Uncle Alvin at Niagara by Almon Trask Allis


Artist’s Sketch of Three Sisters and Goat Islands Just Above Niagara Falls. Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

“The last excursion of the year,” I read the other day,
Affordin’ opportunity to see grand old Niagara ;
And for a dollar and a half, to go up there and back,
And see the sights, and ride above two hundred miles of track,
Seemed like we’d get our money’s worth, if we could get away,
And leave the farm and kitchen cares behind us for a day.
We’d been a-wantin’, all these years, to go and see the falls,
But, somehow, when the chances came there’ d be so many calls
For both our time and money, that the chances slipped away,
While year climbed on the top of year, ’til we are growin’ gray ;
And still the cares we have to meet are such a clingin’ kind,
It’s often mighty difficult to slip them off behind,
And dump them in a heap somewhere, or lay them on a shelf,
While we get out from under, and can slip off by ourself.
But nature seemed to favor us ; the season was so fine
We got our summer’s work along a bit ahead of time ;
And nothin’ seemed a-crowdin’, like, and coaxin’ to be done,
As is the case too frequently, to keep us on the run ;
And Nancy hadn’t been away, exceptin’ to the fair,
To loosen up the constant strain of daily wear and tear
Of wrestlin’ with problems which perplex a woman’s brain,
And keep her fingers busy, and her muscles on the strain,
For such a long time back that I’m almost ashamed to tell,
And if I really wanted to, I couldn’t very well ;
And I, myself, had worked so long, as farmers have to do,
To keep the work from snarlin’, like, and keep it payin’, too,
That I was glad to see a chance to lay aside the strain
Which makes the years to tell on me as well as Nancy Jane ;
And when I read the notice, why, it seemed to strike us so,
That both of us together said, “I guess we’d better go.”
And so the thing was settled, and we’d picked our grapes and plums
To be ahead of frost or thieves, provided either comes ;
For frosts may be expected almost any pleasant night,
And thieves, if not expected, are so plenty that they might ;
And Nancy had our luncheon baked, and I had bought some cheese,
And she had found a paste-board box, as handy as you please
To put our picnic dinner in ; so when the mornin’ came,   
We wasn’t in a flurry, and the both of us to blame,
But had our things in order, and it didn’t take us long,
(For, somehow, things move faster when the heart is full of song)
To fix ourselves and get to town, and put our nag away,
And say a benediction on our cares, for just a day,
And get ourselves among the crowd that was a-comin’ there,
Just as the whistles blew for seven — with half an hour to spare,
In buyin’ tickets, shakin’ hands, and tryin’ hard to wait,
Without a little query if the train would not be late.
But just at seven-thirty, sure enough, somebody roared,
As only a conductor can, and shouted “all aboard.”
And then the engine gathered up, as if to do her best,
And after snortin’ once or twice, she started for the west.
The day was all that one could wish — no suffocatin’ air,
No dust a-lightin’ in your eyes, and flyin’ everywhere;
No sombre clouds all overhead, begettin’ thoughts of gloom
To people passin’ under them, like crape about a room,
But nature seemed a-crowdin’ all creation with the gold
Of her September loveliness, as full as it could hold,
And everywhere one turned their eyes, they fell upon a scene
Of purple, gold and scarlet hues, a-blendin’ in the green ;
And I don’t think if she had been a-doin’ it for pay,
To make our pleasure perfect, she could make a finer day.
We stopped at every station that we found along the road,
And people kept a-comin’, ’til the cars got such a load
That every time the engine tried to gather up the slack,
Before she got them all to move her wheels would slip the track ;
But when she got a-goin’ how she made the cinders fly,
And kept the trees and fences just a-jumpin’ in your eye.
And after all her stoppin’, and her startin’ up so slow,
She took us on as fast as I or Nancy cared to go ;
And everything went on as smooth and regular as rhyme,
And got us to the cataract as advertised — on time.
Of course, we bein’ strangers there, not knowin’ where to go,
We joined the stream of people, and we followed in the flow
In the direction of the falls which were not far away,
Till all of us stood face to face with old Niagara.
We were delightfully surprised, on goin’ from the train,
To meet some friends of other years and shake their hands again ;
And they appeared as gratified at meetin’ thus as we ;
And so, by mutual consent, we kept them company,
And had the double pleasure of enjoyin’ all the roar
And seein’ all the sights we could, and talkin’ “by-gones” o’er.
Of course, we pointed for the park, for what else could attract
The thought of any one so near this monster cataract ?
And got our first installment on the pleasures of the day
By takin’ in a little of the sights of Niagara.
And after viewin’ it awhile, the grandeur of the sight
(Or else it was our forenoon’s ride) had whet our appetite,
Till we concluded it was best to find a nice retreat,
Where we could keep on seein’ while we visited and eat.
Of course, we’d seen it all before, from every point of view,
As well as photographs could show — and they are very true ;
But lookin’ at a picture, though as true as true can be,
Is different from lookin’ at a live reality.
And here, spread out before us, was the wildest poet’s dream,
Wrought out of rock and water-fall, in noonday’s brightest beam ;
The wonder of all ages, which all people come to see,
And carry on forever thoughts of its immensity.
We saw the whole of it we could, and tried to realize
The magnitude of what was there revealed before our eyes :
But as we went from point to point, to gather somethin’ new,
And saw such grandeur everywhere, the more our wonder grew,
Till we, at length, were conscious of a sort of nameless awe,
While standin’ in the presence of the mighty things we saw.
We thought we might describe them some, but how shall feeble pen
Convey the grandeur that was here to minds of other men ?
Word-pictures, like the photograph, may all be more than true,
But when the words exhaust themselves, not half is brought to view ;
The eyes and soul must both be there to fully comprehend
This panorama, where so much of power and beauty blend.
And when they drink in all they can, of Nature’s great display,
They’ll find their wonder growin’, as the days shall glide away:
Their thoughts will keep on runnin’, and unfoldin’, more and more,
The awful power behind it all, as never seen before ;
And here, there’s such a feelin’ comes a stealin’ through the heart,
That makes a person shudder at the paucity of art.
What man in such a presence could be tempted to be vain,
Who has the sensibilities of cultured heart and brain ?
Almost, it makes a person feel as if he would repeat
That act of Moses when he took the shoes from off his feet ;
For, surely, God is in this place, and blind must that one be,
Who can not see, or hear His voice, in this immensity.
We climbed upon a crest of rock, beside the foamin’ sheet.
Which lashed itself to frenzy, as it hurried past our feet,
And cast our eyes far up the stream — a half a mile or more,
To see it pourin’ off the sky, it seemed, from shore to shore,
In rumble, tumble, headlong haste, dispensin’ sound and spray,
And flecked with foamin’ madness, as it dashes down it’s way ;
Already down a hundred feet from where it caught our eye,
A half a mile above us, where it pours from off the sky,
It seemed to turn to whiteness, as it bows itself to go
From off the fearful precipice into the depths below ;
How far, we dare not try to tell, and scarcely even guess,
But, possibly, a thousand feet, or somethin’ more or less,
For where it reached the surface of the water, down below,
Was scarcely more than half, perhaps, the distance it must go ;
And what impresses me as strange about this waterfall
Was at the surface where it poured, which scarcely boiled at all,
But simply had some riffles, which were slightly flecked with foam,
And boats, conveyin’ passengers, may on it safely come
So close to where the mighty sheet of foamin’ water fell,
It almost seemed to those on shore (incredulous to tell)
As if a lusty hand stretched out from off the vessel’s brow,
Might catch a hand-full of it’s foam, or touch it, anyhow ;
And certainly, it sailed so close as to be hid away,
Almost entirely from view, enveloped in the spray.
And one can form a faint idea how deep these waters go,
When told that they appear again two miles, and more, below,
And form the whirlpool rapids, where it’s pent-up power appears,
The wonder of all continents, and wonder of all years.
And then our thoughts went climbin’ back, along the lengthy chain
Of mighty inland waters, which this river helps to drain ;
Far up, and up to mountain peaks, with everlastin’ snow,
And into hidden fastnesses, as far as thought could go,
To find the sources, if we could, that furnish it’s supply,
Whose everlastin’ runnin’ doesn’t seem to run it dry.
But if we marked out all we found, ‘ twould make a mighty map
Of rivulets and little streams, convergin’ to the lap
Of nature’s biggest basin, with Niagara for a spout,
To form a sort of safety gauge, and let it’s surplus out.
But with such map before us, one could hardly feel the beat
Of nature’s great big pulsin’ heart, which throbs beneath our feet,
And sends it’s countless veins so thick, that, tap it where we will,
In plain or valley, gorge or cliff, on mountain top or hill,
We’ll hardly miss of strikin’ one, and seein’ water flow,
Without our knowin’ whence they come, or whither they will go.
Oh, Nature !  thou art mystery ; explain thee as we will ;
The little that we know of thee is like a tiny rill,
Whose waters quickly lose themselves in such a vast array,
As pour down so incessantly over old Niagara.
We wondered where these waters were, while He who formed their bed
Which they have traveled over for so long, with noisy tread.
And out of what He formed the rocks, and how He laid them so.
That they resist so long and well their forces, as they flow
With such momentum that we know that for them to resist,
From age to age, as they have done, these blows from Nature’s fist,
The masonry must far excel the work of human hands,
And glorify His workmanship, because His structure stands.
And then, again, we questioned, but we didn’t calculate
How long the fluids in her veins require to circulate,
And just how often every drop, since first her pulses beat,
Have jumped this awful cataract and made the round complete :
But more than once, we fancied, and, perhaps, more than we dream,
These waters make the whole round trip, and dash along this stream ;
And that which formed the coffee which we drank but yesterday
May form a part of this great flood some time not far away ;
For Nature never wastes a drop, wherever it may go,
In veins of men or animals, or in the plants that grow,
But keeps an eye on all she has, and never loses track,
And after patient waitin’ she is sure to get it back.
We didn’t go to Canada, for sights on our own side
Kept us tremendous busy and our time all occupied ;
But we kept glancin’ over, and the sight of it brought back
Some saddened memories of times when brothers clothed in black
Thought it was Heaven, as, indeed, it often proved to be ;
For there, if they could cross this stream, they might at last be free.
Ah, memory ! how she spreads her wings at sight of Canada,
And takes us back to other days, before our locks were gray,
When refugees from slavery, with blood-hounds on their track.
Were hunted, like the wildest beasts, to catch and carry back ;
But with the north star for their guide, they risked, as well they might,
The teeth of their pursuers, for the sake of Heaven’s right
For every man to own himself, subject, alone, to God,
And fling defiance, when they could, to tyrant master’s nod.
Thank God, the prayed-for day is here, when only memory
Can find a man in manacles, from sea across to sea,
And purged from our iniquity, we spread our washen hands
To help the cause of liberty to spread throughout all lands.
The rocks on either side suggest that down the past, somewhere,
These falls were miles and miles below the place where now they are,
And by the water’s mighty force were eaten back, and worn
The chasm as we see it now, with edges fringed and torn.
And fancy floated down the stream to where the falls began,
A thousand ages farther than the history of man,
And saw it eatin’, inch by inch, the porous rock away,
And climbin’ slowly toward the place it occupies today.
We saw some sturdy relics, through the sunbeams and the mist,
That whispered from the bottom, where their sides were bein’ kissed,
That told as plain as language could that they had occupied
A higher place than they do now, a-holdin’ up the tide,
Just where it makes its final leap, ’til on a certain day
It lost the grip which held it up, and then it fell away,
And lies to waste for ages more, ’til beaten into sands,
It goes to join its comrades off in other seas or lands.
Well, when we’d made Goat Island from its many points of view,
And visited “Three Sisters,” as all visitors should do,
For there we got the grandest sight of all the grand display,
And that does not belittle all the others seen that day,
We thought that we, my friend and I (the women wouldn’t go),
Must see how old Niagara looked when seen from down below ;
And so we took the railroad car — it wasn’t quite a train —
Which, carries people up and back by cable rope and chain ;
And down and down and down we rode, ’til bottom came at last,
And out of “the incline” we went, and down the steps we passed.
And stood at length among the rocks, the rainbows and the mist,
And felt, as never in our lives, that we were bein’ kissed
By Nature’s own delightful lips, and baptised with her spray,
Which knows no times or seasons, but unchanged, from day to day ;
And felt the throbbin’ of her heart, and heard her voice repeat,
In tones as loud as thunder, and delivered at our feet,
That taught our hearts a lesson which we wouldn’t like to miss,
That none but she herself can show how truly great she is.
Then up and up and up we gazed, to see the foamin’ sheet
Which poured in such a volume down so closely to our feet
That only for the mist, we thought, we might approach so nigh
Our hands could touch the torrent that was pourin’ from on high ;
And we were goin’ toward it, for the breeze took all the spray,
For quite a little moment, just across the other way,
Till we were almost close enough, when, quicker ‘n you can tell,
The breeze turned back toward us again, then how the water fell !
And how we scampered through it, for we hadn’t rubber clothes,
And didn’t relish gettin’ wet, as you may well suppose.
But such a sight as we beheld beggars all words I know,
To tell of all the grandeur of Niagara from below.
The sun, in all his brightness, was just pourin’ in his beams,
And gildin’ everything it touched with rainbow-tinted gleams ;
And countless diamonds, bright as real, sparkled in its rays,
And made the mighty sheet of foam resplendent with its blaze,
While all the mist about us was a rainbow-tinted mass,
Which looked as though it was composed of floatin’ dust of glass.
I sighed to be a painter, then, so I might take away,
That I might see it when I would, the scenes I saw that day ;
And then I thought that paint and brush and human skill combined,
In their best combinations, were like beauty to the blind,
Compared with this, where Nature’s brush makes everything to glow
And pulse and sparkle in the light with life and beauty so.
But I stood there and drank it in, again and yet again,
That I might photograph it all back somewhere in my brain,
And carry back to old Steuben, as perfect as I might,
A picture in my memory of this transcendent sight.
And then we jumped on “the incline,” and back to earth we flew,
So fast that if we’d struck the roof we must have broken through ;
But luckily we didn’t, and we reached the solid ground,
Just dampened with Niagara’s mist, but wholly safe and sound ;
And when we’d found the better halves which we had left behind,
We took the “Whirlpool Rapids” cars, some other sights to find ;
And sure enough, we found a sight — Suspension bridge and all —
For ‘way down here, two miles away, comes up the waterfall
From under such a surface that no one would ever dream
That far below its tranquil bosom boiled a turbid stream,
Made strong, and even crazy, by the fearful plunge it took,
And under whose momentum even solid mountains shook.
And who can wonder at it, that it’s boilin’ waters whirl,
And leap, and plunge, and foam, and roar, and swirl, and swirl, and swirl,
For miles and miles, between the rocks, piled up in solid walls,
On either side, but narrower than just below the falls.
No boat could ride this seethin’ tide and come intact below,
Nor livin’ thing, which has not fins, would dare attempt to go.
One man, I read, so lost his head that he thought he could swim
These awful rapids, years ago, but ’twas the last of him.
Others have tried to make the ride in air tight barrel boats,
But one such ride has satisfied as far as history quotes;
Their inward groans and pommelled bones have cured their thirst for fame,
If such a feat they must repeat to blare abroad their name.
No man of sense tempts Providence by riskin’ life and limb,
When his success can neither bless mankind, nor honor Him.
Fools often do to show their nerve, or possibly, their skill,
Defyin’ laws without a cause, except themselves to kill :
But then, their loss is but the dross burned out of better ore,
And all mankind that’s left behind is richer than before;
Their vanity, perhaps, may be the wings of God’s great mill,
To winnow chaff from out the half He wants His bins to fill ;
At any rate they rid the State, perhaps their friends beside,
Of grave responsibilities, and room they occupied.
We reached the rapids, where they start, but this time had to pay
A half a dollar each to ride the cable-chain railway.
The other, at the falls above, belongin’ to the State,
Charged just a dime, for down and back, with distance just as great.
And why should not the State control all avenues that lead
To sights which all men ought to see, instead of human greed ?
Here, where the sons of men should come with reverential tread,
And witness what the Lord is doin’, with uncovered head.
And what a comment on the vice of human avarice,
To thrust itself before the world in such a place as this.
That man of old, who sold his Lord to gratify his greed,
But knew enough to hang himself, has left a lot of seed ;
No place so sacred anywhere, in earth, or heaven, or hell,
But that, if they possessed the power, they’d fence it off to sell.
Oh, lust for gain ! what countless sins are rappin’ at your door ;
While men are growin’ rich and fat from off God’s hungry poor,
And how the ears of justice must grow weary with their cry,
And how the sword of recompense must flourish bye and bye ;
And how must hell enlarge herself, to let the people in,
Whose thought of human brotherhood is swallowed by this sin,
And how the patient sons of God can well afford to wait
His careful re-adjustments, whether comin’ soon or late ;
No balances so fine as His, to weigh the acts of men,
And no dishonest fingers ’round to do the weighin’ then,
But simple justice, pure and sweet, His balances will weigh,
No matter who goes up or down on re-adjustment day.
Two iron bridges span the gulf at this point, side by side,
Transportin’ passengers and freight across the boilin’ tide.
A train crossed old Suspension bridge while we stood underneath,
And while our eyes gazed up at it we almost held our breath.
We stood where we could lay our hands upon an upstream guy,
And feel the tremble of the train movin’ across the sky,
And thought of that terrific plunge that movin’ train must take,
With all the people on it, if the tremblin’ bridge should break ;
And what a little difference their splashin’ in the stream
Would make a moment afterward, as far as it would seem.
Hearts might be bleedin’ somewhere else, and homes be desolate,
Because the snappin’ of a wire released them to their fate ;
But little would Niagara feel of any sort of care,
For persons or for property which might be buried there.
Here in the presence of such power, a thoughtful mind will see
The contrast in it’s awful force, and man’s impotency ;
And likely feel, as well he might, desire begin to start,
That He who moves before His eyes, might dwell within His heart.
We couldn’t take in all the sights in one short half a day
There is around Niagara, but we brought some things away,
That give a richer tinge to life, and broaden out the mind,
And make one’s spirit spread her wings to see what she can find
In other spaces, which, to us, are thus far unexplored,
Which Nature’s God, and ours as well, so lavishly has stored,
Not simply in the realm of sense, where careless feet may tread,
But in the spirit’s wider range, around, and overhead,
And more than all, within the soul, of elements we need
To perfect man and womanhood in spirit and in deed.
The six hours that we had to spend were fairly occupied,
Till eyes as well as body lagged, and we felt satisfied
To loiter at the station for the comin’ of the train,
And leave the wonders we had missed until we come again.
Of course, the hundred miles and more we had to ride at night
Had in them more of weariness than they had of delight;
But steam makes way in night or day, and covers distance fast,
And every scream of whistlin’ steam proclaimed a station passed ;
And dropped us down in our own town precisely half-past ten,
And ’twasn’t long ’til Nancy Jane and I were home again.
And on the whole I think it proved the most delightful day,
For both our minds and hearts, at least, we ever spent away :
Our bodies suffered some fatigue and felt a little wear,
Which, even at our age, we think a few days will repair ;
But nothin’ can eliminate impressions that were made
While viewin’ the magnificence of Nature’s great cascade ;
And often, in our memories, we’ll see its torrents pour,
And rainbows painted on the mist, and hear its pond’rous roar,
And see its rapids swirlin’ down, and bridges in the air,
And see its ragged greystone rocks projectin’ everywhere ;
And not unfrequently, perhaps, will fancy stroll away,
And weave its webb of romances about old Niagara.
Of course, we don’t begrudge the day, or money that we spent,
But always shall congratulate ourselves because we went ;
And like as not, if we keep well, we’ll take another ride,
To see how all these wonders look seen from the other side :
But life is so uncertain that, instead of goin’ there,
Perhaps we’ll make the journey where the many mansions are,
And see that other river, more majestic in its flow,
Where trees with healin’ in their leaves upon its borders grow ;
And see how grand the Capitol of Earth and Heaven will be,
And see the King, and great white Throne, in all their majesty ;
And listen to the music of the multitudes who sing
Their loudest, sweetest choruses in honor of their King.
The sights of earth are wonderful, but don’t at all compare
With what we may expect to see when we get over there ;
And if these fill us with delight, what rapture must it be
To stand where God has done his best, and all His glory see ?
If He who scatters such delights along our earthly way,
To spice our lives with gladness for the little time we stay,
What may we not expect to find where He has done His best
To make the place delightful, for His own eternal rest.

Source: Allis, Almon Trask.  Uncle Alvin at home and abroad. [Hornellsville, N.Y.] The author [The Times Association, printers], 1895.

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