Charles Dickens' long slog to Pittsburgh, 1842: the worst of times
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Airfare costs an arm and no leg room, the train is too slow, Megabus is still a bus and the turnpike is still the turnpike. Getting from Pittsburgh to the East Coast has become a hassle and a half.
Every day there seems to be another story touching on a new wrinkle to this dilemma, but it could be worse. One of the great wiseacres of all time, Charles Dickens, once had to get from Washington to Pittsburgh, and had a lot more to complain about than high fares, potholes or faulty Wi-Fi.
The year was 1842. Dickens, already an international celebrity at 30, was touring America with his wife, Kate, and her maid, Anne, a journey he'd capture in "American Notes.''
They were well into their trip when they reached the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, having recently visited our nation's capital, "the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva ... a City of Magnificent Intentions ... Spacious avenues that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere."
Dickens' mood didn't improve as he made his way toward Pittsburgh. His party rode a crowded four-horse coach from York to Harrisburg, where he found "the coachmen always change with the horses, and are usually as dirty as the coach.''
He nonetheless found the Susquehanna Valley beautiful and, after a short stay in Harrisburg, his party hopped on a canal boat for the three- to four-day journey to Pittsburgh, pulled via a tow rope by a train of three horses. Within this "barge with a little house on it,'' women were partitioned from men behind a red curtain, "after the manner of dwarfs and giants'' being separated at a carnival. A driving rain meant no window could be opened, and a guy couldn't walk upright "without making bald places on his head by scraping it against the roof.''
Dinner beat anything from an airline cart -- "tea, coffee, bread, butter, salmon, shad, liver, steak, potatoes, pickles, ham, chops, black puddings and sausages" -- but the table manners?
"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 skillful juggler.''
When the rain slackened and Dickens went on deck, a mountain of luggage heaped beneath a tarp left only a narrow path on either side. "It became a science to walk to and fro without tumbling overboard into the canal.'' Passengers had to duck every five minutes when the helmsman bellowed "Bridge" and lie nearly flat if he yelled "Low Bridge.''
That first night, Dickens returned below to find "suspended on either side of the cabin, three long tiers of hanging bookshelves, designed apparently for volumes in the small octavo size.'' When he looked closer, he "descried on each shelf a sort of microscopic sheet and blanket'' and "began dimly to comprehend that the passengers were the library.''
For those who think the depth of inconsideration is for the airline passenger in front of you to recline his seat, consider Dickens' view from his bottom berth: "I was much alarmed, on looking upward, to see ... that there was a 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.''
It wasn't all bad. If a man wanted to clean up -- and "many were superior to this weakness'' -- he could fish dirty water from the canal with a tin ladle chained to the deck, and a public comb and hair brush were kept near the bread and cheese. Not that Dickens hated this chore.
"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, and drawing it out all fresh and glowing with the cold; was a good thing.'' He liked his brisk pre-breakfast walks on the tow path, too.
A series of inclines took passengers over the mountains before they got back into another crowded canal boat on the other side, but his party ultimately made it to Pittsburgh via "a long aqueduct across the Alleghany (sic) River."
The Dickens party stayed three days in "a most excellent hotel" on what's now Sixth Street before taking a riverboat to Cincinnati, but I prefer his snarkier comments. He'd rule this age of tweets where every slight is recorded and shared.
Anyone planning an eastern trip should take along a copy of "American Notes.'' Upon return, any travel complaints should be held unless they're as entertaining as the Dickens.
First Published March 14, 2013 12:00 am