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Summer Suns in the Far West
Chapter III. Prairie, and Colorado Rockies

WE took our tickets by the Chicago and Union Pacific line right from Chicago to our final destination, Los Angeles, with “stop-over” rights by the way; and I have to acknowledge the courtesy of the railway authorities, both of this and other American lines, in allowing me to travel at the rates which clergymen of the country are usually charged. We left Chicago about mid-day, and nothing could have been more delightful than the motion of the Pullman car in which we had our seats. Whether it had more india-rubber in its construction than other cars, or whether the level surface of the prairie made it run more smoothly, certain it is that its motion was hardly more perceptible than that of the earth itself. We moved all afternoon and evening through the pleasant prairie country, admiring the level fields, and the soil as rich and soft and loose as if it were all mole-heaps, looking as if the plough might glide through it as easily as a boat through water. It was easy now to understand how these prairies were so admirably adapted for raising grain and cattle. About seven in the evening we came on the Mississippi. It was our first sight of the king of waters. I am afraid I am of very gross temperament, for the sight impressed me but little. There was of course a large body of water, but what one missed was some visible mark of imperial grandeur. There were no high hanks like those of the Rhine, no impetuous defiant rush like the rapids of Niagara, no visible memorials of majesty and power. You need to draw on your logical faculty, your multiplication table, and your imagination to realize the vastness of the Mississippi, and its claim as king of waters. But it is truly a grand river, and a man feels himself bigger after he has seen it.

Most of the state of Iowa we traversed during the night. It is inevitable in American travelling that you lose a good deal by travelling in the dark. There is some fine scenery, I believe, near Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, but most of the road is over prairie. In the morning we were approaching another great river, the Missouri. The “bluffs” in the Missouri valley are conspicuous and attractive'. “Council Bluffs” is the name of a thriving little city. On the other side of the Missouri is the quite recent and very flourishing city of Omaha, the capital of another state, Nebraska, which is separated from Iowa by the river.

Not very many years ago, “west of the Missouri” meant something like “the back o’ beyond,” in old country phrase. It is here that “new America” begins. Professor Freeman might have added another England to his list, and found four Englands instead of three. I used often when in America to repeat his remark that the English were all one people; that wherever they lived was England; that the first England was the little territory between Denmark and Prussia whence the Angli sprang; the second England the island in the German Ocean where the first set of immigrants settled; and the third, commonly called New England, the shores of the continent where another body of emigrants of the same stock made their home. What I claim as the fourth England is the region west of the Missouri, peopled substantially by the same race. And without prejudice to the merits of all the earlier Englands, these “new Englanders,” as they may emphatically be called, who have made their home in this far west, have got a country that for gifts of nature may hold its head as high, if not higher, than any of them.

We knew that a group of half-German half-Scotch cousins, who were settled some forty miles from Omaha, would give us a very cordial welcome, and we resolved to spend a day with them. Before our train started, we had time to take “a hack” and drive through Omaha and its suburbs. I need not say it was a place undreamt of when I learned my geography. But in truth what could geography say, in my day, of that chain of remarkable cities—Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and Salt Lake City—that are the great landmarks between New York and San Francisco? What could it say of San Francisco itself? Omaha has been made by the Pacific Railway Company. The bluffs about it afford ample variety of ground, and form fine sites for public buildings and private villas. I do not know whether the massive mercantile blocks in the centre of such towns or the beautiful villas in the suburbs give one the more vivid idea of prosperity. It struck me, not with reference to Omaha merely, but the suburbs of other cities, that American architects must have been giving great attention of late to villa architecture. Many a chaste and beautiful design we saw from first to last; but as all the villas, at least with very few exceptions, are of wood, the architect has a more pliable material to deal with than in the old country, and yet I should think that he is far from having exhausted the forms of which villa architecture is susceptible in wood.

Our cousins were settled some five miles from a station called Newaka, on a new line of railway. Meeting us was the inevitable “buggy,” and we drove pleasantly over primitive roads, very agreeable when not too dusty, utterly innocent of macadamizing or any such barbarous process; first because there were no stones to macadamize with, and second, because the traffic was not great enough to require it. The group of cousins embraced three families, two of them farmers, the third, who prided himself on bearing the very name of the Irish Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, was postmaster. All of them were living simple, primitive, unconventional lives, the farmers their own landlords and their own tenants and servants too; for unless a man have a larger farm than the ordinary, he has to do his own work outside, while the womankind in like manner have to do all within. Whether the outcome of this mode of living shall be comfortable or comfortless, is by no means certain, but, as we say, depends. Diligence thrives, idleness wastes. One of the houses was a model of good order and comfort. The owner, still a youngish man, emigrated in childhood with his family from Germany: and his father having died from wounds received in the civil war, our friend began life on his own account with but a handful of dollars. But he was careful, steady, and laborious, and worked his way upwards till now he has a very desirable farm and a most comfortable establishment. This gentleman told us that to save housebuilding when he had no money to spare for it, he had lived at first in a sort of cave hollowed out from a steep hillside. After occupying this mansion for a while, a spring of water sprang up in the bottom of it, and however he might dodge it, or coax it to run off, or place big stones on the floor on which to step, the thing became too bad, and he had to abandon it for another dwelling. Prosperous men like our friend have a handy way of immortalizing themselves. Some publisher or speculator will get up a county history in a large quarto volume. Yes; even there, there are already county histories. A canvasser goes round the county, and to every man who subscribes five dollars promises a notice of his farm, while twenty or twenty-five dollars insures a place in the volume for the likeness of the subscriber. If you are not acquainted with this private arrangement, you will be at a loss to understand how these undistinguished prairies should possess so many distinguished men.

Next afternoon we return from Newaka to Omaha, and in the evening we are again in motion for Denver, the capital of Colorado. Again the night hides from us the prairies of Nebraska, as it had hid those of Iowa. The fine agricultural land of the east gives place after a time to the rich grazing country of the west, till next day we get among the “sand-hills” of Colorado, and have our first experience of the desert. It was a dreary day. Sometimes no more than a single shanty could be discerned all around. At other times, through some mysterious cause, probably the neighbourhood of a mine, we came on quite a little town. It was strange in such a situation to find a large wooden building surmounted in bold letters with the words “Theatre 55 01* “Opera House," indicating the irrepressible love of amusement, made more intense no doubt by the monotony all around. More interesting to us was the belfry of the village school, or the spire of the village church. Very eloquent in such a place is the little home of the Christian Church. It attests the presence of men and women to whom getting rich is not the chief end of life, or who, at least, are conscious that it ought not so to be. We silently blessed the men who had planted it; and there arose a prayer from our hearts that these dwellers in the wilderness, who seemed to have so little to vary their earthly life, might enjoy much fellowship with Heaven, and find their souls refreshed, Sabbath by Sabbath, from the river that makes glad the city of our God.

But the longest lane has its turning. The Rocky Mountains heave in sight, and thrill you with a new sensation.

And at last you are in Denver, and find handsome and comfortable quarters in the Lincoln Hotel.

Denver is quite a remarkable city. Its prosperity is due mainly to the mineral treasures of Colorado; but its singularly exhilarating atmosphere and the glorious scenery of the Rocky Mountains all around have helped it on. It is finely situated on commanding plateaus; has wide streets and handsome blocks of warehouses and stores, and no end of pretty villas in the suburbs. We spent an afternoon riding through its streets and suburbs; but we were unfortunate in weather, for the evening was wet, and on the following morning there was snow. The wet weather brought out in perfection one of the outstanding features of Denver—its muddy streets. It was certainly a peculiar experience to find a city of some one hundred thousand inhabitants, with numberless tokens of prosperity and progress, in which the carriage-way of the streets was in a state of nature, and no lady could cross without having her boots encased in mud. We were glad to know that the Denver authorities had wakened up to this condition of things, and that steps were about to be taken for having the streets fixed.”

Denver was inundated that evening by a swarm of railway conductors, who were holding a convention and enjoying an excursion. “Conductors” are greater men than railway guards are with us. Mysterious badges worn by half the ladies and gentlemen in the Lincoln Hotel resolved themselves into symbols of this fraternity. We realized the significance of this convention the following night, for when we went to the Pullman office to secure sleeping-berths, we found to our disgust that all were taken. And when we got into the train next morning, we could hardly get places anywhere.

Denver is not only the capital of the great mining industries of Colorado, but also a centre of wonderfully fine scenery. We had taken our tickets by the Rio Grande route, because it passes over the sublimest scenery of the Rocky Mountains; and during the whole of the day our course lay through a constant succession of grandeur and glory. Happily, at a junction not very far from Denver, many of our fellow-passengers left us, so that we had room enough during the remainder of our journey. Now we would dash through canyons or gorges, wild as the Devil’s Bridge in Switzerland, formed by a narrow slit in the mountain, with high perpendicular precipices oil either side; and now through passes beautiful as that of Killiecrankie, but of a vastness and variety that dwarfed all other scenery. The engine rushed wildly into the canyons, dragging the train after it, even though it might seem that our further progress was absolutely barred by the meeting of the rocks; but it found a way of winding through, though at times the road had to be supported on brackets fastened to the rock, and at other times kept in position by stanchions fixed overhead on the other wall of the chasm. So wonderful are the passes through which the line is carried that the train obligingly stops at various points to give you a more deliberate view; at one place you change into what is called a “prospect” or open carriage, in order to have a better view of the wonderful scenery. Further on in the day, the train begins to climb the mountains until it roaches an altitude of nearly ten thousand feet above the sea-level. The gradients are so steep that it has to be divided in two, and an extra engine attached to the bigger part of it. It is Glen Ogle multiplied a hundredfold. Never does the iron horse appear so noble an animal as when he dashes at the mountain side, and tears along its precipices, dragging his load after him as if it were but a feather; then turns and doubles on himself, zig-zagging his course, till he has carried you to the top of the first height, and looking down you see the wonderful succession of terraces along which he has borne you. Without stopping to draw breath, he plunges, like Fitz-James’s stag, into a bosky thicket, whirls you round a corner, and bravely sets himself to drag you. Up another reach of the mighty mountain, and so on until he has reached the top. Nightfall comes before the marvellous scenery is exhausted; but if you are favoured with moonlight you can see that your course is still through precipitous gorges and along banks of mountain streams, making you wish that, as in Joshua’s days, the sun had only stood still for an hour or two to make their beauties more apparent.

At last you take to your night quarters. You look out in the morning—and where are you? In a very wilderness of sand! Nothing can exceed the desolation. And through this wilderness you are carried most of the day, but with new features of wonder breaking in upon you. For not only do you see against the sky a waving line of snow-clad, summits, but nearer you the sandstone hills are rising in every variety of picturesque form, great ranges of Salisbury Crags, often with level battlements piled atop, and natural bits of crag that look like Tantallan. Castles, or the ruined fortresses on “the castellated hill.” Your engine needs to make another series of great efforts to pull you over the mountains; but at last, as evening again draws on, you are in the plain of Utah. That lake gleaming brightly on your left is Utah Lake—not the Salt Lake, however, which is considerably more to the north. You think of the poor Mormon pilgrims who had to do this journey on foot through weeks and months, amid heat and thirst and pain. The traditions are yet fresh of that terrible journey. A friend who has lived long in Salt Lake City told us of one poor woman who suffered fearfully from an internal ailment, but was whipped off if she ventured even to lay her hand on a waggon; and of another who lost the power of her limbs, and had to be carried by one of her companions on her back. All accounts testify to the Napoleon-like ability of Brigham Young, controlling and directing not only this march, but the whole operations of the colony, by his marvellous sagacity and inflexible will.

But Utah and Salt Lake City must be reserved for another chapter.

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