The Bridge Builder by Maxine Kumin

June 17, 1848. Charles Ellet, Jr., the civil engineer who designed the suspension bridge soon to be built over Niagara Falls, today tested the service span to be used in its construction by driving his horse across the planking.  – Brooklyn Eagle

kumin
Kite Flying Contest Held To Get The First Line Across [The Gorge] For The Suspension Bridge. Based on an unsigned sketch by Donna Marie Campbell, Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

I, Charles Ellet, Jr., licensed engineer
son of a provident Quaker farmer
now stand at the gorge where Niagara Falls

offers a prospect so sublime no rival
as yet is known on this great globe of ours.
Let men deride me as actor, rainmaker;

let it be said of me that I have loved
all carriageways and catwalks, all defiles
wide gaps and narrow verges to be bridged

am fond of women and horses equally
although the latter’s sensibility
is plainer far to read. However much

respect I hold for Nature’s rash downrush
her virginal ebullience, I itch
to take it in the compass of my fingers.

One does not “break” a horse, but wins its trust.
With towers and cables, not brute trusses;
with tact, not tug; suspension, not piled piers

I mean to overarch this wild splendor.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Let them think me odd who see as if
asleep my silent self reflecting how
to span the rapids boiling at my feet

two hundred forty feet below the cliff
to be exact. An arrow from a bow?
A bird or a balloon? Why not a kite?

A kite could soar across the open rift!
The public loves such deeds. I’ll offer a prize,
a decent sort of prize, say five gold dollars

to the first man or boy who sends his string
to Canada.** The placard up three days
a local gap-toothed lad steps forth to win —

a widow’s son, shy skinny Homan Walsh.
He’s going to outlive me. Will he grow
up bold, race Thoroughbreds, get rich

performing acts of wild derring-do?
I don’t at this point know, nor know that
I’m to die a colonel in the Civil War

a hero slain leading a charge of rams
— warships rigged to ram opponents’ hulls —
on The Big Muddy to rout the Confederates.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Backward looks are licensed. To look for-
ward isn’t done; is not acceptable.
But give me leave to leap beyond the date

of my flamboyance, 1848,
and introduce High-Jumping Sam: Sam Patch
clad all in white, who dives from the cliff into

the rainbowed pool at the foot of the cataract
and not content with one dive, makes it two.
Reprises at Genesee and straightway drowns.

Or Blondin in ’59 adored by thousands
who cheer his tightrope walk across the chasm.
He’ll have a score of successors, circus clowns

who mock the danger, simulate cold fear
half-fall, recover and go blithely on
some piggyback, some skipping rope, afire

with the same lust for fame and fortune
as those who dare chute down the drop in barrels.
The first a cooper proving his staves would hold

then scores of imitators taking the falls
by barrel, boat and cork, a steady parade
of madmen. And always the suicides . . .

Dramatic death! Love also knows no season.
Though bliss be brief that attends unbridled passion
romantic couples will hasten by canal

or rail to flaunt their ecstatic portion
fulfill the fleeting period of joy
that one wag titles “honey-lunacy.”

Some say the falls gently distract the lovers’
overweening focus on one another.
Some say the tumult of the cataract

conceals the newlyweds’ embarrassment
caught, as it were, in the rapturous nuptial act.
Others aver the falls’ ceaseless descent

evokes a rich manly response. Some brides
claim happy negative ions are produced
by falling water. You may take your choice

of savants, sages and hypotheses
but thus Niagara will come to boast
hotels and curio shops and carriage-rides

to vistas for photos of the just-now wived.
Skeptic I am, unmarried by design.
Still, might not the spectacle conjoin

male and female qualities into one?

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Now let us turn back from this clairvoyant
glimpse to the day that Homan’s kite string held.
I tie it to a somewhat stouter cord

and next, a heavier one of finespun wire
and ever-mightier cables to support stout
wooden planks until from shore to shore,

just wide enough to let a phaeton pass,
a catwalk spans the gorge. The boards are spaced
to let rainwater through. Side rails? None.

I test it harshly across and back, first at
a walk, then jog, then crow-hop up and down
assured that it will hold. Once I trust it

I harness up my mare, to show she will.
A chestnut Morgan, foaled in my own barn
and trained to voice commands the way a skilled

driving horse need be, to keep from harm.
Vixen by name but not by temperament,
spirited, willing and confident.

Do not mistake submission, the highest
accolade man can bestow on a horse,
with truckling subservience. The mare must trust

the steady justice of the driver’s hand.
Fingers that speak, not snatch; a voice
that soothes and urges but withholds choice.

Vixen and I prepare to take our stand.
I stand up in the cart as in a chariot
the better she may sense we are allied

and ask her to move off at a rapid trot.
She never casts a glance to either side.
The crowd is aghast. Several women swoon.

The catwalk sways most fearfully but holds
beneath the mare and horseman in the sky
and that is how we cross, Vixen, my bold

partner, and I, Charles Ellet, Jr.,
bridge builder, licensed engineer.

**The kites were actually flown from Canada to the United States using the prevailing westerly winds. Both the poem and the painting have the kites flying from the United States to Canada.

Source: Kumin, Maxine. “The Bridge Builder.” TriQuarterly, Winter 1995, p. 162-166.
Also published in her 11th book of poems, Connecting the Dots, Norton, 1996
Maxine Kumin (June 6, 1925 – February 6, 2014) was an American author and poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973. She was the Library of Congress Poet Laureate for 1981-1982

The Falls of Niagara by H.D.M.

An original poem from the “album of Mr. Hooker”

hooker
Niagara, Chute du Fer a Cheval. Print from a photo by Hugh Pattinson, 1842 Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Majestic ! and stupendous ! Wonder-work,
Sublime beyond Imagination !
Beyond expression, glorious and grand !
Awe-struck I stand, soul-swelling with emotion
Too powerful for thought; soul-wrapt with feeling
Too mighty for endurance. Yet to feel
Thus for one moment, might repay existence,
Though life had been more darkly cast than mine,
And mine has been — no matter: Now I’m blest.

I gaze till I am lost in what I gaze on;
Sense flies; self vanishes; I mingle with,
And am part of what I see and hear, —
The foaming torrents, and their deaf’ning roar !
At once elated and depressed, my soul
Drinks in the spectacle, conscious alike
Of weakness and power. ‘Tis glorious !
I swear ’tis glorious ! — Altar and fountain
Of the Eternal God ! — And there ye roll
Ye volumed waters, from age unchronicled,
To ages moveless in the womb of time !
Forever changing, yet fore’er the same: —
The same when broke the promise-bow of heaven,
To diadem your awful brow; the same: —
When bent the red-man o’er your thundering fall: —
To be the same when earth and sky shall meet
In final wreck, and mute eternity
Forever reign ! O ! ye are wonderful,
Ye massive rocks ! Ye rapids in your rush !
Ye trembling cataracts ! thou boiling surge !
To heaven up-rising like the good man’s prayer,
In the dark hour of tumult and dismay.
And O ! thou dread abyss in which are poured
Those endless torrents, that thy fountains lash
To tempest fury in their reckless fall,
O ! ye are dizzy to the mortal eye,
And terrible — most terrible to mortal sense !
And the loud roar of your undying thunder !
Ah ! what is Man to your surpassing might?
And what are you, proud monuments of Time,
To Him who called you from the depths of nought,
And cast you careless from his plastic hand,
The playthings of Omnipotence?

Omnipotence ! Eternity ! oh there,
Rise thou my thought ! fix thou my soul on Him,
Th’Omnipotent — the Eternal ! led by Him,
Safe o’er the cataracts of time, to dwell
Sweetly embosomed on the shores of bliss.

Source: Charles Mason Dow. Anthology and Bibliography of Niagara Falls. Albany: State of New York, 1921

Originally published in Western Literary Messenger (August 17, 1842 p. 56

Bossy Sims: A Limerick by Andrew Porteus

bossy
Bossy Sims Taking the Waters at Niagara Falls, 1860s. Photo Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

A cow named Bossy took her drink
Daily, by the Falls at the brink
She never went over
She must have et clover
Of the four-leaved kind, or she’d sink!

Bossy Simms the cow was owned by the Superintendent of the Incline Railway. She frequently would wade out into the water less than 100 feet from the brink of the American Falls. The sight of Bossy was a curious attraction to many a visitor of the times.

Source: The author, 2019

Untitled by Anonymous

careering
Below Table Rock, Niagara. Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

Niagara, Niagara — careering in its might,
The fierce and free Niagara shall be my theme to-night !
A glorious theme — a glorious home, Niagara, are mine ;
Heaven’s fire is on thy flashing wave, it’s thunder blends with thine.
The clouds are bursting fearfully, the rocks beneath me quiver :
But thou unscathed ar’t hurrying on, for ever and for ever.
Years touch thee not, Niagara — thou art a changeless thing,
For still the same deep roundelay thy solemn waters sing.

Source: Dr. Thomas Rolph. A Brief Account, Together With Observations, Made During a Visit in the West Indies, and a Tour Through the United States of America, in Parts of the Years 1832-3; Together With a Statistical Account of Upper Canada. Dundas, U.C. : G. Heyworth Hackstaff, Printer, 1836.

Rolph mentions this poem was written in the Table Rock Album; it is not published in Thomas & Lathrop’s excerpts from the Table Rock Album. Rolph would have been looking at the original.

Niagara River and Falls by The Bard of Niagara (J.B. Waid)

bard
J.B. Waid, “The Bard of Niagara”
Pleasant, peaceful, quiet river,
Limpid, constant, onward ever,
    Gentle waters roll away ;
Calm as summer, bright as morning,
Not a look, or sign of warning,
    Naught of danger dost thou say,
But gliding along, mild and strong,
               To the Rapids.
                    Then
Sporting, murm'ring, tossing, splashing,
Storming, raving, crossing, dashing,
    Troubled waters fret away ;
Hasting, pushing, staving, darting,
Islands mad'ning thee to parting,
    Yet thy tumult cannot stay;
But, tearing along, mad and strong,
               To the chasm.
                    Then
Curving, bending, bursting, breaking,
Sliding, leaping, rushing, quaking,
    Flying waters dart away ;
Flashing, sparkling, wailing, rumbling,
O'er the brink an ocean tumbling,
    To a world of foam and spray,
Fierce shooting along, proud and strong,
               We see thee now
                     In
Stately grandeur, awful wonder,
Hear thy voice in terms of thunder;
    Falling waters roar away,
Pouring, showering, misting, streaming,
Rob'd in rainbow colors beaming,
    Deck'd by Sol's, or Luna's ray,
Swift plunging along, grand and strong,
               To the bottom.
                    Then
Foaming, boiling, surging, thrashing,
Breaching, swelling, heaving, crashing,
    Furious waters foam away,
Babbling, roaring, brawling, curling,
Gurgling, wailing, whisking, whirling ;
    Fanciful thy currents play,
Still pressing along, bold and strong,
               Dimpling, pouting.
                    Then
Gathering, kissing, whispering, hushing,
Panting, smiling, frisking, rushing,
    Lovely waters roll away ;
Winding, eddying, purling, playing,
Lakeward still, and never staying,
    Rustling on thy shining way ;
Free coursing along, calm and strong,
               Soon to mingle
                    With
Ontario's tideless waters—
Long to be thy prison quarters ;
    Noble river die away.
But I err, a poet's blunder,
Still I hear thy deaf'ning thunder ;
    Here thou art, and here must stay
World-wide wonder, mighty, strong
      Niagara !

Source: J.B. Waid. Variety : Poetry and Prose. Montreal : J. Lovell, 1872.
Waid, born 1804, was (self?)styled The Bard of Niagara