Railing against the Railroad
The train, very likely, is coming back to Seacoast, New Hampshire. Severed from passenger rail service in the middle of the 20th century, the region is now contemplating reconnecting to train service with lines that will run through the region at an estimated 85 miles per hour. The renaissance of rail is now seen as a solution to the increasing bottleneck of auto traffic as the region grows increasingly popular.
Today the railroad reminds us of the 19th century. But back then, the arrival of the "iron horse" was greeted with considerable consternation and a nostalgic longing for a simpler era that would never return. The following poem by Sam Foss shows one New Hampshire farmer in a fruitless stand-off against the mighty locomotive crossing his land. The second piece, by journalist and historian Charles Brewster, offers the comfort that no powerful force can overcome the combined will of a united attack - in this case, an army of puny snowflakes. Whether the black/white imagery shows a hint of Civil War racial attitudes, though clearly not a primary theme here, is left to the interpretation of the reader. What we see clearly, is both a sense of awe and a sense of helplessness in the face of the powerful railroad industry.
SeacoastNH.com has paired these two local poems together, perhaps for the first time in history, and for the reader's prurient interest, we've added photos of two famous Portsmouth train wrecks. (JDR)
The Railroad Through the Farm
By Sam Foss
There's thet black abomernation, thet big locomotive there,
Its smoke-tail like a pirut flag, a-wavin' through the air;
An' I mus' set, twelve times a day, an' never raise my arm,
An' see thet gret black monster go a-snortin' through my farm.
My father's farm, my grandsir's farm, - I come of Pilgrim stock -
My great-great-great-grandsir's farm, way back to Plymouth Rock;
Way back in the sixteen hundreds it was in our family name,
An' no man dared to trespass till that tootin' railroad came.
I sez, "You can't go through this farm, you hear it flat an' plain!"
An' then they blabbed about the right of "eminunt domain."
"Who's Eminunt Domain?" sez I, "I want you folks to see
Thet on this farm there ain't no man so eminunt ez me."
An' w'en their gangs began to dig I went out with a gun,
An' they rushed me off to prison till their wretched work wuz done.
"If I can't purtect my farm," sez I, "w'y, then, it's my idee
You'd better shet off callin' this 'the country of the free.'"
There, there, ye hear it toot agin an' break the peaceful calm.
I tell ye, you black monster, you've no business on my farm!
An' men ride by in stovepipe hats, an' women loll in silk,
An' lookin' in my barnyard, say, "See thet ol' codger milk!"
Git off my farm, you stuck-up doods, who set in there an' grin,
I own this farm, railroad an' all, an' I will fence it in!
Ding-ding, toot-toot, you black ol' fiend, you'll find w'en you come back,
An ol' rail fence, without no bars, built straight across the track.
An' then you stuck-up doods inside, you Pullman upper crust,
Will know this codger'll hold his farm an' let the railroad bust.
You'll find this railroad all fenced in-t'won't do no good to talk-
If you want to git to Boston, w'y jest take yer laigs an' walk.
Sam Foss, Unlikely Radical
Sam Walter Foss, a Candia, NH native who attended high school in Portsmouth, NH is best remembered for his poem, "The House by the Side of the Road."
In Foss's time, the late 19th and early 20th century, he was one of the country's most popular poets. He was widely published in newspapers, where he got his start. Towards the end of his career his poetry readings and lectures were quite successful in the midwest. Foss was, one surmises from reading his obituary, as peaceable and good-natured a man as any who ever lived. His work was avuncular and bucolic, neither angry nor political.
In "The Railroad Through the Farm," an old yankee dairy farmer resists the railroad's taking of his land for a right-of-way, but to no avail. He then threatens track-laying workmen with a gun, and is hauled off his farm and thrown in prison. Released, he returns to the farm, vowing to erect an impassible barrier across the path of the 'black abomernation," an act sure to result in bloodshed and tragedy.
Notes by Steven Fowle
Reprinted by permission from The NH Gazette
The Locomotive and the Snow-flakes
By Charles W. Brewster
Armed with a giant's mighty strength, --
My feeblest nerves all brass, --
My sinews, in their devious length,
Strong iron muscles grasp.
I breathe, -- and lightnings fiercely glare;
I step, -- and thunders roll;
What length of train can ever dare
Impeded me from my goal?
Quick as the speedy thought I fly:
What earthly power can dare
In rapid flight with me to vie,
Or tithe of burden bear?
I glory in unequalled might, --
Of strength, where rests such power?
I dare earth's legions to a fight!
I'd scorn all in that hour!
His wide-spread nostrils, highly steamed,
A vapor slight did bear;
In modest cloud a moment gleamed,
Then disappeared in air.
Unheeded in its upward flight,
The pearl drops floated high,
Till in new robes of downy white
They marshalled in the sky.
. . . . . .
"Did'st hear our generators boast?"
A snow-flake, whispering, said ;
"Come, let us, though a puny host,
Attack the mighty steed!"
"I'm nothing more," a flake replied ;
"And can I dare condemn
That mighty power which has defied
The strength, the skill of men?"
"We need your influence, one and all!"
Was now the stirring cry ;
"Our union is the despot's fall !"
The puny flakes reply.
The flakes then dropped in order down,
So small and feathery light,
They raised no e'en suspicion's frown,
O'er carpet spread so white.
The steam is raised, -- the courser raves,
For flakes his feet have bound !
He strains each nerve ; in vain he braves :
A match at last is found !
In voice of wisdom snow-flakes speak :
"May man this semblance see, --
United effort nerves the week,
And gives the victory."
From "Poets of Portsmouth," Joseph Foster, Portsmouth, 1865
Click for Charles Brewster's Homepage
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