Oldport Days

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Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oldport Wharves.

Everyone who comes to a wharf feels an impulse to follow it down, and look from the end. There is a fascination about it. It is the point of contact between land and sea. A bridge evades the water, and unites land with land, as if there were no obstacle. But a wharf seeks the water, and grasps it with a solid hand. It is the sign of a lasting friendship; once extended, there it remains; the water embraces it, takes it into its tumultuous bosom at high tide, leaves it in peace at ebb, rushes back to it eagerly again, plays with it in sunshine, surges round it in storm, almost crushing the massive thing. But the pledge once given is never withdrawn. Buildings may rise and fall, but a solid wharf is almost indestructible. Even if it seems destroyed, its materials are all there. This shore might be swept away, these piers be submerged or dashed asunder, still every brick and stone would remain. Half the wharves of Oldport were ruined in the great storm of 1815. Yet not one of them has stirred from the place where it lay; its foundations have only spread more widely and firmly; they are a part of the very pavement of the harbor, submarine mountain ranges, on one of which yonder schooner now lies aground. Thus the wild ocean only punished itself, and has been embarrassed for half a century, like many another mad profligate, by the wrecks of what it ruined.

Yet the surges are wont to deal very tenderly with these wharves. In summer the sea decks them with floating weeds, and studs them with an armor of shells. In the winter it surrounds them with a smoother mail of ice, and the detached piles stand white and gleaming, like the out-door palace of a Russian queen. How softly and eagerly this coming tide swirls round them! All day the fishes haunt their shadows; all night the phosphorescent water glimmers by them, and washes with long, refluent waves along their sides, decking their blackness with a spray of stars.

Water seems the natural outlet and discharge for every landscape, and when we have followed down this artificial promontory, a wharf, and have seen the waves on three sides of us, we have taken the first step toward circumnavigating the globe. This is our last terra firma. One step farther, and there is no possible foothold but a deck, which tilts and totters beneath our feet. A wharf, therefore, is properly neutral ground for all. It is a silent hospitality, understood by all nations. It is in some sort a thing of universal ownership. Having once built it, you must grant its use to everyone; it is no trespass to land upon any man’s wharf.

The sea, like other beautiful savage creatures, derives most of its charm from its reserves of untamed power. When a wild animal is subdued to abjectness, all its interest is gone. The ocean is never thus humiliated. So slight an advance of its waves would overwhelm us, if only the restraining power once should fail, and the water keep on rising! Even here, in these safe haunts of commerce, we deal with the same salt tide which I myself have seen ascend above these piers, and which within half a century drowned a whole family in their home upon our Long Wharf.

It is still the same ungoverned ocean which, twice in every twenty-four hours, reasserts its right of way, and stops only where it will. At Monckton, on the Bay of Fundy, the wharves are built forty feet high, and at ebb-tide you may look down on the schooners lying aground upon the mud below. In six hours they will be floating at your side. But the motions of the tide are as resistless whether its rise be six feet or forty; as in the lazy stretching of the caged lion’s paw you can see all the terrors of his spring.

Our principal wharf, the oldest in the town, has lately been doubled in size, and quite transformed in shape, by an importation of broad acres from the country. It is now what is called "made land,"—a manufacture which has grown so easy that I daily expect to see some enterprising contractor set up endwise a bar of railroad iron, and construct a new planet at its summit, which shall presently go spinning off into space and be called an asteroid. There are some people whom would it be pleasant to colonize in that way; but meanwhile the unchanged southern side of the pier seems pleasanter, with its boat-builders’ shops, all facing sunward,—a cheerful haunt upon a winter’s day. On the early maps this wharf appears as "Queen-Hithe," a name more graceful than its present cognomen. "Hithe" or "Hythe" signifies a small harbor, and is the final syllable of many English names, as of Lambeth. Hythe is also one of those Cinque-Ports of which the Duke of Wellington was warden. This wharf was probably still familiarly called Queen-Hithe in 1781, when Washington and Rochambeau walked its length bareheaded between the ranks of French soldiers; and it doubtless bore that name when Dean Berkeley arrived in 1729, and the Rev. Mr. Honyman and all his flock closed hastily their prayer-books, and hastened to the landing to receive their guest. But it had lost this name ere the days, yet remembered by aged men, when the Long Wharf became a market. Beeves were then driven thither and tethered, while each hungry applicant marked with a piece of chalk upon the creature’s side the desired cut; when a sufficient portion had been thus secured, the sentence of death was issued. Fancy the chalk a live coal, or the beast endowed with human consciousness, and no Indian, or Inquisitorial tortures could have been more fearful.

It is like visiting the houses at Pompeii, to enter the strange little black warehouses which cover some of our smaller wharves. They are so old and so small it seems as if some race of pygmies must have built them. Though they are two or three stories high, with steep gambrel-roofs, and heavily timbered, their rooms are yet so low that a man six feet high can hardly stand upright beneath the great cross-beams. There is a row of these structures, for instance, described on a map of 1762 as "the old buildings on Lopez’ Wharf," and to these another century has probably brought very little change. Lopez was a Portuguese Jew, who came to this place, with several hundred others, after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. He is said to have owned eighty square-rigged vessels in this port, from which not one such craft now sails. His little counting-room is in the second storey of the building; its wall-timbers are of oak, and are still sound; the few remaining planks are grained to resemble rosewood and mahogany; the fragments of wall-paper are of English make. In the cross-beam, just above your head, are the pigeon-holesonce devoted to different vessels, whose names are still recorded above them on faded paper,—"Ship Cleopatra," "Brig Juno," and the like. Many of these vessels measured less than two hundred tons, and it seems as if their owner had built his ships to match the size of his counting-room.

A sterner tradition clings around an old building on a remoter wharf; for men have but lately died who had seen slaves pass within its doors for confinement. The wharf in those days appertained to a distillery, an establishment then constantly connected with the slave-trade, rum being sent to Africa, and human beings brought back. Occasionally a cargo was landed here, instead of being sent to the West Indies or to South Carolina, and this building was fitted up for their temporary quarters. It is but some twenty-five feet square, and must be less than thirty feet in height, yet it is divided into three stories, of which the lowest was used for other purposes, and the two upper were reserved for slaves. There are still to be seen the barred partitions and latticed door, making half the second floor into a sort of cage, while the agent’s room appears to have occupied the other half. A similar latticed door—just such as I have seen in Southern slave-pens—secures the foot of the upper stairway. The whole small attic constitutes a single room, with a couple of windows, and two additional breathing-holes, two feet square, opening on the yard. It makes one sick to think of the poor creatures who may once have gripped those bars with their hands, or have glared with eager eyes between them; and it makes me recall with delight the day when I once wrenched away the stocks and chains from the floor of a pen like this, on the St. Mary’s River in Florida. It is almost forty years since this distillery became a mill, and sixty since the slave-trade was abolished. The date "1803" is scrawled upon the door of the cage,—the very year when the port of Charleston was reopened for slaves, just before the traffic ceased. A few years more, and such horrors will seem as remote a memory in South Carolina, thank God! as in Rhode Island.

Other wharves are occupied by mast-yards, places that seem like play-rooms for grown men, crammed fuller than any old garret with those odds and ends in which the youthful soul delights. There are planks and spars and timber, broken rudders, rusty anchors, coils of rope, bales of sail-cloth, heaps of blocks, piles of chain-cable, great iron tar-kettles like antique helmets, strange machines for steaming planks, inexplicable little chimneys, engines that seem like dwarf-locomotives, windlasses that apparently turn nothing, and incipient canals that lead nowhere. For in these yards there seems no particular difference between land and water; the tide comes and goes anywhere, and nobody minds it; boats are drawn up among burdocks and ambrosia, and the platform on which you stand suddenly proves to be something afloat. Vessels are hauled upon the ways, each side of the wharf, their poor ribs pitiably unclothed, ready for a cumbrous mantua-making of oak and iron. On one side, within a floating boom, lies a fleet of masts and unhewn logs, tethered uneasily, like a herd of captive sea-monsters, rocking in the ripples. A vast shed, that has doubtless looked ready to fall for these dozen years spreads over, half the entrance to the wharf, and is filled with spars, knee-timber, and planks of fragrant wood; its uprights are festooned with all manner of great hawsers and smaller ropes, and its dim loft is piled with empty casks and idle sails. The sun always seems to shine in a ship-yard; there are apt to be more loungers than laborers, and this gives a pleasant air of repose; the neighboring water softens all harsher sounds, the foot treads upon an elastic carpet of embedded chips, and pleasant resinous odors are in the air.

Then there are wharves quite abandoned by commerce, and given over to small tenements, filled with families so abundant that they might dispel the fears of those alarmists who suspect that children are ceasing to be born. Shrill voices resound there—American or Irish, as the case may be—through the summer noontides; and the domestic clothes-line forever stretches across the paths where imported slaves once trod, or rich merchandise lay piled. Some of these abodes are nestled in the corners of houses once stately, with large windows and carven doorways. Others occupy separate buildings, almost always of black, unpainted wood, sometimes with the long, sloping roof of Massachusetts, oftener with the quaint "gambrel" of Rhode Island. From the busiest point of our main street, I can show you a single cottage, with low gables, projecting eaves, and sheltering sweetbrier, that seems as if it must have strayed hither, a century or two ago, out of some English lane.

Some of the more secluded wharves appear wholly deserted by men and women, and are tenanted alone by rats and boys,—two amphibious races; either can swim anywhere, or scramble and penetrate everywhere. The boys launch some abandoned skiff, and, with an oar for a sail and another for a rudder, pass from wharf to wharf; nor would it be surprising if the bright-eyed rats were to take similar passage on a shingle. Yet,after all, the human juveniles are the more sagacious brood. It is strange that people should go to Europe, and seek the society of potentates less imposing, when home can endow them with the occasional privilege of a nod from an American boy. In these sequestered haunts, I frequently meet some urchin three feet high who carries with him an air of consummate worldly experience that completely overpowers me, and I seem to shrink to the dimensions of Tom Thumb. Before his calm and terrible glance all disguises fail. You may put on a bold and careless air, and affect to overlook him as you pass; but it is like assuming to ignore the existence of the Pope of Rome, or of the London Times. He knows better. Grown men are never very formidable; they are shy and shamefaced themselves, usually preoccupied, and not very observing. If they see a man loitering about, without visible aim, they class him as a mild imbecile, and let him go; but boys are nature’s detectives, and one does not so easily evade their scrutinizing eyes. I know full well that, while I study their ways, they are noting mine through a clearer lens, and are probably taking my measure far better than I take theirs. One instinctively shrinks from making a sketch or memorandum while they are by; and if caught in the act, one fondly hopes to pass for some harmless speculator in real estate, whose pencillings may be only a matter of habit, like those casual sums in compound interest which are usually to be found scrawled on the margins of the daily papers in Boston reading-rooms.

Our wharves are almost all connected by intricate by-ways among the buildings; and one almost wishes to be a pirate or a smuggler, for the pleasure of eluding the officers of justice through such seductive paths. It is, perhaps, to counteract this perilous fascination that our new police-office has been established on a wharf. You will see its brick tower rising not ungracefully, as you enter the inner harbor; it looks the better for being almost windowless, though beauty was not the aim of the omission. A curious stranger is said to have asked one of our city fathers the reason of this peculiarity. "No use in windows," said the experienced official sadly; "the boys would only break ’em." It seems very unjust to assert that there is no subordination in our American society; the citizens show deference to the police, and the police to the boys.

The ancient aspect of these wharves extends itself sometimes to the vessels which lie moored beside them. At yonder pier, for instance, has lain for thirteen years a decaying bark, which was suspected of being engaged in the slave-trade. She was run ashore and abandoned on Block Island, in the winter of 1854, and was afterwards brought in here. Her purchaser was offered eight thousand dollars for his bargain, but refused it; and here the vessel has remained, paying annual wharf dues and charges, till she is worthless. She lies chained at the wharf, and the tide rises and falls within her, thus furnishing a convenient bathing-house for the children, who also find a perpetual gymnasium in the broken shrouds that dangle from her masts. Turner, when he painted his "slave-ship," could have asked no better model. There is no name upon the stern, and it exhibits merely a carved eagle, with the wings clipped and the head knocked off. Only the lower masts remain, which are of a dismal black, as are the tops and mizzen cross-trees. Within the bulwarks, on each side, stand rows of black blocks, to which the shrouds were once attached; these blocks are called by sailors "dead-eyes," and each stands in weird mockery, with its three ominous holes, like so many human skulls before some palace in Dahomey. Other blocks like these swing more ominously yet at the ends of the shrouds, that still hang suspended, waving and creaking and jostling in the wind. Each year the ropes decay, and soon the repulsive pendants will be gone. Not so with the iron belaying-pins, a few of which still stand around the mast, so rusted into the iron fife-rail that even the persevering industry of the children cannot wrench them out. It seems as if some guilty stain must cling to their sides, and hold them in. By one of those fitnesses which fortune often adjusts, but which seem incredible in art, the wharf is now used on one side for the storage of slate, and the hulk is approached through an avenue of gravestones. I never find myself in that neighborhood but my steps instinctively seek that condemned vessel, whether by day, when she makes a dark foreground for the white yachts and the summer waves, or by night, when the storm breaks over her desolate deck.

If we follow northward from "Queen-Hithe" along the shore, we pass into a region where the ancient wharves of commerce, ruined in 1815, have never been rebuilt; and only slender pathways for pleasure voyagers now stretch above the submerged foundations. Once the court end of the town, then its commercial centre, it is now divided between the tenements of fishermen and the summer homes of city households. Still the great old houses remain, with mahogany stairways, carved wainscoting, and painted tiles; the sea has encroached upon their gardens, and only boats like mine approach where English dukes and French courtiers once landed. At the head of yonder private wharf, in that spacious and still cheerful abode, dwelt the beautiful Robinson sisterhood,—the three Quaker belles of Revolutionary days, the memory of whose loves might lend romance to this neighborhood forever. One of these maidens was asked in marriage by a captain in the English army, and was banished by her family to the Narragansett shore, under a flag of truce, to avoid him; her lover was afterward killed by a cannon-ball, in his tent, and she died unwedded. Another was sought by two aspirants, who came in the same ship to woo her, the one from Philadelphia, the other from New York. She refused them both, and they sailed southward together; but, the wind proving adverse, they returned, and one lingered till he won her hand. Still another lover was forced into a vessel by his friends, to tear him from the enchanted neighborhood; while sailing past the house, he suddenly threw himself into the water,—it must have been about where the end of the wharf now rests,—that he might be rescued, and carried, a passive Leander, into yonder door. The house was first the head-quarters of the English commander, then of the French; and the sentinels of De Noailles once trod where now croquet-balls form the heaviest ordnance. Peaceful and untitled guests now throng in summer where St. Vincents and Northumberlands once rustled and glittered; and there is nothing to recall those brilliant days except the painted tiles on the chimney, where there is a choice society of coquettes and beaux, priests and conjurers, beggars and dancers, and every wig and hoop dates back to the days of Queen Anne.

Sometimes when I stand upon this pier by night, and look across the calm black water, so still, perhaps, that the starry reflections seem to drop through it in prolonged javelins of light instead of resting on the surface, and the opposite lighthouse spreads its cloth of gold across the bay,—I can imagine that I discern the French and English vessels just weighing anchor; I see De Lauzun and De Noailles embarking, and catch the last sheen upon their lace, the last glitter of their swords. It vanishes, and I see only the lighthouse gleam, and the dark masts of a sunken ship across the neighboring island. Those motionless spars have, after all, a nearer interest, and, as I saw them sink, I will tell their tale.

That vessel came in here one day last August, a stately, full-sailed bark; nor was it known, till she had anchored, that she was a mass of imprisoned fire below. She was the "Trajan," from Rockland, bound to New Orleans with a cargo of lime, which took fire in a gale of wind, being wet with sea-water as the vessel rolled. The captain and crew retreated to the deck, and made the hatches fast, leaving even their clothing and provisions below. They remained on deck, after reaching this harbor, till the planks grew too hot beneath their feet, and the water came boiling from the pumps. Then the vessel was towed into a depth of five fathoms, to be scuttled and sunk. I watched her go down. Early impressions from "Peter Parley" had portrayed the sinking of a vessel as a frightful plunge, endangering all around, like a maelstrom. The actual process was merely a subsidence so calm and gentle that a child might have stood upon the deck till it sank beneath him, and then might have floated away. Instead of a convulsion, it was something stately and very pathetic to the imagination. The bark remained almost level, the bows a little higher than the stern; and her breath appeared to be surrendered in a series of pulsations, as if every gasp of the lungs admitted more of the suffocating wave. After each long heave, she went visibly a few inches deeper, and then paused. The face of the benign Emperor, her namesake, was on the stern; first sank the carven beard, then the rather mutilated nose, then the white and staring eyes, that gazed blankly over the engulfing waves. The figure-head was Trajan again, at full length, with the costume of an Indian hunter, and the face of a Roman sage; this image lingered longer, and then vanished, like Victor Hugo’s Gilliatt, by cruel gradations. Meanwhile the gilded name upon the taffrail had slowly disappeared also; but even when the ripples began to meet across her deck, still her descent was calm. As the water gained, the hidden fire was extinguished, and the smoke, at first densely rising, grew rapidly less. Yet when it had stopped altogether, and all but the top of the cabin had disappeared, there came a new ebullition of steam, like a hot spring, throwing itself several feet in air, and then ceasing.

As the vessel went down, several beams and planks came springing endwise up the hatchway, like liberated men. But nothing had a stranger look to me than some great black casks which had been left on deck. These, as the water floated them, seemed to stir and wake, and to become gifted with life, and then got into motion and wallowed heavily about, like hippopotami or any unwieldy and bewildered beasts. At last the most enterprising of them slid somehow to the bulwark, and, after several clumsy efforts, shouldered itself over; then others bounced out, eagerly following, as sheep leap a wall, and then they all went bobbing away, over the dancing waves. For the wind blew fresh meanwhile, and there were some twenty sail-boats lying-to with reefed sails by the wreck, like so many sea-birds; and when the loose stuff began to be washed from the deck, they all took wing at once, to save whatever could be picked up,—since at such times, as at a conflagration on land, every little thing seems to assume a value,—and at last one young fellow steered boldly up to the sinking ship itself, sprang upon the vanishing taffrail for one instant, as if resolved to be the last on board, and then pushed off again. I never saw anything seem so extinguished out of the universe as that great vessel, which had towered so colossal above my little boat; it was impossible to imagine that she was all there yet, beneath the foaming and indifferent waves. No effort has yet been made to raise her; and a dead eagle seems to have more in common with the living bird than has now this submerged and decaying hulk with the white and winged creature that came sailing into our harbor on that summer day.

It shows what conversational resources are always at hand in a seaport town, that the boatman with whom I first happened to visit this burning vessel had been thrice at sea on ships similarly destroyed, and could give all the particulars of their fate. I know no class of uneducated men whose talk is so apt to be worth hearing as that of sailors. Even apart from their personal adventures and their glimpses at foreign lands, they have made observations of nature which are far more careful and minute than those of farmers, because the very lives of sailors are always at risk. Their voyages have also made them sociable and fond of talk, while the pursuits of most men tend to make them silent; and their constant changes of scene, though not touching them very deeply, have really given a certain enlargement to their minds. A quiet demeanor in a seaport town proves nothing; the most inconspicuous man may have the most thrilling career to look back upon. With what a superb familiarity do these men treat this habitable globe! Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope are in their phrase but the West Cape and the East Cape, merely two familiar portals of their wonted home. With what undisguised contempt they speak of the enthusiasm displayed over the ocean yacht-race! That any man should boast of crossing the Atlantic in a schooner of two hundred tons, in presence of those who have more than once reached the Indian Ocean in a fishing-smack of fifty, and have beaten in the homeward race the ships in whose company they sailed! It is not many years since there was here a fishing-skipper, whose surname was "Daredevil," and who sailed from this port to all parts of the world, on sealing voyages, in a sloop so small that she was popularly said to go under water when she got outside the lights, and never to reappear until she reached her port.

And not only those who sail on long voyages, but even our local pilots and fishermen, still lead an adventurous and untamed life, less softened than any other by the appliances of modern days. In their undecked boats they hover day and night along these stormy coasts, and at any hour the beating of the long-roll upon the beach may call their full manhood into action. Cowardice is sifted and crushed out from among them by a pressure so constant; and they are withal truthful and steady in their ways, with few vices and many virtues. They are born poor, and remain poor, for their work is hard, with more blanks than prizes; but their life is a life for a man, and though it makes them prematurely old, yet their old age comes peacefully and well. In almost all pursuits the advance of years brings something forlorn. It is not merely that the body decays, but that men grow isolated and are pushed aside; there is no common interest between age and youth. The old farmer leads a lonely existence, and ceases to meet his compeers except on Sunday; nobody consults him; his experience has been monotonous, and his age is apt to grow unsocial. The old mechanic finds his tools and his methods superseded by those of younger men. But the superannuated fisherman graduates into an oracle; the longer he lives, the greater the dignity of his experience; he remembers the great storm, the great tide, the great catch, the great shipwreck; and on all emergencies his counsel has weight. He still busies himself about the boats too, and still sails on sunny days to show the youngsters the best fishing-ground. When too infirm for even this, he can at least sun himself beside the landing, and, dreaming over inexhaustible memories, watch the bark of his own life go down.

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Chicago: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Oldport Wharves.," Oldport Days, ed. Morris, Charles, 1833-1922 in Oldport Days Original Sources, accessed October 21, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=16AJFRJCBNVK5XS.

MLA: Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Oldport Wharves." Oldport Days, edited by Morris, Charles, 1833-1922, in Oldport Days, Original Sources. 21 Oct. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=16AJFRJCBNVK5XS.

Harvard: Higginson, TW, 'Oldport Wharves.' in Oldport Days, ed. . cited in , Oldport Days. Original Sources, retrieved 21 October 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=16AJFRJCBNVK5XS.