The Summer's Journey of a Naturalist (Part II)

The second installment in a three-part series about a trip down America’s eastern seaboard

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here and part three here.


The traveller in America almost always lays his course on the great East and West ways, thinking to get thereby the greatest contrasts that the land affords. He would do much better if he should take the less travelled roads that lead from North to South. On the East and West roads he gets only the contrasts which are given by the same people under the varied conditions of a Westward movement, while on the North and South line he passes in review the several colonies from which this country has been peopled, and can study the conditions of their populations before they effaced their character by Westward migration. Our Atlantic coast has four or five distinct centres of population, from which as many separate streams of humanity have spread over the great central valley, mingling their contributions, as in the founders great work the metals of many furnaces are mingled. We hear a great deal about the way in which foreign material is absorbed into the structure of our American society: let him who would see how far the rigid materials of the Old World become thus plastic in the New, come with us across the country which lies between the Delaware and the James. Our wagon journey had already led us in its course from the sea at Boston over the Berkshire Hills, by Albany and thence to the west of the Catskills and down to the Delaware. Our roadside views of Massachusetts and New York have served to bring conviction that in the former State we have an assemblage of social conditions which differ widely from those you find in New York. Skipping over the State of New York, we may find New England again in the West, its grandchild; but New York, though it derived no inconsiderable part of its blood from it, has copied little, except its educational system, to mark its neighborhood to the New England centre. Probably the most striking difference between New England and the eastern part of New York is found in the effects of alcohol on the people. It is very rare to find a parish in Massachusetts where the effect of whiskey is evident to the traveller’s eye: in New York it will often happen, especially in the less civilized parts, that one in ten of the population will show the effects of drink.

As we left Port Jervis, we came into the valley of the Delaware, one of the noblest of our Eastern rivers, and a fitting portal to the mountain region of the true Alleghanies. The floods of the previous year had carried away the bridge; so we were taken over by a “flying bridge,” — an ancient and simple device, consisting of an ark-like boat, attached to a long rope anchored in the stream some hundred feet above the crossing, and moved by merely putting the steering-oar hard starboard or port. The current forces the vessel to and fro. The sturdy boatman was proud of his command over the seething stream, though he seemed to have no clear idea of the forces involved. A little blackberry girl, who crossed on the boat with us, was curious to know where we came from; on being told, she asked, naively, if we had come all the way to-day.

We entered Pennsylvania through one of the many unhappy-looking little towns which preserve the memories of the Mexican War. Surely there must have been a curse upon the host of Montereys, Buena Vistas, and Mexicos, that not one of them has got beyond the very first stage of civic development. Our road down the valley towards the water-gap was through a wonderfully fertile country, tilled with a care unapproached by any culture we had yet seen. We now came upon the pure German population. It shows itself in the heavier faces and more loutish build of the men; but it could be guessed by the bigger barns and smaller houses, by the thrifty labor which saves the weedy corners and the costly fences, — the twin curses of American husbandry. The sense of ownership in the land is keener than in the ordinary American. Of this we had an amusing instance: the narrow strip between the travelled way and the fences was grown over with blackberry-bushes, here hanging with rich, ripe fruit; from time to time we rested our horses and picked a few berries, as every wayfarer is used to do. Some of the natives caught us at it, and were as indignant as if we were robbing a hen-roost, and answered our jocose defiance by a promise of the sheriff at the next town. As they were afoot, and the county line not far away, we were unable to learn whether the law warranted the evidently sincere claim of the hospitable natives. The river takes its arrowy course through the middle of the league-wide valley. As is the custom here, the road is well up on the slope of the boundary hills, which slope shows that the river is coursing in a mountain valley, barred on the east from the sea by a high ridge. Its long search for a break in the wall is at length rewarded, and in the Delaware Water-gap it cuts through the great barrier, in a noble gorge which lays bare the roots of the mountain, and pours towards the sea.

Stroudsburg, where we leave the river, is a pretty town, old enough to have escaped “laying out,” — a funereal process, which very properly arrests the growth of most places to which it is applied. The many old houses with the broad verandas, which begin to show the higher sun, are crowded along the old highway, to see and be seen by all the world. Something of the city has crept in here and there; pretentious, much-corniced stores, ambitiously called blocks and justifying the name with their clumsy forms, mar it a bit, but the town is one of the most pleasing we have seen. There is a little of the German homeliness to season the Yankee look, which still clings to the towns about here. The German population holds the land and the rural hamlets, but the towns have been filled with a trading class of English descent.

Out of the village and again into a lovely country, though no longer the broad savannas of our two days’ journey down the Delaware. The hills, the work of the mountain-building forces, though not of mountain size, have been smoothed by water-action until they are beautifully rounded. These, from the moist valleys to the arid bill tops, are marked by the highest culture. The great barns, with their little steeples, quaint weathercocks, and gay colors, show that the farmer’s heart is in his work; for men only decorate the things they love, unless it is to follow a new fashion. Very often we see that it has been the life-work of some simple mind to build the barn; and his pride in the result is shown by his name carved or painted thereon. In Massachusetts and New York, the farm buildings do not usually represent half the money that is put into the house; what goes there is spent grudgingly. But our good Pennsylvania Germans seem to build their barns first, lavish their money upon them, and then take what is left and build a rather humble home, so placed that they may gloat over their garner all their lives. Just now the barns were full to their ridge-poles with hay and grain; from them came the cloud of dust and whirring sound of the threshing-machine, or oftener the rythmicai monotony of the beating flails. Clumsy wagons, rising at either end like the prow and poop of old Dutch ships, go lumbering down to the towns with their loads of grain. In this thickly peopled land, where every acre has a jealous owner, we had to journey a dozen miles in search of a camp-ground. At length we got into a wood, where we hoped to pass a quiet sabbath. We were far from the main road, but, though we slipped in after dark, seemingly unseen, every one within five miles seemed to know of our presence before morning. By dawn the woods were thick with people, and all day we lived as publicly as the champion in a prize-ring. They stared hungrily at us at meal-times, pried into our wagons, endeavored to get into our tents, became perfectly intolerable in every way. Few of them seemed able or willing to speak English, and, when addressed in German, answered slowly and shyly. Their heavy faces showed a staring curiosity, which the most energetic remonstrance could hardly change for another look. I finally asked the least unintelligent looking man if he was not ashamed of himself and his countrymen. He answered in effect, “that there rarely happened anything new in their district, so they must make the most of present opportunities,” and stared on. They were sturdy-looking creatures, with nothing of the trim lankness which belongs to Americans generally; heavy, long faces, unintellectual but kindly, showing no trace of vice. The women were as robust as the men, and showed the strong tendency to look like them so common among the lower classes of Europe. They are, for all the world, like any, throng of Rhineland Germans. Their language, although with a share of Americanisms, is apparently only the dialect which one hears, with innumerable slight variations, all along the Rhine, from Suabia to Holland. Their century and a half of American air and institutions has left them just where they would be, in all physical and mental traits, if they had passed the time on the soil of fatherland, with one grave loss, however: isolated from the intellect of their race and language, they have gradually separated themselves from the legendary past, which has done so much to spiritualize the German peasantry; and they have failed to profit by the great mental awakening which came of the second reformation of Germany, when Goethe, Schiller, and their school did for the intellect of the people what Luther, Melancthon, and Zwingli had done before for their conscience. Among the Rhineland Germans, by no means the best of that great people, there is scarce any so poor in mind but you will find down in his soul seed planted by the great poets of his race. I do not believe that one in a thousand of these good Pennsylvania people have ever read and remembered a line of those authors who have given their race its most glorious expression, if, indeed, they have not given it its character. I could not find a trace of the clinging to the traditions of fatherland. They are completely sundered in spirit from the home of their ancestors. In this they contrast singularly with the Canadian French, who seem to retain a sense of the glory of France and their share in its history.

Any one who has studied the conditions of the German settlements in the West, who has seen the determined efforts they are making to preserve in this country, by systematic isolation of their colonies, the language and customs of the native country, must feel grave doubts as to the results of such a course, after he has studied this interesting people. No one can doubt that, in our society, the interests of social and intellectual culture and of good government are likely to be greatly profited by the people we receive from Germany. They bring frugality against our spirit of waste, and a decent conservatism to balance our sometimes reckless advance. Education and civic morality are native with them; and art, that which we need the most of all the Old Worlds goods, has made a fertilizing impress on their minds. But that this good seed should plant itself in our soil, it needs be sown broadcast over the land. It would profit us little to have half a dozen of the Chinese walled duchies, which have been the curse of Europe, transferred to this country, each with the non-intercourse act of a foreign and difficult tongue. Nor do these home-loving strangers—whose pathetic effort to keep all they can of their fatherland must rouse the sympathy of every one who has been among a foreign people—get that for which they aim. The great people they have left are going forward with a mighty impulse, the result of a true national spirit, the interaction of the varied parts of a great whole. But these little fragments can only retain the senseless existence of disjected members, if they refuse a real share in the life which surrounds them here. Let them lay aside their mother-tongue, — as fine an intellectual garment as was ever made, but not fit for their new work. As one of the factors of the great nation that is now building here, they and their descendants may well claim that their fatherland has shared in the greatest work of their race. As scattered fragments of German-speaking people, they will become the same thrifty, spiritless folk we have here raising brain and cattle, but counting for nothing in the life of the nation.

A merciful rain which tried our tents sorely finally gave us relief from our inquisitors. It was funny enough to see them crouching against the trees, or under the wagons, to give their eyes a little longer indulgence; but one by one they were drowned out, and the woods were again our own. Our next day’s journey was all the way among the same people, until we came towards Lehighton, with the same good cultivation, and comfort for man and beast as before. Children were very numerous and very healthy, but there was not much evidence of schools. In one of the hamlets we found our foraging party halted, quite unable to open communications; in the dozen houses, one of them an inn, there was no one who could speak English enough to understand a demand for supplies. An old man present told me that his grandfather was born in Pennsylvania, and that the ancestors to the same degree of all the villagers were also native born. The children, he said, learn some English at school, but often forget it when they leave. It is a hard matter to learn of this from the children themselves; for, as is common with young rustic humanity, they can only see anything with their mouths wide open, and are unwilling to interrupt their gazing while the curious show we present is going by.

We follow down a rivulet tributary to the Lehigh, and come upon it near where it, too, breaks, as its brother the Delaware had done, through the mountain ridge to the plain. Down the river came two railways and a canal; and our honest Germans are wedged apart by a more active people. We get here our first sign of the coal-fields: the iron and water ways are laden with coal; train after train and load after load pour down the valley with their homely freight. Everything catches the grime of the trade, and makes us regret the cleanly dulness of our last two camps. We found a fine camping-ground some miles beyond the valley on the side of a mountain, where two springs joined to make a little rivulet which ran through a great wood. As before, the woods, though seeming solitary, were provided with an owner, who found us out in a few hours; his anger was easily mollified with a few words of his native tongue. Every one here fears gypsies, as they call all the numerous predatory bands which seem to infest the States south of New England in a singular way. From all accounts, I judge that there must be many hundreds of these associations, all modelled on the gypsy basis, some with a real “Zingari” character, wandering over this region they trade a little, for a pretence, tell fortunes, and steal. The American county line is an amazingly convenient boundary; no officer can well cross it in pursuit; so this style of life has advantages denied in Europe, where the pièce de voyage and the gendarme make an end of such business. We have seen several of these bands; none of them seemed real gypsies, though all of their members bore the stamp of foreign blood. Portuguese, Italians, one or two Spaniards, some Irish, and a sprinkling of Canadian French make up the motley crew. They have good outfits and at times a look of wealth; their horses are really picked animals, selected without regard to cost, and kept with a care which would please their rightful owners; their wagons are more comfortable than our own, some with the “New Haven wheel” and other evidences of taste and money. Just at present all these Arabs are working southward with the waning summer. They greet us as brothers in an “argot” which shows that they are no random gatherings of waifs, but floating communities of some permanence. They are going to Virginia and southward for the winter. They want to know what “family” we belong to, something of our history, and are a little disposed to patronize us as a feeble though somewhat promising “family,” as they call their clans. To this complexion have we come at last.

From Lehighton to Tamaqua the country has a mixed people, Germans and English sharing the fertile and monotonous land together, getting a deal of worth out of it. At Tamaqua we suddenly enter the long coal basin which stretches all the way to Pottsville and beyond. A mile or two of distance here gives us a marvellous contrast. The wealth of soil disappears; in its place comes the underground richness of the ancient coal-period forsets. The endless fields of grain give place to scanty forests robbed of every tree which could be used in shoring up the galleries of the mines. The gnarled and worthless pines spread their ragged limbs against the sky line of the hills. The brooks are turbid with the waters pumped from the innumerable shafts, and wander deviously through and around the enormous piles of black waste which is dumped into their valleys. Squalid little wooden hamlets are clustered below each of the files of grimy sheds which show the entrances of the rivers on the sides of the mountains. On every hand run the coal railways, down which pour unending trains of coal. The change in the people is even more painful than the change in the face of the land. The men seem mostly Cornish or other British miners, — shapeless, hulking fellows, shuffling over the ground with something of the uncertain tread of sailors on shore, their clothing sordid, their faces blear-eyed and dull with the monotonous toil in darkness to which their race has been subjected for generations. Whiskey has made its mark on nearly every face, —  visible even through the soot which hides almost every other expression of their sinister countenances. The women are in far better condition. Many of them are pictures of rude health and vigor, well fed, not overworked, for there are no æsthetic cares here; living in the open air, — for their dens are too small for tenements, — they have a better chance for growth than most lower-class women. The children, too, are sturdy little urchins until the black mine draws them in, when they seem at once to leave their youth for the old age of hopeless, sunless toil. It was late in the afternoon when we got well into this melancholy region, and though we drove fast, no camp-ground could be found between the villages. The woods seemed wild enough, but they were everywhere cut by paths which are traversed by the mine people on their way to and fro. We recoiled at the prospect of camping among these unpleasant-looking neighbors; moreover, the springs were all dry. Poor at best in this region, they are here cut by the underground channels, and come up a putrid torrent from the pumps. So we journeyed on, hoping to get the unaccustomed shelter of a hotel at Pottsville. When we came to the fair-ground near the town, we found there a crowd of people, and were told that the place was quite overrun with visitors brought by a meeting of the “Red Men,” which being interpreted, meant that a charitable secret society, like the Odd Fellows in plan, of extended membership in Pennsylvania and to the westward, held their annual convocation here.

So we passed through Pottsville, and after a day’s journey of forty miles we found the unwonted cover of a little inn in the town of St. Clair. Our tavern was happily uncarpeted and reasonably clean. The landlord complained that everything had to be brought there by railway: no food for man or beast is raised within many miles. One does not see a worse-looking people in any English or European mining country than met us here in the morning. The sordid town, with bad drainage, ten thousand people crammed in a little space, foul streets, and dirtier people, made an ineffaceably painful impression. With the outward degradation comes, too, a sullen temper; the ragged urchins, seeing strangers, set upon them like wolves, yelling from a distance in a vain effort to stampede our horses. Climbing over the mountain by a road whereon a large toll was charged, apparently to deter people from risking their necks upon it, we left this hideous country behind us. The next day we crossed the Ashland coal basin, but managed to traverse it during the day and camp beyond. No one can go through mining districts without grave fears for the future of human life in such regions, where, for centuries to come, that life is to have its shape given by underground work. We are accustomed to think that our land is blessed in its prodigious store of coal, probably exceeding in amount all that the other continents together contain. But unless this wealth can be appropriated with less injurious effect to those who develop it, there is a great curse as well as a blessing in it.

The Susquehanna is as beautiful as the Delaware, which is high praise indeed. Sunbury, when we came upon its banks, was a common town, with an excessively American look, wide streets, and rather mean houses. The river is unnavigable, so the town turns its back upon its beauties and faces the noisy railroad. The cliffs across the river are great vertical walls of southward-dipping rock; the river between is broadened out and quieted by a darn below, so that it can mirror them in good fashion. There was a little steamer to pull the ark in which our teams were crowded across the stream, — a wheezy little antiquity, with a dreadfully home-made look, but officered with people as important-looking as if it had been a man-of-war. Evidently the steamer is a local celebrity of no small importance. For our camp near Sunbury we had a pleasant wood among those pleasantest of rustics, the German farmers, who, having scattered from the great herds of their race, have got rid of their language and taken up with the, common ways. There is nothing to mark their descent but their squarish forms and an element of queerness in their English, differing widely from any other local peculiarity I have noticed. There is, after all, one peculiarity, — they are content with their lot in a most un-American way: they look to their lands for their future, without that longing for the city or the wilderness which seems to poison the life of every ordinary American farmer. For the first time on our journey we were invited to camp on a man’s land and made very welcome. Our nearest neighbor was as proud of his temporal success as if he had been a Vanderbilt. He told us in a moment that, when he was married, forty years ago, the domestic outfit consisted of a plate, a pot, and a bushel of potatoes. A life of toil had given him one hundred acres of good land, a barn with stock and grain, a cabin with a broad porch, and a good well: what would one more? The good fellow did not count his swarm of children among his possessions, clearly because he felt that they were as much a matter of course as breathable air or timely rain. In a spirit of speculation he had been down to Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley, on the great journey of his life; he thought the land no better than here, and dearer.

Our road carried us again to the shores of the Susquehanna at Lewisburg; the views on our road up the Wyoming or East Branch were enchanting. The mountains are all low crowned, and repeat the same shape. Their forms may be likened to that of rounded, creeping things: sometimes they are long and serpent-like, again they remind one of huge caterpillars; they may be better likened to the waves of a sea, as they run after the calm has come, only they do not crowd so closely together. It is evident that when made they were far more regular than at present, and more than thrice as high. The higher ridges are now about three thousand feet, and are manifestly mere wrecks of their sometime forms. Despite the amount of wear which in other conditions would give the wildest landscapes, these mountains differ so little one from the other that the eye makes no selection among them. It is only when the rivers have carved a little individuality in them that this monotony gives way. Bordered by the ever varying rivers, their related forms give a singular symmetry and rhythm to the landscape.

The valley is beautifully fertile for a day’s journey from its mouth, with a charming road from the low valley into the high table-land and mountain region to the west. Our camp was in a region rich in fossils, the heaps of stones in the fields being each a museum of ancient and extinct life. We came here upon a great rattlesnake ground. Two newly killed specimens of large size lay in the road over the “col” where we camped. A passing stage-driver said that during the month he had killed eighteen on his daily walk up the long hill.

Our road led us through Centre County, a region where the German descendants predominate, though less foreign in aspect than the region to the eastward. The people here have kept some distinctive peculiarities, among them a fondness for flowing fountains. In the street in one hamlet of forty houses we counted a dozen on the roadside, the water being brought from far away. The spring-houses, sometimes built so as to be small fish-ponds, with a wealth of whitewashed walls and woodwork, make a pretty feature on the landscape. Turning in our “voyage en zig zag” again towards the northeast, we crossed the Seven Mountains towards the valley of the Juniata. A well-made road through twelve miles of mountain wilderness gave a tedious journey, occasionally relieved by far-reaching views across the country, with its monotonous processional mountains. Here we killed our first and last rattlesnake. The surly fellow was lying in the middle of the road and resented our coming. We all mistook his rattle for the whir of the cicada or locust, as it is called; his slow retreat being interrupted by our attack, he made a good fight and died hard. After being as dead as he could be made by severing the spinal cord, his body made all the motions of striking, and came near wounding one of the party with its fangs. At the foot of the Seven Mountains we pass the Keshgecoguillas Valley, the most instructive of the mid-mountain valleys of Pennsylvania. Here one gets the best specimen of the mountains illustrating the share which the building up and pulling down forces have had in their making. This part of the Alleghanies is wonderfully like the Jura. We get out of the valley by a pass where a slender thread of water has widened a cleft made when the mountain was formed. Into the rivulet, a few miles before it falls into the Juniata, pours the beautiful stream from Logan’s Spring, where dwelt that great, sad chief, the Caractacus of the West. It pours a mill-stream from the solid rock. There could be no fitter monument for that noble savage than this beautiful stream, which will endure until the mountains that feed it are worn away.

The Juniata Valley, when we come into it, is one of the most beautiful in our land. Thirty miles above, after a struggle with the mountain, it breaks through their gorges into this great synclinal valley. It is here forced from the sea by the Blue Mountain, — a high and quite impassable ridge towering to the north. It flows through the five-mile-wide valley as placidly as if it had never worn the hills asunder. Unfortunately, the railway had caused the utter neglect of the common road, once one of the great East and West ways, so that our journey to Huntingdon was one long struggle with almost insuperable difficulties. Just beyond Huntingdon we came into a country as curious in its way as the Saxon Switzerland; for miles along its crest one of the low-topped mountains was capped with great towered and sculptured rocks. Some low and flat like tables for giants’ feasts, others like pulpits, — big enough for the most ambitious reformer, — still others rising like the ruins of mediæval towers and parapets, and covered with climbing plants and ferns, or showing gray and bare among the grand forest trees, — these ruins were as impressive as the wreck of human work could be.

Our road led us through. one of the wide mountain-valleys known as Morrison’s Cove—a queer maritime term applied to all the broad mountain-valleys of this region. This cove is peopled by the Dunkers, a German Sabbatarian sect with a number of notions about religious matters than cannot well be described. Religious schism seems to be favorable to good farming; probably because all religionists are apt to be dead in earnest in all they do. We spent a long day driving through their broad, well-tilled farms. As we go up the valley the mountains become more broken than before and lose that appearance of being cast in one mould which belongs to the rest of Pennsylvania; at length, in Alpine fashion, they swing round and close the valley at its head with a formidable succession of ridges. At the foot of these we camped, by the waters of a cold sulphur-spring. Over a steep and rocky col, which wrecked one of our wagons, we passed into the Sulphur-Spring Valley. Looking up a wagon and horses to relieve our broken-down vehicle, I found my way into the cabin of a German, a young man who lived with his old mother. The little living-room and kitchen was admirably clean, with no other furniture than benches and tables of old oak, except a large rack whereon there was displayed some pottery of the last century make. The old woman was surly in broken English, but mellowed a little when spoken to in German. After many hesitations, made to bring up the price, the two thought they ought to have two dollars to take a load of near a ton a distance of ten miles, and were evidently surprised that no better terms were asked.

We found shelter in a wood three miles from Bedford, — a forest so profound that, though we stayed two days there, no spying mortal found us out. Our repairs being made, we struck through Bedford into the Cumberland Valley. Bedford has a reputation for its mineral waters. The rectangular little town was as hot as a gridiron, dusty and detestable. The springs, just beyond, seemed to have the usual barracks and brass-band attractions of American springs. One more camp made in a driving thunder-storm ended our twenty camps in Pennsylvania. As we went down the Cumberland Valley the mountains became more picturesque, but the farms waned. At length the noble Potomac Valley opened wide before us. Cut athwart the mountains in a broader way than any other of the Alleghany streams, it stands as a barrier between the two great sections of the Appalachian Chain. Beyond it, in sweeps of almost Alpine grandeur, rose the higher mountains of Virginia, which we had so long striven for.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here and part three here.