Our New West


GOOGLE is doing a wonderful public service by scanning old literature (books, tracts, etc.) so that 21st Century people can access them without having to go to university libraries where access is hard. The old prose gives us history but also tells us about the people and life then. Reading a 19th Century book for example we can learn what was important to them, we can learn about their prejudices and likes and dislikes, as well as about the popular thought of educated readers. An added bonus is to read the very different 19th Century prose. As society has sped up our reading habits have changed and so, likewise, have modern authors' prose.

Sometimes, when I’m in the mood, it’s fun to read the old language and so it was following the quest for more Donner Summit history and in the mood for some old prose, that I picked up this month’s book, The New West by Samuel Bowles.

It came free off the Internet courtesy of Google. The book is centered on the benefits of the Pacific Railroad, the first transcontinental railroad as well as the wonders of the West. The prose was fun. For example, in talking about the temporary towns that grew up as the railroad progressed, the author describes them as “congregation[s] of scum and wickedness.” They “festered’ in corruption. “Hell would appear to have been raked to furnish” the temporary railroad towns. The majority of the text though, celebrates the scenery in the West, sometimes almost waxing rhapsodically drawing pictures in the reader’s head: rocks “…fashioned like a fortress, or rising like Gothic cathedral…”

I was just going to skim the book for anything interesting but as I got into it I thought the whole book could bear summarizing or reviewing. Our readers could be edified. What did the coming of the railroad mean to 19th Americans, what changes did it bring?

This book fits in a common genre of the 19th Century of both art and popular literature. Despite the coming of the railroad which reduced travel time immensely by going at the incredible constant speed of 25 miles an hour, most people in America would not be going West. They were however, hungry for the descriptions. Much of the West had been relatively recently acquired by conquest (from the Mexican War), purchase (Louisiana, Gadsden) or agreement (Oregon and Washington). Exhibits of Western art, giving visitors views of the West were popular. There were many picture books produced with drawings of the West and there were many books describing the west. People were fascinated by the West and its possibilities even if they could only visit vicariously. The preface is almost rhapsodic as an introduction to what the reader will experience. See the sidebar on the next page.

To prepare his book the author had traveled the West in 1865, before the railroad and then in 1868 when the railroad was almost completed. First he traveled by stage and then by railroad. He traveled with Speaker of the House, and later Vice-president, Schuyler Colfax both times. Colfax wrote an introduction to the book which was almost as effusive as Mr. Bowles’ descriptions. Schuyler, by the way, is for whom the town of Colfax is named. It sits about forty miles west of Donner Summit on I-80.

Waxing rhapsodically again about the wonders of the West and the coming of civilization, Bowles says the reader will come away with the idea that a new society and civilization was being developed in the West, “commerce and an industry, a wealth and a power, that will rival the most enthusiastic predictions of our Atlantic States Empire, and together…. will present on the North American Continent such a triumph of Man in race, in government and social development, in intellectual advancement, and in commercial supremacy, as the world never saw, - as the world never yet fairly dreamed of.”

The book begins with a general description of the West: the Plains, the Rockies, Sierra, Pacific Northwest, that the railroad was bisecting.

In 1865 to get from the Missouri to the Mountains it took a six day stage ride. Waiting to leave the bustling Omaha Bowles had to wait for the Concord coach which was a bit late. When it came it carried frightened mother and children and the coach was bristling with arrows. It was disconcerting but Bowles and his traveling companion, the Speaker of the House, “represented the great American nation” and it would not do to be afraid, so off they went.

As they traveled the one constant feature of the landscape was the “long trains of wagons and carts” carrying on the commerce of the West: agriculture, mining and the many settlements. The wagon trains, he said, stretched from ¼ to 1/3 mile each. The scenery was huge as was the weather, “terrible storms of thunder and lightning" and he’s almost poetic in his descriptions, “…huge, rolling, ponderous masses of cloud… massing up and separating…in a more majestic and threatening style than our party had ever before seen in the heavens.” (pg 3)

Stage travel was hard and dangerous. Horses could bolt and there was little protection against the weather. They traveled night and day stopping every 10 miles to change horses and every 40 or 50 to eat. “The days were…monotonous.” The nights were cold and sleep in the “jolting stage-coach was hard and fitful….” They traveled at 8 or 10 miles an hour in a light coach. The normal coaches traveled only 4 to 6 MPH. The West was empty save the occasional stage way-house or infrequent small settlement. Houses were made of turf and mud. Barns might be partly log but
were also made from prairie turf, “piled layer on layer…”

The railroad is “the key to all our New West” and so Bowels begins his description. Taking the train in 1868 the trip that took 6 days in 1865, now
took 24 hours safely “in a swiftly-moving train, and in a car that was elegant drawing-room by day and luxurious bedroom at night.”

The coming of the railroad was destroying as it was building a new west. It was killing off settlements and cultivation that were not on the railroad. The rails were carrying everything; “the old roads are substantially abandoned…” The people off the railroad are “the victims, in turn, of a higher civilization…” They’d driven out the Indians and were now begin driven out in turn.

Travel in the in the west on the railroad could “grow monotonous” since the railroad wa as straight as an arrow. “Every dozen or fifteen mils is a station” made up of a shed or two, a “water-spout” and a “wood-pile.” Every hundred miles was a house or division depot, with “Shops, eating-house, ‘saloons' uncounted, a store or two, and a few cultivated acres, and the invariable half-a-dozen seedy, staring loafers that are a sort of fungi indigenous to America railways."

The railroad brought great improvements as well. New towns sprung up along the route with thousands of inhabitants, daily papers, stores, taverns, and “all the luxuries and many comforts of civilization.” The building of the railroad was an incredible feat built with “fabulous speed.”

On reaching the Summit of the Sierra, “beautiful lakes adjoin the road, most especially Donner Lake, which strongly invite delay for the leisure enjoyment of the grand scenery…” Of course the Donner tragedy had to be remarked upon but without the lurid details found in other contemporary accounts. Here the survivors only “existed on the flesh of their companions.” Other contemporaneous accounts are suitable only for Halloween.

Traveling over the Sierra one experiences the “genuine exhilaration in the scenery of California…”

The railroad was difficult and expensive to build. It made the builders rich and it provided the opportunity for new wealth for society as well. It would cause a revolution in commerce by putting America in direct touch with Asia and the Indies. That’s all obvious. Less obvious the railroad would provide “fresh impulse to civilization, and the founding of a new empire on the Pacific Coast.” It also would provide “moral and social rehabilitation.” The people had been hungering and praying for the railroad because they wanted closer contact with “home.” The author says Californians did not consider California home in 1869. Instead they all talked about going home. That tells us where the hearts of the pioneers were. The railroad was good for the whole country as well, marrying the Atlantic and the Pacific and destroying disunity (the book was written only shortly after the Civil War).

Separate chapters are devoted to Colorado, the American Alps, with descriptions about Denver and mountain camping. Bowles and Colfax did some camping and that fills a chapter. In the telling of camping Bowles hazards that mule intelligence is proof of the transmigration of soles – so “startlingly human” they are. He knew some people “who must have been mules once.”

There are description of stage travel and we learn that the stage driver is the king on his route. he has “dreadful winning ways” both with horses and women. He is the “diplomat of the road”. No one has more authority and no one eats before he does.

There are descriptions of the Native Americans which expose 19th Century Americans’ prejudices, “…it is his destiny to die; he cannot continue his original pure barbaric life; he cannot mount that of civilization….all we can do is smooth and make decent the pathway to his grave.” Civilization is coming to the West and pushing the Native Americans out by killing their way of life. He

Bowles is equally prejudiced against the Mormons who are not part of the “grand free movement of American life” and are stubbornly fanatical. He was sure they’d give up their ways though because the lust for many wives was less than the lust for much money which could be earned by joining America.

One might like to skim the chapters about Colorado and Utah and their travels there. It’s not Donner Summit or California after all. The visits to Austin and Virginia City, Nevada were interesting as was the 1865 stage ride across Nevada.

On page 308 we get to the Sierra, “Nature’s life and glory…” that sate hungry hearts and are a “golden pathway to the golden Gate…” The 1865 stage ride was a “succession of delights and surprises.” “All human music was but sound and fury, signifying nothing, before such harmonies of high nature.” The pines “seemed to us monsters” Unfortunately that 1865 trip was before the railroad “which has destroyed this.” Traveling the Sierra was traveling through the “finest mountain scenery in the world…[rocks] like pyramids of Egypt” and scenery even surpassing the Alps.

Bowles was struck, coming to California, to discover that people spoke to the same themes as people back East and that is what makes American “ …the wonder of nations, the marvel of history, - the unity of its people in ideas and purpose; their quick assimilation of all emigration…” This is more important than territory, resources, beauty of landscape, good climate, material development…” because the “subtle electricity” of that part of American character conquers everything.

After the Sierra come descriptions of California: the Central Valley, the Coast Range, the rest of the Sierra, San Francisco, Yo Semite [sic] the weather, the climate, the Chinese, mining, and farming.

Interestingly, so much sand was blowing around in San Francisco that streets could be blocked like drifts of snow which puts neat housekeepers in despair and made a “large market for road and clothe-brushes.” Property owners had to visit their properties often to keep track of them so the sand would not obscure property lines. Given that blowing sand, there was a “looseness” about cleanliness that would shock New England housewives.