Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

How Franklin Came to Philadelphia

To-day we may make our way from New York to Philadelphia in a two-hour "Flyer," with palace-car accommodations. To-morrow, perhaps, the journey will be made in ninety minutes. Such, at least, is the nearly-realized dream of railroad-men. A century and a half ago this journey took considerably more time, and was made with much less comfort. There is on record an interesting narrative of how the trip was made in 1723, which is worth giving as a contrast to present conditions.

The traveller was no less notable a personage than Benjamin Franklin, who, much to the after-advantage of the Quaker City, had run away from too severe an apprenticeship in Boston, failed to obtain employment in New York, and learned that work might be had in Philadelphia. The story of how he came thither cannot be told better than in his own homely language, so we will suffer him to speak for himself.


Printing-press at Which Franklin Worked when a Boy.

"Philadelphia was one hundred miles farther; I set out, however, in a boat for Amboy, leaving my chest and things to follow me round by sea. In crossing the bay, we met with a squall that tore our rotten sail to pieces, prevented our getting into the Kill, and drove us upon Long Island. In our way a drunken Dutchman, who was a passenger too, fell overboard; when he was sinking, I reached through the water to his shock pate and drew him up, so that we got him in again. His ducking sobered him a little, and he went to sleep, taking first out of his pocket a book, which he desired I would dry for him."

The book proved to be the "Pilgrim's Progress," in Dutch, well printed, and with copper-plate illustrations, a fact which greatly interested the book-loving traveller.

"On approaching the island, we found it was a place where there could be no landing, there being a great surge on the stony beach. So we dropped anchor, and swung out our cable towards the shore. Some people came down to the shore, and hallooed to us, as we did to them; but the wind was so high, and the surge so loud, that we could not understand each other. There were some small boats near the shore, and we made signs, and called to them to fetch us; but they either did not comprehend us, or it was impracticable, so they went off.

"Night approaching, we had no remedy but to have patience till the wind abated, and in the mean time the boatman and myself concluded to sleep, if we could; and so we crowded into the hatches, where we joined the Dutchman, who was still wet, and the spray, breaking over the head of our boat, leaked through to us, so that we were soon almost as wet as he. In this manner we lay all night, with very little rest; but the wind abating the next day, we made a shift to reach Amboy before night, having been thirty hours on the water, without victuals, or any drink but a bottle of filthy rum, the water we sailed on being salt."

The story seems hard to credit. The travellers had already spent fifteen times the period it now takes to make the complete journey, and were but fairly started; while they had experienced almost as much hardship as though they were wrecked mariners, cast upon a desolate coast. The remainder of the journey was no less wearisome. The traveller thus continues his narrative:

"In the evening I found myself very feverish, and went to bed; but having read somewhere that cold water drunk plentifully was good for a fever, I followed the prescription, and sweat plentifully most of the night. My fever left me, and in the morning, crossing the ferry, I proceeded on my journey on foot, having fifty miles to go to Burlington, where I was told I should find boats that would carry me the rest of the way to Philadelphia.

"It rained very hard all the day; I was thoroughly soaked, and by noon a good deal tired; so I stopped at a poor inn, where I stayed all night, beginning now to wish I had never left home. I made so miserable a figure, too, that I found, by the questions asked me, I was suspected to be some runaway indentured servant, and in danger of being taken up on that suspicion. However, I proceeded next day, and in the evening got to an inn, within eight or ten miles of Burlington, kept by one Dr. Brown. He entered into conversation with me while I took some refreshment, and, finding I had read a little, became very obliging and friendly. Our acquaintance continued all the rest of his life. He had been, I imagine, an ambulatory quack doctor, for there was no town in England, nor any country in Europe, of which he could not give a very particular account. He had some letters, and was ingenious, but he was an infidel, and wickedly undertook, some years after, to turn the Bible into doggerel verse, as Cotton had formerly done with Virgil. By this means he set many facts in a ridiculous light, and might have done mischief with weak minds if his work had been published, but it never was.

"At his house I lay that night, and arrived the next morning at Burlington, but had the mortification to find that the regular boats were gone a little before, and no other expected to go before Tuesday, this being Saturday, wherefore I returned to an old woman in the town, of whom I had bought some gingerbread to eat on the water, and asked her advice. She proposed to lodge me till a passage by some other boat occurred. I accepted her offer, being much fatigued by travelling on foot. Understanding I was a printer, she would have had me remain in that town and follow my business, being ignorant what stock was necessary to begin with. She was very hospitable, gave me a dinner of ox-cheek with great good-will, accepting only of a pot of ale in return; and I thought myself fixed till Tuesday should come.

"However, walking in the evening by the side of the river, a boat came by which I found was going towards Philadelphia, with several people in her. They took me in, and, as there was no wind, we rowed all the way; and about midnight, not having yet seen the city, some of the company were confident we must have passed it, and would row no farther; the others knew not where we were; so we put towards the shore, got into a creek, landed near an old fence, with the rails of which we made a fire, the night being cold, in October, and there we remained till daylight. Then one of the company knew the place to be Cooper's Creek, a little above Philadelphia, which we saw as soon as we got out of the creek, and arrived there about eight or nine o'clock on the Sunday morning, and landed at Market Street wharf."

The closing portion of this na´ve narrative is as interesting in its way as the opening. The idea that Philadelphia could be passed in the darkness and not discovered seems almost ludicrous when we consider its present many miles of river front, and the long-drawn-out glow of illumination which it casts across the stream. Nothing could be more indicative of its village-like condition at the time of Franklin's arrival, and its enormous growth since. Nor are the incidents and conditions of the journey less striking. The traveller, making the best time possible to him, had been nearly five full days on the way, and had experienced a succession of hardships which would have thrown many men into a sick-bed at the end. It took youth, health, and energy to accomplish the difficult passage from New York to Philadelphia in that day; a journey which we now make between breakfast and dinner, with considerable time for business in the interval. Verily, the world moves. But to return to our traveller's story.

"I have been the more particular in this description of my journey, and shall be so of my first entry into that city, that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there. I was in my working-dress, my best clothes coming round by sea. I was dirty from my being so long in the boat. My pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no one, nor where to look for lodging. Fatigued with walking, rowing, and the want of sleep, I was very hungry; and my whole stock of cash consisted in a single dollar, and about a shilling in copper coin, which I gave to the boatmen for my passage. At first they refused it, on account of my having rowed, but I insisted on their taking it. Man is sometimes more generous when he has little money than when he has plenty; perhaps to prevent his being thought to have but little.

"I walked towards the top of the street, gazing about till near Market Street, where I met a boy with bread. I had often made a meal of dry bread, and, inquiring where he had bought it, I went immediately to the baker's he directed me to. I asked for biscuits, meaning such as we had at Boston; that sort, it seems, was not made in Philadelphia. I then asked for a three-penny loaf, and was told they had none. Not knowing the different prices, nor the names of the different sorts of bread, I told him to give me three-penny-worth of any sort. He gave me, accordingly, three great puffy rolls. I was surprised at the quantity, but took it, and having no room in my pockets, walked off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other.

"Thus I went up Market Street as far as Fourth Street, passing by the door of Mr. Read, my future wife's father, when she, standing at the door, saw me, and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward, ridiculous appearance. Then I turned and went down Chestnut Street, and part of Walnut Street, eating my roll all the way, and, coming round, found myself again at Market Street wharf, near the boat I came in, to which I went for a draught of the river-water, and, being filled with one of my rolls, gave the other two to a woman and her child that came down the river in the boat with us, and were waiting to go farther.

"Thus refreshed, I walked again up the street, which by this time had many cleanly-dressed people in it, who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and was thereby led into the great meeting-house of the Quakers, near the market. I sat down among them, and, after looking round a while and hearing nothing said, became very drowsy through labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep, and continued so till the meeting broke up, when some one was kind enough to arouse me. This, therefore, was the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia."

There is nothing more simple, homely, and attractive in literature than Franklin's autobiographical account of the first period of his life, of which we have transcribed a portion, nor nothing more indicative of the great changes which time has produced in the conditions of this country, and which it produced in the life of our author. As for his journey from New York to Philadelphia, it presents, for the time involved, as great a series of adventures and hardships as does Stanley's recent journey through Central Africa. And as regards his own history, the contrast between the Franklin of 1723 and 1783 was as great as that which has come upon the city of his adoption. There is something amusingly ludicrous in the picture of the great Franklin, soiled with travel, a dollar in his pocket representing his entire wealth, walking up Market Street with two great rolls of bread under his arms and gnawing hungrily at a third; while his future wife peers from her door, and laughs to herself at this awkward youth, who looked as if he had never set foot on city street before.

We can hardly imagine this to be the Franklin who afterwards became the associate of the great and the admired of nations, who argued the cause of America before the assembled notables of England, who played a leading part in the formation of the Constitution of the United States, and to whom Philadelphia owes several of its most thriving and useful institutions. Millions of people have since poured into the City of Brotherly Love, but certainly no other journey thither has been nearly so momentous in its consequences as the humble one above described.

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