The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Mentor L. Williams
It is one of the oddities of history that every historian who has written about the West has made some reference to Horace Greeley’s dictum, “Go West, young man; go West,” but no one has made any investigation of Greeley’s own visits to the West. Greeley knew the West and its problems intimately. His programs for internal improvement and land reform were based on first hand investigation of situations. The cognomen, “Friend Greeley,” so frequently heard in the back country, was an earned one, not a mere figure of speech.
There is, fortunately, a complete account of one of his many journeys to the west in “editorial correspondence” to the New York Tribune, June 2nd to July 19th, 1847. What makes this trip especially significant is the fact that a great internal improvements meeting, the Rivers and Harbors Convention, was held in Chicago, July 5-6. Greeley attended and reported it for the Tribune. Naturally, attention being focused on this convention, his letters describing his western tour are filled with information about lake travel and the need to improve the facilities for commerce on the lakes. Of the mass of material contained in these letters, only that portion which throws light on Great Lakes navigation in the forties will be considered here. It points up Greeley’s unceasing concern for “Improvements.”
In his second letter, dated Detroit, June 4, 1847, the editor of the Tribune pays a compliment to the modern comforts available on the steam vessels. Twenty years before he had walked sixty or eighty miles along the shores of Lake Erie rather than submit to the torture of lake travel. “Vivid is my recollection of hideous nights passed in clinging to stanchions or hanging limp and haggard, over the railing looking ruefully into the boiling foam that still demanded the sacrifice it disdained.” By comparison, travel in 1847 was luxurious. There were three hundred cabin passengers out of Buffalo on the Empire (Captain Randall); the food was excellent; there was even a dance which the spectators enjoyed more than the dozen couples that participated.
An insight into the infamous lake “Combinations” is provided in this trenchant passage. It needs neither explanation nor comment.
One good feature of the Lake navigation this season is the absence of the usual Combination, whereby traveler and emigrants were compelled to pay smartly not only for the steamboats which conveyed them, but also for the hardly smaller number which were laid up, under the Combination arrangement, but drawing their share of the general receipts. Now every boat runs on its own hook, and a cabin passage, including a good stateroom-berth and generous fare, is $8 from Buffalo to Chicago, or a little less than the living would cost in a first-class hotel. Deck passengers (who “ate themselves”) are taken from Buffalo to Chicago (nearly a thousand miles) for one dollar each, and have some kind of place to sleep into the bargain, Perhaps these are not the usual prices; if they are, they may be raised next week by the Combination; but they were the prices current in Buffalo night before last, when two noble boats (the Empire and the Oregon) started in opposition. Considering that, at least during the present superabundance of freight, a good business may be done, even at these rates, while a great majority of the emigrants need all they can save, I hope the rates of deck-passage will not be raised.
But the harbor at Buffalo! Greeley never was at a loss for words when describing things that needed remedying.
After the tedious process of working her way out of Buffalo harbor-which it is a burning shame to leave hardly wide enough for half-a dozen water snakes, while the vast and rapidly increasing commerce of half a continent seeks a passage through it – she (Empire) was little more than twenty four hours reaching (Detroit).
At Detroit, though he was chiefly impressed with the growth of Michigan’s railroads, he noted two things of interest to the “Improvement party” in his letter of June 7th. One was the offer of an agent to transport flour from Detroit by water to Montreal, thence by rail to Lake Champlain and by the Champlain Canal to Albany and New York “for the present charge from Buffalo to New York!” Greeley berated New York for being “blind and stupid” in not enlarging the Erie Canal to accommodate the vast trade ready to flow into the Emporium. “Is it not monstrous,” he asked, “that her weight should be thrown against the Improvement policy, which is her breath of life, as in the days of De Witt Clinton?” The other was the recently constructed fort commanding the entrance to the Detroit River. It, too, was
monstrous that in this Nineteenth Century of Christ a Half Million Dollars should be spent. . . to provide a means of obstructing the passage of a navigable stream . . . while this same Government obstinately refuses to spend one-third the amount to make a Ship Canal around the Sault Ste. Marie, so as to open the largest sheet of fresh water in the world to the Commerce, Enterprise, and Industry of its own people, who now find here a most expensive and pernicious obstruction to the westward march of Population, Cultivation, Production, and Thrift on our own undoubted soil. Still worse: have we not seen the West paralyzed and outraged by repeated Vetoes of bills providing for the most needed improvements of Rivers and Lake Harbors by a President (Polk) who never scruples to recommend and sign bills for the construction of such Fortresses as this?. . . Shall it be ever thus?. . .
After a few days spent purchasing provisions for his trip to the Copper Country, including a yoke of oxen and a supply of hay, Greeley took passage on the Samuel Ward for Sault Ste. Marie. Lake St. Clair, however, afforded him another chance to get in a lick for channel improvements and a dig at President Polk,
Passing out of the River (Detroit) and through the comparatively small Lake St. Clair, we found a steamboat (the Wisconsin) and several sail-vessels hard aground on the “St. Clair Flats”, where, as I am informed, it is usual to find a far larger number of steamboats and other vessels in the same interesting predicament . . . Fifty thousand dollars well applied here would almost certainly dredge out a deep and wide channel that would stay dredged, as the current is so very gentle that it would not move the sand back again. Yet for want of this $50,000 (vetoed by James K. Polk in the Harbor bills) the trade of the Lakes . . . (is) put to an expense, including that of delays, probably not less in one year than the entire cost of dredging out a clear and durable channel.
The trip across Lake Huron was foggy and rainy. Mackinac Island failed to impress the practical Tribune editor; it was, even in June, “among the coldest spots within the limits of our Union” although he admitted that the air was “very pure” but “apt to be in motion.” The scenery of the Grand Detour, however, was beautiful and inspiring. At the Bruce Mines on the Ontario shore, the black flies were pestiferous. Shallow water at the entrance to the St. Mary’s River required the unloading of part of the Samuel Ward’s cargo to “the lighter, James K. Polk, (it is well that someone of that name can be put to a good use).” The captain then tried to take the boat up the river in pitch blackness but he ran aground; the passengers had to spend another night aboard. With daybreak their spirits rose, and Greeley was moved to exclaim at what he saw:
The Sault seems the most growing place I have yet seen. New piers, store houses, etc. are rapidly going up; the hotels swarm; and ores, veins, locations, companies, etc. are in everybody’s mouth. Working parties are going up almost daily – or rather boatly, for the boats run rather irregularly. The steamboat Julia Palmer . . . has not been in port for the last week, but the propeller Independence is here, and we hope to be off for Point Keweenaw and the American Copper region tomorrow (June 12).
In addition to giving a “much needed” temperance lecture at the Sault, Greeley commented somewhat sarcastically on the folly of shooting the falls, a sport indulged in by nearly every visitor to the St. Mary’s, including his own book reviewer, Margaret Fuller. A party of nine men had attempted to descend the falls even though prevailing winds from the east had driven the lake waters back thus decreasing the flow of water over the rapids. Their boat struck a submerged rock, capsized, and three of the nine were drowned, including a Dr. Prouty of Norwalk, Ohio. “I think this will put a stop to such navigation for some time to come.” But it did not.
Naturally, the need for a canal around the falls of the St. Mary’s called forth the best efforts from Greeley’s pen.
The want of this Canal which has hitherto practically shut the Superior region against emigration and settlement, now greatly embarrasses the development of the Mineral wealth of this region, nearly doubles the cost of Transportation, while it greatly delays and renders irregular all travel and communication. It must and will be constructed ere long, unless the Federal Government persists in the insane policy of which the Harbor Vetoes form a single factor . . .
That Greeley thought the Loco Foco policies penny wise and pound foolish can be seen from this comment, June 13th.
All the land on our shore of Lake Superior, with the Islands, belongs to the Federal Government, which has set a large price on a good part of it, and expects to sell it at that price. But on the whole Lake there is not a Light House nor any other Harbor than such holes in the rock-bound coast as Nature has perforated. Not a dollar has ever been spent on them; nothing done but to prevent individuals improving at the Sault (a reference to Federal military interference with Michigan’s attempt to build a canal). The facilities for travel are such as might be expected in such a region; and these apologies for Harbors can only be entered when the wind favors. Ought not the Government to spend a small part of the money which citizens stand ready to pay for these lands, as soon as they are ready for sale, to render them accessible? Is not this the dictate alike of Policy and Duty?
Poor Greeley. The wind was unfavorable when they rounded Keweenaw Point and the Independence carried him past his Copper Harbor location to Eagle River. On its return it was able to put into Copper Harbor, but there was no pier and the oxen had to be pushed overboard and made to swim ashore.
Back at the Sault after a fortnight up the lake, the copper prospector again became the Whig editor. On June 29th he wrote, in part under the impact of the news that the schooner Merchant (which had left the Sault for the upper lake region the same day he had) had gone down with all hands, including fifteen soldiers for the outpost at Keweenaw Point and fifteen miners of the National Mining Company:
Some of the vessels in use here are new, stout and seaworthy; others just such as could be spared from service elsewhere, in which they had previously been worn out. Yet, up to this time, not a dollar has been expended by the Government upon navigation of this Lake . . . At present, a detachment of United States troops . . . has just relieved one of Regulars destined for Mexico in keeping this post (at the Sault), where there is no more need of troops than a corps of Chinese interpreters.
This in spite of the fact that there was a need for lighthouses and markers, as provided in a Bill that had made appropriation for the same mandatory at the last session of Congress. A light, he said, was badly needed at Whitefish Point, rapidly becoming known for its wrecks.
Congress has ordered a Light House to be erected here, and has provided the means; a Commissioner has located it; every month’s delay is virtual manslaughter; yet the Executive pays men to air uniforms at the Sault in absurd uselessness, and leaves the Light House unbegun till another season! . . . Ten men in a month could easily put a light up there so as to answer till a Light House could be built . .
At the Sault Greeley boarded the steamboat St. Clair for Mackinac. There he transferred to the Oregon for the trip to Chicago by way of Sheboygan and Milwaukee. He arrived in Chicago at sunrise July 4th. Because the vast assemblage of delegates to the Rivers and Harbors Convention -at least 10,000 with as many more interested spectators – had commandeered every possible accommodation, the late-comers were allowed to keep their steamer berths in the emergency.
Apart from the Mexican War, the Rivers and Harbor Convention was the most important American public event in 1847. Called by the supporters of internal improvement in protest against the executive veto of the Harbors Bill, its leaders sought to avoid the issue of “party” and concentrated on the passage of resolutions and the generation of pressure that would have weight with even the Loco Focos in the coming session of Congress. Dozens of politicos, both large and small, appeared to test the sentiment of the aroused West. Those who did not come sent letters, often equivocal, to be read to the assembly. One such letter from Lewis Cass brought forth the disapproval of the crowd and caused Greeley to write:
(Cass) is long a citizen of the West, a United States Senator from harborless Michigan, and an aspirant to the Presidency, via South Carolina . . . Now take the actual case of the entire coasts of Lake Michigan, nine hundred miles in extent and covered with Commerce, yet without a single natural harbor or place of refuge for vessels in a storm, who can doubt that the construction of one or more Harbors is imperatively demanded by consideration of National and general well-being? No matter if they have to be made entirely – scooped out of the shifting sands and fortified by expensive piers – the very fact that they must be expensive puts them beyond the reach of private enterprise or local exertion. The greater the natural deficiency – the necessity for Harbors being obvious and conceded – the more palpable the necessity and thus the Constitutionality of National interposition.
Having reported the Convention (he modestly omitted reference to the fact that popular demand required that he address the gathering on the opening day), Greeley made a brief tour of inland Illinois and was struck by the amazing fertility of the soil and the vast amount of livestock that it supported. Returning to Chicago he noted that there was no good harbor there, either; “it is but the narrow bending channel of an inconsiderable creek, and greatly needs extension and improvement.” He crossed the southern tip of Lake Michigan on the steamer, Champion, landing at St. Joseph, “a spot which has missed, at least for the present, the high destiny sanguinely anticipated for it by the projectors and owners of its squares and corner-lots.” The remainder of his trip was hastily sketched in; he commented that Cleveland was a shady and thriving city, the most beautiful and most healthful on the lakes.
Greeley was a journalistic power in the late eighteen forties; and it can readily be inferred from the evidence presented that his power did not rest on mere bombast and tirade. He was a tireless searcher after facts. He liked especially to get the facts himself. In doing so he stuck his inquiring nose into every town and community along his route of travel; he asked questions of everyone; he invited comment and opinion; what is more, he listened to it. Truly, his hand was on the people’s pulse, his mind diagnosed their economic ills, and his paper championed the political remedies. It is doubtful that any national journalist in this country understood the West as well or felt as obligated to promote its needs as did Horace Greeley.
This article was originally published on the centennial of Greeley’s travels, in July 1947.