Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Guess which famous person visited western Pennsylvania in 1842?

The Celebrity did most of his or her traveling by canal. As this period map shows, railroads accounted for only a fraction of the route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and that bit of track went over the Alleghenies. The Celebrity explained how the railway worked:

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.

As I learned from Daniel Rottenberg's The Kingdom of Coal, the same method was being used in the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania to move coal down to barges on the Lehigh River.

The Celebrity was impressed by the Alleghenies--those "frowning hills, sullen with dark trees, and sometimes angry in one red burning spot high up, where unseen men lay crouching round a fire." But as his or her subsequent writings about the continent made clear, pioneer poverty was new to this observer:

There were . . . 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.

He or she was particularly appalled by the locals' rampant timber cutting. A native of a long-cultivated land, the Celebrity perhaps did not realize that his or her own country had once undergone similar devastation:

The eye was pained to see the stumps of great trees thickly strewn in every field of wheat. . . . 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.

These comments from 1842 are intriguing, not least because they feel so contemporary (except for the inclined planes). As a child visiting the Alleghenies in the 1970s, I was well aware that Appalachian living styles were not the same as those in suburban New England. My grandfather would not have hesitated to patch a window with worn-out hats. "Home-made dressers" did stand "in the open air." Moreover, much as he loved his farm, my grandfather was oblivious to its health. For instance, he either burnt his garbage in the kitchen stove or loaded it onto a tractor sled, hauled it out to a quarry in the middle of his hayfield, and dumped it. This was fun. Sometimes I was allowed to drive the tractor on these expeditions, and my sister and I looked forward to flinging soda bottles into the rocks and listening to them shatter. Everything went into that quarry: plastic, paint cans, car batteries. Years passed before I realized what a dreadful legacy this good man had inflicted on his own home.

I'm sure the region's long industrial history influenced that attitude. People get used to poison. A few days ago I was listening to novelist Denise Giardina speak on NPR about the West Virginia coalfields. She compared her community's relationship to coal to an addict's relationship to a drug: a terrible dependence on what is killing it, a terrible indifference to the future. Yet as the Celebrity's 1842 account makes clear, coal was not the first regional devastation. The creation of the farmland pastoral required a similar ruthless indifference. The pattern of dominance is longer than industry, longer than pioneering, longer than Indian-settler conflicts, longer than human-animal competition. It seems to be a primary urge of life.


Thomas said...

Knowing some of your literary obsessions, I would guess that the Celebrity must be Charles Dickens.

Dawn Potter said...

I am so predictable.