Grandeur in the view

An early depiction of the covered bridge between Phillipsburg and Easton.

IN a travel memoir such as William A. Whitehead compiled, telling of sundry voyages “by land & water” made over the span of four or five years, time is by turns an objective measure of experience and a phantasm. Between journeys, time vanishes entirely. In successive narratives, it seems to expand or contract, as details of a trip were judged by their author more or less intriguing or important. At several points in Whitehead’s Memorandums of Peregrinations, the minutiae of his travels must have been deemed forgettable, or had simply been forgotten.1

Thus, in relating the trip taken with his brother in the summer of 1830 from the eastern margin to the western edge of north New Jersey, much goes unrecorded: he neglects to describe the stage coaches, and ignores their drivers; he is silent about the horses, the necessary stops to water and change teams, the turnpike gates and the toll takers. He pays little attention to fellow passengers, and seldom comments on road conditions, the inevitable rocking and jostling on rutted highways, or the farming and other business conducted in the country through which he travels. Great swaths of landscape go unremarked.

But on a journey whose timetable must frequently have felt punishing–more than 300 miles of road were traversed in two states over six days of travel–there was scant hope that much of the landscape would even register. Many of those miles were logged before daybreak or after dark. And since Whitehead was never without companions, conversation became an essential element of the ride, and might even hold more interest at times than the scenery.2

The Memorandums, then, comprise highlights recalled after the fact, and from the 25 miles of road leading from Schooley’s Mountain to the Delaware River, not a sight or a sensation is preserved. Night fell before the Whiteheads reached the terminus at Phillipsburg, so there is no account of the important link forged here between the Lehigh and Morris Canals, poised to convey an unending flow of coal from Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields to New York Bay. We’re left with no impression of the sturdy enclosed bridge connecting Phillipsburg to Easton, no picturesque glimpses through its windows. In the darkness, our travelers could think only of the windows aglow with lantern light at William White’s Easton Hotel.3

On arrival Mr. White’s daughters laid out a late-night repast, prepared by Mrs. White. Grateful for the hearty supper, our chronicler still pauses to comment on these odd arrangements. The host, while reputed to be a wealthy man (“worth at least $150,000,” it was said), had no hired help: his wife and daughters, who incidentally were “quite good looking girls,” performed all the work of the house. Far from alone in his curiosity, Whitehead nonetheless thought it best not to interfere with Mr. White’s “domestic policy.”4

Under other circumstances Whitehead might have learned and recorded more about the boomtown of Easton, its population already exceeding 3,500, or the flourishing Easton Hotel, its proprietor and his family. Mr. White must have been prosperous indeed if the story is true that, at the reception Philadelphia gave Lafayette in September 1824, the innkeeper arrived in a fine coach and horses and elegantly attired, and was mistaken for the war hero by crowds of onlookers.5 And it was at his Easton Hotel, a few months later, that town worthies first made plans for a college that, in their own tribute to the General, would be christened Lafayette.6

Earlier history was also made, and to a lesser degree celebrated, at Easton. In the 1750s, as Britain and France battled for control of the continent, representatives of Pennsylvania and New Jersey had met with delegations of Shawnees, Minisinks, Senecas and others, just steps from the site of White’s inn. The effect of these treaty conferences was to uproot indigenous peoples from most of the Delaware Valley once and for all. Whitehead, in his later historical works, would write cheerfully of the outcome: “Thus was extinguished every legal and equitable claim of the Indians to the soil of New Jersey, a fact which must gratify every citizen of the State.”7

Our travelers were fated to see nothing of Easton by daylight, as the stage carrying them to Mauch Chunk, the western limit of their journey, departed at 3 o’clock the next morning. As the new day dawned, Whitehead found that the country beyond Easton, “from the occasional glimpses my heavy eye lids permitted me to take of it, was quite interesting.” Yet no potential point of interest–the gently undulating terrain, the fields of corn, oats and rye, or the ridges of the Blue and Lehigh Mountains at the horizons–is so much as hinted at in his memoir.

Cherryville Tavern, shortly before its demolition in 2019.

The driver had gone twenty miles, crossing most of Northampton County, before he allowed his passengers to disembark at the inn in Cherryville. Here a breakfast was served memorable in its awfulness: “The Cakes were dough, the bread sour, the Coffee like every thing else but what it pretended to be, & the tea smoky water.”

This was an inauspicious prelude to the spectacle of the Lehigh Gap. To read Whitehead’s description of this majestic defile, carved by the river through the long Kittatinny ridge, is to wish he had sketched some of what he saw: “The river passes through a narrow fissure of some few hundred feet wide with the mountains ascending from it on each side to the height of 1250 feet; their surface covered with foliage interspersed with projecting rocks, adding grandeur to the view.”

The road continuing “for some miles” through this cleft “opens to the eye of the traveller the most beautiful scenery.” The Lehigh Canal and the river that fed it flowed now parallel, now as a single stream, adding to the enchantment. Past the Gap, the Whiteheads’ stage followed a small tributary to the right, then turned back to cross the river at Weissport, where “we were again on the banks of this pleasing stream with mountains of the same rugged character on each side.”

View overlooking the town of Mauch Chunk, with the Lehigh Gap in the distance.

Such was the approach to mighty Mauch Chunk. Whitehead likens it to the entrance of an amphitheater, “so completely is the village surrounded by steep and overhanging Mountains.” The image of an arena turns out, through the narrative of the Whiteheads’ brief stay, to be an apt depiction: both its dramatic setting and the feats of those who came there to invest lives and fortunes made it so. We may thank William Whitehead for at least reaching the place by the light of day.

Copyright © 2022-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Most of the quotations below come from pages 6-8 of W. A. W[hitehead], Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water recorded for my own amusement, vol. 2nd, an unpublished manuscript conserved at the Key West Art & Historical Society. Whitehead’s “vol. 2nd” encompasses travels made from July 1830 to May 1832. A reference on page 36 to his 1828 visit to Glens Falls, New York, “as is written in the first book of Chronicles,” indicates that the unlocated “vol. 1st” included travel from 1828 forward, if not also earlier.

[2] The trip began Monday 26 July and ended Monday 2 August. It included two nights at Schooley’s Mountain, N.J., from which a day trip to Budd Lake and Hackettstown was made on the 28th, and two nights, the 31st and the 1st, in Philadelphia.

[3] A description of the “Delaware Bridge” taken in 1860 “from a city paper” praised it as “a miracle of cleanliness, and from either side of which, through the open windows, can be obtained a charming and romantic view.” M. S. Henry, History of the Lehigh Valley, containing a copious selection of the most interesting facts, traditions, biographical sketches, anecdotes, etc. etc., relating to its history and antiquities. With a complete history of all its internal improvements, progress of the coal and iron trade, manufactures, etc. (Easton, Pa. 1860) 11. For its cleanliness the bridge had the windows to thank, as they allowed for rapid disposal of animal waste from the bridge deck: Frank T. Dale, Bridges over the Delaware River. A history of crossings (New Brunswick, N.J. 2003) 72.

[4] Anne Royall, who stayed here in October 1828, left an entertaining portrait of Mr. White’s “Amizon German wife,” born Susan Everhard or Everhart: “though she has the most beautiful face I ever saw, for so large and aged a woman; she is a monster in size. Were I a man, I should be afraid of her; she works in the kitchen steadily, and slings the pots about as a boy would a top, and her daughters do the work of the house, and yet look neat and affable. In this respect I find they resemble the yankees, having no servants.” Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania, or travels continued in the United States (2 vols. Washington 1829) 1:105. Although Royall’s impressions of William White were less favorable (“White keeps a good table, but is a sharper to charge, and is by no means a pleasant land-lord.” Ibid. 105-106), the innkeeper was remembered by others as a genial paragon of hospitality; see Uzal W. Condit, The history of Easton, Penn’a from the earliest times to the present, 1739-1885 ([Easton, Pa. 1885?]) 165-167; Floyd S. Bixler, The history with reminiscences of the early taverns and inns of Easton (Easton, Pa. 1931) 12-14.

[5] The episode is related in Roscoe R. White, White family records. Descendants of Peregrine White, son of William and Susanna (Fuller) White 1620 to 1939 ([Clarksburg, W. Va.?] 1939) 34-36.

[6] For this meeting see David Bishop Skillman, The biography of a college being the history of the first century of the life of Lafayette College (2 vols. Easton, Pa. 1932) 1:28-30.

[7] G. P., “Glimpses of the past in New Jersey. No. XIII–The Indians,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 26 April 1842 2:1. Whitehead would attribute much of the success of the 1758 Easton conference to New Jersey governor Francis Bernard’s “knowledge of the Indian character, and of the mode of conducting business with them….” G. P., “Francis Bernard,” Newark daily advertiser 24 October 1843 2:1; Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country, with sketches of men and events in New Jersey during the provincial era (New York 1856) 172.

Images: 1) Unidentified artist, Delaware River Bridge, Marx Historical Room, Easton Area Public Library. 2) Cherryville Tavern, photograph via 3) Mauch Chunk: James Queen del(t). Bird’s eye view of Mauch Chunk, from Mount Pisgah showing the Lehigh Gap in the distance (Philadelphia: P. S. Duval & Son’s Lith., n.d.), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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