See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens' Eyes
See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes

Larry Holzwarth - January 14, 2020

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Pennsylvania’s canal system used both water and rails to move goods and passengers. Wikimedia

11. Dickens described the canal boat as a “barge with a little house on it”

The canal boat on which Dickens traveled westward toward the mountains was crowded with passengers bound for Pittsburgh. The morning after departure from Harrisburg they reached the Allegheny Portage Railroad. From his side of the railroad, the canal flowed back to Harrisburg. On the other side of the Portage a canal connected with Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Portage Railroad connected the two canals, shifting passengers and freight from one to the other. When Charles Dickens arrived at its base it had been in operation for just eight years, during which time it had become a tourist destination of its own.

Dickens traversed the Alleghenies by leaving the canal boat and transferring to cars, which were pulled up the first of five inclines by a stationary steam engine. Upon reaching level grade mules were attached to the cars, usually in trains of two or three, and pulled to the next incline, where they were again attached to a steam engine for the next ascent. At the time Dickens used the railroad, the lines used to pull the cars were of hemp. Later in 1842, they were replaced with steel wires manufactured nearby by John Roebling. Roebling was already advocating the use of the steel wires in the construction of suspension bridges for use by railroads and horse-drawn traffic.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
The Allegheny Portage Railroad connected Philadelphia and Pittsburgh when traveling on the Main Line Canal. National Park Service

12. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was a short-lived convenience

The Allegheny Portage Railroad reversed the process to descend the mountain on the other side. Gravity pulled the cars down the inclines, braked by ropes attached to the steam engines. A total of ten inclines were used to cross the mountain, five on each side. Upon reaching the base, the passengers, their luggage, and the freight being carried were transferred to another canal boat for the journey to Pittsburgh in one direction, and Philadelphia in the other. Once wire ropes were installed the passenger cars were discontinued, and the canal boats themselves ascended and descended the mountains, carried on articulated base railcars.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad and the canals reduced the travel time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to as little as three days, and never more than five. Ten years after Dickens crossed the mountain the Pennsylvania Railroad traversed the Alleghenies, and the journey between the two cities was reduced to just over twelve hours. The Allegheny Portage Railroad operated year-round, 24 hours per day, for 20 years before the railroads made the canals and its services crossing the mountains obsolete. During its lifetime, both stationary and locomotive engines carted passengers and freight across the mountains in what was a thrilling and unique experience in western Pennsylvania.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
The Allegheny Portage Railroad became a tourist attraction, both for the experience of crossing the mountain and for observing it at work. Wikimedia

13. On to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River, gateway to the west

After the experience of crossing the mountains, Dickens enjoyed another unusual aspect of the Pennsylvania canals. The approach to Pittsburgh was via a raised, curved aqueduct which he described as “a vast, low, wooden chamber full of water” which crossed the Allegheny River and delivered him to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh to Dickens’s eye resembled Birmingham in England, not surprising since both cities were already known for their iron foundries. “It certainly has a great quantity of smoke hanging about it, and is famous for its iron works”, he remarked. Pittsburgh was but a rest stop for Dickens, where he awaited steamboat passage down the Ohio River for his next destination of Cincinnati.

“[W]estern steamboats usually blow up one or two a week in the season”, Dickens observed, deciding it was advisable to seek the services of a reputable boat and captain. Unknown to Dickens, most steamboats did not follow the schedule announced to passengers, often remaining docked long after their announced departure date. “But this is the custom: for if the law were to bind down a free and independent citizen to keep his word with the public, what would become of the liberty of the subject”, was the writer’s comment on the matter. He was unaware that profits came from shipping freight, and boats did not leave their docks until all freight space was sold.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Travelers on steamboats faced the perils of boiler explosions and fires during their passage. Library of Congress

14. Dickens made numerous comments about the hazards of steamboats

Aboard the boat which carried him to Cincinnati Dickens was relieved to find he had been assigned a private cabin, with two berths, situated in the stern of the vessel. He was further relieved because he had been informed that when boats blew up (usually from boiler explosions) they “generally blew up forward”. Dickens was not the first to observe that the upper works of the steamboats were constructed of wood, based above machinery under which fire burned visibly and fiercely, an especially sobering sight when passing one at night. Dickens also noted the relative inexperience of the crews which operated the machinery.

“The wonder is, not that there should be so many fatal accidents, but that any journey should be safely made”, was a terse observation he recorded, though his journey was obviously a safe one. Boiler explosions and fires on the riverboats were fairly common, but the majority of journeys were made safely. Until the railroads made their way to the west, the rivers were the highways to the emerging cities, and commerce between Pittsburgh and New Orleans, including the cities and towns along the way, was brisk and profitable. The trip between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in 1842 was accomplished in three days.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Dickens found American manners wanting when traveling by steamboat. Wikimedia

15. Dickens encountered aspects of the American diet which displeased him

During the journey down the Ohio River Dickens was pleased to learn that meals were served three times a day, but displeased with some of the dishes presented. One which earned his ire was cornbread, “almost as good for the digestion as a kneaded pin-cushion”. He was also unhappy with the only beverage offered at the table being “jugs of cold water”. After nearly three months in America, he was beginning to chafe at the company of Americans. “The people are all alike, too. There is no diversity of character. They travel about on the same errands, say and do the same things in exactly the same manner, and follow in the same dull cheerless round”.

His arrival at Cincinnati cheered him immensely. “I have not often seen a place that commends itself so favorably and pleasantly to a stranger at the first glance as this does”, he wrote of the city he called “beautiful”. He also noted the growing temperance movement in the city and its influence on the local government. He spent several days there, observing the various and busy commerce along the riverfront and the businesses taking root at the base of the hills which ringed the basin containing most of the city. Though he did not know it, he was at the place where Roebling would use his steel wires to bridge the Ohio River, beginning the project just over a decade later.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Louisville, Kentucky as it appeared when Dickens visited on his tour. Wikipedia

16. Dickens continued on to Louisville and St. Louis

Dickens continued his journey to Louisville, where he stayed at the Galt House, which he praised highly before continuing on to St. Louis. On the river voyage, he encountered aboard the steamboat a Choctaw Indian, who astonished the Englishman by sending in his calling card before visiting. Dickens had the same vision of the American Indians as most of Europe at the time, and the appearance of a Chief of the Choctaw in gentlemen’s dress, with gentlemanly manners, was in stark contrast to that described by many of his fellow travelers.

In both Louisville and St. Louis Dickens found the climate wanting, and in the latter likely to be unhealthful, due to the humidity and the swampy nature of the terrain around it. Among the sights, he observed there were the improvements done to the river by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which had been accomplished about five years earlier. They had redirected the river channel, ensuring deep water at the St. Louis waterfront, under the direction of an engineer named Robert E. Lee.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Waterfront of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1840. Wikimedia

17. Dickens returned to Cincinnati to begin a journey across Ohio

After he inspected St. Louis and its environs, which included a trip to Illinois to view an example of the American prairie, Dickens returned to Cincinnati. Along the way he visited Cairo, Illinois, which was later used for the basis of the fictional American town of Eden in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. His intentions were to travel to Sandusky on Lake Erie, then by water to Niagara, and thence to New York. The first leg of the journey from Cincinnati was to Columbus, a distance of about 120 miles, all of which were over a macadamized road. Such a road for such a length was relatively rare in 1842 America.

Macadamizing was a process invented by a Scotsman, John McAdam, only two decades earlier. It consisted of several layers of pulverized stone being packed down upon each other, the stone dust binding the layers together. Macadamized roads were less liable to being cut into ruts from wheeled traffic when wet from heavy rains. Dickens left Cincinnati in a large stagecoach, which was forced to stop frequently to either water or change the horses, and which traveled at about six miles per hour, on average. Often the coachmen changed as well, though according to Dickens, “He is always dirty, sullen, and taciturn”.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Dickens stayed in this hotel in Lebanon, Ohio, still in operation, during his trip by stage to Columbus. Library of Congress

18. The trip to Sandusky took several days

Feeding the passengers traveling the stagecoach lines was accomplished at inns and stops along the way, often coinciding with changing the horse, coaches, or coachmen. The influence of the temperance movement was again felt, with many of the inns being described as temperance houses by Dickens during the journey. From Columbus to Tiffin, Ohio, the road was not macadamized, and the advantages the system offered to passengers and coaches was obvious from the terrible condition of the new road. Dickens noted during the journey a sight which was rare on the roads of England and the eastern United States.

Tree stumps liberally dotted the landscape. Firewood was still the principal source of heat in rural areas, and lumber for building was easier by cutting down a tree than shipping it from a lumber yard. He also noted the number of pigs which roved about freely, it being easier for farmers to allow the pigs to fend for themselves, scavenging for food, than it was to keep them penned and feed them while incurring costs. They were later driven to slaughter. The Ohio of 1842 was still home to a large population of Wyandot Indians, which were encountered by Dickens on his journey to Sandusky, and later described in detail.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
A Shaker barn, and the Shakers themselves, did not make a favorable impression on Dickens. Wikimedia

19. Dickens took a side trip to British Canada from Niagara

As have been most visitors to the falls at Niagara, Dickens was suitably impressed, and said so. He then traveled through Canada, visiting Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec, among other stops. From Montreal, by steamboat and stage, he traveled to Albany, and from there to New York, visiting the Shaker Village at Lebanon on the way. His thoughts about the Shakers were obvious from his words on his departure, “Leaving the Shaker village with a hearty dislike of the old Shakers, and a hearty pity for the young ones”, and he returned to New York City, where he was again feted.

He took another side trip to West Point, where he inspected the United States Military Academy. The school was at the time controversial in the United State. Congressional appointments were often suspected of being sold to wealthy families, or awarded to political supporters. Several proposals were made in Congress to eliminate the Academy, which had been created forty years earlier during the Presidential administration of Thomas Jefferson. Dickens confined his remarks to the site’s historical significance and its great natural beauty.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Dickens returned to Great Britain via the port of Liverpool in the summer, 1842. Wikimedia

20. Dickens sailed for home and prepared to publish his observations of America

On June 7, 1842, after five months of travels in America and interactions with its inhabitants, Dickens embarked for the journey to Great Britain and home. Nearly all of his fellow passengers were immigrants who had arrived in America “expecting to find its streets paved with gold’, and had found it to be wanting. They were returning to Europe, poorer than when they had begun their journey to the United States. All of them blamed their failure on the empty promises of the United States, rather than their arrival ill-equipped to engage in any trade or profession, according to Dickens.

Dickens kept a journal during his travels across the United States. When he was invited, as he frequently was, to address various organizations during the trip he for the most part confined his remarks to the issue of international copyright. He avoided aligning himself with the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement, the issue of a national bank, and other political and social issues which marked American society. Those comments he prepared, beginning on his voyage home, for publication in his next work. When they were published they rattled American society, and cost him much of the goodwill he enjoyed during his tour.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
American Notes for General Circulation was not well received in the United States. Alamy

21. The publication of American Notes for General Circulation in 1842

Dickens published his American Notes in October, 1842, in Great Britain where the book was received with acclaim. American Notes was quickly published in the United States, despite his repeated protests over the copyrights being violated. When Dickens was in the United States more than two dozen American authors had supported his views over copyright law and signed petitions to create international copyright laws. In New York installments of American Notes appeared on the same page on which an editorial appeared, excoriating the English writer for his views over access to already published materials. Soon they were excoriating him for his views on America.

Dickens was slammed in the south for his views on slavery, in the north for his observations on penal systems and local governments, and across the country for his pithy commentary on American social behavior and habits. His depiction of the American capital as the “headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva” was fumed at in newspapers and magazines. Dickens described American table manners at the community meals he had endured as having “strip[ped] social sacraments of everything but the mere satisfaction of natural cravings”. America was not pleased with the guest it had welcomed so warmly. No evidently was he with what he found there.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Dickens predicted a bloody end to slavery in the United States in American Notes. Wikimedia

22. Dickens harshly condemned America’s toleration of slavery

Dickens divided the supporters of slavery in America into three classes. The first he called the “more moderate and rational owners of human cattle”, who had inherited the system and recognized its evils, though they were economically trapped within. The second was all “those owners, breeders, users, buyers and sellers of slaves, who will, until the bloody chapter has a bloody end, own, breed, use, buy, and sell them at all hazards”, a prescient vision of civil war. To Dickens, the third class consisted of those who “will not tolerate a man above me: and of those below, none must approach too near”. Dickens reported the last group as the least influential, but nonetheless present.

To Dickens, the second class, which he called “the miserable aristocracy spawned of a false republic”, was most responsible for the enduring institution of slavery in America. Dickens condemned public opinion of slavery, “Public opinion has made the laws, and denied the slaves legislative protection. Public opinion has knotted the lash, heated the branding-iron, loaded the rifle, and shielded the murderer”. To Dickens, all in America were guilty of allowing the institution of slavery to exist, even the most ardent abolitionists. Dickens supported his arguments with dozens of ads copied from American newspapers, one example of which read, “Ran away, my man Fountain. Has holes in his ears, a scar on the right side of his forehead, has been shot in the hind part of his legs, and is marked on the back with the whip”.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Dickens was critical of American politics and government in 1842. Wikimedia

23. Dickens criticized American democracy as well

Besides his hearty criticism of the American habit of chewing tobacco so prevalent in Washington, Dickens blasted the government ensconced in the city. To the Englishman, Washington exhibited “Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers”. The New York Courier and Enquirer responded, “Mr. Dickens is a young man who knows nothing of this world, of society, or of government” in an editorial which referred to the writer’s earlier work as a reporter in disparaging terms.

The newspaper later wrote another article, in which it mentioned that Dickens had spent, “more than half his life” living in the slums of London. Dickens had spent most of his youth in abject poverty, the fact that he had lifted himself out of it through his talent as a writer was conveniently ignored. Despite the negative press and the howls of outrage, his subsequent novels sold well in the United States. Dickens’ next novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, contained sections which satirized the United States, and appeared in serialization in late 1842. It too sold well on both sides of the Atlantic.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
A Christmas Carol became one of the most popular parts of America’s celebration of Christmas. British Library

24. Dickens returned to America in 1867, to widespread acclaim

Between 1842 and 1867, Charles Dickens published his greatest works, including A Tale of Two Cities, the largely autobiographical David Copperfield, and the popular Christmas tale, A Christmas Carol. He followed the latter with other Christmas stories, though they remain less well known in America, while A Christmas Carol became an integral part of the American celebration of the Christmas holiday. In autumn 1867, he returned to America for a reading tour, stopping at several cities to read from his works, including A Christmas Carol. He selected Boston as his first stop and was warmly received there.

Dickens planned to visit as far west as Chicago and St. Louis on his reading tour, but ill health and the winter weather limited his tour to the northeastern states. Mark Twain attended one lecture, and in his review commented, “I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens reading”. Twain found the author was “…a little Englishy in his speech”. Twain’s review was one of the few which expressed disappointment, the majority of American newspapers reported on his performances with praise. Dickens returned to England in the spring of 1868. At a farewell dinner in New York’s famed Delmonico’s Restaurant, he promised to never again speak badly of the United States.

See 1842 America Through Charles Dickens’ Eyes
Mark Twain was dismissive of Dickens during his 1867 reading tour of the American northeast. Wikimedia

25. Dickens left America with a small fortune, evading federal taxes

Dickens’ second and final American tour was a financial windfall for the aging author, allowing him to recoup some of the money lost due to the lack of copyright protection. His 76 public readings of his works earned nearly $230,000, equivalent to about $4 million today. In 1861, the federal government enacted the first income tax in the United States, which was still in effect. Dickens escaped to London before federal revenue officials could levy a tax on his earnings, his fortune intact.

In many ways, Dickens had the last laugh in his relationship with the United States, though in his lifetime he did not earn a dime in royalties from America. During his 1867-68 tour he noted and commented on the many positive changes he found in the country. By the time he returned to England he was again widely acclaimed in all of the English-speaking countries, and he is an annual presence in the United States every December to this day.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“American Notes”. Charles Dickens

“Victorian Serial Novels”. Article, University of Victoria Libraries. Online

“Charles Dickens and the Lowell Mills”. Courtney Carroll, The Worcester Journal. Fall, 2014

“Charles Dickens in Hartford”. Staff, The Hartford Courant. February 18, 1992

“When Boz Came to Town: Remembering Charles Dickens’s first visit to New York”. Douglas Muzzio, City-Journal Magazine. August, 2018

Charles Dickens thought Philadelphia was kinda boring”. Johnny Goodtimes, Philadelphia Magazine. February 7, 2012

“Mr. Dickens Goes to Washington”. Danny Heitman, Washington Examiner. December 12, 2018

“A Dickens of a time”. Harry Kollatz, Richmond Magazine. March 28, 2011. Online

“Pennsylvania’s Transportation System: the Canals”. Pennsylvania State Archives. Online

Even if it’s as big as a mountain”. Article, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. National Park Service. Online

“Steamboats”. Article, Ohio History Central. Online

“Four Months with Charles Dickens”. G. W. Putnam, The Atlantic. November, 1870. Online

“Street-roaming cattle, Dickens’ impressions and renowned architecture”. Kelly Moffitt, St. Louis Public Radio. January 5, 2016. Online

“1823 – First American Macadam Road”. Article, Curbstone Presents the American Road. Online

“Wyandots in Ohio”. C. A. Buser, Wyandotte Nation. Online

“The Shaker way”. June Sprigg, The New York Times. November 2, 1975

“When Charles Dickens Fell Out With America”. Simon Watts, BBC News Magazine. February 14, 2012. Online

“Charles Dickens at the Parker House”. Article, Walking Boston. Online

“Charles Dickens Travels in America”. The Charles Dickens Page. Online