A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that one should have some excuse for being away from the office on a working afternoon. September sunshine and trembling blue air are not sufficient reasons, it seems. Therefore, if any one should brutally ask what I was doing the other day dangling down Chestnut Street toward the river, I should have to reply, “Looking for the Wenonah.” The Wenonah, you will immediately conclude, is a moving picture theater. But be patient a moment.
Lower Chestnut Street is a delightful place for one who does not get down there very often. The face of wholesale trade, dingier than the glitter of uptown shops, is far more exciting and romantic. Pavements are cumbered with vast packing cases; whiffs of tea and spice well up from cool cellars. Below Second Street I found a row of enormous sacks across the curb, with bright red and green wool pushing through holes in the burlap. Such signs as WOOL, NOILS AND WASTE are frequent. I wonder what noils are? A big sign on Front Street proclaims TEA CADDIES, which has a pleasant grandmotherly flavor. A little brass plate, gleamingly polished, says HONORARY CONSULATE OF JAPAN. Beside immense motor trucks stood a shabby little horse and buggy, restored to service, perhaps, by the war-time shortage of gasoline. It was a typical one-horse shay of thirty years ago.
I crossed over to Camden on the ferryboat Wildwood, observing in the course of the voyage her sisters, Bridgeton, Camden, Salem and Hammonton. It is curious that no matter where one goes, one will always meet people who are traveling there for the first time. A small boy next to me was gazing in awe at the stalwart tower of the Victor Company, and snuffing with pleasure the fragrance of cooking tomatoes that makes Camden savory at this time of year. Wagonloads of ripe Jersey tomatoes making their way to the soup factory are a jocund sight across the river just now.
Every ferry passenger is familiar with the rapid tinkling of the ratchet wheel that warps the landing stage up to the level of the boat’s deck. I asked the man who was running the wheel where I would find the Wenonah. “She lays over in the old Market Street slip,” he replied, and cheerfully showed me just where to find her. “Is she still used?” I asked. “Mostly on Saturday nights and holidays,” he said, “when there’s a big crowd going across.”
The Wenonah, as all Camden seafarers know, is a ferryboat, one of the old-timers, and I was interested in her because she and her sister, the Beverly, were Walt Whitman’s favorite ferries. He crossed back and forth on them hundreds of times and has celebrated them in several paragraphs in Specimen Days. Perhaps this is the place to quote his memorandum dated January 12, 1882, which ought to interest all lovers of the Camden ferry:
“Such a show as the Delaware presented an hour before sundown yesterday evening, all along between Philadelphia and Camden, is worth weaving into an item. It was full tide, a fair breeze from the southwest, the water of a pale tawny color, and just enough motion to make things frolicsome and lively. Add to these an approaching sunset of unusual splendor, a broad tumble of clouds, with much golden haze and profusion of beaming shaft and dazzle. In the midst of all, in the clear drab of the afternoon light, there steamed up the river the large new boat, the Wenonah, as pretty an object as you could wish to see, lightly and swiftly skimming along, all trim and white, covered with flags, transparent red and blue streaming out in the breeze. Only a new ferryboat, and yet in its fitness comparable with the prettiest product of Nature’s cunning, and rivaling it. High up in the transparent ether gracefully balanced and circled four or five great sea hawks, while here below, mid the pomp and picturesqueness of sky and river, swam this creature of artificial beauty and motion and power, in its way no less perfect.”