‘A Dundee Working Man on America — No. 4.’ by a Correspondent in New York (18 February, 1882)

The following is part of a series of articles on the condition of the United States of America for working class Scottish immigrants. One of the core tenants of The People’s Journal was to encourage self-improvement for the working classes. For these reason the paper would regularly promote emigration and provide news  and publish correspondence from the major destination of Scots in the period (the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Here the discussion focuses on transportation and church fundraising.

Canal Boats, Bazaars, and Tram Cars.

To the Editor of the People’s Journal.

                Sir,—In your Journal of December 17 I read a letter signed “Christian Democrat,” in which he draws a deplorable picture from a deplorable book entitled “Canal Adventures by Moonlight,” written by a Fellow of the Society of Arts with deplorable boots on, in which it appears that canal life in England is one of the most brutalising, immoral, and debasing occupations that can be imagined. If the state of canalers in England is one-tenth as bad as Mr Smith and “Christian Democrat” have painted it I wish them Godspeed in trying to remedy it. I have never been among canalers in England, but I have been among them here, both by moonlight and sunlight, and there must be a marked difference betwixt them here and in England. The canal trade in the State of New York is one of great importance in the summer time. The Superintendent of Canals issues orders every year when the canals are to be opened and when shut for traffic. This is on account of the frost. Last year they opened on the 10th of May and closed on the 15th of December. The year before, the frost came on before closing time, and all the boats that ply between New York and Buffalo—500 miles—were all frozen in in one night, and had to remain wherever they were until the spring of the year came to relieve them. The boats are of large dimensions, carrying large freights of coal, timber, wheat, iron, &c. They have got stables for their horses or mules (of which there are a great many in canal trade) on board at the forward part of the boat. There are always two on board and two on the bank towing the boat. They are relieved along with the drivers (of whom there are two) every six hours. Night and day, Sabbath and Saturday, there are generally two men on board, besides the captain, his wife, and family. There is a sleeping cabin about the middle of the boat for these men along with the drivers. The after-cabin is for the captain and family. The captain’s wife is cook, and all hands mess together in this cabin, which, as a rule, is kept scrupulously neat and clean, the children neat and tidy, and, although the life is necessarily a rough one, yet they seem to be well pleased with the lot assigned them.

“But how it comes, I never kenn’d yet,

They’re maistly wonderfu’ contented;

And [illegible] and clever hizzies

Are bred in sic a way as this is”

They are very hospitable, and will seldom refuse you a ride in their boat, as they term it, or a share in the good things in the cabin at dinner or supper time. In winter they try to get to where they belong to, and then they use their teams in drawing ice from the rivers to the ice houses, or drawing wood, or any other jobs they can get. I got acquainted with lots of them last winter, and found them good decent citizens. All the canals around large cities are used for skating rinks and ponds during winter.

The mode of conducting church fairs or bazaars, is as follows:—Some one having an interest in the bazaar makes a presentation of a whip, a pair of boots, a sewing machine, an easy chair, or any such article, then the Committee choose two prominent members of the church who have a great deal of influence with people both outside of and belonging to the church. These two are candidates to win the article, and whoever gets most votes gets the article. But the votes are sold at 5 cents each. Each candidate of course has his friends, and each party to show their respect for their friends rally round their partisans by buying votes. Any one can buy as many as he chooses. When I was working in the town of Owego, there was a church fair held there. An easy chair, probably costing 10 or 15 dollars, was the article voted for. The Committee chose two foremen of large moulding shops, and prominent members of the church, as candidates. The voting was most keen, as all the men belonging to the two different foundries went into the contest with great gusto. The result was that the net proceeds amounted to nearly 600 dollars. If the church or any other bazaar partisans in Dundee have not tried this plan yet, I would advise them the next out [?] have anything to do with to go and do likewise. [?] There is another way practised here in getting church funds augmented, viz., by disposing of church seats by public auction. In Plymouth Church (Henry Ward Beecher’s) the seats were sold recently. We are told that Mr Beecher took no part in the proceedings after introducing the auctioneer. The terms of the sale were:—“That the choice of all seats in the house was offered without reservation to previous occupants to the highest bidder. No bids accepted from those in arrears. The pews and seats to be rented with the understanding that if not occupied at least ten minutes before the commencement of services, they might be assigned to strangers. All regular attendants at the church are expected to rent sittings in order that the large current expenses may be shared by the whole congregation.” Last year the first choice for a pew was sold for 700 dollars, the next for 675 dollars, and so on. These two first bidders actually paid £2 16s and £2 14s respectively for every Sabbath in the year for a pew in the church. O Christianity! Christianity! what fanaticism is carried on in they name! This year they are cheaper, and I think your readers will agree with me in thinking that there was room for a reduction. The great Dr Talmage has commenced the same plan this year. The largest Presbyterian Church in Rochester and many others through the country are started on the same footing. It is a pity that church-going emigrants cannot bring their church pews along with them.

In almost every town of any size there is a Young Men’s Christian Association, open from 8 A.M. to 10 P.M., and in them are large reading-rooms free to young and old, rich and poor. They contain all sorts of newspapers and magazines, the rooms are nicely lit up and kept warm with stoves, every one is made welcome, and much of the information given in these letters have I got in the rooms of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

In writing you some letters first when I came to this country, I complained about the dirty way the streets in American towns are kept. I am sorry to say I have not seen anything in the way of improvement yet. The pavement or sidewalk, the most of which is of wood, is not so bad, but the centres of the streets are simply horrid. One cannot go over the street at any place the same as you can do at home. You have to go to the end of a “block,” as it is termed, where there is a crossing laid with either wood or stone. There you can cross without going much up above the ankles in mud. On the sidewalk are all sorts of boxes, barrels, signboards (set up in gravestone fashion), barbers poles, tobacconists’ dummies, furniture, boots and shoes, groceries, and a host of other things too numerous to mention. There is a law against this obstruction; but what of that? It is like many more laws—it is a deed letter. “This is a free country.”

Rochester has less than a hundred thousand inhabitants, yet it covers far more ground than Dundee. This creates a large traffic in street cars. The city is a regular net-work of street cars—five cents, is the charge for a ride with them, but you get a long way for your five cents. When you enter a car you see a box with a slit in it like a letter box; above this is a painted notice telling passengers on no account to pay money to the driver (he is the only one in charge of the car), but to put your fare in the box yourself. This box has a shelf or false bottom about the middle, and a glass face which is next the driver. When you put in your fare the driver looks to see if it is right; then he touches a spring and the money drops down to the bottom proper, and the false bottom goes up again ready for the next fare. Nobody can open the box unless those in the Car Office who have a right to do so. If you require change you put your hand is a small opening at the driver’s back, this rings a small bell calling his attention to you. You hand him your half dollar or what ever you want changed, and he hands back your full change in a small envelope made up at the office for the purpose. You drop your money into the box and take your meat. There is a small cord, to which are attached straps of leather, on each side of the car. This communicates with a bell beside the driver. When you want to get off at any point you pull this strap. This rings the boll, and the car stops; at the same moment the driver turns a lever, which in its turn is attached to an iron rod. This rod goes along the top of the car inside and opens the door, when the passenger alights. The driver turns his lever, the door is shut, and on you go. Everything goes on like clock work, and the poor driver can make no “cabbage” in our street cars. There are no outside passengers here, the millionaire and shoeblack can sit side by side.—I am, &c.,

Rochester, N.Y.

Correspondent.

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