world. They combine the highest elements of beauty and sublimity, in new forms. Within ten years, much of the stream of travel which now sets across the ocean will be turned westward, and all those sources of enjoyment, of inspiration, of native growth and development, will be opened to us. We shall then have some compensation for the privations and inconveniences of our methods of travel.
The great tracts of territory which we are obliged to cover make the growth of sections slower than it otherwise would be. This circumstance interferes with the order, the stability, and the ripe development of the older parts of the country. The vast annual immigration from Europe is absorbed as fast as it arrives, and a great deal of the natural increase of our own population is carried westward along with it. The elements of haste, of carelessness in regard to details, of superficial performance, evolved out of these conditions, have infected our life everywhere. Our capacity for steady, patient labor—a quality which rejoices in order and method — has been seriously undermined. We have learned to seek “short cuts” to wealth or position,— to endeavor to clear by frantic leaps the gulfs which separate us from our aims. Something of this is inevitable, and we should be inclined to leave the fault to correct itself, but for the indifference to individual right and protection which it engenders. When the happy day shall come when all of our territory is at least thinly settled from ocean to ocean, and the nation has learned the important truth that it is better off without any more, we may hope that the work of consolidation will commence. The imperfections, the crudities, the restless, unsettled motions of our national life will probably then begin to subside. The simple circumstances of a denser population and more settled habits will go far towards removing the practical disadvantages to which we are now forced to submit.
Whatever may be our theory, (it is doubtful, indeed, whether we have any,) our practice appears to be based on the idea that the corporations into whose powerful hands are confided our travel and the facilities of our business are not the servants, but the benefactors, of the people. We are swift to create them, we generously load them with privileges, and we require a mere shadow of obligation in return. Sometimes, when a specially frightful accident occurs, we establish a single rule whereby that particular form of accident may be prevented, but we neglect the comprehensive legislation which should protect the public against dangers and impositions of all kinds. The shock of a catastrophe makes but a temporary ripple on the swift, seething, impetuous current of our life. The competition upon which our legislators fondly relied for our protection is slowly transforming itself into a gigantic system of combination, in railroad, telegraph, and express business, against which the public is powerless. It is time that the balance were restored. Except in the case of the Pacific railroads, the need of encouraging and specially supporting these great physical enterprises is past, and those which have been built up by a confiding generosity should be called upon to fulfil, at least, their most obvious duties.
Our Anglo-Saxon race, with all its sound and sterling qualities, possesses less grace and courtesy than any other of the civilized families of men. To the untaught American mind courtesy implies a certain degree of servility. With the half-cultivation of a large portion of our population, one could scarce - ly expect to find the virtue generally developed; but the absence of it, in our public intercourse, is an unpleasant fact. From the restaurateur, who, thrusting his hand over your shoulder for a dollar, silently and contemptuously smiles at your imbecility in demanding to be served, to the conductor who don’t know how long the train will be delayed, nor what is the nature of the accident, (what right have you to ask ?) and the boy who fills your lap every five minutes with hideous novels, and swears if you let them drop on the floor, the American public is constantly reminded that it is an inferior institution. A large portion of it seems to have meekly accepted the low estimate of its temporary rulers ; at least, the exceptions are not yet frequent enough to have produced any change. It may be human nature for a conductor or a ticket-agent to become irritable at the millionth repetition of the same question ; but the man who cannot subdue his nature to what it works in is not the proper man for his place.
We have succeeded so far — and it is our chief national glory—in the creation and development of a people, that these features of our life show the more glaringly against the broad background of our civilization. The character of our travel is not only below the requirements of the public, but below the standard of our average physical progress. It has not kept pace with the growth of the nation in taste, in refinement, and in the comforts and conveniences of private life. In proportion as the hands by which It is directed have increased in power, they have used that power with a diminishing regard for the rights of those who gave it. It is time that the rude pioneer phase, which accommodates itself to everything, should come to an end. The educational influences of travel are so important, that we should seek to make it attractive ; but we shall be satisfied when it shall be so improved as to be no longer, as now, a necessary annoyance.
- The Railway System of Massachusetts. An Address delivered before the Boston Board of Trade. By Hon. Josiah Quincy. Boston. 18↩