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"Floating Down the River On the O-hi-o"
by [?]

There was not much promise of pleasure in the sodden afternoon of a mid- March day at Pittsburg, where the smoke of a thousand foundry chimneys gave up trying to rise through the thick, soft air, and fell with the constant rain which it dyed its own black. But early memories stirred joyfully in the two travellers in whose consciousness I was making my tour, at sight of the familiar stern-wheel steamboat lying beside the wharf boat at the foot of the dilapidated levee, and doing its best to represent the hundreds of steamboats that used to lie there in the old days. It had the help of three others in its generous effort, and the levee itself made a gallant pretence of being crowded with freight, and succeeded in displaying several saturated piles of barrels and agricultural implements on the irregular pavement whose wheel-worn stones, in long stretches, were sunken out of sight in their parent mud. The boats and the levee were jointly quite equal to the demand made upon them by the light-hearted youngsters of sixty-five and seventy, who were setting out on their journey in fulfilment of a long-cherished dream, and for whom much less freight and much fewer boats would have rehabilitated the past.


When they mounted the broad stairway, tidily strewn with straw to save it from the mud of careless boots, and entered the long saloon of the steamboat, the promise of their fancy was more than made good for them. From the clerk’s office, where they eagerly paid their fare, the saloon stretched two hundred feet by thirty away to the stern, a cavernous splendor of white paint and gilding, starred with electric bulbs, and fenced at the stern with wide windows of painted glass. Midway between the great stove in the bow where the men were herded, and the great stove at the stern where the women kept themselves in the seclusion which the tradition of Western river travel still guards, after well-nigh a hundred years, they were given ample state-rooms, whose appointments so exactly duplicated those they remembered from far-off days that they could have believed themselves awakened from a dream of insubstantial time, with the events in which it had seemed to lapse, mere feints of experience. When they sat down at the supper-table and were served with the sort of belated steamboat dinner which it recalled as vividly, the kind, sooty faces and snowy aprons of those who served them were so quite those of other days that they decided all repasts since were mere Barmecide feasts, and made up for the long fraud practised upon them with the appetites of the year 1850.


A rigider sincerity than shall be practised here might own that the table of the good steamboat ‘Avonek’ left something to be desired, if tested by more sophisticated cuisines, but in the article of corn-bread it was of an inapproachable preeminence. This bread was made of the white corn which North knows not, nor the hapless East; and the buckwheat cakes at breakfast were without blame, and there was a simple variety in the abundance which ought to have satisfied if it did not flatter the choice. The only thing that seemed strangely, that seemed sadly, anomalous in a land flowing with ham and bacon was that the ‘Avonek’ had not imagined providing either for the guests, no one of whom could have had a religious scruple against them.

The thing, indeed, which was first and last conspicuous in the passengers, was their perfectly American race and character. At the start, when with an acceptable observance of Western steamboat tradition the ‘Avonek’ left her wharf eight hours behind her appointed time, there were very few passengers; but they began to come aboard at the little towns of both shores as she swam southward and westward, till all the tables were so full that, in observance of another Western steamboat tradition; one did well to stand guard over his chair lest some other who liked it should seize it earlier. The passengers were of every age and condition, except perhaps the highest condition, and they seemed none the worse for being more like Americans of the middle of the last century than of the beginning of this. Their fashions were of an approximation to those of the present, but did not scrupulously study detail; their manners were those of simpler if not sincerer days.