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Young Elliott Dangerfield’s Trip Down the Cape Fear

12 Jul

[mp3]

…, I chose a morning in early January, eighteen hundred and eighty, and , after a tearful farewell, with my father I walked to the boat landing, and so set my face towards an Art career, and New York City.

Part 2.  New York.  Page I.

I stood on the river bank, the old Cape Fear River.  To me it was more than river.  It was the great dividing line between my youth and what was to come.  I had said farewell to mother, relatives, friends and all the scenes of youth.  My father was with me but a great loneliness gripped me.  What did the future hold?  Was my education sufficient to justify the faith I seemed to have in myself?  These thoughts beset me.  None but my mother thought me wise or right in any way.  She gave me her blessing and in turn I promised her that I would see her each year at some time if it were possible.  To the others who doubted I said, “I’ll give myself ten years, if  by then I have not proved my fitness to be an artist I’ll come back and take that forty dollars – a – month clerkship which looks so big to you”.

The steamer lay at the wharf.  One hundred and twenty miles down stream was Wilmington, where I should find a through train to the far-off North where I was to make a place for myself.  The steamer was, I thought, a great one.  I know now that it was a little flat bottomed stern wheel  boat captained by a white man and manned by negroes.  The whistle blew, I said good-by to my father and walked up the gangplank and so began that new career which was to rest entirely upon my own efforts.  Often since that day I’ve wished for the power to write the story of that trip down the river, the wildness and the weirdness of it all.  I had gone up to the passenger deck, had located my belongings in the stateroom which was to be mine, for this was to be at least a two days’ trip, maybe longer.  Everything was white and clean.  The profit of those river boats was not in the passengers but in the freight which was rosin, turpentine and such things known as naval stores.  The travel was slow, the water at many places very shallow, and the crew would leap into the water and push and pull and from the lower decks pole with long poles until the shallows were past.  The fuel for the engine was of course, wood.  We would draw up to the bank where great cords of pine wood were heaped and there, a line from wood to deck was formed and, keeping time with their songs the negroes would pass the four foot lengths of cord wood from man to man and, so pile the deck, near the engine.  Happy, cheerful, those black giants made light of this labor and, when, later we would draw up to a landing, above which the gaunt outlines of a distillery were seen, a great, broad shouldered Hercules would start at the top of the hill and with a barrel of rosin on its side hold in check hundreds of other barrels which were rolled against his first barrel.  Slowly he worked it down toward the boat.  Often he would have one or two hundred barrels pressing against the first.  As the line reached the boat others of the crew would swing them on end and arrange them in orderly fashion until the whole number rolled on board.  It was a most picturesque sight and constantly recurring, even at night until the full cargo was on board.

There were few passenger to disturb my thoughts or to beguile me, and though I had keen interest in all the sights and incidents of the journey I was conscious, with its accompanying depression, of just what I was doing.  The step had been taken of my own volition and I did not intend either to turn back or to let anyone know that I was depressed.  So I looked out over this almost tropical river and grew more and more steadfast in my plans.  I had another and very real reason for going to Wilmington, other than the railroad.  Judge French and his daughter lived there.  I wanted her to know why I sought the golden fleece.  These things were fully in my mind and they helped to quell the blue cramp in my heart.

The long hours went by.  The steward knew me and was all attention and the meals in the little dining room were of a sort to satisfy even a hungry boy’s heart – and his stomach.

On the second morning when I waked up we were along side the dock in Wilmington.  I looked out from my cabin upon tall masts and many vessels.  The city, which seemed very great to me, came down to the docks and the wharves were filled with thousands of barrels of rosin, a source of wealth in the South which is all but gone… “

[Excerpt from the Autobiography of Elliott Dangerfield.]

NOTES:  Image of Elliot Daingerfield c1890 and one of his works, “Carolina Sunlight” c1915. His first wife, Roberta Strange French, died during childbirth in 1891.

Entrance to Reynolda House MuseumSpirit of the Storm c1912 on display at Reynolda House Museum in Winston Salem.

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