Title: From a Travelling Bachelor
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: December 23, 1849
Publication information: New York Sunday Dispatch 23 December 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.00300
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Jason Stacy, Gertrud Elisberg, Elizabeth Lorang, and Kenneth M. Price
cropped image 1
From a Travelling Bachelor.
AN INTERESTING JOURNEY DOWN FULTON STREET AND ACROSS FULTON FERRY—OBJECTION TO STRAIGHT STREETS—ARCHITECTURE OF THE LANDING—HOLT'S HOTEL, AND THE BUILDER—THE CLERKS—THE BOAT—VIEW FROM THE RIVER—CROSSING IN THE DEPTH OF WINTER, AND IN A DENSE FOG—SCENES—ACCIDENTS—THE BRIDGE OF PROPOSITION
Many books have been written, to describe journeys between the Old and New World, and what was done or seen therein, and afterward. But we know of no work—at least we feel sure none has yet been issued by the Harpers, Appletons, or any other great publishers—describing a voyage across the Fulton Ferry.1 This is the more remarkable, as that is a jaunt taken every day by myriads of people. Besides, we have ourself seen authors, editors, reporters and all departments of the "press-gang" go abroad the boats of the Fulton Ferry Company, (after depositing two cents with the gentleman at the gate,) and cross over—sometimes even coming back again on the same boat. (This latter, doubtless, to get the pure air, at the economical price of a penny a trip.)
Fulton street—we are going down the one on the New York side—is not what may be called the prettiest one in town. Neither is it after the straightest sects of streets. On the contrary, it is rather ugly, and very much crooked. It is an old street. It probably came in with the Knickerbockers. We are free to assume that it once had some Dutch name, before it was christened after the greater applier of steam to boat moving. We suggest an inquiry that way to some antiquarian, and solemnly believe that if he were to burrow out the facts which bear on this interesting subject, he would get something more than his labor for his pains.2
While upon the subject, let us in confidence reader, just whisper to you that we are no friend to thoroughfares that are rigid and right-angular. The checker-board principle applied to laying out a town is our abomination. What romance is there about it? Such exactness reduces one to despair! What is left for you to see, after you have traversed one of such avenues? Nothing. When you "go" one, you have gone the whole. Much more do we prefer the winding and curvicular arrangement. We like to come upon new shows—to turn a bend, and behold something fresh. Uniformity! Why it's the taste of the vulgar. Nature hath nought of it. The skies, the earth, the waters, and the woods laugh in your face, at such rectangular tediousness. But we are digressing.
Architecturally there is nothing great in Fulton street—unless it be the United States Hotel,3 down near the Ferry. When it was built, that was the greatest specimen of a Hotel in New York. Mr. Holt, the putter-up, had made a hundred thousand dollars out of cheap eating houses under the Fulton market. He commenced with less than ten dollars; he and his wife did the work, and waited on the customers. The ambition of the man's heart was to build a great Hotel. Accordingly, in "dear times," he put out contracts for the tall-storied concern we have mentioned. He spent his hundred thousand dollars, and went on giving notes and mortgages for some twice as much more. He finished it. Proudly and contentedly he entered it as lord and master. But alas, alas! how transitory is human pride! The "days of the speculation" passed like a dream, after having lighted many fools the way to dusky death. Mr. Holt was unable to satisfy his mortgages, which, somehow, had to be satisfied. Consequently the great Hotel was sold, for just short of the amount of the aforesaid mortgages, and poor Mr. Holt was left without a dollar of his hundred thousand!
But here we are at the Ferry entrance, after having passed, without personal outrage, the stream of carts, omnibusses, and all sorts of wheeled horrors, that surround, (like things Milton describes,4) the entrance to the great space beyond. The piece of architecture before us is of wood, well painted. It is of the simplest order of the genus roof. Under its shadow are many small edifices—besides a large plank floor.
It has been a wonder to us that the Ferry Company do not put up, there, substantial and useful buildings, of stone and iron, with fine large entrances. They are rich enough to do it, and the investment would be better than any stocks in Wall street. Put this hint in your memory, gentlemen.
Pause a moment under this pine canopy, and you will find food for observation, and thought too. There is the special room where "No gentlemen are admitted unless accompanying ladies." There are two other rooms for the masculine gender. Outside there is always a crowd waiting, stamping its feet with impatience for the boats—as if Time didn't fly fast enough without wanting to hurry it. The most impatient gentlemen here are the young clerks. It is perfect agony for them to be just half a second too late for the boat. On such occasions you may see what a struggle it costs them to restrain their legs from leaping into the river. The time until the arrival of the next boat, (which extends from a second to three quarters of a minute,) these excited youths pass in a state of mind which must be felt before it can be realized. Then to see them wait at the very edge of the wharf, and spring on the incoming boat, to the manifest danger of fat personages standing placidly in front! Afterward, the rush for the farther end—the sharp glance around, to see whether there are any fashionable coats aboard—the intense earnestness with which our youthful friends watch for the premonitory symptoms of the boat's starting! Ah, these city clerks are a peculiar race; on all occasions, you can tell them with as much certainty as you can tell a New England voice.
Then we put off—for the bell has tapped twice. Perhaps we have come on the "Manhattan," the newest of these streamers. Behold the roomy and high-ceiling'd ladies' cabin, its clear, open, airy sweep, and the colored glass windows, giving a glow to the light. The seats are cushioned most comfortably, and all around run pipes containing "hot stuff" to warm the air these cold winter times. The ladies, too, they form not the least part of the pleasantness. When the cabin is full, and they are seated in close rows all along from one end of the cabin to the other, it takes a fellow of some nerve to run the gauntlet through that cabin. For our part, we always feel our heart beat quicker when we attempt it—and are fain to pop down in a seat before we get half way. But then every body knows we have an unusual amount of modesty.
Who has crossed the East River and not looked with admiration on the beautiful view afforded from the middle of the stream? The forests of the New York shipping, lining the shores as far as one can see them—the tall spire of Trinity looming far up over all the other objects—various other spires—the tops of the trees on the Battery and in the Parks—these we have left behind us. In front stands Brooklyn—Brooklyn the beautiful! The Heights stretch along in front, lined now with dwellings for nearly the whole extent; but with space still left for a Public Promenade, if it be applied to that purpose soon. To the left of the Heights, the open mouth of Fulton street, the great entrance to the city—up whose vista you can see many of the principal Brooklyn buildings, particularly the square squatty tower of St. Ann's Church. Away to the left lies the Navy Yard, and the great Dry Dock, now nearly finished. Then Williamsburgh, another place of beauty. She too, has her high banks, and they show admirably from the river.
On the other side our eyes behold a still more varied scene. Governor's Island, in shape like a well proportioned wart, looks green even at this season of the year; and those straight, regularly planted poplars are in perfect accordance with the military character of the place. Far to the distance is Staten Island, and the Jersey shore. The Battery Point is hidden by the masts of the shipping.
A moving panorama is upon all parts of the waters. Sail craft and steamboats are in every direction. Observe, too, the dexterity with which our pilot plies between the crowd that cross his way. He can shave by, to the verge of a hair. He makes all allowances for the strength of the tide, and "brings her in" at the appointed time, as a fine rider manages a well-trained horse.
Nor should we omit to mention a good point connected with the management of these boats. Each one has a respectable person, elderly and staid, who keeps things strait, and acts, when there may be need, as chevalier to the ladies. My old friends, Mr. Doxsey5 and Mr. Van Duyne6 are in this department.
Soon, now, will come the time for big cakes of ice in the river. We have a fondness for crossing then,—particularly when we have to go "all the way round Robin Hood's barn."7 Why, bless your soul! in our day, we have taken a forced trip, and a merry one, round Governor's Island, between starting from Brooklyn and arriving at New York; filling up enough, in clear sailing, to go from New York to Poughkeepsie. It is now several winters since the ice has been so "fixed," as to permit crossing the East River on foot. We remember such things, however, and have, on our own legs, done that feat of courage. We came marvellously near taking a trip down the day, however, for the ice got dislodged again and was moving maliciously off—leaving us just time, by hard "scrouging," to hop on the end of a certain pier, with the determination never again to trust our flesh on a mass of congealed water.
There is another favorite time we have for crossing at the Fulton Ferry. It is when a heavy fog spreads itself. We like to start out, and listen to the muffled tolling of the bell in the distance, and go prowling slowly along, with divers men on the look-out for breakers. We are not sure but we enjoy a bit—just a little bit, of danger—nothing, of course, that would give us the chance of taking to the cold water, but just a spice of excitement. After some time, we come out, perhaps, near the Catherine Ferry. Then the nervousness of those who are in a great hurry—merchants wanting to get to their business, clerks, and people who have engagements that they fear will have to be broken.
There is "a great deal of human nature," to be seen in crossing the Fulton Ferry. All imaginable sorts and styles of rational and irrational life, besides a variety of manufactured matter, transmits itself there, from one shore to the other. We like too, to cross at night, when there is a clear sky; always feeling sorry that the jaunt isn't ten times as long. Yes, yes; for some of the nicest of the "happy ten minutes" that glitter in one's experience, have we been indebted to the Fulton Ferry.
Fortunately for our nerves, we have never yet seen a serious accident on this great passage line. It is sickening, though, what things do sometimes happen here! A fellow in his haste, jumps at the landing, from the incoming boat—misses his footing!—slips!—O, horrible!—falls between the steam-moved mass, and the solid timbers of the wharf! Stout faces, then, grow ashy, and the bravest are appalled! But the hands attached to the boat, spring to the rescue. What they do, depends upon the circumstances of the case; but they always act promptly, effectively, and for the best.
We notice there is much talk, just at present, of a Bridge to Brooklyn. Nonsense. There is no need of a bridge, while there are incessantly plying such boats as the Manhattan, the Wyandance, and the Montauk.8 If there be any spare energy, let it be applied to improving the indifferent accommodations at Catherine ferry, and the wretchedness of that at Jackson street. Also, to completing the proposed lines from the bottoms of Montague street and Bridge street.
1. Jerome Loving, in Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, argues that in this editorial, Whitman laid a foundation for what would become the poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" ([Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999], 148). [back]
2. Fulton Street, stretching from Brooklyn Heights into lower Manhattan separated by the East River, is named after steamboat inventor Robert Fulton (1765—1815). The Brooklyn side of Fulton Street was originally built as part of the King's Highway in 1704, and bore the name Old Ferry Road prior to its renaming in 1816 (Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss, Brooklyn By Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More Got Their Names [New York: New York University Press, 2006], 45). The Manhattan section of Fulton Street (west of Broadway), to which Whitman is referring, was formerly known as Partition Street (I. N. Phelp Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 [New York, New York: Robert H. Dodd, 1915], 679). [back]
3. The United States Hotel was originally called "Holt's Hotel" when it was opened in 1833. According to The New York Times, "A grand promenade was the feature of the roof, and surmounting this was a cupola, over 125 feet from the street, from which one of the best views of the city and the harbor was to be had in its palmy days" ("Stephen Holt and His Folly," March 12, 1902). [back]
4. John Milton (1608–1674). [back]
5. Perhaps Samuel Doxsey of 29 Chapel Street, New York General & Business Directory for 1840-41 [Brooklyn, NY: T & J.W. Leslie & W.F. Chincester, 1840]. [back]
6. Perhaps Inspector of Customs, John Van Duyne (New York General & Business Directory for 1840-41 [Brooklyn, NY: T & J.W. Leslie & W.F. Chincester, 1840]). [back]
7. This phrase means to travel far and near. It is a reference to the legend of Robin Hood and the belief that the philanthropic bandit had access to the barns of all peasants in the region. [back]
8. The Brooklyn Bridge was built thirty-four years after the publication of this article, in 1883. [back]