The Magic of Pennsylvania Travel Narratives, Part II

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania travel narratives which appeared in the last decade of the eighteenth century began to reflect a change in perspective from views of the authors who had come before (see “The Magic of Pennsylvania Travel Narratives, Part I“, Pennsylvania Heritage, Winter 1981, page 9). Changing times and newer modes of transportation contributed to a different view of the landscape.


The successors to Mittelberger, Penn and Schoepf were far more apt to stay on main-traveled roads, and to ride in chaises or coaches rather than walk or ride horseback. The narratives produced by such travelers de­vote much more space to detailing road conditions and the comforts or discomforts of inns, since roads and inns were of paramount importance to men restricted to wheeled vehicles and established stopping places. Very subtly, too, the new mode of travel altered the perception of the land­scape.

Theophile Cazenove, for example, traveled through New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1794, onJy six years after John Penn. He rode, however, in a carriage drawn by two horses and accompanied by a servant. His Journal is a relation of towns visited and inns endured, and his perception of the landscape is curiously different.

Cazenove delighted in Pennsylvania towns from the mo­ment he arrived in Easton. “This little town is pretty,” he remarked, “well laid out for the main square and the rows of streets, partly lined with good houses of blue stone, abundant in the neighborhood.” His itinerary led him from one town to the next, and his curiosity about town life led him to investigate everything from the size of house lots (which he studied with the zeal of a real estate speculator), to the occupations of Kutztown craftsmen, to the materials used in house building. His enthusiasm for town life colored his view of agricultural areas too, and on one occasion he remarked that “there ought to be five or six families living close together in these districts; then they would be very happy.” Why Cazenove suspected that they were unhappy is difficult to discover, because he seems to have spoken with very few. Most of his information about farm life he derived from tavernkeepers who were not always representative of their farmer neighbors, as Cazenove himself must have realized.

Cazenove did sometimes discriminate among the farms and farmers he passed, but his evaluations lack the clarity of Schoepfs.

No care is taken to keep the entrance to the houses free of stones and mud – not one tree – not one flower. In the vegetable garden, weeds intermingled with cabbages and a few turnips and plants. In brief, with the exception of the size of the barn and a larger cultivated area, you do not distinguish between the rich Pennsylvania farmer and the poor farmer of other states.

The remark is based on insufficient observation, because Cazenove was aware that the farmland he passed through was rich. OccasionalJy he remarked on the beautiful well­-kept woodlots planted to chestnut, locust, walnut, maple and white oak which broke up the wide pastures, the apple orchards and the fields planted to com, wheat, clover or turnips. Of the farmland near Womelsdorf, which Penn thought looked so much like the agricultural countryside of Europe, Cazenove remarked only that “the neighbor­hood is remarkably well cultivated, therefore pleasant.” Despite the information gleaned from innkeepers then, Cazenove’s narrative is based chiefly on fleeting glances from the highway. Like the travelers of early seventeenth­-century England, he was interested in inns, towns and roads, not in the agricultural landscape behind the fences at the road’s edge. His journal suggests that in the span of ten years, Pennsylvanians had shifted from an agricultural lifestyle to one intimately connected with towns.

Cazenove was: not alone in his approach to traveling, and others unwittingly imitated his concern for towns. In 1801, John Pearson traveled to Lancaster and Columbia, ignoring the agricultural undertakings beside the road; instead he too focused on towns. He remarked on the paint used on Lan­caster houses, the narrow alleys which linked backyards in that town and the pale brick of Columbia dwellings. He delighted in the fine view from a Lancaster church steeple, where “the town under your feet, distant houses, extensive fields, woods and ridges of mountains many miles remote made it a beautiful prospect.” In Pearson’s imagination, the state of the landscape reflected perfectly the state of its in­habitants, and indeed his prose often confused the two. Columbia “has not a good prospect,” he asserted. “Their fences are ordinary and it appears as if they were extremely careless in respect to planting trees, either for shade or use.” The lack of a church building along with poor fences and few trees led him to conclude that “the inhabitants seem to me from appearances to be indolent.” Like Cazenove, Pearson trusted the long-distance view. He was content to ride the turnpike and simply glance at the countryside; he was no more distant from his subject in the church steeple than he was on the highway.

Joshua Gilpin traveled in a carriage as did Cazenove, and the view recorded in his Journal of a Tour From Philadel­phia Through the Western Counties of Pennsylvania in the Months of September and October, 1809 shows that turn­pike driving produced similar problems and angles of vision. Along the turnpike all signs of wilderness were gone, and Gilpin enjoyed the copses of woods which broke up the vistas of large fields, making the landscape like the “finest park scenery in England.” Since Gilpin was interested in farming, his Journal is filled with remarks about the excel­lent soil of the Lancaster region and the use of plaster of Paris as manure, but his view of agriculture was still distant. While he praised “neat farms with portions of irrigated meadow, woodland, and open fields,” his information was visual only. Unlike his early predecessors, he rarely stopped to talk with the makers of the landscape he praised.

What intrigued him most was the condition of the road before his carriage. Fascinated with bridges, he described the “Schuylkill permanent bridge” on the Lancaster Turn­pike, the “very handsome stone bridge of three arches” over the Brandywine at Downingstown. Such well-made bridges and better maintained roads greatly increased the speed of travel, but they made even more difficult any at­tempt to observe the back country. Instead, they linked towns closer together and made seeing the spaces between seductively easy. Gilpin seems to have enjoyed covering many miles each day, and perhaps he preferred town inns to those isolated in the country. In any event, he stopped frequently in towns, describing them well; there is a re­markably modern tone to his narrative.

His adventures of September 18 and 19 are a case in point. “Notwithstanding all our exertions we did not reach Chambersburgh till after dark,” he remarked, “as we have wished much not to hazard a ride over these roads to which we are strangers and which at best are rough and uneven after sunset.” The roads were bad, at least for someone driving a carriage, and Gilpin and his colleagues arrived very fatigued from the effort of trying to make thirty miles a day. Gilpin concluded that an excellent turnpike might be made over the mountain, and that if the day had been a little cooler so that they could have walked instead of jolt­ing about on the carriage seat, the trip would have been far more enjoyable. As it was, they found a good inn at Cham­bersburgh, slept well enough and spent the early part of the nineteenth having the carriage repaired and finding a fresh team of horses.

Walking about the town while the carriage was being refitted, Gilpin carefully described the public buildings, the “very neat” street plan and the dwellings, many of which had courtyards before them. After lunch he and his com­panion left with a hired driver, and found a road which was “generally a good one, that is, a soft natural road.” There is scant trace of Schoepfs casual walking in Gilpin’s narra­tive; unlike his eighteenth-century predecessor, Gilpin was chiefly interested in covering ground, in seeing a great deal, if nothing too closely. To him, a good turnpike was the es­sential part of every good view.

The Pennsylvania landscape had indeed changed between the 1770s and the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, but not nearly so much as the travel narratives indicate. What had changed greatly was the road system; good bridges and turnpikes were everywhere, and traveling over them was pleasant. But away from the main-traveled roads, the Pennsylvania landscape had not greatly changed, although there were fewer and fewer travelers who observed it. Most were seduced into a high-speed, long-distance view from a well-surfaced road.

Philip Houlbrooke Nicklin’s travel narrative, A Pleasant Peregrination Through the Prettiest Parts of Pennsylvania, of 1836 signals a new style of writing. Nicklin traveled only by the swiftest possible conveyances-mail coaches, canal boats and railroad. Of all forms of transport, he enjoyed the railroad most, even when the cars were drawn by horses or when sparks and soot settled on his clothes. While Gilpin had tried to achieve thirty miles a day, Nicklin was relaxed at ten miles an hour, though such a rapid speed left him time to only glimpse at the passing scene. Even the canal­boat perspective was one of speed and haste, and Nicklin’s descriptions matched the view. Phrases like “the scenery for the whole distance is very interesting” derive not from care­lessness. but from simple haste. He moved too quickly to talk with farmers, or to collect wild plants or hear stories at an inn. He stopped only in hotels which catered not to travelers, but to tourists, to the new breed of pleasure seekers enticed away from comfortable homes by the canal packets and railroad trains.

While Mittelberger stopped to eat with farmers, Nicklin rushed by their houses. A rainy week upset his plans tremendously; the streets of Hollidaysburg were ankle-deep in mud when he arrived. forcing him to stay indoors and view the town from windows. The streets, like farmyards, were too sloppy for firsthand observation, so he sat back and general­ized from the comfort of hotel veranda or coach.

Nicklin’s self-imposed distance from the landscape was encouraged by the railroads, several of which prepared guide books like the Guide for the Pennsylvania Railroad published in 1855. The Guide is a remarkable document. Passengers are given such extraordinary information as the populations of towns and the dates of stations, but almost no specific information about the land beside the tracks. “Millwood is a small station,” remarks the Guide, “doing an inconsiderable business.” and “Landisville, the next station, is merely a stopping place.” Occasionally a trace of aesthe­tics breaks the factual monotony – “Probably no country in the world can present a finer picture of agricultural prosperity than that through which we have passed from Philadelphia to Lancaster” – but the overall tone is one of narrowness. What is of value to the railroad is mentioned and lovingly described, but structures apart from viaducts and trestles go mostly unnoticed. The Guide is a travel narrative, but an anonymous one. Its subject matter and tone, though not linked to any individual, were typical in the 1850s.

A year before the Guide appeared, Eli Bowen published his Pictorial Sketch-Book of Pennsylvania. Like Nicklin, Bowen was satisfied with glimpses, but his glimpses are not always so picturesque. The Pictorial Sketch-Book focuses on Pennsylvania industry – on cotton mills, anthracite furnaces, coal trestles, iron foundries and chemical works – in short, on trackside Pennsylvania. “Between Pottstown , and Reading there are several very pretty landscape scenes,” Bowen remarked, but the chief view is so industrial that Bowen uses the term landscape in a pastoral connotation only. Foundries and mills, it seems from his narrative, do not comprise a landscape.

Bowen’s angle of vision encompassed such smoke­-belching artifacts with difficulty, because they were too near the tracks. A landscape in his mind was a distant panorama; if it had one or two industrial sites within it, so much the better, but it had to be viewed from afar. Other­wise, detail distracted the eye, and the overall effect was lost. Not surprisingly, Bowen saw rather few landscapes from his railroad car. He traveled too quickly to admire all but the widest views, and too near to many industrial sites. In fact, his narrative suggests that in two or three decades all of Pennsylvania had been industrialized.

The railroad traveler was given a far more restricted view than Mittelberger. Commanded to keep his head inside the window, he was forced to look sideways – not ahead or behind. Controlling the train was impossible; it stopped where its conductor wished it to – usually before a station – and went only where the rails before it led. What was over a hill, through a woods, or down a narrow road was almost non-existent. By 1876 the idea of land­scape was very vague indeed.


The years between 1756 and 1856 were indeed a cen­tury of landscape change, not only in Pennsylvania bur across the United States. The change in Pennsylvania was an almost perfect example of what occurred in later years in the South. Midwest and Far West. What had been an emergent rural landscape, a collection of farms, small villages and poor roads set against an almost overwhelming backdrop of wilderness evolved into a complex man-altered environment marked by towns and cities, turnpikes and railroads, and factories and furnaces, all interrupted by only a few bits and pieces of romantic wilderness. But the new landscape was not homogeneous. Some areas were far more industrialized than others, and many regions, particularly those removed from good roads and railroads, remained almost wholly agricultural. Towns like Railroad sprang up at transportation junctions, while others like Beulah in Cambria County were abandoned. By 1856 the parts of the larger landscape most familiar to the general public were those alongside main roads and railroads, because it was along such routes that most people traveled, including writers of landscape description.

Today, slightly more than a century later, the landscape of Pennsylvania is infinitely more complex. Great cities and suburbs occupy what was until quite recently farmland; and factories. mines and oil fields can be discovered surrounded by forest. It is not easy to see any immediate order in the contemporary Pennsylvania landscape, unless one takes an historical view. That view is the great legacy of the old travel narratives. An evening or so devoted to reading descriptions of former landscapes makes present­-day landscapes far more intelligible. Old travel narratives are indeed more intriguing than old love letters. because one can still see the shadows of the past and reach out and touch them.


John R. Stilgoe is an assistant professor of visual and en­vironmental studies and landscape architecture at Harvard University. Currently, he is preparing a history of the American man-made environment, Common Landscape, which is to be released this year by Yale University Press.