Charles Dickens’ coach from York to Harrisburg: A barge on wheels
The White Hall Hotel, West Market and North Beaver streets, played host to Charles Dickens during the noted author’s 1842 visit to America. The artist of this painting of York pulled from several eras. Bottom right, the York County Court House is seen without its neighbor, the State House, placing the drawing before 1793. But the White Hall or National House (follow Market Street west), as its known today, was not constructed until 1828. Today, the large painting, drawn in the mid- to late-1970s, serves as an unsung backdrop on a stage in Stein Hall at Trinity United Church of Christ, York. It was part of a sight-and-sound show used to orient new members and tourists. (For two most posts on Dickens in York County, search this blog for his name.) Background posts: Big Conewago serves as cultural divide, Author: York’s streetscape diverse and Hillary Clinton’s York site a little weird.
Several months ago, York’s Roy Flinchbaugh e-mailed that a recent column on all the achievers from Dover reminded him, for some reason, of Charles Dickens’ visit to York County in 1842.
The English author, a celebrity in his day, was touring America and on his way from Baltimore to Harrisburg and then via canal to Pittsburgh.
He arrived in York aboard the Baltimore-York railroad that had opened only four years before. He was forced to take a coach to Harrisburg, for the railroad ended at York.
Later, he wrote about his experiences in American Notes and he gives a glimpse into the character and color of York countians of the day:
… (W)e left Baltimore by another railway at half-past eight in the morning, and reached the town of York, some sixty miles off, by the early dinner-time of the (National) Hotel which was the starting-place of the four-horse coach, wherein we were to proceed to Harrisburg.
This conveyance, the box of which I was fortunate enough to secure, had come down to meet us at the railroad station, and was as muddy and cumbersome as usual. As more passengers were waiting for us at the inn-door, the coachman observed under his breath, in the usual self-communicative voice, looking the while at his mouldy harness as if it were to that he was addressing himself,
‘I expect we shall want THE BIG coach.’
I could not help wondering within myself what the size of this big coach might be, and how many persons it might be designed to hold; for the vehicle which was too small for our purpose was something larger than two English heavy night coaches, and might have been the twin-brother of a French Diligence. My speculations were speedily set at rest, however, for as soon as we had dined, there came rumbling up the street, shaking its sides like a corpulent giant, a kind of barge on wheels. After much blundering and backing, it stopped at the door: rolling heavily from side to side when its other motion had ceased, as if it had taken cold in its damp stable, and between that, and the having been required in its dropsical old age to move at any faster pace than a walk, were distressed by shortness of wind.
‘If here ain’t the Harrisburg mail at last, and dreadful bright and smart to look at too,’ cried an elderly gentleman in some excitement, ‘darn my mother!’
I don’t know what the sensation of being darned may be, or whether a man’s mother has a keener relish or disrelish of the process than anybody else; but if the endurance of this mysterious ceremony by the old lady in question had depended on the accuracy of her son’s vision in respect to the abstract brightness and smartness of the Harrisburg mail, she would certainly have undergone its infliction. However, they booked twelve people inside; and the luggage (including such trifles as a large rocking-chair, and a good-sized dining-table) being at length made fast upon the roof, we started off in great state.
At the door of another hotel, there was another passenger to be taken up.
‘Any room, sir?’ cries the new passenger to the coachman.
‘Well, there’s room enough,’ replies the coachman, without getting down, or even looking at him.
‘There an’t no room at all, sir,’ bawls a gentleman inside. Which another gentleman (also inside) confirms, by predicting that the attempt to introduce any more passengers ‘won’t fit nohow.’
The new passenger, without any expression of anxiety, looks into the coach, and then looks up at the coachman: ‘Now, how do you mean to fix it?’ says he, after a pause: ‘for I MUST go.’
The coachman employs himself in twisting the lash of his whip into a knot, and takes no more notice of the question: clearly signifying that it is anybody’s business but his, and that the passengers would do well to fix it, among themselves. In this state of things, matters seem to be approximating to a fix of another kind, when another inside passenger in a corner, who is nearly suffocated, cries faintly, ‘I’ll get out.’
This is no matter of relief or self-congratulation to the driver, for his immovable philosophy is perfectly undisturbed by anything that happens in the coach. Of all things in the world, the coach would seem to be the very last upon his mind. The exchange is made, however, and then the passenger who has given up his seat makes a third upon the box, seating himself in what he calls the middle; that is, with half his person on my legs, and the other half on the driver’s.
‘Go a-head, cap’en,’ cries the colonel, who directs.
‘Go-lang!’ cries the cap’en to his company, the horses, and away we go.
We took up at a rural bar-room, after we had gone a few miles, an intoxicated gentleman who climbed upon the roof among the luggage, and subsequently slipping off without hurting himself, was seen in the distant perspective reeling back to the grog-shop where we had found him. We also parted with more of our freight at different times, so that when we came to change horses, I was again alone outside.
The coachmen always change with the horses, and are usually as dirty as the coach. The first was dressed like a very shabby English baker; the second like a Russian peasant: for he wore a loose purple camlet robe, with a fur collar, tied round his waist with a parti-coloured worsted sash; grey trousers; light blue gloves: and a cap of bearskin. It had by this time come on to rain very heavily, and there was a cold damp mist besides, which penetrated to the skin. I was glad to take advantage of a stoppage and get down to stretch my legs, shake the water off my great-coat, and swallow the usual anti-temperance recipe for keeping out the cold.
When I mounted to my seat again, I observed a new parcel lying on the coach roof, which I took to be a rather large fiddle in a brown bag. In the course of a few miles, however, I discovered that it had a glazed cap at one end and a pair of muddy shoes at the other and further observation demonstrated it to be a small boy in a snuff-coloured coat, with his arms quite pinioned to his sides, by deep forcing into his pockets. He was, I presume, a relative or friend of the coachman’s, as he lay a-top of the luggage with his face towards the rain; and except when a change of position brought his shoes in contact with my hat, he appeared to be asleep. At last, on some occasion of our stopping, this thing slowly upreared itself to the height of three feet six, and fixing its eyes on me, observed in piping accents, with a complaisant yawn, half quenched in an obliging air of friendly patronage, ‘Well now, stranger, I guess you find this a’most like an English arternoon, hey?’