Charles Dickens on Lake Erie – Spring 1961

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By David D. Anderson

Pencil sketch of young man with hair over his ears, head and shoulders, Charles Dickens

A sketch of Charles Dickens from 1842

On Saturday, January 28, 1842, a young man not quite thirty years old arrived in Boston on the new steam packet Britannia, 24 days out from Liverpool. Immediately he stepped into a reception that became a nation-wide event, a reception the like of which no author had ever received in the United States up to that time and which has never been repeated. Charles Dickens, the young author- reformer and outspoken champion of the underdog, had arrived in America at an opportune time. Not only was 1842 a year of little domestic excitement, but it was a time in which reform was in the air.

Jacksonian democracy ruled the country; abolition, women’s suffrage, temperance, and prison-reform movements occupied much of the national attention. In the midst of this democratic and reform upheaval the spokesman of reform arrived, and almost every American with some pet project of his own could claim Dickens as a champion. Likewise, there was much Dickens could learn in this unique time and place.

His journey through the East has been described many times. After visiting Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, and other cities, Dickens, taking the nation by storm, turned his attention to the West, while his letters to England and the notes which later became American Notes, recorded what he saw and experienced. His letters and notes show a growing dissatisfaction with American life and manners as the tour progressed.

After receptions in Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis, traveling by coach, canal boat, and steamboat, encountering conveyances and accommodations ranging from primitive to palatial, Dickens decided to cross Ohio by coach and train from Cincinnati to Sandusky, take a ship for Niagara, visit the Falls, and pass over into Canada. In recording the journey, his notes and letters become increasingly complaining; the accommodations are poor; the people are rude, much given to staring and to spitting and swearing. After taking a coach to Columbus and then to Tiffin, he boarded the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad, which had recently reached Tiffin, and proceeded to Sandusky. This portion of the journey, through Ohio and across the length of Lake Erie, is sketchily treated in the American Notes and scarcely more carefully recorded in the letters, especially in those to his friend, John Forster. In addition, there is some confusion and contradiction between letters and Notes. In the letters, for example, he states that he stayed at Lower Sandusky; in the Notes, this becomes, correctly, Upper Sandusky. Likewise, in the letters he ignored both Tiffin and the railroad journey to Sandusky; in the Notes he commented merely that the construction of the railroad was “indifferent” and that traveling on it was very slow. On Saturday, April 23, Dickens arrived in Sandusky to seek his passage by steamer.

Book cover of American Notes by Charles Dickens


For examining carefully this portion of the journey neither the Notes nor the letters alone is sufficient. Much detail has been omitted from the Notes, thus misleading historians who depended too heavily upon them, and likewise one senses (but of course cannot prove) in the letters that Dickens by this time had begun to realize that his complaints were becoming monotonous to his friends, and he then shifted his attention to a microscopic description of detail which he attempted to make humorous to his sophisticated English friends.

Of Sandusky in 1842, Dickens says little in the American Notes, merely commenting that “The town, which was sluggish and uninteresting enough, was something like the back of an English watering-place, out of the season.” The rest of his comments on the place are devoted to descriptions of his host, who meant well, but whose behavior Dickens implied he would undoubtedly find offensive at home. In addition, he describes a “little old lady” whose sole talent was picking her teeth with a large pin after each meal. He concluded that “whatever we wished done was done with great civility and readiness, and a desire to oblige “

However, the letter to Forster dated “Sandusky, Sunday, Twenty- fourth April 1842” presents a picture that is not only more vivid and more detailed but which also rings with an air of spontaneity impossible to find in the Notes. He commences his description of Sandusky by writing, “We are in a small house here, but a very comfortable one, and the people are exceedingly obliging.” However, after giving lip service to his accommodations, he turns his attention to the residents: “Their demeanor in these country parts is invariably morose, sullen, clownish, and repulsive. I should think there is not on the face of the earth, a people so entirely destitute of humor, vivacity, or the capacity of enjoyment . . . I have not heard a hearty laugh . . . nor have I seen a merry face on any shoulders but a black man’s.” From examination of personality, he turns to social deportment. “Lounging listlessly about; idling in bar-rooms; smoking; spitting; and lolling on the pavement in rocking chairs, outside the shop-doors; are the only recreations.” Then, apropos of national character, he states “I don’t think the national shrewdness extends beyond the Yankees; that is, the Eastern men. The rest are heavy, dull, and ignorant.” The landlord, too, receives a short, pungent description:

He is a handsome, obliging, civil fellow. He comes into the room with his hat on; spits in the fireplace as he talks; sits down on the sofa with his hat on; pulls out his newspaper and reads; but to all this I am accustomed. He is anxious to please — and that is enough.

old brick building on street

The Porter House (Exchange Hotel)

Dickens’ description of Sandusky and its inhabitants ends a short paragraph later; a steamer came in sight and he was obliged to interrupt his letter, eat a hasty dinner, and go aboard. Behind him, however, he left in Sandusky stories and impressions that still remain. One, probably apocryphal, is that he stayed in the Porter House, and that later praises of its cuisine gave rise to the popularity of that American delicacy, porterhouse steak. There is, however, no verification of this available.

Another less pleasant legend is that for a generation after the American Notes appeared, with its much more restrained description of the inhabitants than that contained in the letter to Forster, Dickens’ works were boycotted by the offended residents of Sandusky.

The actual passage on the Lake from Sandusky to Buffalo also appears in two versions, that of the letters and that of the Notes, and, as before, the letters give the more graphic description. In the Notes he describes the ship briefly as “a large vessel of some five hundred tons, and handsomely fitted up, though with high-pressure engines; which always conveyed that kind of feeling to me, which I should be likely to experience, I think, if I had lodgings on the first-floor of a powder mill.” He does not identify the ship in the Notes, and Harlan Hatcher, in Lake Erie, designates it as the Constellation. However, in the letter to John Forster dated Tuesday, April 26, 1842, the day he landed at Buffalo, Dickens states that it was the Constitution. Although both vessels were in the Buffalo- Detroit trade at the time, there is no reason to suspect that Dickens was mistaken in the name.

In the Notes he mentions its cargo, flour in barrels, some of which was carried on deck. This was convenient for the Captain, Dickens notes, for he

. . . seated himself astride of one of these barrels, like a Bacchus of private life; and pulling a great clasp-knife out of his pocket, began to “whittle” it as he talked, by paring thin slices off the edges. And he whittled with such industry and hearty good will, that but for his being called away very soon, it must have disappeared bodily, and left nothing in its place but grist and shavings.

The ship called at “one or two flat places, with low dams stretching out into the lake, whereon were stumpy lighthouses, like windmills without sails. . . .“ Evidently he is here referring to Black River, later Lorain, as described by Henry Howe in Historical Collections of Ohio, based on Howe’s journeys in 1846-47.

Dickens’ description of the trip from Sandusky to Cleveland in the letter to Forster of April 26, is much briefer and much more personal than that in the Notes. The steamship, he notes, is the Constitution, of “four hundred tons burden,” rather than five hundred tons as stated in the Notes; it had few passengers aboard, but “bountiful and handsome accommodations.” His comments on the Lake are to the point: “It’s all very fine talking about Lake Erie, but it won’t do for persons who are liable to sea-sickness. We were all sick. It’s almost as bad in that respect as the Atlantic. The waves are very short, and horribly constant.”

Young woman, side profile from 1940s

Catherine Dickens

At midnight of April 24, the ship docked at Cleveland, and the brief overnight stay provided several humorous incidents. The first of these he describes indignantly to Forster: “We lay all Sunday night at a town (and a beautiful town too) called Cleveland; on Lake Erie. The people poured on board, in crowds, by six on Monday morning, to see me; and a party of ‘gentlemen’ actually planted themselves before our little cabin, and stared in at the door and windows while I was washing, and Kate lay in bed.” The last portion was savagely underscored by Dickens. This, of course, is not mentioned in the Notes.

The second of the humorous incidents receives double treatment. The more restrained version, omitting a significant feature, appears in the Notes; the more forthright and vivid was written to Forster. He recounts in the letter that he was “so incensed” at the above incident and at an article appearing in a Cleveland newspaper which he had seen the day before in Sandusky

. . . (advocating war with England to the death, saying that Britain must be ‘whipped again,’ and promising all true Americans that within two years they should sing “Yankee Doodle” in Hyde Park and “Hail Columbia” in the courts of Westminster), that when the mayor came on board to present himself to me, according to custom, I refused to see him. His honor took it very coolly, and retired to the top of the wharf, with a big stick and a whittling knife, with which he worked so lustily (staring at the closed door of our cabin all the time) that long before the boat left, the big stick was no bigger than a cribbage-peg!

The treatment of this incident in American Notes is much more subdued. Dickens admits to “quite a curiosity” about the town because of the newspaper account, which he correctly attributes to Lord Ashburton’s arrival in Washington to confer with Daniel Webster over points of dispute between the two countries. Dickens does not mention the incident with the mayor in the Notes; he concludes his comments on the newspaper article by saying, “I did not enjoy the delight of seeing the wit who indited the paragraphs in question, but I have no doubt he is a prodigious man in his way, and held in high repute by a select circle.” In the Notes, then, he has substituted irony for the indignation he expressed to Forster.

One other incident which occurred while the steamer was tied up at Cleveland is recounted in the Notes, although it is not mentioned in the letters. This concerned a gentleman who, with his wife, occupied the cabin next to Dickens. The walls were quite thin, and Dickens overheard a series of complaints made by the man about Dickens’ presence on the ship. However, there is no indignation in the passage; Dickens merely expresses amused superiority.

pencil sketch of niagara falls view from river below falls

Niagara Falls in 1840

The steamer left Cleveland at nine o’clock on Monday morning; it stopped at Erie for an hour, at eight that evening, and finally arrived at Buffalo between five and six the next morning. Dickens is silent in both sources about the events of this portion of the journey. Perhaps the combination of sea-sickness and the anticipation of seeing Niagara Falls was enough to deaden misperception during that part of the trip. Immediately after breakfast on the morning of April 26, he departed for Niagara by train, and two hours later he crossed the gorge by ferry, leaving American soil behind. It is interesting to note that in his letter to Forster of Apri1 26, he wrote at the head “Niagara Falls!!! (Upon the English Side.)” Forster points out that the word English was underscored ten times. Further in the letter he mentions meeting two English officers and comments “Ah! What gentlemen, what noblemen of nature they seemed.” With that, he passed on to a description of the Falls which has many times been reproduced.

Dickens’ journey through Ohio and down Lake Erie in 1842 was made at a time when one of the most profound revolutions of history was going on. The transformation from frontier to civilization was in full sway, as he might have perceived from the extreme contrasts in accommodations and in transportation on the trip. Likewise, he might have perceived that the very people who offended him so frequently were the people who were carrying on that revolution and bringing an empire into being. But Dickens would have none of this. As a result, his vision was distorted; he was concerned with appearance rather than reality, and his descriptions, while interesting, are much less than they could have been. The West was brawling, dynamic, growing. It could not be interpreted in terms of an orderly English countryside.

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About the Author: Dr. Anderson, a graduate of Bowling Green State University, has taught English at General Motors Institute and at Michigan State University where he is presently on the teaching staff in the Department of Communication Skills. He received his Ph.D. in 1960 and has been given a research grant by Michigan State University to work on a projected history of Great Lakes travel literature which he hopes to complete in 1962.

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