May 1991

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Country Rambles


Samuel H. Hammond

from Country Margins and Rambles of a Journalist, 1855

Bath, New York

I am at Bath, the county seat of Steuben. This is another beautiful village, nestling quietly among the hills of the Southern tier. It was among the early settlements of what was once called the Western Country. It was located by CHARLES WILLIAMSON, the first proprietor of several millions of acres, known at the Pultney estate. A pleasant farm that—one that might afford an industrious man, who exercised a proper degree of economy, a good living, and enable him to portion off with a fair number of acres a reasonably large family of children. It was not so valuable when Sir WILLIAM PULTNEY became the proprietor as it is now, as it passed into his hands, as I have heard, for something like a shilling an acre.

Bath is a pleasant and a thriving village, remarkable for its neatness and healthful location. On the East is a high mountain, rising in steep acclivity some eight or nine hundred feet, whose rugged sides can never be cultivated, and along whose base the Conhocton river flows. In the early times, before the Erie Canal was built, Bath was the outlet to market for the grain of a broad sweep of country. It was regarded as the head of navigation, and was to be the site of a great city. You will not of course suppose that great ships visited its port, or even the periogues, formerly so common on the waters of the great West. There was but one direction to navigation from Bath, and that was downstream. Arks were built of pine planks, which would carry some thousand or fifteen hundred bushels. They wer queer-shaped craft, not very well calculated to stand a rough sea, but they were made water-tight, and cost from $75 to $100 each. These were floated to the storehouse that stood down by the river, and when the spring freshets came, the grain was turned into them in bulk, and covered from the rain; with a pilot, and a hand at each long oar that projected away out at bow and stern, started with their freight on a returnless voyage towards the Chesapeake Bay. Their course was down the Conhocton to the Chemung river, down that river to the Susquehanna, and down that noble river to tide water. These frail vessels did not always reach their destination. About one out of ten emptied its contents in the river as it was dashed against some unknown obstruction, or was stranded on the shore through the unskilfulness of its pilot. Thousands upon thousands of bushels of grain found their way to market through the precarious channel, and Bath was looming up, when the canals were built and its glory departed. The ark of the Conhocton passed into history, the rats took possession of the storehouses, board after board fell from their sides, the roofs caved in, the beams rotted away; at length what was left of them tumbled to ruin, and the place where they stood is now a meadow where the mower swings his scythe, unconscious that he treads on historical ground. The course of trade from Bath for more than a quarter of a century, has been to the North, through the Seneca and Crooked Lake, and the Cayuga and Seneca Canals to Montezuma, and then on the Erie Canal to the Hudson, and so to New York. It is now changing again, not to the ancient channel of the river, but to the New York and Erie Railroad, and so to New York by that great thoroughfare.

The mountains about Bath were famous, years ago, for deer, and I have spent many an exciting hour in the chase after them. It was a pleasant thing to start for the hills while the light was just breaking in the East, while a few stars glimmered faintly in the sky, and the grayness of twilight lingered in the valleys. To feel the grass crisp with frost beneath your footfall, and see the mist rising from the river, and creeping up the sides of the hills. It was a pleasant thing to stand on the brow of that high green hill over against the village just as the sun was coming up from his resting place, and see how he threw his early light on the tops of the hills on the east and west; to mark how the shadow retreated from their sides down towards the valley, and when he rose above the forest trees, how gloriously he started on his course. It was pleasant to look upon the clustered houses away down below you, and watch how the smoke came up from chimney after chimney, and went wreathing upward towards the sky. It was a pleasant thing to look upon the farms, the fields, and watch the flocks of sheep as they started from the fold, wending, in the early morning, in a long line towards their pasture, and the cows gathering around the place of their milching. It was a pleasant thing to look upon that little lake, sleeping so quietly just east of the village, and afar off to the north the Crooked lake, stretching away and hiding itself among the highlands that surround it. All this I have looked upon more than once, while a pair of noble stag hounds were crouched at my feet, impatient for the chase. Turning from the pleasant landscape beneath me, I would strike into the woods. The forest extended back unbroken for miles then, and when I had passed a short distance from the brow of the hill, I would lay on the dogs. Glad enough they would be for the freedom to hunt. Far off in the woods, perhaps, the voice of the staunch old hound would be heard, deep and long drawn out. After a moment it would be heard again. The interval between his baying would become shorter and shorter, until the voice of both dogs would break out in a fierce and continuous cry, and then I would know that the game was up and away.

I need not tell you of the music there is in the voice of a pair of stag-hounds in the deep forests of a still morning. How it echoes among the mountains, and swells up from the valleys; how it comes like a bugle from the forest dells, and glancing away upwards, seems to fill the whole air with its joyous notes. Now the sound of the chase grows fainter and fainter, as it recedes, until it is lost in the distance, and the low voice of the morning breeze, whispering among the forest trees, alone is heard. Again faint and far off is heard the music of the chase, swelling up, and then dying away, like the sound of a flute in the distance, when the night air is still—clearer and more distinct it comes as the dogs course over some distant ridge. Now it is loud and joyous, making the woods vocal with the melody of voices. Again the music dies away as the dogs plunge into some hollow way until it seems to come up like the faint voice of an echo from some leafy dell. Again it swells louder and fiercer, as the chase, changing its direction, sweeps up the valley towards you. Louder and louder grows the music. You hear the measured bounds of the deer as he goes crashing on his way to the river, fleeing from the destruction that is howling on his trail. He passes beyond the range of your rifle, in his frightened course, and the dogs rush by you, running breast high on his track, and your Tally Ho! gives fresh impulse to their speed, and a fiercer and more joyous strain to their music. You hear in the distance the sharp crack of a rifle, that comes echoing up from the valley beneath you. In a few minutes the music of the hounds is still, and you know that your friend stationed at the river has secured his game.

The public buildings and the best residences of Bath are fronting its beautiful square of some six or eight acres. In the centre of the square "long ago," stood a tall pine that for years was known as the "liberty tree." It was left when the old forest was swept away, and stood there solitary and alone for nearly a quarter of a century. But it faded in seeming sorrow over the fate of its companions, that had been so ruthlessly destroyed. Its green branches died, one after another, till a bare trunk with leafless arms stretching out, as if in hopeless and barren desolation, was all that was left of that once stately monarch of the woods. It was at last hurled to the earth by the strong winds, and the place of the "liberty tree" was vacant.

I studied law in this pleasant village, under one whom I can never cease to respect. He resides here still, an honored, and justly honored citizen. A sore affliction has recently jarred among his heartstrings. May the wound that was inflicted be healed by the affectionate kindness of those that remain to comfort him, and may he find consolation in the memories that come up from the graves of the good, who pass away in the pride and strength of their early manhood.

There are solid men in Bath, too, as well as in Canandaigua. Men who, by their indomitable energy, have risen from comparative poverty to great wealth. Who started in life with only strong hands and stout hearts, but who have mastered fortune. Men who are still in the vigor, the strong time of life, and who can reckon their dollars by hundreds of thousands. The old settlers, the pioneers of Bath, are all gone. Many of them I knew "long ago." The tombstones that stand in the quiet grave-yard, that record their virtues, bear no lying epitaphs, nor lines of bitter irony respecting their worth.

I said I studied law in Bath. Let me relate an anecdote connected with the first suit I ever had the honor of appearing in as counsel. My friend, H. W. ROGERS, now of Buffalo, was my fellow-student then, and he will pardon me for relating the triumphs of the genious of two young men who were seeking distinction under some difficulties. A worthless scamp had been arrested for some misdemeanor—assault and battery, I believe—and being too poor to employ other counsel, applied to my friend ROGERS and myself to defend him, promising to pay us a small fee for assisting him in his trouble.

We readily undertook his defense, promising ourselves no light harvest of reputation from our first effort at forensic eloquence. A jury was summoned, and three magistrates sat in solemn judgment to hear the evidence against our unfortunate client. We had a day to prepare, and the speeches with which we intended to astonish the court, and confound the jury, were profoundly studied and reflected upon. Well, the evidence was closed, and, as was arranged beforehand, I rose to address the jury, and my friend was to follow. I got as far as "Gentlemen of the Jury," and there I stuck, like a pig in the fence. Not another sentence of my great speech could I utter, to save me. At length, in despair, I told the jury, "that as I was to be followed by my elder and abler associate, I would occupy no more of their time," and sat down in perfect confusion and shame. Friend Rogers then rose to deliver his maiden speech. He, too, got as far as "Gentlemen of the Jury," and there he stuck, as I had done before him. There was no use in trying to go on. The great speech was gone, not a word of it could he catch, not a sentence could he bring to mind. He was in a hopeless dilemma, but he extricated himself by saying to the jury that "the case had been so ably summed up by the counsel that had preceded him, that he felt it unnecessary to add a word to the argument," and he sat down with the big drops standing on his forehead. We were laughed at some, by those who gathered to hear our maiden efforts. The best of the joke was, that friend HARRY was several years in finding out that he had perpetrated a good thing at my expense.

There were formerly many excellent trout streams around Bath. Spalding's run, Neal's creek, the Campbelltown creek, the Michigan creek, the Twelve-mile creek, and Townsend's run, and many other pleasant streams that came down from the hills were famous in their day. That was before sawmills and high dams, and the other utilitarian devices of civilization poisoned the waters, or the multitude of anglers had destroyed their speckled inhabitants. Just below Bath, within a mile of the village, is Lake Salubria, a beautiful little sheet of water of some two or three hundred acres. It has neither inlet nor outlet above ground, but its waters are clear and pure. I was one of three or four that "long ago" put a hundred or more brook trout that we caught in the Townsend run with a net, alive into this lake. I remember the day well. We rigged a half hogshead with water on a lumber wagon and started for the run. We waded around in the water, and punching with long poles under the old logs and caverned banks, and having secured over a hundred, started for home. The heavens gathered blackness, and one of the severest storms I have ever known overtook us. My Panama hat hung like an elephant's ears about my shoulders, and my very boots were filled with the drenching rain. We persevered, notwithstanding the storm, and got our hundred trout, all alive and active, into Lake Salubria. They did not, however, multiply as we hoped they would. For years one would hear occasionally of a great trout being caught in the lake, till at last they were all gone. They lacked the ripples and the running water. They lived to be old, and then died without progeny, "making no sign."

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