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Dickens on American Rail

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English author Charles Dickens captured the exhilaration of travel by rail in young America.

In 1842, 30-year-old Charles Dickens, already on his ascent to international stardom as an author, traveled to America for the first time. The heat and length of the journey forced him to abandon his original plan to visit Charleston, but he traveled south as far as Richmond, partly by rail.

Burgeoning America was positively giddy with the possibilities of rail travel.

In the 1840’s, railroads were relatively to America. Technologically, U.S. rail was a decade behind that in England, and by comparison, American trains were crude, dirty and dangerous. Unlike the coal burning engines of Europe, American railroad engines burned wood as fuel, and because of that, they spewed a constant stream of ashes and sparks, often onto the paying passengers. Derailments were common, and the clattering, shrieking machines terrified nearby animals. Some passengers – especially socialy-conscious Europeans – were appalled by the cheek-by-jowel democratic nature of our passenger cars. But in a new country almost literally bursting at the seams with the promise of mobility, the American people – enticed by the horizon and giddy with possibilities  – embraced railroads as an exhilarating ride into their rightful future.

An etching of an early American steam engine and cars
An Early Steam Engine and Cars

Dickens' journal entries captured the excitement with a visual impact that is almost photographic.

In his traveling journal, Charles Dickens noted…

… a whirlwind of bright sparks, which showered about us like a storm of fiery snow.

… a great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek and a bell… There – with mechanics working at their trades, and people leaning from their doors and windows, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, and pigs burrowing, and unaccustomed horses plunging and rearing, close to the very rails – there – on, on, on – tears the mad dragon of an engine with its train of cars; scattering in all directions a shower of burning sparks from its wood fire; screeching, hissing, yelling, panting, until at last the thirsty monster stops beneath a covered way to drink, the people cluster around, and you have time to breathe again.

And in a personal letter to his friend John Forster, Dickens’ description was every bit as vivid.

I wish you could see what an American railroad is, in some parts where I now have seen them. I won’t say I wish you could feel what it is, because that would be an unchristian and savage aspiration.

It is never inclosed, or warded off. You walk down the main street of a large town: and, slap-dash, headlong, pell-mell, down the middle of the street; with pigs burrowing, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, close to the very rails; there comes tearing along a mad locomotive with its train of cars, scattering a red-hot shower of sparks (from its wood fire) in all directions; screeching, hissing, yelling, and painting; and nobody one atom more concerned than if it were a hundred miles away.

You cross a turnpike-road; and there is no gate, no policeman, no signal — nothing to keep the wayfarer or quiet traveller out of the way, but a wooden arch on which is written in great letters ‘Look out for the locomotive.’ And if any man, woman, or child, don’t look out, why it’s his or her fault, and there’s an end of it.

On his return to England, Charles Dickens described his new world experiences in a travelogue, “American Notes for General Circulation.” That done, he began work on a new book titled “A Christmas Carol.”

Photo of early railroad train courtesy of North Carolina Archives & History [N_76_1_309]

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