Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Anthony Trollope Visits My Home Town (1861)

The English novelist and travel writer Anthony Trollope was born in London on April 24, 1815. I suggest we pause for a moment and offfer him some belated (by one day) Happy Birthday wishes.

In 1861, Trollope began a journey across America which he wrote about in his book, North America, published in 1862. I thought you might be interested in what he had to say about the night he spent in Grand Haven in the fall of 1861, waiting for a steamboat ride across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee. These days, our town places great stock in its charm, and tourism is an imporant part of the local economy. Not much publicity is given to Trollope's assessment of the place where "inexorable fate has required me to pitch my tent."

This is taken from Chapter 9, "From Niagara to the Mississippi":

From Detroit we continued our course westward across the State of Michigan, through a country that was absolutely wild till the railway pierced it, Very much of it is still absolutely wild. For miles upon miles the road passes the untouched forest, showing that even in Michigan the great work of civilization has hardly more than been commenced. One thinks of the all but countless population which is, before long, to be fed from these regions—of the cities which will grow here, and of the amount of government which in due time will be required—one can hardly fail to feel that the division of the United States into separate nationalities is merely a part of the ordained work of creation as arranged for the well-being of mankind. The States already boast of thirty millions of inhabitants—not of unnoticed and unnoticeable beings requiring little, knowing little, and doing little, such as are the Eastern hordes, which may be counted by tens of millions, but of men and women who talk loudly and are ambitious, who eat beef, who read and write, and understand the dignity of manhood. But these thirty millions are as nothing to the crowds which will grow sleek, and talk loudly, and become aggressive on these wheat and meat producing levels. The country is as yet but touched by the pioneering hand of population. In the old countries, agriculture, following on the heels of pastoral, patriarchal life, preceded the birth of cities. But in this young world the cities have come first. The new Jasons, blessed with the experience of the Old–World adventurers, have gone forth in search of their golden fleeces, armed with all that the science and skill of the East had as yet produced, and, in settling up their new Colchis, have begun by the erection of first class hotels and the fabrication of railroads. Let the Old World bid them God speed in their work. Only it would be well if they could be brought to acknowledge from whence they have learned all that they know.

Our route lay right across the State to a place called Grand Haven, on Lake Michigan, from whence we were to take boat for Milwaukee, a town in Wisconsin, on the opposite or western shore of the lake. Michigan is sometimes called the Peninsular State, from the fact that the main part of its territory is surrounded by Lakes Michigan and Huron, by the little Lake St. Clair and by Lake Erie. It juts out to the northward from the main land of Indiana and Ohio, and is circumnavigable on the east, north, and west. These particulars, however, refer to a part of the State only; for a portion of it lies on the other side of Lake Michigan, between that and Lake Superior. I doubt whether any large inland territory in the world is blessed with such facilities of water carriage.

On arriving at Grand Haven we found that there had been a storm on the lake, and that the passengers from the trains of the preceding day were still remaining there, waiting to be carried over to Milwaukee. The water however—or the sea, as they all call it—was still very high, and the captain declared his intention of remaining there that night; whereupon all our fellow-travelers huddled themselves into the great lake steamboat, and proceeded to carry on life there as though they were quite at home. The men took themselves to the bar-room, and smoked cigars and talked about the war with their feet upon the counter; and the women got themselves into rocking-chairs in the saloon, and sat there listless and silent, but not more listless and silent than they usually are in the big drawing-rooms of the big hotels. There was supper there precisely at six o’clock—beef-steaks, and tea, and apple jam, and hot cakes, and light fixings, to all which luxuries an American deems himself entitled, let him have to seek his meal where he may. And I was soon informed, with considerable energy, that let the boat be kept there as long as it might by stress of weather, the beef-steaks and apple jam, light fixings and heavy fixings, must be supplied at the cost of the owners of the ship. “Your first supper you pay for,” my informant told me, “because you eat that on your own account. What you consume after that comes of their doing, because they don’t start; and if it’s three meals a day for a week, it’s their look out.” It occurred to me that, under such circumstances, a captain would be very apt to sail either in foul weather or in fair.

It was a bright moonlight night—moonlight such as we rarely have in England—and I started off by myself for a walk, that I might see of what nature were the environs of Grand Haven. A more melancholy place I never beheld. The town of Grand Haven itself is placed on the opposite side of a creek, and was to be reached by a ferry. On our side, to which the railway came and from which the boat was to sail, there was nothing to be seen but sand hills, which stretched away for miles along the shore of the lake. There were great sand mountains and sand valleys, on the surface of which were scattered the debris of dead trees, scattered logs white with age, and boughs half buried beneath the sand. Grand Haven itself is but a poor place, not having succeeded in catching much of the commerce which comes across the lake from Wisconsin, and which takes itself on Eastward by the railway. Altogether, it is a dreary place, such as might break a man’s heart should he find that inexorable fate required him there to pitch his tent.


NOTE: The map shows Grand Haven, Michigan, circa 1868.


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