February 29, 2012


If you really want to understand the Nineteenth Century psyche of England and America, just read Burnett’s most famous book, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).  England then ruled over the hearts of both the British and Americans via the persona of that long-lived symbol of virtue, Queen Victoria.  Ever since the Revolution, though Americans ostensibly threw off all ties to the British monarchy, in their hearts they missed the pageantry and romance of royalty.  Not surprisingly, the predominant icons in popular American literature were European royalty and nobility, and England being then the greatest world power, Queen Victoria ruling over one quarter of the world—including India and much of Africa—was said to be “empress of an empire where the sun never set.”  Even today—note the American obsession with Princess Diana and Princess Kate—, this deification of English royalty continues.  But, worldwide, the fascination with European royalty suffered a mighty hit with World War I (the so-called “Great War”), at the conclusion of which royal houses collapsed like dominoes in France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Poland, Italy, Spain, and on and on.  But nevertheless, nostalgia for the panoply of royalty has never died in popular culture.

On November 24, 1849, Frances (Eliza) Hodgson was born in Manchester, England.  Her father (a hardware wholesaler) died when Eliza was only five.  Her mother did her best to keep the business going until 1865, then gave up and took her brood to Knoxville, Tennessee, moving into her brother’s log cabin.  Thus Eliza first experienced American life just as the bloody Civil War ended, and she was turning sixteen.  Eliza married Dr. Swan Moses Burnett in 1873.  After a failure as principal of a private school, she turned to writing.  She first gained recognition with That Lass of Lowrie’s (1877), a tale of Lancaster, England coal mines, and Haworth (1879).  In 1883, she turned to America for her subject matter: Through One Administration, a novel of Washington corruption.



But her life took a dramatic turn when her first book for children, Little Lord Fauntleroy, was published both in book form (by Charles Scribner’s Sons) and in the pages of the world’s greatest magazine for children, St. Nicholas in 1886.  Cedric, the protagonist was based on Eliza’s second son, Vivian, whose velvet suits, now immortalized in a novel that took the world by storm, gained immortality as a beautiful pampered and effeminate little boy who apparently always did the right thing.  According to Britannica editors, “Fauntleroy’s charming manners and picturesque garb provided an uncomfortable model for small boys for an entire generation.”  Such an impact did the book have on world culture that, even today, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” remains alive and well as a prototype.

With fame came the breakup of Eliza’s marriage in 1898; on the rebound, she married Dr. Stephen Townsend; it didn’t last: they were divorced in 1901.  In 1905, she became an American citizen.  With success came a conviction that sentimental romantic fiction for children was the way to go.  Eventually most of her forty-some novels were written either for children or for adults who loved romantic fiction.

Sara Crewe (1888) gained immortality when it was dramatized as The Little Princess in 1905.  The Secret Garden (1911) had little impact during her lifetime but has gained stature ever since, for it, unlike most of her other books for children, depicts real children in a real world who achieve worthwhile aims.

As money continued to roll in, her lifestyle reflected this affluence, and she shuttled back and forth (as a gilt-edged celebrity) between Europe and America, residing variously in Kent, England and in Long Island, New York, where her friends called her “Fluffy.”  When an unauthorized dramatic production of Little Lord Fauntleroy threatened her artistic control of her work, the worldwide fame of this now Anglo-American author gave her so much clout that the British changed their law in the 1911 Copyright Act.  She died on October 29, 1924 in Plandome, New York.

* * * * *

There are many editions of Little Lord Fauntleroy available on the web, but I urge you to try to pick up a Scribner’s edition that features the now iconic illustrations by Reginald Birch, staff artist for St. Nicholas Magazine.





February 22, 2012


It was almost a year ago when I sent up a trial balloon.  Its results have been so gratifying that this week I am launching a second.  If such stand-alone nuggets of wisdom that have stood the test of time prove to be popular (judging by reader-response relayed back to me), I will make them a regular feature in this blog series.



(Adapted from Chinese by Tess White)


Li Tao sat in his garden watching the rising sun.  His yellow eyes watered at the sight of such brilliance.  He meditated on the constancy of the heavenly ball of fire which he used these many decades for his inspiration.


In all the provinces, it was said, there was not elsewhere to be found so just a sage, so wise a judge.  The perplexed, the unhappy, the disgruntled sought out his counsel and he found his Hours of Sun Journey crowded with the woes of others.  This counsel he gave gladly, for had he not studied and meditated many years to cultivate the wisdom and patience for such a task?


His servant removed the rice bowl and the fragile tea cup and announced his first visitor.  Po Ming, the perfumer, entered.


“How comes it, Po Ming, that you leave off the gathering of dew-filled blossoms on this bright day to speak with me?”


Po Ming bowed thrice to the ground, spread out his hands with a gesture of sorrow and said:


“Sage, today I seek advice. I am indeed troubled.  The princess who dwells in the Yellow Palace by the East Gate has commissioned me to perfect for her a perfume entirely new and rare and not like unto anything she ever has tried.  It cannot be, sire, for I have supplied her each day with a different scent—as far back as the memory goes—and I know no others.  I fear her wrath.  What shall I do?”


Li Tao sat in deep silence for a minute and then questioned:


“Is she the one with the countenance like the reflection one sees in the glass after eating unripe fruit?  The face made ugly by discontent?”

Po Ming nodded.


Li Tao gazed for a moment at his inspiration, now mounting rapidly into the sky, and said slowly:


“I know of one very rare scent, but in its application special care must be taken.”


Po Ming entreated anxiously, “But tell me, master, and I shall deliver it to her before the noon hour and avoid her ire.”


Li Tao pondered, then took his brush, dipped it in the ink, and wrote with flourishing strokes.


“These are the instructions for use,” he said, rolling up the scroll.  “I shall give you a sample of the perfume, too.  Guard it very carefully.  It is very precious, but I keep it for such needs.”


He clapped his hands and his servant slipped noiselessly out from behind the foliage.


“Bring me,” said the Sage, “a vial of the perfume of happiness for my friend.”


At noon that day Po Ming was ushered into the presence of the princess.  She sat like an ugly goddess on her throne.  No look but that of discontent crossed her countenance while she waited for Po Ming to speak.


“Most gracious highness,” he said, after his bowing was over, “I present a very different essence today.  In order to render this essence of effect (he was reading from the opened scroll) it is needful for the user to smile and do each day a task which he has hithertofore considered unpleasant.  Then, and then only, will the rare vapor be perceived.  Used daily, and the wearer is surrounded with happy friends, breathing and living in its atmosphere and unable to tear themselves away from the user.”


She listened to him, nodded, and questioned him in detail as to what might constitute an unselfish act.  Never had it crossed her mind to do tasks which might be distasteful to her.  Such had been her nature that her own pleasure constituted the very law of her being.


Ten days passed, and Po Ming again sought audience with Li Tao.  The perfumer radiated joy as he told of the delight of the princess who did kind deeds daily and that friends crowded about her for the first time in her life.


What, then, is the secret of the essence?” he inquired of the Sage.


Li Tao smiled a slow smile and answered, “My son, I have known all the while that the princess can smell nothing.  An infirmity several years ago destroyed that sense, but her vanity has not suffered her to let it be known.  The daily order for a new perfume was but one of her ways of showing authority and demanding attention.  Her sour soul did not improve so long as she spent her days pleasing only herself.  The essence I gave you was water from yonder brook and the recipe of its application with good deeds was my idea of helping the princess.”



He closed his eyes and said, half to himself and half to Po Ming, “Happiness is life’s rarest perfume—and its essence lies in helping others.”


Published in St. Nicholas Magazine, October 1939.  Original published text from the library of Joseph Leininger Wheeler.

Published in: on February 22, 2012 at 8:32 am  Comments (8)  







February 15, 2012

Early in the morning, snow began to slash at our North Rim cabin windows; as the wind picked up, the snow increased proportionally.  After packing, Bob and I hauled our luggage out to the snow-covered Town Car.  Then, we regretfully bade our adieus to our already beloved cabins on the rim, the rockers on the porch already filling with May snow.  Inside the lodge, once again we breakfasted near one of the great windows, and watched the snow descend into the abyss.  All too soon, it was time to leave, but none of us wanted to.  The atmosphere in the lodge was totally different from the day before for the unexpected snow had generated a sense of adventure among hotel guests that had not been there before.  In this sense of family-closed-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world, there were no strangers: everyone talked with each other as though they were old friends.

But feeling a sense of urgency, we headed out.  We were apprehensive because the Lincoln was anything but a snow car.  Our hearts were in our throats when the snow deepened as the road climbed over 9,000 feet (one of the key reasons the North rim has such a short tourist season).  The Lincoln began to slip, and there were no snowplows.  But finally we crested and headed down, and eventually out of the snow.

This was Zane Grey country.  In 1907 and 1908 Grey had faced storms much worse than this as he and legendary plainsman Buffalo Jones and Mormon pioneer Jim Emmet lassoed mountain lions in the Buckskin Forest of this Kaibab Plateau we were traveling through.  At Jacob Lake, we turned east on Highway 89a.  When we’d descended to Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River, we walked along the river.  For here was Emmet’s home a few miles down river.  Though we didn’t revisit it this time, we couldn’t help but think of that tenderfoot Zane Grey eying the then undammed Colorado River thundering down this same gorge; it was maintained that if anyone fell in trying to get across by cable (no bridges then), no one would ever see them again—not in flood season!  Born here were Grey’s Last of the Plainsmen, Heritage of the Desert, and Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon.

We then turned south on Highway 89, and right after crossing the Painted Desert, at Cameron, we turned west on Highway 64.  As we began our ascent to the South Rim, would you believe it?—once again, the snow began to fall.








It was late afternoon before we arrived at El Tovar Hotel, a favorite stopping place for our family down through the years.

* * * * *

We can thank Theodore Roosevelt for saving the Grand Canyon for posterity.  In 1903, after visiting the canyon himself, he declared it to be “a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world” (Barnes, 102).  He followed that up by establishing the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1906, by executive order, then enlarging the Forest Reserve into a National Forest.

Santa Fe Railroad officials, seeing the canyon as a golden opportunity to dramatically increase southwest tourism, determined to create a great lodge on the South Rim.  Their chosen architect: Charles Whittlesey, who was trained in the Chicago office of Louis Sullivan.  His goal was to “meld the elegance of a European villa with the infomality of a hunting lodge” (Barnes, 105).  This grand hotel officially opened on January 14, 1905.  According to Barnes, “Steam heat, electric lights and indoor plumbing all made it the most expensively constructed and appointed log house in America.  Huge Douglas-firs were shipped by rail from Oregon, pushing the cost to $250,000, a grand sum, especially when compared to Old Faithful Inn, built for $140,000.  One-hundred guest rooms accommodated visitors who found comfort in ‘a quiet dignity, an unassuming luxury, and an appreciation of outing needs at El Tovar’” (Barnes, 105).  Though western in style, it has also been considered Transylvanian, resembling a hunting lodge for the Romanian royal family.

Here the legendary Harvey Girls waited tables.  And here too, in January of 1906, only one year after it opened its doors, Zane Grey and his bride Dolly arrived here by train on their honeymoon.  But storm clouds obscured the canyon, so it wasn’t until evening that the clouds parted and they stared into such a sunset as they’d never even imagined.  The die was cast: This canyon would become the very heart of Grey’s 89 novels—where the Old West began.


As we walked into the Rendezvous Room, and passed the chairs flanking the crackling fire in the fireplace, we vowed to commandeer those chairs if the occupants ever surrendered them.  In the center of the building is the registration lobby, or Rotunda, where all paths intersect.  Here we checked in, as we had a number of times before, then moved into our rooms. We hoped to be able to show Bob and Lucy Earp “The Zane Grey Room,” where Dolly and Grey had stayed, but it was booked solid during our two-day stay, so weren’t able to.  Our Zane Grey’s West Society donated the Zane Grey memorabilia and books that make it such a special room.  XANTERRA owns and operates the hotel today.

Later, we ate dinner in the renowned eighty -nine-foot long dining room, furnished with Arts and Crafts style furniture, and anchored by two huge chimneys, each flanked by large picture windows.  The service and food were, as expected, impeccable, as befits one of the grandest hotels in the Great Circle.  Here, Connie and I shared an incident from our past with the Earps: Many years ago, when our daughter Michelle was just a tiny golden-haired angel, we’d eaten in this very same dining room.  Michelle, who’d never even envisioned such a grand place, was entranced.  The waiter assigned to our table treated Michelle as though she were a princess, hovering around her, filling her glass from high up each time she drank a sip from it, refilling the bread basket whenever she took a roll out of it, and grandly displaying the little broom that he’d use to whisk away every stray breadcrumb she dropped on the spotless white tablecloth.  To this day, that evening is etched in her memory as one of the most magical experiences in all her growing-up years.

Next day, the weather having cleared, we walked along the canyon rim, taking photos, along with visitors from all over the world.  We soon discovered that El Tovar, like Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, is so loved to death by hordes of tourists that hotel guests are hard-pressed to find unoccupied seats in the lobby or dining facilities.  So what else should one expect from the focal center of well over four-million tourists every year?  But we really experienced the invasion when we entered the Grand Canyon Village building that houses the IMAX theatre that shows the Grand Canyon film.  Men, women, and children from all walks of life and from countries around the world (many from Asia and Europe) flooded in, in such numbers that we could barely move!  Felt like we were each straitjacketed.  What a contrast from the North Rim.  We couldn’t even imagine what it would be like in the summer when school is out!

But even so, each person standing by the parapet, staring into the vast reaches of the great canyon, seems to be in a world of their own,  no matter how many eddy around them.  The first sight of the canyon is invariably the same: no advance hype can possibly fully prepare you for the real thing!  And late evening, when the crowds ebb inside El Tovar, leaving you with just the hotel guests, you can once again imagine seeing Zane and Dolly, sitting next to you by the fireplace, a pensive look in their eyes, a hundred and six years ago.


Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR:WWW West, Inc., 2002).

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

Over the Back Fence….

After my request for snail mail re our book club, our daughter, Michelle Culmore, castigated me, telling me in no uncertain words that Book Club members also needed an electronic forum so that they could talk to each other about our books and book-related thoughts and questions.  So I bow to superior wisdom.  We hereby start now.  Each week we’ll throw out discussion igniters, and you can take it from there.  Besides these, feel free to throw out your own.  Sometimes I think the Book Club is running away with my blogs.

Week 2 (Feb. 8) — 

Question #1:  Today, in schools and colleges, neither industrial arts nor home economics is taught any more.  Nor do we generally learn such things at home.  So what percentage of us are capable of constructing a cabin such as Thoreau’s?  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  Why?

Question #2:  Thoreau grew his own food, prepared and ate it; ought we to do the same?  How much of our epidemic of obesity and diabetes results from our inability to cook and prepare food at home?  What ought we to do about it?

Published in: on February 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm  Comments (5)  






February 8, 2012

“How long does it take to see the Grand Canyon?’

“From a moment to a lifetime.”

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  277 miles long, 10 miles wide, one mile deep.  It has been known for well over a century as the greatest scenic wonder in the world.  One of its earliest visitors, John Muir, was so awe-struck by it that he wrote of it,

Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size.

John Wesley Powell, in 1869, pronounced it

The most sublime spectacle on earth.

Yet, even though it was generally acknowledged as such a global treasure, those who tried to save it for posterity faced fierce opposition from local ranchers, miners, settlers, and others who were determined to keep the federal government from imposing restrictions on what they could or couldn’t do with it.  It should have been the nation’s second national park; indeed bills were introduced to that effect in 1882, 1883, and 1886—all failed.  In 1893 President Harrison did what he could, inadequate though it was: he used his administrative power to designate it as the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve.  Twenty-six long years later, Teddy Roosevelt, in 1908, used his newly passed Antiquities Act to elevate it to national monument status.  Not until 1919 was it finally made a national park.  But even then, full federal protection was anything but a given: grazing was still permitted; as a result cattle herds roamed freely on both rims, the park was honeycombed with still active mining claims, and newly elected Arizona senator, Ralph Henry Cameron continued to act as though he—not the American people—owned the canyon.

Today, however, the Grand Canyon is loved to death by almost 5,000,000 tourists a year, over 4,000,000 of them congesting the South Rim, helping to make it one of the most photographed places on earth.

The Grand Canyon is really three distinctly different parks: The overcrowded South Rim, the forested North Rim’s Kaibab Plateau; and the Colorado River and its Phantom Ranch.



The Grand Canyon Lodge (the only lodging facility on the North Rim, is open only five months a year (mid-May to mid-October), and not always then, for snow can keep it closed later in the spring, and close it earlier in the fall.  Only one-tenth (400,000 plus) of the millions that mob the South Rim make it here, for though it is only a ten-mile glide across to the South Rim, it’s 215 miles by nearest road.  So it is actually closer to Zion National Park than to its own park headquarters.  To hike across is a daunting 23 miles.  Given that the North Rim is a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, hikers descend almost 6,000 feet on the famed Bright Angel Trail  from the North Rim and ascend almost 5,000 feet to the South Rim.  Climate-wise, hikers experience the equivalent of going from Canada’s Hudson Bay to Mexico and back up.  In Bruce Aiken’s words: “The Canyon is a nude of the earth.  It shows the layers, the bones beneath the skin—what’s beneath the vegetation that covers the rest of the world” (Jaffe, 116).

Matthew Jaffe, in his splendid paean to the North Canyon, maintains that you don’t really know the Grand Canyon until you explore the uncrowded North Rim.  It is truly a different world.  Serene.  Quiet.  The travelers who make it here are the connoisseurs of the world travel, and are almost afraid to speak out, or write about its glories, for fear the rest of the world will discover it and wreck their Shangri-la..

As for the lodge itself, as always, Christine Barnes is the ultimate authority for its story.  The Utah Parks Company (UPC) and National Park Service (NPS) were so pleased with architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s Bryce and Zion lodges that they contracted with him to create a great lodge on the North Rim, as soon as he completed the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.  The result, according to Barnes, is that “Grand Canyon Lodge is architecturally and geographically linked to Bryce and Zion Park lodges, but its elegance and panache seem to have sprung from the same inspiration that created the hotel in Yosemite.  While the Ahwahnee’s success had been the elegant incorporation of the hotel with the towering walls of granite, on the North Rim the architect would look down for his inspiration” (Barnes, 137).

Underwood magically created a lodge that prevented visitors arriving from the north from any view of the Canyon until they’d first encountered a huge front of stone that was crowned by a watchtower.  As guests walked into the lodge, they’d initially see only timber and stone-work, but then they’d see the light which would draw them to the stairway, into the sunroom and into the lobby—then “BOOM! There’s the Grand Canyon” (Barnes, 137).  Outdoor terraces and stairways cascaded down from the lodge.

Flanking the lodge on both sides were one hundred Standard Cabins and twenty Deluxe Cabins; in 1931, less expensive Housekeeping Cabins were constructed near the campground away from the rim.  Since the site didn’t have water, they had to pipe it up from Roaring Springs, 3,400 feet below the rim.  On June 1, 1928, the lodge and cabins opened with accommodations for 250 guests.  Tourists were bussed in from the railroad terminal in Cedar City, Utah.

But then, on September 1, 1932, disaster!  Fire broke out in the lodge in the middle of the night.  Employees and workers battled the blaze for but a short time when the water pressure gave out, dooming the lodge and two Deluxe Cabins.  All that remained were stone walls, foundations, terraces, stairways, and fireplaces.  Horace Albright, NPS director, was devastated at the loss.  Two years later, the UPC began rebuilding the lodge on the same footprint, but Underwood was not involved.  The first floor plan remained as before, and the lodge we know today is still a wonderful place, but Christine Barnes laments, “But the marvelous sense of the building in perfect harmony with the rim was partially lost.  From the canyon wall the original lodge still rises, but the asymmetrical stairstep quality of the walls and rooflines with their rich texture are mostly gone.  Instead, the design was simplified and capped with a traditional green gable roof” (Barnes, 141).  The eighteen surviving Deluxe Cabins and the reconstructed lodge reopened on June 1, 1937.  They’re still there.


We awoke at 6:30, and ate breakfast at Zion Lodge at 8:00; then drove out of Zion National Park via Carmel Junction, and headed south across the Arizona border onto the Kaibab Plateau.  I’ve always felt the Kaibab ought to have been part of Utah rather than Arizona, for it seems a world away from the rest of Arizona.  Alas, the Warm Fire of 2006 burned over 58,000 acres of the once lush forest.  But how grateful we were to discover that the fire had spared the rim area and the lodge.  Also grateful that we’d reserved our Deluxe Cabin over a year before.  And imagine how we felt when we discovered that the lodge had only been open one day!  Whenever we were tempted to complain about anything, we asked ourselves if we’d been able to do any better when everything had been snowed in for seven long months!  Actually, there were very few glitches, even so.  Just as was true with Bryce, the North Rim concessions were run by FOREVER Resorts.  And true to their word, they’d saved us Deluxe Cabins to die for, right on the rim next to the lodge; and sitting in rockers on our porch, we could look down, down, and down the almost 6,000 foot-drop to the Colorado River.

But before our rooms were cleaned, we first had to experience once again Underwood’s staggering surprise.  I submit that in all of America’s wondrous national park lodges, there are only two that literally take your breath away: walking up the stairs of Jackson lake Lodge, and suddenly, on the other side of the wall of glass are Mount Moran and the Grand Tetons soaring above Jackson Lake; and, second, stepping down into the Sun Room or into the Dining Room of Grand Canyon Lodge and suddenly, one of the most stunning views the world has to offer: the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado!  Guests are too awestruck to say much: they just stand there by the great windows–transfixed as time seems to stand still.

At 4:00 p.m., we brought our luggage in from the car and unpacked for two whole days.  Glory be!  In the evening, as the sun began to die in the West, we gazed out from our table near a window, and were too overwhelmed to say much.  Not until the shadows closed in.  Afterwards, we returned to that eighty-three-year-old cabin, mercifully spared from burning down with the lodge, even though it was the closest self-standing structure on that side.  Eighty-three years of blizzards, rainstorms, and fierce winds.  We lit the fire in the fireplace, crawled in bed, and listened to the wind and cabin walls complain!


Next morning, outside our window—that view!  A view so stupendous it will remain limned in memory as long as we live. Same next door in Bob and Lucy Earp’s cabin.  Bob had been up with camera since before sunrise.  The day passed all too quickly, beginning with breakfast in that iconic dining room; sharing the experience were tourists from all over the world, as cosmopolitan a group as you’d ever get into one room.  Europeans confessed that they’d never seen anything to compare with it! Later, Connie and Lucy washed and dried our laundry in the campground washateria.  Then Bob and I went shutterbugging down the rim to Point Imperial and Point Roosevelt, managing to get thirty miles lost in the process.  Afterwards, thanked Sonya Michaels, the lodge manager, for all she and her staff had done to make our stay so special—everyone so eager to please.  In midafternoon, we listened to a riveting lecture on condors.

After dinner, we played Phase Ten, and I, for once, beat Robert.  That night the wind really blew!  But snuggled together in the Cabin of our Dreams, we felt it would be hard to conceptualize a greater experience than this.  We fell asleep wondering if it would really snow the next day as some had predicted.


Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

Jaffe, Matthew, “The Secret Canyon” (Sunset Magazine, May 2007).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, 2009).




 February 1, 2012

Blame Thoreau’s Walden for this blog.  Since I’d already read this month’s Book of the Month, I mistakenly assumed I could coast on that long-ago reading.  But I did feel I ought to at least scan it.  That didn’t last long for I soon discovered that my earlier reading of this timeless classic was so superficial that I might as well never have read it at all.

My re-reading jolting to a halt in Chapter 4, titled “Sounds.”  What brought my train of thought to a dead standstill was Thoreau’s masterful exegesis on trains.  I had long been aware of the revolutionary aspects of the Industrial Age, especially that of steam.  Few, in the 1820s and 1830s realized that the world they knew had reached its terminus.  Stewart H. Holbrook, in his landmark book, The Story of American Railroads (New York: Crown publishers, 1947) notes that “The coming of the railroad, and the rapidity with which it expanded during the 1830s found a public wholly unprepared, and pretty much confused.  What, thoughtful men now asked one another, was a railroad?  There had been little thinking on the subject, hence there was no philosophy of railroads.  The canal builders and operators, of course, simply damned the new method of transportation on every count they could think of.  It was dangerous.  It wouldn’t work.  It was merely a clever method by which smart scoundrels could steal your money more or less legally by selling you worthless stock . . . .  The railroad was also against nature.  And, finally, it was against God; and many a preacher found friends among canal and stagecoach men when he opened up full blast on this new curse that a tireless Satan had promulgated to try all Christian men” (25).

Up until the advent of steam, clocks were merely a luxury, rich people’s toys.  For the average person, sundials worked fine.  When the fastest speed known to men was a galloping horse or a sailing ship, each subject to disruption on primitive roads or stormy or becalming seas, exact times of arrival and departure were merely guesstimates.  But now along comes steam-propelled trains and ships.  How could they even function without relatively exact time?  Time zones were nonexistent back then, for who needed them?

Now, however, each time another station was added to a railroad route, correct time became more and more significant.  With that reality in mind, plant yourself in Thoreau’s cabin by Walden Pond during the years 1845-7.  Time-travel back to that heretofore agricultural age in which the fastest travel was in stagecoaches, with nothing except leather straps to absorb the jolting over often terrible roads.  So, visiting with Thoreau, you hear a new sound; you view a new force, a staggering reality: for the first time in recorded history, the pace of life speeds up.  A new force shatters the serenity of thousands of years.  Looking over Thoreau’s shoulder, so to speak, you follow as his quill dips in and out of the inkwell and he chronicles his reactions on the pages of his journal.

Let’s see what his reactions were: Earlier in this chapter, he noted that he was able to enjoy undisturbed solitude and stillness . . . with the occasional noise of “some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway.”  He was barely conscious of the passing of time: “My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that, ‘for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for to-morrow, and overhead for the passing day.’” Walden (New York: The Heritage Press, 1939, 118).

But then comes the Fitchburg Railroad!  “The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. . . .  Here comes your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen!  Nor is any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay.  And here’s your pay for them! Screams the countryman’s whistle; timber like long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them. . . .  All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city.  Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woollen; up comes the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.”

“When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion—or, rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows not if with that velocity and with that direction it will ever revisit this system, since its orbit does not look like a returning curve—with its steam-cloud like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud which I have seen, high in the heavens, unfolding its masses to the light—as if this traveling demigod, this  cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth has got a race now worthy to inhabit it.  If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!  If the cloud that hangs over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds, or as beneficent as that which floats over the farmer’s fields, then the elements and Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands, and be their escort.

“I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular.  Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the spear.  The stabler of the iron horse was up early this winter morning by the light of the stars amid the mountains, to fodder and harness his steed.  Fire, too, was awakened thus early to put the vital heat in him and get him off.  If the enterprise were as innocent as it is early!  If the snow lies deep, they strap on his snowshoes, and with the giant plough plough a furrow from the mountains to the sea-board, in which the cars, like a following drill-barrow, sprinkle all the restless men and floating merchandise in the country for seed.  All day the fire-steed flies over the country, stopping only that his master may rest, and I am awakened by his tramp and defiant snort at midnight, when in some remote glen in the woods he fronts the elements incased in ice and snow; and he will reach his stall only with the morning star, to start once more on his travels without rest or slumber.  Or perchance, at evening, I hear him in his stable blowing off the superfluous energy of the day, that he may calm his nerves and cool his liver and brain for a few hours of iron slumber.  If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and unwearied!

“Far through unfrequented woods on the confines of towns, where once only the hunter penetrated by day, in the darkest night dart these bright saloons without the knowledge of their inhabitants; this moment stopping at some brilliant station-house in town or city, where a social crowd is gathered, the next in the Dismal Swamp, scaring the owl and fox.  The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day.  They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country.  Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?  Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?  There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place.  I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, are on hand when the bell rings.  To do things “railroad fashion” is now the by-word; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.  There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case.  We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside.  (Let that be the name of your engine.)  Men are advertised that at a certain hour and minute these bolts will be shot toward particular points of the compass; yet it interferes with no man’s business, and the children go to school on the other track.  We live the steadier for it.  We are all educated thus to be sons of Tell.  The air is full of invisible bolts.  Every path but your own is the path of fate.  Keep on your own track, then.” (121-124)

* * * * *

However, even though Thoreau’s townspeople in Concord set their clocks by the train’s whistle that didn’t mean that the American people now lived by the same time.  Far from it!

Let’s return to Holbrook.  Decades after Thoreau’s Walden Pond days, the situation had not yet been fully resolved: “At first no timetables were issued the traveling public.  Only operating crews and station agents were given the crude, handwritten sheets which, incidentally, were more hopeful than accurate. . . .  “

“The railroads naturally ran all of their trains by the local time of the road’s terminal.  In the case of the New York Central this meant that its trains, leaving Manhattan by terminal time, arrived at Buffalo fifteen minutes late by Buffalo time.  In the latitude of Chicago, it was known, the passage of the sun across the meridian varied one minute for every thirteen miles, or one second for every 1,140 feet of longitude.  Railroads had long since ceased to think in terms of hours only, but were holding their schedules to minutes.  The Pennsylvania used Philadelphia time in the East, which was 5 minutes slower than New York City’s, but 5 minutes faster than Baltimore time.  The B&O system was very complicated.  It used Baltimore time for trains running out of Baltimore, Columbus time for trains in Ohio, Vincennes time for trains west of Cincinnati.  When solar time was noon in Chicago, it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianapolis, 11;50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:41 in St. Paul, 11:27 in Omaha.  There were at least 27 local times in Michigan, 38 in Wisconsin, 27 in Illinois, and 23 in Indiana.  A careful traveler, going from Eastport, Maine, to San Francisco, changed his stem-winder 20 times during the trip.

“In Kansas City, and to a certain extent in Boston, each of the leading jewelers set up his own standard time and defended it with the same emotional intensity generally expended only in defending a religion.  Each jeweler’s customers became partisans, loud and insistent.  The situation in Kansas City became so bad, what with everybody missing trains and one thing and another, that the town at last adopted a time-ball system.

“In every city and town the multiplicity of time standards confused and bewildered passengers, shippers, and railway employees.  Only too often errors and mistakes turned out disastrously, for railroads were now running fast trains on tight schedules; a minute or two might mean the difference between smooth operation and a collision.” (Holbrook, 355).


After decades of wrangling, resolution was finally reached.  Authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court, the fateful date chosen was November 18, 1883 (only 123 years ago); the time: noon.  The clocks used by all the railroads in the nation were reset to fit the four time standards (zones) that had finally been agreed upon.  Holbrook takes us to the exact moment when time as we know it began:

“The change, welcome though it was, put something of a strain on all railroads, for the adjustment called for extreme care and watchfulness lest disasters due to collisions occur.  Specific orders were issued on every division.  Train crews were instructed as to what change to make in their watches.  A typical order was that issued by Superintendent Rowland of the Louisville & Nashville. “Should any train or engine be caught between telegraph stations at 10 A.M. on Sunday, November 18, “it read, “they will stop at precisely 10 o’clock wherever they may be and stand still and securely protect their trains or engines in the rear and front until 10:18 A.M., and then turn their watches back to precisely 10 o’clock, new standard time, and then proceed on card rights or on any special orders they may have in their possession for the movement of their trains to the first telegraph station where they will stop and compare watches with the clock and be sure they    have the correct new standard time before leaving . . .”

“On the 18th, as the minutes ticked away in the morning, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune found an unusual blanket of solemnity in the West Side Union Depot, which served the Pennsylvania, Burlington, Pan Handle, and Alton railroads.  He sensed that all present felt something of an extraordinary nature was about to happen.  At quarter to noon, Chicago local time, conductors, engineers and other employees began dropping into the lobby, each with timepiece in hand.  Depot Master Cropsey had his fine chronometer under a strong magnifying glass to mark the exact second.  When the big clock on the wall, by which the running of the trains in the depot was regulated, stood fair at noon, it was stopped.  Telegraph instruments were then connected with the pendulum of the clock in the observatory at Allegheny, Pennsylvania.  Each movement of the pendulum was faithfully repeated by the ticking instruments, and at exactly 9 minutes 32 seconds after 12, Chicago time, “the movement of the pendulum stopped, indicating that it was 12 noon by 90th meridian time.  The feat was successfully accomplished, and a general murmur of satisfaction ran through the room.” (Holbrook, 3589).

The long reign of the sundial now came to an end.  Time—as we know it—began that day.

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