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The Bark Covered House
Chapter 20. Drawing Cord-wood—How the Railroad Was Built—The Steam Whistle


FATHER commenced chopping cord wood and he said I could draw it as fast as he could chop it. I was so much engaged that, when the moon was in its full, I often started with my load of wood a little before plain daylight. Of course I felt cheerful, I thought we were doing some business. Sometimes I walked by the side of the team and load and sometimes behind them. Hallooing at my team, driving them, singing, whistling and looking into the woods occasionally, occupied my time until I got to Dearbornville.

One morning I met William Ozee. I told him I had seen two or three deer as I was coming along. 'fold him where they stood and looked at me and the team, until we were out of sight, and that I thought they were there yet. He said he would attend to them. He had his rifle on his shoulder, and he said he would go for them. I saw him afterward and he said he had taught them better than to stand and look at anybody so impudently as that. He had killed some of them.

I made up my mind that if I could get a good rifle, I could make as much, or more, with it than father and I both could make cutting and drawing wood. Father said I might have a new one made. Accordingly I went to John W. Alexander and selected a rifle barrel, from a pack of new barrels that he had. I tried to select as soft a one as I could, as I considered those the best in frosty weather. I selected what I thought was about the right calibre, and told him I wanted him to make it with a raised sight so I could shoot any distance. I told him to make a buster for me, one that couldn't be beat. He said he would try and do it for twenty dollars. I told him I wanted him to make it as quickly as he could; in a short time he had it done. I thought it was a beautiful rifle. The name of the maker was inscribed on the barrel. I took it home feeling very good. I tried it shooting at a mark; shooting the distance often rods at a mark the size of a two shilling silver piece. With a rest, when there was not much wind, I could hit it every time and did do it five or six times in succession. Frequently when shooting the bullet holes would break into one another, and sometimes two bullets would go into the same hole. The only way I could tell where the last shot struck was by plugging up the old holes. Often the little white paper would fly away, the pin in the center having been shot away.

I made up my mind I had a splendid rifle, one that it would be hard to beat. That same rifle now stands in my bedroom. It was made over thirty-five years ago, with the bright name of John W. Alexander on it. He is now an old resident of Dearborn, a useful and ingenious man, and fills a prominent place in society; if he were gone it would be difficult to find a man capable of filling his place.

But I must return to my drawing wood. The place where we heaped it was on the north side of the railroad, about fifteen rods east of where the post office is now kept. The woodyard, including the depot, I should judge, was not more than one hundred feet square. Here we piled our wood, sometimes ten feet high. We were to have seven shillings a cord for it and if we chopped and hauled three cords a day we thought we did well. I drew it as fast as I could, sometimes I got to Dearborn just as the old Solar made his appearance in the east. The Lunar had already done her work toward helping me, veiled her face and disappeared. When we had drawn a lot of wood in father had it measured up and got his voucher for the amount. One time when he went to Detroit to get his money I went with him. We vent on the cars. The depot and railroad office, where father did his business, stood where the City Hall now stands. [The first depot of the Michigan Central Road in Detroit stood at Griswold Street and Michigan Avenue, occupying a part of the grounds of the present City Hall. At Woodward Avenue the railroad turned south to Atwater Street, in which it ran 1,000 feet east and 1,000 feet west of Woodward. The depot remained at Griswold and Michigan until 1848, when trains began running into the new Third Street Station.] I thought the railroad was a splendid thing. We went in so much nicer, easier and quicker than we could have gone on foot, or with our ox-team.

Now we were going to get some money of the railroad officers, I thought we would have money to pay the interest on our mortgage and help us along. Father got his pay in Michigan State scrip, a substitute for money. It was good for its face to pay State taxes; but to turn it into money father had to sell it for six shillings on a dollar. Here it will be seen, that what we really received for our wood, was a little over sixty-five cents per cord, and that when we drew in three cords a day (which was as much as father could chop, and all that I and the team could draw) we made a little over a dollar and ninety-five cents per day.

What would some of the workingmen of the present day who get together and form "Union Leagues," "Trade Unions," strike for higher wages and conspire against their employers and their capital, doubtless thinking such a course justifiable, think of such wages as that, and provisions very dear, as they were at that time? I began to think myself rough and ready and was able to grapple with almost anything and do a good day's work. Father, I and the team all worked hard and with the wood thrown in we all together did not make two dollars a day.

As father had a small job in the building of the railroad and some of the time I was with him, I will describe as well as I can, how the railroad was built. They first graded the road-bed and made it level, then took timbers as long as the trees would make them, hewed them on each side and flattened them down to about a foot in thickness, then laid them on blocks which were placed in the bed of the road. They were laid lengthwise of the road, far enough apart so that they would be directly under the wheels of the cars, and the ground graded up around them. In this manner they continued until the road-bed was finished.

The next thing was to get out the ties. These were made from logs nine feet long, which were split open through the heart, then quartered and split from the heart to the center of the back, until the pieces were about six or seven inches through on the back. Then the backs of the ties were hewed flat, making them about three square, when they were ready to be used on the road. They were placed back down across the bed pieces and spiked fast to them. They were laid about three feet apart the length of the road. Over those sills, in the upper edge of the ties, they cut out two gains. In those gains they laid two stringers running directly over the sleepers. These stringers were sawed out about four by six inches square. They were laid in the gains of the ties, spiked fast and wedged with wooden wedges. Then the woodwork was finished and everything ready for putting on the iron. They used the strap rail iron. The bars were two inches and a quarter wide and half an inch thick. These bars were laid flat on top, and next to the in-edge, of the stringers and were spiked fast to them. In this way our railroad was built. The cars running away west on it, penetrating Michigan as the harbinger of civilization, opened up a way for the resources of the country.

The strap iron which they used first proved to be very poor iron. In after years, if a spike came out or the bar cracked off at the spike hole, the bar would turn up like a serpent's head and if not seen in time it was liable to throw the train off the track and do damage. I was at Dearborn at one time when an accident, of this kind, happened to a freight train, a little west of the village. There was considerable property destroyed, barrels broken in pieces and flour strewed over the ground, but no lives were lost.

Father said the railroad was a good thing for us and our country, and that they would soon have one, and the cars running on it to the State of New York. Then I reiterated my promise to mother. I said if the cars ran through our native place, we could go back there without crossing Lake Erie, the thought of which chilled me every time I spoke to mother about going back to make a visit. Time sped on, days, months, and some years had passed, since the first of the Michigan Central Railroad was built, and the cars running east and west loaded with passengers and freight, when one morning I heard a strange noise. It was terrible and unaccountable to me, as much so as it would have been if I had heard heavy thunder at mid-day, from a clear sky. I heard it from the direction of Dearbornville; it appeared to originate there, or in the woods that way. I heard it two or three times, several days in succession.

If there had come a herald from Dearbornville and told me that the man of the moon had stepped out of his old home, and down on to our earth, at Dearborn, and that he had a great horn, twenty feet long, in his hand, and that it was him, I had heard, tooting on his horn to let us know, and the inhabitants of his own country, that he had arrived safe on the earth, I might not have believed what he said in regard to the arrival of the supernatural being and his visit to us; but I could have believed almost anything wonderful in regard to the horn for I had heard its thrilling blast myself.

Father, mother and, in fact, none of us were able to think or imagine what it could be. It came through the woods as swift as lightning and its shrill and piercing voice was more startling than thunder. It echoed and re-echoed across our clearing, from woods to woods and died swiftly away in the distance. What on earth could it be? Could it be the voice of a wild animal? That seemed impossible, it was too loud. I thought such an animal would need lungs as large as a blacksmith's bellows, and a voice as strong as a steamboat, to have raised such an unearthly yell.

It was enough to scare all the bears and wolves to death, or at least enough to make them hide away from the voice and face of the dragon. But there was a man, who lived one mile south of Dearbornville, by the name of Alonzo Mather; he was a little more sensible and courageous. He thought he knew what made the strange noise. When he came out of his house one morning, all at once, the terrible sound broke upon his ear. He had heard it two or three times before, about the same place in the woods, toward Dearbornville. He said to his hired man, a Mr. Whitmore, who was utterly astonished and seemed to be all in a fright, "Hear that! I know what it is! It is a bear, and he lives right over there in the woods. I have heard him two or three times in the same place. Don't say a word to anyone; nor let the hunters know anything about his being there and I'll shoot him myself." He took down his rifle immediately, and started on the double quick, followed by the hired man, who could help him in case of trouble.

He went through the woods looking carefully in every direction, scanning the old logs and large hollow trees and searching from top to bottom to see if he could find a hole large enough for a bear to crawl in. In this way he looked all around, near the railroad, where he thought the noise originated, but he could not find a track or sign of Mr. Bruin, for the bear wasn't there, so, in disgust, he gave up the hunt.

About the next day after Mr. Mather's hunt, he and all the rest of us learned what had caused the excitement. It was a new invention, the steam whistle of the cars; something we had never heard before. [The steam whistle was invented by George Stephenson in 1825, but it was not introduced on an American railroad until 1838.]


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