Title: Letters from a Travelling Bachelor
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: November 11, 1849
Publication information: New York Sunday Dispatch 11 November 1849: .
Source: Original issue held at the Library of Congress. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00296
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Vince Moran, Gertrud Elisberg, Nicole Gray, and Kenneth M. Price
cropped image 1
Letters from a Travelling Bachelor.
REGION OF "THE BRUSH"—DEER PARK—BABYLON—AN OLD MINISTER AT OYSTER BAY—NORTH AND SOUTH SIDES—RAILROAD STOPPING-PLACES—SETTLING IN THE BRUSH—RIVERHEAD—TRAINING DAY—SOUTH-EAST L.I.—MONTAUK PENINSULA—NORTH PRONG—GEOLOGY—SOUTH BAY—INSCRIPTION IN OLD GRAVE YARD—SHELL HEAPS
For more than 40 miles, east of Farmingdale, (which is some 30 miles from New York,) the L.I. Railroad passes through a region of monotonous "brush," or pine barrens, much of the latter covered with burned trunks, black and gloomy enough.1 Not many years since, the deer had their haunts here, and an occasional hunting party would succeed in shooting one or two; the sport is now rare, however. I saw one handsome doe, coming down on the cars—the trophy of a gent who was more used to John Does than any other sort. He was mighty proud of his luck, and has doubtless astonished hundreds of fellow lawyers, around Nassau street, and the City Hall, with narratives of his chase, by this time.
Deer Park, (we Americans seem to christen new localities according to contraries, like the way dreams go,) is the next hamlet east of Farmingdale. It is a little cluster of houses in the midst of the woods, as indeed are nearly all the succeeding places of stoppage, for many miles. Off against here, on the south side of the island, and distant five miles, is Babylon, a town which, in conjunction with Islip, certainly produces the largest musketos and the most tiplers, of any known community of its size. Many old sportsmen, who used to put up at Captain Dodd's, there, will feel surprised to see the familiar fat face of "Madame Dodd" behind the bar of the shabby accommodation house, at Deer Park. For you must know that Madame Dodd is a character of these regions; she wears a prodigious turban upon her head, and dispenses gin or ginger-bread with the smiling grace of a French woman. On the north side, off against this same quarter, is Huntington, one of the prettiest villages of the island.2 The township of Huntington is a Democratic "banner town;" giving from five to eight hundred majority. Nigh at hand are the pleasant villages of Cold Spring and Oyster Bay. The latter place has still resident within its limits one of the oldest pastors, probably in America, Rev. Marmaduke Earle, who has preached regularly, and taught school, for fifty consecutive years, in the same place! Mr. E. is an example of what prudence, temperance, and obedience to physical propriety, will do for a fellow.3 Though a quite delicate constitution, he has attained fullness of age seldom vouchsafed to man, has experienced very little illness, and his faculties, old as he is, are quite as clear as in people not half his age. In Oyster Bay, too, they show you the mossy rock on which stood Fox when he preached in the woods, causing a great hubbub among the people, and turning many in the way of getting "born again."4
The north side of Long Island, adjacent to the Sound, and for a couple of miles inward, has a more varied and hilly character; while the south side is almost invariably level. This difference prevails, the whole length of the island.
Suffolk station, Thompson, and Medford, are stopping places, like the previous ones, completely embosomed in dwarf oak and pines. They are the depots of folks and chattels for or from, Islip, Sayville, Patchogue, Bellport, Fireplace, etc., on the south side, and Comac, Smithtown, Stony Brook, Letauket, Ronkonkoma Pond, and so forth on the north side. Wampmissic and Yaphank, are ditto ditto,—and so is St. George's Manor. This region used to be a great place for putting obstructions on the track of the railroad. The people openly defended and stood by each other in that scoundrelly crime, and it is wonderful that some horrible accident didn't happen there. It was the dread of the whole road. Since the administration of the present President of the road, Mr. Weeks, and the popular Superintendent, Mr. Ives, the obstructions and quarrels have quite ceased.5 For there were also, in those days, perpetual quarrels and lawsuits between the people there, and the Railroad Company.
The 40 miles of "brush," aforementioned, is by no means an inspiriting spectacle to see, as you may imagine. Here and there, through the wilderness, tracts have been purchased at a very low price, and people have put up places to live in, and cleared and cultivated portions of the surrounding wilderness. I have kept the run of three or four of these hardy and persevering settlers, and have watched their progress from year to year, with much interest. They are gradually "progressive," and in a few years will have fertile and valuable farms, the almost exclusive results of their own exertions. Many large owners of land here will give away alternate portions in it, on condition that the recipient will settle on it, and build and "improve." (What do you say when I tell you that the same thing was done with lots in Main street, Brooklyn, less than forty years ago?—Owners gave away alternate lots, to be built on, so that the remaining ones would fetch more.)
Really, the work to be done here in this desert of half grown trees, is not harder than in many new settlements out west. But there the hardships and tough times are universal. Here, within a short distance, are so many well off families, that it makes a most annoying contrast. It is a perplexing paradox that where all are poor nobody is poor.
Riverhead, the central town of Suffolk county is 75 miles from New York. It is a sober, quiet, old place. I stopped there a few days, and visited the lions. An old wooden jail and court house is the most venerable thing of the sort, I presume, on Long Island. An expert adept in city crime, however, would easily show it a clean pair of heels. "General training day," I had an opportunity of here noticing, has dwindled away together from its old pomp and circumstance.6 Formerly, Riverhead, on its annual occurrence, presented the appearance of some great camp, or beleaguered city, or an excited mess of warriors bustling around and getting ready for the fray. Eatables, drinkables, and frolic, were the accompaniments; the girls came from far and near, and no going to bed. All the young fellows of the county had to be there present, "armed and equipped as the law directs," and they were there. But O what a falling off this last training presented! Some forlorn looking youths, and poor middle-aged men, with rusty guns—and the officers, almost as numerous as the men! It was a very melancholy sight, the way those disconsolate ones were marched around, and occasionally stopped and put through the motions. I was told that the demon of "commutation" had even penetrated the rural districts of Suffolk county, and people paid their three quarters, and staid at home.
A suit was in progress, at Riverhead, in which a brother of an engineer who was killed by a collision on the rail road, over a year ago, was plaintiff. I believe he recovered a thousand dollars damages of the company. To the widow of another man who was killed, the company paid nearly five thousand dollars. Such items must "eat into the profits."
East and south of Riverhead, for some distance, the soil is hideously barren and sandy. Still farther south, however, it becomes a bit better. There is quite a watering place, on the shore, called by the euphonious name of Quogue. Here, (or somewhere not far off,) is the termination of the only magnetic telegraph I know of on Long Island. It extends to Brooklyn, and is used to give information of the approach cityward of vessels; said information being used by speculators in a manner they best know how.
Onward east from Quogue, the road leads through Southampton and Bridgehampton, to the ancient and primitive village of Easthampton, which, if you except Amagansett, a trifle farther, is as far as the civilization of the Empire State extendeth in the direction of the rising sun. For the peninsula of Montauk has only some huts for the sheep, horse, and cow herds, who tend the immense droves put to graze there. Yet this strip contains much very excellent land, uncultivated as it is for more than twenty miles. I know of no prettier garden spot, or a finer field of corn, than I saw adjacent to the very lighthouse on Montauk point, whence if you go any farther you go into the sea.
From Riverhead, following the railroad, which keeps to the north prong, you behold the town of Jamesport, which lies on the shores of Peconic bay—then the Hermitage, and the vast thoroughfares of Mattituck and Cutchogue. Afterward come the farms and thrifty looking houses of Southold, a comfortable place I think, and so on to Greenport. Sag Harbor, one of the most populous of the Long Island towns next to Williamsburgh, lies in a sheltered part of the other shore. From Greenport it is some six or seven miles to Oyster Pond point, which is the jumping off place of the before-mentioned north prong. A first-rate jumper, though, could almost jump to Plum Island, a small spot that lies a little beyond.
The geological formation and traits of Long Island are full of interest, to the man of science. If I were not afraid of running on a snag, or in other words showing my ignorance, I would like to expatiate a little on these points. On the very summits of the range of hills that goes through the middle of the island are sometimes rocks of larger size, and at the tops of other gush forth springs of the sweetest water. The south bay, 70 miles in length, from Hempstead to Brookhaven, is another feature: it is navigable, and full of fish, and has only two or three outlets through the great beach which hems it along the sough. By-the-bye, there is a Canal Company, so-called, which will soon remove the obstructions between an uninterrupted communication through the long strip of water, so that vessels of moderate draught can go from Peconic bay to New York.7 This will be a most desirable guard against dangers from the coast navigation, which is very much jeopardised by east and south flows.
In my former notes on the grave yards of east Long Island, I find it omitted the following inscription, found in the old place of burial at Southold. The latter village, as I narrated in one of the former letters, is as old as any settlement on Long Island, and that old grave yard is bigger and more crowded than many similar places in large towns.8Here Lyeth Buried te Body of
The names cut on most of the tombstones at Southold, old and new, were Horton, Youngs, and Conkling, the names of the first settlers—an instance of the tenacity with which Long Islanders adhere to their native soil.
One of the singular features I have noticed along the shores of Southold, and sometimes at quite a distance from the shores, is the frequency of immense shell-heaps, some of them the size of small hills, although accumulated there hundreds of years ago.9 They are pointed to as the sites of long decayed Indian villages.
1. Farmingdale, a village on Western Long Island, was named in 1845 by real estate developer Ambrose George, who, in 1841, had bought up large tracts of surrounding land in anticipation of the arrival of the Long Island Rail Road the same year. Previously, the village was known simply as Hardscrabble. See Dorothy H Vining, Farmingdale: A Short History from the Ice Age to the Present (New York: Farmingdale Public Schools, 1983). [back]
2. Huntington; birthplace of Walt Whitman and home of the Long-Islander, a newspaper Whitman founded in 1838. [back]
3. Reverend Marmaduke Earle (1769–1856) headed the newly erected Oyster Bay Academy from 1802 until his death. He also conducted sermons at the local Oyster Bay Baptist Church, founded in 1741 by Robert Feke and the oldest Baptist church in New York State. See Isaac Backus, Church History of New England from 1620–1804 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication and S.S. Society, 1844), 234. [back]
4. George Fox (1624–1691), founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), preached at this location in 1672 (George Fox, Journal of George Fox [London: Friends' Tract Association], 174). [back]
5. David S. Ives, Superintendent of the Long Island Rail Road Company until 1850. [back]
6. "General training day" refers to the yearly training of local militia in Riverhead. According to state law, each regiment was required to gather for two days during the summer, "for the purpose of training, disciplining, and improving in martial exercise." A tradition dating back to colonial times, the training days of the nineteenth century, involving most able-bodied men and older boys in the community, had developed into festive occasions with music, food and drink. See Militia Laws of the State of New York, Applicable to the First Division (New York: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1849), 29. [back]
7. The Long Island Canal and Navigation Company was incorporated in April 1848 and authorized to build a canal from Peconic Bay to Shinnecock Bay, thus connecting the former to the Atlantic Ocean. However, the company never fulfilled any of the planned construction, and the Shinnecock Canal was not completed until 1892. [back]
8. From the Presbyterian Cemetery of Southold, New York, established in 1640. See note 2 in "Letters From a Travelling Bachelor, Number IV." [back]
9. Shell heaps; kitchen middens of early Native American settlements. [back]