The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Road, Rail, Canal and Lake – From Massachusetts to Michigan in 1836
By Lucia Sparhawk
The history of the Sparhawk family in America begins with Nathaniel Sparhawk(e) who settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1836. The following letter in the possession of Mr. Ernest N. Jennison, of Lakewood, Ohio was written by Lucia Sparhawk, a cousin of Mr. Jennison’s grandmother, Naomi Sparhawk Jennison. The aunts “Lee” and “Richardson” to whom the letter was addressed were his grandmother’s aunts. Lucia’s brother, Arthur, living in Pontiac, Michigan, in all probability had influenced his sister in her decision to make the long journey to Pontiac, Michigan, to teach school near there. The original letter being long and quite personal, many passages have been omitted. The text retained has been selected and arranged to show travel conditions, primarily in the Great Lakes region, during the 1830’s. We are indebted to Mr. Jennison , a long time member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, for sending us this material from his family files for publication here. Inland Seas Editor – 1960
Pontiac, Michigan April 13, 1836
My dear Uncles and Aunts:
Now I am some in doubt where to begin my narrative of events since I left you, but I suppose you will have some curiosity to know how I progressed in my journey from the first; I will go back to the day I left my dear home in Templeton, [Mass.] and commenced for the first time, what I consider my exit from my own land. The journey from Templeton to Brattleboro was fatiguing in the extreme, and we left B at 2 the succeeding morning. There had been a day or two previous a violent rain; the roads were of course bad, and coaches crowded to excess. I never realized so much difficulty in traveling before. I was obliged to watch my baggage with an eagle eye, and almost to stand upon it; my courage nearly failed once or twice before we reached Albany. I thought, if there is so much confusion and trouble in the country, what would it be in the city? But a Kind Providence took care of me. The roads were so bad we did not reach Albany till 1 in the morning. The hotel to which I had been directed was full, and I was carried to the nearest at hand. Do you think it very pleasant, at that time of night or morning, to enter a public house in a strange city, with no other female up, and only the barkeeper or porter to show me my place of rest? I was not troubled with sleeping too sound, I assure you.
The cars for Schenectady left at 8 in the morning. My trunks were loaded on a cart and set off long before we did. Arrived at the railroad I encountered a scene I do not wish to again see of confusion, and noise. After nearly one hour of waiting and anxiety we were ready to set off. At Schenectady we were all unloaded and such a scrambling ensued as I never witnessed. Canal boats were waiting for passengers and all anxious to get as many as possible; porters and draymen, boys and drivers fighting for baggage for their respective masters. The day was very fine and we were under way on the great [Erie] canal at 11. And then, when quietly seated in the cabin of the neat well-furnished packet boat, I had leisure to think, which I had hardly done for 2 days. I cannot tell you, my dear friends, the strange sensations which crowded my heart.
But everything looked bright and beautiful and in the novelty of the scenes around me, I found a refuge from torturing thought. Passing through locks was to me a great curiosity. At our side flowed the beautiful Mohawk, its bright clear waters contrasted with the muddy stream on which we were quietly moving. After dinner, we sat down to our knitting work and could hardly think we were on board a boat at all. During this time my name happened to be mentioned and a gentleman who sat apart in a window turned to me and asked me if I was any way connected with Mr. Sparhawk of Pontiac, as he was well acquainted with him. Here was another provision of Providence. This gentleman was going directly to Detroit and would take charge of me and mine. The country through which we passed was not very pleasant. Of course, the canal goes through the most level and uninteresting parts.
The evening was delightful but very damp, too much so to be on deck and the cabin was close and hot. At 9 the curtain that divided the cabin was lowered and the beds hung round the sides of the boat. The beds are sacking with a very thin mattress, so narrow you must lie very still or roll off onto the floor. Everything is huddled together and you can hardly stir. The first night we were going through locks all night. At the first one I thought the boat was about to be crushed to pieces and called to know what the matter could be. I was answered by a laugh from someone and told not to be afraid, but I knew no more of sleep. Some of the best scenery on the canal we passed the first night. The next day, Thursday, was dullness itself. Not even a lock; flat, flat, flat. No hills of any height, we had looked our last on the blue hills of New England and New York. A dead level lay before us. The only variety was the winding of the canal and some pretty villages; but the latter were almost universally deformed with some tokens of intemperance.
I should have told you that Thursday morn found us at Utica, a beautiful city, but we had no time to see it. Thursday evening we arrived at Syracuse too late to see anything, changed boats and went directly on for Rochester. At Syracuse our company separated, part preferring stages to the monotony of the canal. I should much rather have left the boat except on account of baggage.
Friday was pleasant but the bridges so low it is dangerous being on deck, the front of the boat the only place for staying out doors. This afternoon we passed the high embankment. It is curious and almost terrific. Far, far below the canal is a river. On one side a mill and several houses. The road passes under the canal. A carriage is seen coming down the hill on one side. It disappears and in a few minutes emerges on the opposite side. As the canal winds, you have a full view of the embankment in front. I am not positive how high it is but, I believe, more than a hundred feet.
Friday evening at 8 we arrived at Rochester with every appearance of a storm. Found Mr. Tucker and Cousin Mary. Mary and I, you may well suppose, had much to say and many enquiries and stories of past times.
Saturday the equinoctial commenced with violence. Sabbath rained in the morning, was clear in the afternoon. Went to meeting and was much pleased with the sermon. I found our Cousin Tucker a very agreeable and excellent man. On Monday morn I left these dear friends and embarked on the canal again. We arrived at Brockport at noon. I went to Mr. Roby’s and found that Charlotte, the friend I wished to see, had left in ill health. The boat for Buffalo did not arrive at Brockport till midnight. We went to the hotel and waited till one o’clock.
The boat came up. We went on board but such a scene! She was full, the cabin floor was strewed with men and all the berths were full. With much difficulty I made my way among sleeping, snoring beings to the ladies’ cabin and there my only chance seemed to be to stand up for the rest of the night. At last I made out to stow myself upon one of the top mattresses; very much, Aunt Richardson, like lying on the top shelf in your cheese room. In the morning the puzzle was how to find room to dress or do anything else, the room was so crowded, among the rest three or four babies all crying, all uncomfortable. I left for fresh air as soon as my clothes were on but the wind was so piercing cold I could not endure it so returned to the hole in the boat and went in to breathe an air enough to stifle one who had not strong lungs. You will not form any very favorable idea of canal traveling from me. I do dislike it, especially the nights. The boats are small and no opportunity for ventilation.
All day it rained hard. Everybody looked sad and felt dirty. At two o’clock we came in sight of Lake Erie, black and speckled with foam. How I dreaded our voyage. At three it ceased to rain and a short time after, we reached Buffalo, the Empress of the West. I never saw so much mud before as I then saw. We were safely deposited at a hotel and beginning to think of getting a passage across the lake when the storm commenced harder than ever. No boat had left Buffalo for nearly a week with any success, all being driven back by the violence of the storm. Six boats lay waiting to go as soon as the weather permitted. All night it rained and in the morning the view of the lake from the windows of the hotel was dreadful. One or two small boats tried to get across the river. They were tossed about like eggshells and were glad to get back. Toward night the storm abated and at 9 we went on board the boat expecting to go out that night but morning found us at the wharf. After breakfast we got under way. I retired to my berth to lie still and eat parched corn to prevent sickness, which I did most effectually. At evening it was calm. I rose, dressed, and took tea. Spent part of the evening on deck and retired to sleep soundly.
The next morning was clear and beautiful. At sunrise we were at Cleveland, a beautiful city on a high tableland overlooking the mouth of the creek on which it stands. We stopped nearly an hour but did not go on shore.
There was but one unpleasant circumstance on board our boat. Our Captain was intemperate and profane, a real braggadocio, fond of racing and would have done it had there been any boat in sight to race with. It providentially happened there were none so we were spared the danger of such folly.
The day was fine and I, free from sickness, enjoyed it much. The islands in the Lake are many of them very beautiful. It was just sunset when we entered the mouth of Detroit River. A most delightful scene was before us, the Canada side scattered over with little French houses but showing plainly the want of enterprise and industry in the inhabitants. Walden is a fine bold situation and if in the hands of the Americans would soon be a large city. But a few officer’s houses and an old barrack are almost all there is.
The sun left a few minutes after we entered the river amid clouds of purple and gold, a most glorious scene. I felt that the same sunbeams were shedding their parting radiance on my Dear Friends in Templeton. My heart went over the waste of waters and I was once more, in imagination with you.
At 9 we landed in Detroit. It was impossible to know anything of the city and the stage left at 8 in the morning for Pontiac. And now my Dear Friends see me entered on the last stage of my long, long journey; an immense wagon with seats and drawn by 4 horses as the road part of the way is too bad for a coach. I cannot describe the road; you must see it to know anything about it. I reached Pontiac at 4 in the afternoon, Saturday, September 26. Here my journeying has ended for the present.
This village is situated on the Clinton, a small stream affording excellent water privileges and other facilities for business. The place is neatly built and has an air of business and bustle uncommon in a place no larger. It reminds me of a beehive on a warm day in spring when the bees are preparing for summer work.
This country, as far as I can learn, has every advantage that can be concentrated in any one – for wealth and prosperity. Many have come in the last year from Connecticut and New York, excellent people to judge by some specimens settled in this village. The soil here is said to be superior to Indiana and Illinois, not in fertility but durability. Emigration from the Atlantic States is immense and continued. Families have been coming in more or less all winter and now before the Lake is open they come through the country to Canada and cross the river at Detroit. The most discouraging feature is the immense land speculation now going on, to the injury of the country and permanent settlers.
This month, so far, has been very cold and wet. The roads in this level country are at such times impassable. I am now waiting for
the traveling to permit me to go to my school. How long I must wait depends on the weather. Two weeks since, I went to Detroit and spent a week with some of the best people in the world. A young lady, who is teaching here, took me with her and introduced me. I enjoyed my visit much.
Detroit is not as large or as handsome as I expected, looks like a new place and the streets are all unpaved and dreadfully muddy. Some singular fashions prevail one of which is the riding in little one-horse carts, almost the only safe vehicle in such mud. We mounted one of them, sat flat on the floor of the cart, and were carried to meeting very comfortably. You would feel inclined to laugh at them but they answer the purpose very well and are quite in style.
Now, my Dear Friends, to whom I owe so much, I must say farewell. May God be with you and bless you in everything is the fervent prayer of your niece, Lucia.