Thursday, January 12, 2017

“On the Banks of the Lone River”

The following is a long, almost poetic piece published on the front page of the newspaper The Press on Sept. 6, 1861, about the land along the Schuylkill River between the Spring Garden St. bridge and the Market St. bridge.  Much of this land was once part of the Powelton estate.  The section at the south end new the Market St. bridge was previously owned by the City and included an old graveyard.  In 1861, the whole area was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad and it is now the Powelton Yards associated with 30th St. Station.  In 1860, the was a single rail line along the escarpment.  During the 1850s, the area between the rail line and the river was the location of a number of agricultural fairs including the huge Fourth National Exhibition of the United States Agricultural Society at Philadelphia.

Engraving showing the 1856 Agricultural Fair at Powelton.  It shows the railroad line, the cattle sheds and some of the crowds attracted to the Fair.

 “On the Banks of the Lone River”

An odd caption for a local item, we confess, but the sweet English ballad’s name is nonetheless quite appropriate to our subject.
For the last thirty or forty years, perhaps, a quiet, Shady Lane has cosily [sic.] stretched itself along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, from the Wire Bridge past Market Street. Beginning nowhere in particular, and as though by the merest accident in the world, leading shiftlessly along to almost any indefinite locality, and ending in the same incomprehensible way – without an apparent purpose in life, any more than to drag out a fettered existence, like the “Father of the Marshalsea,” and, moreover, locked up by short-sighted art into a mere ravine that Nature had too much judgment to hollow out for it – it has come to be looked upon as a sort of topographical nonentity, as a foundling that has never awakened to the shame of its own paternity, and that has never been taken kindly by the hand, and taught to look back with a fond regret to the brightest days of its existence.
Thus for nigh half a century it has stretched itself along the river’s edge on sunny days, and watched its face reflected in a thousand rippling circles for every pebble cast into the water; and in all that half a century it has been wandering by the waterside without a name! – at least without a name in the city’s official nomenclature of highways and byways.
People have called it the river road, because it has wound along the river’s brink so many passing years without straying after fresh fields and greener pastures; and some, in their self-complacence, have called it the “lonesome road,” because they could never muster the courage to travel it by sunlight, or moonlight, or twilight. While others, more courageous, and probably more aesthetical, and certainly owning property in “the village,” have christened it the “romantic road.” And others still, those sordid eyes can never see the dulce for the utile, have bestowed upon it the unmusical appellation of the “short cut.”
But the sordid are often their own unwitting satirists. So, the corpulent, and the asthmatic, and that they are wont to groan under heavy marketing of a Saturday, have never found it a particle shorter than the other routes of less pretensions; not a bit shorter on summer days, when the river is only a band of gold between two slopes of green, and when every atom of dust by the wayside is gasping and panting for a breath of life; not a bit shorter in winter time, when every blast of Old Boreas, sweeping down from its northern fastness like a charge of the First City Troop, not a bit shorter than other routes, in fact, because of its serpentine course, and because of a certain air it has of having just stepped out for an evening ramble, and of having been charmed away to self-forgetfulness by the water-lilies, and the fresh hay-scent, and the voices of the rustling corn. Here, then, for an apostrophe:
“The veined wind-flower in the somber wood,
Thought-breeding pansies in the sunlight glowing,
Or red-cloaked lilies in the meadows growing,
Best image thee in every changing mood!”

Half way down the road you come to an old stone bridge that once had a wooden coping, no doubt, for vestiges of it still remain; but everyone who ever went that way, and sat awhile to rest himself, was wont, it seems, to carve his initials there. So the coping has crumbled and shrunk away, and the name of many a one who years ago was laid beneath the sod, has been overgrown with ivy-green. But the lapse of time has not crumbled the marble slab set in the staunch-built masonry. The strange, old-fashioned letters that sprawled into existence a good long life ago from the point of the sculptor’s chisel, have managed to sprawl along Time’s highway ever since, unscathed, and smile at you thus, with a world of memories in their eyes;
Beneath the bridge streamlet used to come down to the river every day from Powelton, but it’s visits have ceased long since, and tradition is silent as to the cause. Its bed is sere and trackless now, but when the brown-faced autumn comes the withered leaves shall gather there and rustle sadly with the passing winds.
Though but a brief half mile in length, and sweeping through dangerous gravel pits, the Lonesome Lane is still in the prime of beauty, and still a study for lovers of Nature, in her picturesque and startling moods. Where foot-walks ought to be there are ridges of grassy knolls, that the roaming cattle have almost shorn of their growth of greenness by constant croppings; and out of the knolls start tall cedars, and oaks, and sapling willows. As for the main roadway, it has taken a most novel and unjustifiable method of getting to its journey’s end – a method of hills and hollows that may be pleasant enough to the eye in a sketch, but is apt to startle a stranger with the notion that the Lane has come to an untimely end, in a clump of poplars or a wooded farm.
None but vagrants ever seem to frequent the lonesome lane, and they always seem to be seated upon the grassy knolls, untying bundles of clothes in their laps, or else have their eyes bent industriously on the water; always seem to start mysteriously at the sound of a foot-fall near them; always seem, from the look of their bleared and blood-shot eyes, to have a weighty secret, which they are anxious to keep concealed from you. Sometimes a stray peddler crosses the threshold of their haunts, and seats himself upon a knoll; but it is only that he may wipe his face, and unsling his pack for a moment’s rest, and a moment’s breath of the grateful air. He is always a languid, careworn, weary man, with a furrowed brow and unshorn chin, and a lustreless eye that tells the tale of a purposeless, withered life. After a lapse of time that has brought no rest, his staff is taken up again, and the weary tramp resumed, till he sinks from view in a hollow of the road. His moment’s rest was a thought of his fatherland.
Beyond the willows and the gnarled oak-branches that cut up the face of the moon so oddly, lie the broad green marshes by the river. In the brave days of old when freshets were not a nine days’ wonder the bosom of the marshes would often be covered with canal-boats, and the subsiding waters would leave them there to perish in their ignominy. Several of these boats are still to be seen thus imbedded in the smiling but treacherous mead out of reach from the land-side, and unfit for service on the water. In the morning’s sunshine their dismantled hulks loom out of the river-mists, with a strange reminiscence of a mindful scene in “Great Expectations.” As far as vivid scenery can go, here may we view the faithful counterpart of its opening chapter; and only a few weeks since, the graveyard, too, was here, as though to complete the picture.
All day long the voices of the marsh keep up a tuneful melody. All day long the grasshopper sings the “Siege of Belile,” or something else as monotonous, but fifty per cent. more endurable. All day long the locusts are whispering secrets in the cover of the grass. All day long the old-fashioned frog is croaking an autobiography – which frogs on the other lonesome roads never so much as think of doing. If his croakings were only more intelligible, or the English language more pronounceable and primitive, he would tell you, how in days of yore, the Schuylkill Ranger made his haunts in these old hulks and marshes – and how the prowess of his deeds made godly people tremble – and how the mysteries of strange men’s bodies, found floating lifeless among the tall green reads, remained forever unraveled – and how ghosts from Potter’s Field were seen to patrol the lonesome road on moonless nights, so that it fell into disrepute, and was ever after shunned. But Potter’s Field has been removed along its ghostly phantoms, and the Schuylkill Ranger has gone to the tomb of the Capulets.
And the little birds, too, have a tale of their lives to twitter, had we but time to stay and listen, for it is here that the city’s younger sons and would-be sportsmen most do congregate, when the shooting season comes. What matter if most of them cannot handle a gun? They have accomplished much to be already so well acquainted with the lingual requisites of their calling. It is much to be able to speak flippantly of “mashes” for “marshes,” and “patridges” for “partridges,” without a blush mounting to their ermine cheeks – much to be able to use the feline particle “catridge” in place of the honest substantive their grandsires used in ‘76. Sportsmen are such a peculiar class of beings, and must be indulged in as sharp-defined characteristics as the fatherless fledglings that they prey upon. The slaughter of the innocents and has made their natures imperious.
And there are tuneful voices in the lonesome lane by night. The tremulous chirp of the cricket, who, like Widow Machreo’s kettle, “sings songs full of melody” – the call of the locust to his comrades – the unearthly food of the screech-owl, and anon the dull flapping of his wings – the plash of an ore from out the darkness of the water, as though an Indian were paddling down the stream in his birch canoe – the winding note of the boatman’s horn, to which the distance lends a mournful cadence – the steady roar of the waters of the dam; – these are the voices of the lane after nightfall; and never – even in the gloom of midnight – is nature wholly voiceless, though it is held by Barry Cornwall that
“All things that live and are, love quiet hours –“
But the lonesome lane (how cheerless the alliteration!) is fast being shorn of its primal romance. The green meads and marshes are gradually yielding to that foremost law of organic nature – the law of change – of which the poet hath truly said:
“‘Tis writ in the sky, ‘tis writ on the deep,
‘tis writ on the graves where our fathers sleep.”
Out to the furthermost verge of the verdure, the new wharves of the Pennsylvania Railroad are now being extended, and the Vandal spirit of progress is wedding itself to new piles of brick and mortar at every turn of the road.
Still the Swiss cottage built back among the trees will always have a redeeming beauty, for each sterile feature of the landscape, and still more of the associations connected with the Fair grounds just opposite, will always lend a brightening aspect to the spot, though every sylvan charm should fade with the dying years. Nearly all the agricultural fairs of the city and State societies have been held on this very site. Here was given birth and impetus to the Commonwealth’s inventive skill and industrial interests, which the nation’s crisis may check but cannot overthrow. Here were the trials of speed between highborn stock, that stirred the birth of the “fancy” man like rich old wine – here mammoth beets and golden pumpkins smiled for days at a time on village matrons and the country folk – and here the panorama of human life passed swiftly down to the valley and shadow of Time.

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