- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Boston and its surrounding towns, linked by rail, are enjoying their greatest literary age. Longfellow, Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, among others, have launched a new magazine, the Atlantic Monthly ; Louis Agassiz, Francis J. Child, and Lowell teach across the river at Harvard; you may find Emerson, Whittier, Theodore Parker, and the Alcotts at the bookstores near the Common. William Lloyd Garrison of Roxbury is crying to the world in his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator . Around the State House and Beacon Hill the atmosphere of the old city lingers on, for Boston is not torn down and replaced every ten years like New York; the redcoats would have no trouble finding their way around the old streets.
Cities are burgeoning that never saw a redcoat—Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco. They fairly leap out of the earth. “We cannot all live in cities!” cries Horace Greeley, who is a kind of prophet of this expanding day. And so the settlers rush westward, by train, steamboat, and wagon—to build new cities. Cattle drive north from Texas; the plow breaks the central Plains; the buffalo are vanishing, and the Indians fall back again and again. They are either dangerous, moody outcasts now, or hopeless vagrants hanging about the white man’s settlements. Thirty settlers have been slain in Minnesota and Iowa this year, the women carried off to the fate that is worse than death. The government in the last two years has yielded title to an unprecedented 17,000,000 acres of their old hunting grounds in the West, and the East swarms with land agents and promoters displaying imaginative maps of cities not yet built: one may obtain choice lots near the future courthouse for a ridiculous price, by acting now. Caveat emptor .
Fanny Kemble, this April, is just back from a western tour to St. Louis, around Lake Michigan, and back.
The hurry of life in the Western part of this country [writes this indefatigable correspondent], the rapidity, energy and enterprise with which civilization is there being carried forward, baffles all description … Cities of magnificent streets and houses, with wharves, and quays, and warehouses, and storehouses, and shops full of Paris luxuries, and railroads from and to them in every direction, and land worth its weight in gold by the foot, and populations of fifty and hundreds of thousands, where, within the memory of men, no trace of civilization existed, but the forest grew and the savage wandered.
I was at a place called Milwaukee, on Lake Michigan, a flourishing town where they invited me to go and read Shakespeare to them, which I mention as an indication of advanced civilization, and one of the residents, a man not fifty years old, told me that he remembered the spot on which stood the hotel where I was lodging, a tangled wilderness through which ran an Indian trail. Does not all that sound wonderful?
It is the railroad that makes all this possible. It carries the settler with his trunks, the orator with his speech on Manifest Destiny, the feminist lady with her tracts, the reporter with his notebooks. But most important it carries the goods and makes of half a continent a single market; the shoe manufacturer of Lynn ships his product at low prices throughout the settled United States. When the railroad reaches Cincinnati, the price of coffee there comes down. It used to cost sixteen cents a pound more than in New York; now the advance is but a penny. There were 8,500 miles of railroad in 1850. In 1857 there are nearly 24,000.
This year the famous Baltimore & Ohio Railroad—the name is poetic, and exact—reaches St. Louis, Missouri, through various connections, and there is a great celebration, with bands, flags, and speeches all along the way. Everyone who matters in Cincinnati turns out as the special train chuffs through, and General Cass and Governor Chase still manage smiles even when wetted down by the enthusiastic but careless celebrants from the fire company. The trip takes altogether four days, fanned on by the winds of rhetoric. “The march of civilization, forced onward by the power of steam!” cries one orator, and another echoes: “The world has not seen a greater achievement!”