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Charles Dickens > American Notes > Chapter X

American Notes

Chapter X


AS it continued to rain most perseveringly, we all remained below:
the damp gentlemen round the stove, gradually becoming mildewed by
the action of the fire; and the dry gentlemen lying at full length
upon the seats, or slumbering uneasily with their faces on the
tables, or walking up and down the cabin, which it was barely
possible for a man of the middle height to do, without making bald
places on his head by scraping it against the roof. At about six
o'clock, all the small tables were put together to form one long
table, and everybody sat down to tea, coffee, bread, butter,
salmon, shad, liver, steaks, potatoes, pickles, ham, chops, black-
puddings, and sausages.

'Will you try,' said my opposite neighbour, handing me a dish of
potatoes, broken up in milk and butter, 'will you try some of these

There are few words which perform such various duties as this word
'fix.' It is the Caleb Quotem of the American vocabulary. You
call upon a gentleman in a country town, and his help informs you
that he is 'fixing himself' just now, but will be down directly:
by which you are to understand that he is dressing. You inquire,
on board a steamboat, of a fellow-passenger, whether breakfast will
be ready soon, and he tells you he should think so, for when he was
last below, they were 'fixing the tables:' in other words, laying
the cloth. You beg a porter to collect your luggage, and he
entreats you not to be uneasy, for he'll 'fix it presently:' and if
you complain of indisposition, you are advised to have recourse to
Doctor So-and-so, who will 'fix you' in no time.

One night, I ordered a bottle of mulled wine at an hotel where I
was staying, and waited a long time for it; at length it was put
upon the table with an apology from the landlord that he feared it
wasn't 'fixed properly.' And I recollect once, at a stage-coach
dinner, overhearing a very stern gentleman demand of a waiter who
presented him with a plate of underdone roast-beef, 'whether he
called THAT, fixing God A'mighty's vittles?'

There is no doubt that the meal, at which the invitation was
tendered to me which has occasioned this digression, was disposed
of somewhat ravenously; and that the gentlemen thrust the broad-
bladed knives and the two-pronged forks further down their throats
than I ever saw the same weapons go before, except in the hands of
a skilful juggler: but no man sat down until the ladies were
seated; or omitted any little act of politeness which could
contribute to their comfort. Nor did I ever once, on any occasion,
anywhere, during my rambles in America, see a woman exposed to the
slightest act of rudeness, incivility, or even inattention.

By the time the meal was over, the rain, which seemed to have worn
itself out by coming down so fast, was nearly over too; and it
became feasible to go on deck: which was a great relief,
notwithstanding its being a very small deck, and being rendered
still smaller by the luggage, which was heaped together in the
middle under a tarpaulin covering; leaving, on either side, a path
so narrow, that it became a science to walk to and fro without
tumbling overboard into the canal. It was somewhat embarrassing at
first, too, to have to duck nimbly every five minutes whenever the
man at the helm cried 'Bridge!' and sometimes, when the cry was
'Low Bridge,' to lie down nearly flat. But custom familiarises one
to anything, and there were so many bridges that it took a very
short time to get used to this.

As night came on, and we drew in sight of the first range of hills,
which are the outposts of the Alleghany Mountains, the scenery,
which had been uninteresting hitherto, became more bold and
striking. The wet ground reeked and smoked, after the heavy fall
of rain, and the croaking of the frogs (whose noise in these parts
is almost incredible) sounded as though a million of fairy teams
with bells were travelling through the air, and keeping pace with
us. The night was cloudy yet, but moonlight too: and when we
crossed the Susquehanna river - over which there is an
extraordinary wooden bridge with two galleries, one above the
other, so that even there, two boat teams meeting, may pass without
confusion - it was wild and grand.

I have mentioned my having been in some uncertainty and doubt, at
first, relative to the sleeping arrangements on board this boat. I
remained in the same vague state of mind until ten o'clock or
thereabouts, when going below, I found suspended on either side of
the cabin, three long tiers of hanging bookshelves, designed
apparently for volumes of the small octavo size. Looking with
greater attention at these contrivances (wondering to find such
literary preparations in such a place), I descried on each shelf a
sort of microscopic sheet and blanket; then I began dimly to
comprehend that the passengers were the library, and that they were
to be arranged, edge-wise, on these shelves, till morning.

I was assisted to this conclusion by seeing some of them gathered
round the master of the boat, at one of the tables, drawing lots
with all the anxieties and passions of gamesters depicted in their
countenances; while others, with small pieces of cardboard in their
hands, were groping among the shelves in search of numbers
corresponding with those they had drawn. As soon as any gentleman
found his number, he took possession of it by immediately
undressing himself and crawling into bed. The rapidity with which
an agitated gambler subsided into a snoring slumberer, was one of
the most singular effects I have ever witnessed. As to the ladies,
they were already abed, behind the red curtain, which was carefully
drawn and pinned up the centre; though as every cough, or sneeze,
or whisper, behind this curtain, was perfectly audible before it,
we had still a lively consciousness of their society.

The politeness of the person in authority had secured to me a shelf
in a nook near this red curtain, in some degree removed from the
great body of sleepers: to which place I retired, with many
acknowledgments to him for his attention. I found it, on after-
measurement, just the width of an ordinary sheet of Bath post
letter-paper; and I was at first in some uncertainty as to the best
means of getting into it. But the shelf being a bottom one, I
finally determined on lying upon the floor, rolling gently in,
stopping immediately I touched the mattress, and remaining for the
night with that side uppermost, whatever it might be. Luckily, I
came upon my back at exactly the right moment. I was much alarmed
on looking upward, to see, by the shape of his half-yard of sacking
(which his weight had bent into an exceedingly tight bag), that
there was a very heavy gentleman above me, whom the slender cords
seemed quite incapable of holding; and I could not help reflecting
upon the grief of my wife and family in the event of his coming
down in the night. But as I could not have got up again without a
severe bodily struggle, which might have alarmed the ladies; and as
I had nowhere to go to, even if I had; I shut my eyes upon the
danger, and remained there.

One of two remarkable circumstances is indisputably a fact, with
reference to that class of society who travel in these boats.
Either they carry their restlessness to such a pitch that they
never sleep at all; or they expectorate in dreams, which would be a
remarkable mingling of the real and ideal. All night long, and
every night, on this canal, there was a perfect storm and tempest
of spitting; and once my coat, being in the very centre of the
hurricane sustained by five gentlemen (which moved vertically,
strictly carrying out Reid's Theory of the Law of Storms), I was
fain the next morning to lay it on the deck, and rub it down with
fair water before it was in a condition to be worn again.

Between five and six o'clock in the morning we got up, and some of
us went on deck, to give them an opportunity of taking the shelves
down; while others, the morning being very cold, crowded round the
rusty stove, cherishing the newly kindled fire, and filling the
grate with those voluntary contributions of which they had been so
liberal all night. The washing accommodations were primitive.
There was a tin ladle chained to the deck, with which every
gentleman who thought it necessary to cleanse himself (many were
superior to this weakness), fished the dirty water out of the
canal, and poured it into a tin basin, secured in like manner.
There was also a jack-towel. And, hanging up before a little
looking-glass in the bar, in the immediate vicinity of the bread
and cheese and biscuits, were a public comb and hair-brush.

At eight o'clock, the shelves being taken down and put away and the
tables joined together, everybody sat down to the tea, coffee,
bread, butter, salmon, shad, liver, steak, potatoes, pickles, ham,
chops, black-puddings, and sausages, all over again. Some were
fond of compounding this variety, and having it all on their plates
at once. As each gentleman got through his own personal amount of
tea, coffee, bread, butter, salmon, shad, liver, steak, potatoes,
pickles, ham, chops, black-puddings, and sausages, he rose up and
walked off. When everybody had done with everything, the fragments
were cleared away: and one of the waiters appearing anew in the
character of a barber, shaved such of the company as desired to be
shaved; while the remainder looked on, or yawned over their
newspapers. Dinner was breakfast again, without the tea and
coffee; and supper and breakfast were identical.

There was a man on board this boat, with a light fresh-coloured
face, and a pepper-and-salt suit of clothes, who was the most
inquisitive fellow that can possibly be imagined. He never spoke
otherwise than interrogatively. He was an embodied inquiry.
Sitting down or standing up, still or moving, walking the deck or
taking his meals, there he was, with a great note of interrogation
in each eye, two in his cocked ears, two more in his turned-up nose
and chin, at least half a dozen more about the corners of his
mouth, and the largest one of all in his hair, which was brushed
pertly off his forehead in a flaxen clump. Every button in his
clothes said, 'Eh? What's that? Did you speak? Say that again,
will you?' He was always wide awake, like the enchanted bride who
drove her husband frantic; always restless; always thirsting for
answers; perpetually seeking and never finding. There never was
such a curious man.

I wore a fur great-coat at that time, and before we were well clear
of the wharf, he questioned me concerning it, and its price, and
where I bought it, and when, and what fur it was, and what it
weighed, and what it cost. Then he took notice of my watch, and
asked me what THAT cost, and whether it was a French watch, and
where I got it, and how I got it, and whether I bought it or had it
given me, and how it went, and where the key-hole was, and when I
wound it, every night or every morning, and whether I ever forgot
to wind it at all, and if I did, what then? Where had I been to
last, and where was I going next, and where was I going after that,
and had I seen the President, and what did he say, and what did I
say, and what did he say when I had said that? Eh? Lor now! do

Finding that nothing would satisfy him, I evaded his questions
after the first score or two, and in particular pleaded ignorance
respecting the name of the fur whereof the coat was made. I am
unable to say whether this was the reason, but that coat fascinated
him afterwards; he usually kept close behind me as I walked, and
moved as I moved, that he might look at it the better; and he
frequently dived into narrow places after me at the risk of his
life, that he might have the satisfaction of passing his hand up
the back, and rubbing it the wrong way.

We had another odd specimen on board, of a different kind. This
was a thin-faced, spare-figured man of middle age and stature,
dressed in a dusty drabbish-coloured suit, such as I never saw
before. He was perfectly quiet during the first part of the
journey: indeed I don't remember having so much as seen him until
he was brought out by circumstances, as great men often are. The
conjunction of events which made him famous, happened, briefly,

The canal extends to the foot of the mountain, and there, of
course, it stops; the passengers being conveyed across it by land
carriage, and taken on afterwards by another canal boat, the
counterpart of the first, which awaits them on the other side.
There are two canal lines of passage-boats; one is called The
Express, and one (a cheaper one) The Pioneer. The Pioneer gets
first to the mountain, and waits for the Express people to come up;
both sets of passengers being conveyed across it at the same time.
We were the Express company; but when we had crossed the mountain,
and had come to the second boat, the proprietors took it into their
beads to draft all the Pioneers into it likewise, so that we were
five-and-forty at least, and the accession of passengers was not at
all of that kind which improved the prospect of sleeping at night.
Our people grumbled at this, as people do in such cases; but
suffered the boat to be towed off with the whole freight aboard
nevertheless; and away we went down the canal. At home, I should
have protested lustily, but being a foreigner here, I held my
peace. Not so this passenger. He cleft a path among the people on
deck (we were nearly all on deck), and without addressing anybody
whomsoever, soliloquised as follows:

'This may suit YOU, this may, but it don't suit ME. This may be
all very well with Down Easters, and men of Boston raising, but it
won't suit my figure nohow; and no two ways about THAT; and so I
tell you. Now! I'm from the brown forests of Mississippi, I am,
and when the sun shines on me, it does shine - a little. It don't
glimmer where I live, the sun don't. No. I'm a brown forester, I
am. I an't a Johnny Cake. There are no smooth skins where I live.
We're rough men there. Rather. If Down Easters and men of Boston
raising like this, I'm glad of it, but I'm none of that raising nor
of that breed. No. This company wants a little fixing, IT does.
I'm the wrong sort of man for 'em, I am. They won't like me, THEY
won't. This is piling of it up, a little too mountainous, this
is.' At the end of every one of these short sentences he turned
upon his heel, and walked the other way; checking himself abruptly
when he had finished another short sentence, and turning back

It is impossible for me to say what terrific meaning was hidden in
the words of this brown forester, but I know that the other
passengers looked on in a sort of admiring horror, and that
presently the boat was put back to the wharf, and as many of the
Pioneers as could be coaxed or bullied into going away, were got
rid of.

When we started again, some of the boldest spirits on board, made
bold to say to the obvious occasion of this improvement in our
prospects, 'Much obliged to you, sir;' whereunto the brown forester
(waving his hand, and still walking up and down as before),
replied, 'No you an't. You're none o' my raising. You may act for
yourselves, YOU may. I have pinted out the way. Down Easters and
Johnny Cakes can follow if they please. I an't a Johnny Cake, I
an't. I am from the brown forests of the Mississippi, I am' - and
so on, as before. He was unanimously voted one of the tables for
his bed at night - there is a great contest for the tables - in
consideration for his public services: and he had the warmest
corner by the stove throughout the rest of the journey. But I
never could find out that he did anything except sit there; nor did
I hear him speak again until, in the midst of the bustle and
turmoil of getting the luggage ashore in the dark at Pittsburg, I
stumbled over him as he sat smoking a cigar on the cabin steps, and
heard him muttering to himself, with a short laugh of defiance, 'I
an't a Johnny Cake, - I an't. I'm from the brown forests of the
Mississippi, I am, damme!' I am inclined to argue from this, that
he had never left off saying so; but I could not make an affidavit
of that part of the story, if required to do so by my Queen and

As we have not reached Pittsburg yet, however, in the order of our
narrative, I may go on to remark that breakfast was perhaps the
least desirable meal of the day, as in addition to the many savoury
odours arising from the eatables already mentioned, there were
whiffs of gin, whiskey, brandy, and rum, from the little bar hard
by, and a decided seasoning of stale tobacco. Many of the
gentlemen passengers were far from particular in respect of their
linen, which was in some cases as yellow as the little rivulets
that had trickled from the corners of their mouths in chewing, and
dried there. Nor was the atmosphere quite free from zephyr
whisperings of the thirty beds which had just been cleared away,
and of which we were further and more pressingly reminded by the
occasional appearance on the table-cloth of a kind of Game, not
mentioned in the Bill of Fare.

And yet despite these oddities - and even they had, for me at
least, a humour of their own - there was much in this mode of
travelling which I heartily enjoyed at the time, and look back upon
with great pleasure. Even the running up, bare-necked, at five
o'clock in the morning, from the tainted cabin to the dirty deck;
scooping up the icy water, plunging one's head into it, and drawing
it out, all fresh and glowing with the cold; was a good thing. The
fast, brisk walk upon the towing-path, between that time and
breakfast, when every vein and artery seemed to tingle with health;
the exquisite beauty of the opening day, when light came gleaming
off from everything; the lazy motion of the boat, when one lay idly
on the deck, looking through, rather than at, the deep blue sky;
the gliding on at night, so noiselessly, past frowning hills,
sullen with dark trees, and sometimes angry in one red, burning
spot high up, where unseen men lay crouching round a fire; the
shining out of the bright stars undisturbed by noise of wheels or
steam, or any other sound than the limpid rippling of the water as
the boat went on: all these were pure delights.

Then there were new settlements and detached log-cabins and frame-
houses, full of interest for strangers from an old country: cabins
with simple ovens, outside, made of clay; and lodgings for the pigs
nearly as good as many of the human quarters; broken windows,
patched with worn-out hats, old clothes, old boards, fragments of
blankets and paper; and home-made dressers standing in the open air
without the door, whereon was ranged the household store, not hard
to count, of earthen jars and pots. The eye was pained to see the
stumps of great trees thickly strewn in every field of wheat, and
seldom to lose the eternal swamp and dull morass, with hundreds of
rotten trunks and twisted branches steeped in its unwholesome
water. It was quite sad and oppressive, to come upon great tracts
where settlers had been burning down the trees, and where their
wounded bodies lay about, like those of murdered creatures, while
here and there some charred and blackened giant reared aloft two
withered arms, and seemed to call down curses on his foes.
Sometimes, at night, the way wound through some lonely gorge, like
a mountain pass in Scotland, shining and coldly glittering in the
light of the moon, and so closed in by high steep hills all round,
that there seemed to be no egress save through the narrower path by
which we had come, until one rugged hill-side seemed to open, and
shutting out the moonlight as we passed into its gloomy throat,
wrapped our new course in shade and darkness.

We had left Harrisburg on Friday. On Sunday morning we arrived at
the foot of the mountain, which is crossed by railroad. There are
ten inclined planes; five ascending, and five descending; the
carriages are dragged up the former, and let slowly down the
latter, by means of stationary engines; the comparatively level
spaces between, being traversed, sometimes by horse, and sometimes
by engine power, as the case demands. Occasionally the rails are
laid upon the extreme verge of a giddy precipice; and looking from
the carriage window, the traveller gazes sheer down, without a
stone or scrap of fence between, into the mountain depths below.
The journey is very carefully made, however; only two carriages
travelling together; and while proper precautions are taken, is not
to be dreaded for its dangers.

It was very pretty travelling thus, at a rapid pace along the
heights of the mountain in a keen wind, to look down into a valley
full of light and softness; catching glimpses, through the tree-
tops, of scattered cabins; children running to the doors; dogs
bursting out to bark, whom we could see without hearing: terrified
pigs scampering homewards; families sitting out in their rude
gardens; cows gazing upward with a stupid indifference; men in
their shirt-sleeves looking on at their unfinished houses, planning
out to-morrow's work; and we riding onward, high above them, like a
whirlwind. It was amusing, too, when we had dined, and rattled
down a steep pass, having no other moving power than the weight of
the carriages themselves, to see the engine released, long after
us, come buzzing down alone, like a great insect, its back of green
and gold so shining in the sun, that if it had spread a pair of
wings and soared away, no one would have had occasion, as I
fancied, for the least surprise. But it stopped short of us in a
very business-like manner when we reached the canal: and, before
we left the wharf, went panting up this hill again, with the
passengers who had waited our arrival for the means of traversing
the road by which we had come.

On the Monday evening, furnace fires and clanking hammers on the
banks of the canal, warned us that we approached the termination of
this part of our journey. After going through another dreamy place
- a long aqueduct across the Alleghany River, which was stranger
than the bridge at Harrisburg, being a vast, low, wooden chamber
full of water - we emerged upon that ugly confusion of backs of
buildings and crazy galleries and stairs, which always abuts on
water, whether it be river, sea, canal, or ditch: and were at

Pittsburg is like Birmingham in England; at least its townspeople
say so. Setting aside the streets, the shops, the houses, waggons,
factories, public buildings, and population, perhaps it may be. It
certainly has a great quantity of smoke hanging about it, and is
famous for its iron-works. Besides the prison to which I have
already referred, this town contains a pretty arsenal and other
institutions. It is very beautifully situated on the Alleghany
River, over which there are two bridges; and the villas of the
wealthier citizens sprinkled about the high grounds in the
neighbourhood, are pretty enough. We lodged at a most excellent
hotel, and were admirably served. As usual it was full of
boarders, was very large, and had a broad colonnade to every story
of the house.

We tarried here three days. Our next point was Cincinnati: and as
this was a steamboat journey, and western steamboats usually blow
up one or two a week in the season, it was advisable to collect
opinions in reference to the comparative safety of the vessels
bound that way, then lying in the river. One called the Messenger
was the best recommended. She had been advertised to start
positively, every day for a fortnight or so, and had not gone yet,
nor did her captain seem to have any very fixed intention on the
subject. But this is the custom: for if the law were to bind down
a free and independent citizen to keep his word with the public,
what would become of the liberty of the subject? Besides, it is in
the way of trade. And if passengers be decoyed in the way of
trade, and people be inconvenienced in the way of trade, what man,
who is a sharp tradesman himself, shall say, 'We must put a stop to

Impressed by the deep solemnity of the public announcement, I
(being then ignorant of these usages) was for hurrying on board in
a breathless state, immediately; but receiving private and
confidential information that the boat would certainly not start
until Friday, April the First, we made ourselves very comfortable
in the mean while, and went on board at noon that day.

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