boats, trains, cars & the popular eye

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  • University of Northern Iowa

    Boats, Trains, Cars &the Popular EyeAuthor(s): Wayne FranklinSource: The North American Review, Vol. 273, No. 1 (Mar., 1988), pp. 15-19Published by: University of Northern IowaStable URL: .Accessed: 12/06/2014 21:54

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  • N A R

    Boats, Trains, Cars

    & the Popular Eye WAYNE FRANKLIN

    A perspective of its own, vanishing speedily into the distance, the road

    unified all space by focusing it in the motorist's eye.

    it's hard to imagine P.T. Barnum, America's great show

    man, in retreat. Certainly he scattered the world with

    things any ordinary person ought to have found fearsome, and the very reason Barnum could persist in his hoaxes and humbugs was that he embodied the salient go aheadism of nineteenth-century America. He never

    looked back. This is why it is curious to find him as timid as his auto

    biography claims he was during a certain train ride in the Midwest. Due in Fort Wayne for a speaking engagement

    in 1866, Barnum found himself stranded in Toledo long after all the regular connecting trains had left. So tight was his lecture calendar for the summer that Barnum knew he wouldn't be able to reschedule the Fort Wayne appearance for at least two months, and he was desperate to avoid disappointing his audience. Going to the superin tendent of the Toledo, Wabash and Western Railway, a

    Mr. Andrews, Barnum tried to arrange for the rental of a

    special engine and car. At first, Andrews refused Barnum's request: there were no extra locomotives avail

    able, and besides, the tracks to Fort Wayne would be filled with freights all night. Once he realized who he was

    talking to, however, Andrews quickly proposed that for Mr. Barnum, of course, one of the freights just about to

    leave the station in Toledo could simply be comman

    deered, the others warned aside, and the showman

    allowed to dash westward. With typical bravura, Barnum had offered to "ride to

    Fort Wayne astride of the engine, or boxed up and stowed

    away in a freight car"?as always, he was thinking of the show he might make at the end of the line?but as the train was readied, more agreeable accomodations were

    arranged. All but two of its cars were removed and Barnum was escorted to the caboose, where he was to

    ride. Once ensconced in the caboose at the Toledo sta

    tion, Barnum vowed that he felt "as happy as a king." "In

    fact," he went on, "I enjoyed a new sensation of imperial superiority, in that I was 'monarch of all I surveyed,' emperor of my own train, switching all other trains from the main track, and making conductors all along the line

    wonder what grand mogul had thus taken complete pos session and control of the road." At the first stop along the

    route, the mogul in question wired ahead to Fort Wayne to assure the lecture committee of his timely?if unor

    thodox?arrival, and dispatched an answer to Mr. Ander

    son's query, received at the same station, regarding Barnum's comfort in the caboose: "The springs of the caboose are softer than down; I am as happy as a clam at

    March 1988 15

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  • N A R

    high water; I am being carried towards Fort Wayne in a

    style never surpassed by Caesar's triumphal march into

    Rome." Never one to miss a chance for hyperbole, es

    pecially in connection with his own ventures, Barnum

    ended with a loud "Hurrah for the Toledo and Wabash


    We forget how radically the landscape of the United

    States (and of Europe, and eventually the third world) was altered by the coming of the iron horse. A mere forty

    years earlier, for instance, Barnum's whole venture?his

    tightly scheduled, distance-defying lecture tour of the

    continent's vast center?would simply have been impos

    sible. Important innovations had taken place in the trav

    eler's world forty years earlier, but that world was still a

    tedious one by modern standards. The Erie Canal, which was just opening in New York State in the mid 1820s, when Barnum was a teenager, allowed for the economical

    movement of people and goods between the seacoast and

    the Great Lakes, but at that time, or earlier, all travel was

    excruciatingly slow. A canal boat, the radical newspaper man Horace Greeley recalled after railroad travel had

    become common, was famous for its "cent and a half a

    mile, mile and a half an hour" rate and pace. The days

    passed "slowly yet smoothly," Greeley remembered,

    being ". . . enlivened by various sedentary games."


    the nights were "tedious beyond any sleeping-car experi ence." Covering a mere thirty-six miles

    a day at the rate

    Greeley indicated, a canal boat would take several days before delivering its cargo, human or not, in Buffalo. The

    advertised schedule for the Philadelphia to Pittsburgh route of the Pennsylvania Canal was a fast four days for

    the full 394 miles, although it customarily took longer to

    get through the 174 locks and to ascend and descend the

    unusual rail section over the highest peaks of the Alle

    ghenies. Canal travel, in short, owed its great attraction

    not to its speed but to its low cost, especially for the move

    ment of freight, since it greatly reduced the expense of

    hauling manufactured goods west and farm produce east.

    Henry David Thoreau, on his rowboat excursion with his

    brother John in 1839, encountered upstream-bound canal

    boats?these were sail and pole powered, however?so

    slow that the brothers overtook them as they rowed their

    own way upstream on the rather swift Merrimack. Of

    these vessels in general, Thoreau noted that "With their

    broad sails set, they moved slowly up the stream in the

    sluggish and fitful breeze, like one-winged antedeluvian

    birds, and as if impelled by some mysterious counter


    The pace on rivers like the Merrimack, or on the canals proper, was that of a pedestrian. The landscape

    drifted by, perhaps as fast as four miles per hour, all of it

    readily visible, not blurred, as tangible as the world which

    might surround a fieldworker or a peddler in the pre modern world. With the coming of steamboats on the rivers and lakes of America, the landscape began to speed up?and to get noisy. The canal boat, of course,

    was a

    relatively silent entity?perhaps made raucous by its sometimes crowded passengers, but not mechanically intrusive. The steamboat, however, began to move the

    American traveler more quickly through the countryside, and began as well to cover the natural sounds of the land

    scape with its clatter, and to blanket the scene with smoke. Still, the speeds were generally modest (certainly no faster than a quick team pulling a buggy) and the space of water which set the steamboat off from the shore

    pushed the landscape back far enough from the viewer that it rarely blurred as the vessel passed upstream or

    down. The canons of the painterly tradition, in other

    words, were still appropriate to this first stage of mecha nized travel: one might look toward the shore and under stand what was to be seen there in completely prein dustrial terms. No new aesthetic was needed. Traditional

    landscape assumed, as a radical principle,

    a viewer at

    rest?perspective as a device, after all, organizes space

    according to one set point of view. Early mechanized travel did not overcome the inertia of this arrangement, even though it had begun to push against such restraints.

    Never found on railroads, the

    dramatic vertical climb became

    a popular attraction of the high

    way, a kind of rollercoaster ride

    a traveler could boast about

    once the radiator had cooled

    down and the clutch was fixed.

    ' l#oit&9 Up ?ter* JH.

    ?AYS MU. *10fU*6 HI ti. its?rr. _ ntsrr.

    U* ??4 DOWN $ OVit THt tUJf ?DG? J?


    16 March 1988

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    Enter the train in general, and Barnum's train in particu lar. The very first trains hardly improved the typical speed

    of horse or canal travel. But quite soon the train was going at a rate three times that of the old stageco


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