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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter IV


MR. SINCLAIR, in 1841, had made a trip to Wisconsin, the possibilities of which were then just beginning to dawn upon the people of the eastern portion of the United States, and purchased a quantity of land four miles from Racine at a place now called Mt. Pleasant. In 1845 he sold his interest in the firm of Sinclair, March and Jewett to his partners and prepared to go west.

One morning in October he called me into his room and told me of his intention, offering me one hundred and sixty acres of land, with a house, teams and other farm equipment if I would go with him and live with him until I was twenty-one years old. To a boy of sixteen this was a matter of the gravest importance. The proposal appealed to me. It offered opportunities for my own advancement and had a sufficient cast of adventure to stimulate my imagination and I was disposed to accept it. Before making a decision, however, I drove to Aroostook county to see my father and talk over the venture with him. With some reluctance he consented to my departure thinking at the time that he would follow me the next year. As it happened he did not go to Wisconsin until seventeen years later, in 1863. What this parting meant to him may be gathered from a letter I received from him under date of April 2, 1846.

"Dear Isaac," he wrote, "I have done very well this winter. You can tell Mr. Sinclair that I made and hauled 11 hundred sticks of timber on 13 in the range and camped in George Lincoln's on old camp. With six horses we commenced hauling the 20th of December and quit the 12th of March.— It commenced to rain about that time. The snow was very light here this winter, about two feet and a half all winter. I expect to start to you as soon as the last of June.— Samuel worked in the woods for its all winter and he has Mr. Bradley's note for thirty dollars besides what he got when he settled. I am in hopes we will have something handsome to take with us when we go. You may depend upon me going if God spares my health for I want once more to see my children together. If you do not think the place will suit me I want you to tell me, for this place is very good at present. Now Isaac, be a good boy and I hope the Lord will prosper you. No more at present. I remain your affectionate father until death."

Long before his wish could be gratified my brothers and many of the men I had known in our camps in Maine and New Brunswick had come after me to seek their fortunes in the Wisconsin and Michigan forests.

The journey from Bangor was an extraordinary one, judging from latter-day standards. After packing all of the furniture except the stoves,— including even the zinc bathtub, the first of its kind in Milwaukee,— we embarked on the steamer "Penobscot" for Boston about the middle of October, 1845. Among our chattels were two Concord buggies and two or three sets of logging harness. The latter were afterwards duplicated in Milwaukee by the harness maker, George Dyer, and were the type of harness in use in the West to-day.

One of our fellow passengers on the steamer "Penobscot" was our neighbor, Captain Eustis, who was also on his way to Boston to take charge of his ship, on which he contemplated making two trips to Nova Scotia for coal. His proposal that I accompany him with his eldest son as cabin boy opened new vistas of adventure which even the trip to Wisconsin and the assurances of moderate success did not obscure. After much wavering and doubt I succumbed to the lure of the sea.

When the Sinclair family was safely lodged in the hotel in Boston, where we remained for twenty-four hours at the conclusion of the first stage of our journey, I slipped down to the docks; but neither Captain Eustis nor his vessel was to be found although I made an earnest search. Concealing my disappointment I went back to the hotel and when the family resumed their travels I went along with them. Then, as in many instances since, some benignant fate rescued me as I was about to turn into the wrong path, all of which has sometimes led me to believe that, after all, a special providence may be watching over our destinies. I do not know. One can only wonder.

From Boston we continued our journey on the Boston and Albany railroad, one of the important transportation lines of the country. To those who know nothing of railroad travel except the luxurious trains of the present day, the conditions of passenger traffic on these early lines are almost inconceivable, so rapid has been the improvement of railroads and equipment. The passenger coaches were very much like the freight cars of to-day, though much smaller, and in some respects, I have no doubt, much less comfortable. There were only two windows, about sixteen by twenty inches in size, on each side of the cars to afford light and air and such glimpses of the passing landscape as we were able to take. The floors were carpeted and in place of modern upholstered seats were three-legged stools which would be moved about at will. In the middle of each side of the cars was a sliding door similar to those now in use on box cars.

The train ran on strap rails, the modern form of rail not having been invented until some years later, and the conductors and trainmen passed from car to car by means of foot and hand rails attached to the sides. Although the speed was far from excessive the jolting and swaying made one's seat on the stools more or less precarious and the conditions were such that we were relieved when we arrived at Albany where we were to take a canal boat for Buffalo.

After another brief respite we boarded the "Northern Light," of the Clinton Line, owned and operated by Captain Spencer, who was about sixty years of age. This was a passenger boat with berths arranged along the sides for the full length of the hull, with the exception of the cabin, and the management of it was largely a family affair. Captain Spencer supervised matters and did the cooking and the other members of the family performed various functions. Express passenger boats, which were more elaborately equipped and towed by horses at a trotting pace for the entire length of the canal, were just coming into vogue at this time.

This stage of our voyage consumed five days. At the outset it was so disagreeable that we threatened to disembark and take the train. There were between thirty and forty passengers crowded together in the narrow quarters with no privacy whatever day or night; and Mr. Sinclair found them so uncomfortable, having been accustomed to less rigorous conditions, that Captain Spencer, particularly responsive to the threat that we would leave and make the rest of the journey on the railroad, proposed that we share his quarters in the after cabin, which we did and for which we paid more than the usual fare.

After my experiences in the woods I was probably less inconvenienced than the other members of our party, including the Sinclair children, and adjusted myself to the unavoidable conditions with philosophic interest. I was especially sympathetic with the boys who drove the tow horses, whose lot struck me as being very hard. They worked practically day and night with only short intervals of rest taken on deck or wherever they could find a place to lie, seldom, if ever, took off their clothes and bore the brunt of the hardship of this mode of travel. They were always ready to yield their responsibilities to me and clamber aboard the boat to rest, and I found it diverting to ride the horses which controlled the progress of the "Northern Light." Whenever the stern of the vessel was veered to the bank of the canal to permit passengers to alight I was usually among those who took advantage of the opportunity, and out of a total journey of three hundred and sixty miles rode the horses, I think, for at least a hundred. During the last leg of the journey some of the impatient passengers bribed one of the boys to urge his mount to greater speed, a cardinal offense, and the lad was discharged upon our arrival at Buffalo.

The railroad, the New York Central, followed the line of the canal, so that my interest was stimulated not only by the nautical aspect of the trip but by the sight of steam transportation as well. On this occasion I saw, for the first time, a telegraph line, a very crude affair compared with the perfected systems of the present day. Not being initiated into the mysteries of electricity I was much puzzled when told that the telegraph was used to convey news. News I construed to be newspapers and, from a mechanical point of view, I could not understand how the conveyance for the papers cleared the projecting ends of the telegraph poles.

At Buffalo, then the western terminus of the railroads, we took passage on the steamer "Empire," one of the largest boats on the lakes, and set out on the final stage of our long and tedious journey. The vessel, an infinite improvement upon the congested quarters of the canal boat, had as officers Captain Howe, Robert Wagstaff, first mate, and August Bartholomew, second mate. Seven years later returning from a trip to the East with several young men whom I was taking out to work for me in the Michigan forests, I again stopped at Buffalo to take the steamer to Monroe, Michigan, to which point the railroad had been extended eastward from Chicago. The "Northern Indiana," upon which we were to sail, had sunk in a collision and the "Empire" was substituted for her. By this time Bartholomew had been promoted to command.

On both trips on this vessel we encountered bad weather. On the first we roughed a terrific gale on Lake Erie and were obliged to make harbor at Cleveland. Here two vessels also seeking refuge in the harbor went ashore and another, the "Ben Franklin," stove a hole in her side above the water line. We were much relieved when the storm abated and started on our way again but only to run into another gale on Lake Huron. This time we had to take refuge at Presque Isle, where we remained for two or three days. Thence we proceeded to Maniton Islands for a supply Of wood for fuel.

While we were there the steamer "Oregon" put in and Captain Cotton, commanding the vessel, brought the information that there was a very high sea on Lake Michigan. Our captain paid no heed to this warning and decided to go on without delay. If the fate which ruled over the Middle West reflected its mood in bad weather certainly our coming was most unpropitious. We got under way in a gale which blew from the northeast, and the vessel rolled and pitched to such all that I was more or less bewildered and many of the passengers, keeping close to the heaving staterooms, were awaiting in fear and trembling the end of what appeared to be their disastrous journey. On the following day, however, the captain, having convinced himself of the danger, put into Grand Haven where we remained for two days, until the storm had abated and the lake calmed down. From there we vent to Milwaukee without further mishap and landed at the north pier, at the foot of Huron Street, on Wednesday morning, November 15, 1845.

We disembarked with no small measure of satisfaction, glad that our perils were behind us and took breakfast at the City Hotel, now known as the Kirby house, on the corner of Mason and East Water streets, which was owned and conducted by Daniel Wells, Jr., who had come to Milwaukee several years before. I must confess that the feeling with which I first contemplated the village,— it was hardly more than that,— was one of disappointment. The population was only a few thousands and there was nothing about it to give promise that it would, within little more than a half-century, become a city of more than four hundred thousand people. After Bangor, an old and busy center, the straggling houses and the people, many of them immigrants but lately arrived from Europe, seemed odd and far from attractive. At Bangor, too, English was spoken; in Milwaukee German seemed to be the common tongue.

At this time Wisconsin was still a territory and, if Milwaukee appeared to measure inadequately up to the standards set by New England, certainly there was no other settlement within the jurisdiction that offered any greater promise. The entire region was largely a wilderness in which Green Bay and possibly Prairie du Chien were the outposts. But the tide of immigration had set in. On some days during this period I saw as many as seven or eight hundred people land at Milwaukee on steamers from Buffalo, packing their belongings with them; and I have seen them by the hundreds in a vacant lot bargaining for cattle and wagons with which to begin life and establish a farm on the unbroken prairie.

These were the pioneers to whom the state owes very largely whatever it has achieved in the way of commerce, agriculture, and the industries; builders of the foundation upon which the structure of success has been reared. The task which confronted them was not an easy one. Land, it is true, was cheap. It could be purchased from the government for a dollar and a quarter an acre but it required a vigorous spirit to confront without quailing the hardships and privations necessary to bring it, under cultivation. Sometimes their crops were killed by the excessive cold of the winters; sometimes they were burned by the drouth of the Summers. When they did obtain a harvest, not infrequently the prices they received for their grain were so low as to afford them a bare existence, enough to struggle on in the hope that conditions would be better the following year.

The same was true of lumbering. The idea that the government was lavish in its bounty in selling farming and timber lands for little more than the cost of surveying them is of recent origin. At that time there seemed to be no limit to the area of arable soil and the resources of the forests were so vast that they had never even been estimated. No one counted himself wealthy because of the land he possessed. What made the value of the crops and the lumber was the labor expended upon them, hard, gruelling labor under adverse conditions and oftentimes with no return but a living.

To add to the complications capital was scarce, money was uncertain as a medium of exchange and wages were low. When we left Maine, Mr. Sinclair, who was accounted from the point of view of the time a wealthy man, brought with him a large amount of currency issued by the Veazy Bank of Bangor, one of the most important in New England. Ordinarily only gold was acceptable outside the radius of certain well-known banking institutions. I still possess the belt in which I carried a stock of the metal on my early trips to the East.

Milwaukee, in these days of wildcat banking, was also fortunate in having an institution which weathered the storm that wrecked many of the badly conducted private and state banks. This was really not a. bank at all, but the Marine and Fire Insurance Company which, however, issued its notes and conducted a general banking business. It was owned and established by George Smith, a Chicago financier, who brought Alexander Mitchell over from Scotland to manage it. When the flood of wildcat currency was circulating throughout the West generally, the notes of the Marine and Fire Insurance Company were always redeemable in specie. Smith's operations laid the foundation of the great fortune now held by his heirs in New York.

For the person who had no capital the difficulty of attaining an independent footing was almost insurmountable. Men worked on the farms for eight dollars a month and board. Girls and women did general housework for seventy-five cents a week, the wage rate for the most proficient, and the measure of luxuries they enjoyed would put to shame many women of the present day who consider themselves unfortunate. In 1846 and 1847 men could be obtained to cut wood off North Point for twenty-five cents a cord and wages for this service were traded in at the genera! store. From twenty-five to fifty cents a cord was the rate for cutting, splitting, and piling hardwood. The splitting, not infrequently, was done by women.

The problem, therefore, of establishing a home in the new country with nothing to start on was a very serious one, and the fact that lands were cheap offered little encouragement in the face of the trials and privations and the uncertainty of ultimate success. Now that the land has been occupied and brought under cultivation and the forests for the most part cut, it is a habit of mind to exaggerate the advantages afforded by the government's bounty and to minimize the hardships of pioneering. Having gone through most phases of this period I am more inclined to the belief that the government obtained the best of the bargain and that the returns to the country at large were of incalculable value.


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