Down the Ohio River with Charles Dickens
“A fine broad river always, but in some parts much wider than in others, and then there is usually a green island, covered with trees, dividing it into two streams.”
In 1842 at the age of 30, Charles Dickens made his first visit to America with his wife Kate, her maid Anne Brown, and Charles’ traveling secretary George Putnam. As part of their tour, the group boarded the steamboat Messenger in Pittsburgh to flow down the Ohio River to Cincinnati – a three day tour.
The Messenger held some forty passengers on board, exclusive of the poorer persons on the lower deck. Dickens wondered that its construction would make any journey safe with the great body of fire that rages and roars beneath the frail pile of painted wood.
As expected, he wrote in his journal daily while traveling, giving us a picture now, of what he saw on that trip long ago. Most of the time he wrote on his knee in their small cabin at the back of the boat. He felt lucky to have a cabin in the stern, because it was known that ‘steamboats generally blew up forward’.
Coming from the crowded city of London, this wilderness must have appeared strange with trees everywhere and cabins sparsely populating the banks along the river. For miles and miles the banks were unbroken by any sign of human life or trace of human footsteps.
Meal time was not pleasing for him as lively conversation was lacking. Each ‘creature’ would empty his trough as quickly as possible, then slink away. A jest would have been a crime and a smile would have faded into a grinning horror.
I never in my life did see such listless, heavy dullness as brooded over these meals. And was as glad to escape again as if it had been a penance or a punishment.
After the meals, men would stand around the stove without saying a word, but spitting, which was a bad manner Dickens deplored. Therefore, Charles and Kate spent much of the time sitting on the gallery outside their cabin. His description of the only disturbance outside was in true Dickens style:
Nor is anything seen to move about them but the blue jay, whose colour is so bright, and yet so delicate, that it looks like a flying flower.
He noted that the steamboat whistle was loud enough to awaken the Indians, who lie buried in a great mound, so old that oaks and other forest trees had stuck their roots into its earth. The Ohio River sparkled as it passed the place these extinct tribes lived hundreds of years ago.
Evening steals slowly upon the landscape, when we stop to set some emigrants ashore, five men, as many women, and a little girl. All their worldly goods are a bag, a large chest and an old chair.
Those emigrants were landed at the foot of a large bank, where several log cabins could be seen on the summit, which could be reached by a long winding path. Charles Dickens watched them until they became specks, lingering on the bank with the old woman sitting in the chair and all the rest about her.
When he reached Cincinnati, a booming frontier river town, Dickens viewed it as a beautiful city: cheerful, thriving and animated. He was quite charmed with the appearance of the town and its free schools, as education of children was always a priority for Charles Dickens. Here he could actually find people to engage in conversation.
While his first trip was a disappointment in many ways,in the 1850s, he was encouraged to make another trip to America to extend his popular England reading tour to audiences there. He was told would be lots of money to be made in the United States.
But the outbreak of the Civil War, caused him to put those plans on hold. When the war was over, he again received encouragement to visit this New World. Despite his ill health and caution from his closest friends, Charles Dickens wrote a seven point “Case in a Nutshell” describing why he should visit America.
Once decided, he arrived in Boston on November 19, 1867. Even though his health was failing, Dickens never canceled a performance.
No man has a right to break an engagement with the public if he were able to be out of bed.
He stayed for five months and gave 76 performances for which he earned an incredible $228,000, helping to give him a much better view of the United States on his second trip. The country had much improved during those twenty-five years in his estimation.
How astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen all around me on every side – changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled.
The next time you visit the banks of the Ohio River, find a secluded spot and imagine what it must have been like when Charles Dickens viewed it in 1842.
Words in italics are Charles Dickens words from his journal “American Notes”, 1842 with the exception of the last one, which was of course written after his second trip.