September 1991

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Charles Lyell

Tours Steuben County

in 1841


Thomas D. Cornell

Although Roger Haydon's compilation, Upstate Travels: British Views of Nineteenth-Century New York (Syracuse University Press, 1982) includes a variety of accounts, it largely omits the one written by the geologist Charles Lyell, who visited here in 1841. Rather than seeking comprehensive coverage (which would not have been possible, given the large number of travel books published at the time), the editor favored those less familiar and less accessible than Lyell's Travels in North America (1845). But with September 1991 marking the 150th anniversary of Lyell's trip across Steuben County, his observations may appropriately be excerpted here.

By 1841 Lyell was one of the world's leading geologists. A decade earlier he had vigorously supported one group, the uniformitarians, in their debate with another group, the catastrophists, over how best to explain the earth's geology. The catastrophists argued that the dramatic features we see around us (canyons, mountains, etc.) had been created by special forces no longer at work: world-wide floods, massive series of earthquakes, etc. By contrast, the uniformitarians insisted that the only forces at work in the past were forces just like those we see at work today: erosion and sedimentation, earthquakes of the usual sort, etc. Lyell's book The Principles of Geology (1830-1833) tipped the scales decisively in favor of the uniformitarians, thereby establishing the theoretical basis of modern geology.

Out of that debate came a far better understanding of rock, or strata, so apparent today (for example) in the cuts along our interstate highways. More specifically, the geologists of Lyell's generation succeeded in the difficult task of reconstructing the historical order of the strata. Not surprisingly, much of the early work was done in Europe. During the 1820s and 1830s, however, the various state legislatures in the U. S. began authorizing geological surveys. Thus one of the main reasons for Lyell's trip was to examine for himself the terrain described in these state surveys, to see if the New World strata confirmed the sequences proposed by the Old World geologists.

Lyell and his wife Mary left England in July, 1841. After several weeks in Boston, they made their way to Albany, New York. From there they continued in the company of James Hall, the geologist who had surveyed the state's western district. Together, Lyell and Hall studied Niagara Falls. Then they proceeded to Geneseo, where they arranged to excavate some fossilized Mastodon bones. At that point, Hall returned to Albany—leaving Lyell and his wife to continue on their own.

Lyell's purpose in traveling from Geneseo to Blossburg, Pennsylvania, was to examine the strata wherever he found them exposed. In so doing, he was able to confirm the presence in North America of the Silurian and Devonian sequences proposed by the European geologists. But more unexpected than the geological features he observed were the features of the human landscape—which is what he emphasized in the passages that follow.

Mr. Hall took leave of us at Geneseo, after which I set out on a tour to examine the series of rocks between the upper Silurian strata of the State of New York and the Coal of Pennsylvania. With this in view I took the direction of Blossberg, where the most northern coal mines of the United States are worked.
On this occasion we left the main road, and entered, for the first time, an American stage-coach, having been warned not to raise our expectations too high in regard to the ease or speed of our conveyance. Accordingly, we found that after much fatigue, we had only accomplished a journey of 46 miles in 12 hours, between Geneseo and Dansville. We had four horses; and when I complained at one of the inns that our coachman seemed to take pleasure in driving rapidly over deep ruts and the roughest ground, it was explained to me that this was the first time in his life he had ever attempted to drive any vehicle, whether two or four-wheeled. The coolness and confidence with which every one here is ready to try his hand at any craft is truly amusing. A few days afterwards I engaged a young man to drive me in a gig from Tioga to Blossberg. On the way, he pointed out, first, his father's property, and then a farm of his own, which he had lately purchased. As he was not yet twenty years of age, I expressed surprise that he had got on so well in the world, [which is] when he told me that he had been editor of the 'Tioga Democrat' for several years, but had now sold his share of the newspaper.

[Lyell then returned to the earlier portion of his trip, resuming the chronological account with his departure from Dansville.]

At length we reached the water-shed, where the streams flow, on one side, northwards to Lake Ontario, and on the other, southwards, to the Susquehanna. I began to wonder how the Indians ever obtained any correct notions of topography in so continuous a forest, all the smaller rivers, with their islands, being embowered and choked up with trees…
After traversing successive zones of the Upper Silurian strata, I at length entered at Bath upon the olive-colored slates and grey sandstone, which seem to be the equivalent of the lower part of the Old Red, or Devonian of England. In this rock some streaks of carbonaceous matter, which soon thin out, and are rarely three inches thick, are met with. I found a proprietor on Spalding's Creek preparing to sink a costly shaft for coal, and I earnestly dissuaded him from his project, referring him to the New York survey. Every scientific man who discourages a favourite mining scheme must make up his mind to be as ill received as the physician who gives an honest opinion that his patient's disorder is incurable.
Sept. 5.—At Bath I hired a private carriage for Corning. Although there are two railways here [in Corning] with locomotive engines, one leading to the south, the other for conveying the coal of Blossberg to the Erie canal, I looked in vain for the name of Corning in a newly-published map, and was informed that the town was only two years old. Already the school-house was finished, the spire of the Methodist church nearly complete, the Presbyterian one in the course of building, the site of the Episcopalian decided on…
I asked the landlord of the inn at Corning, who was very attentive to his guests, to find my coachman. He immediately called out in his bar-room, 'Where is the gentleman that brought this man here?' A few days before, a farmer in New York had styled my wife 'the woman,' though he called his own daughters ladies, and would, I believe, have freely extended that title to their maid-servant…[thus] it appears that the spirit of social equality has left no other signification of the terms 'gentleman' and 'lady' but that of 'male and female individual.'

The passages quoted above come from Charles Lyell, Travels in North America, in the Years 1841-1842: with Geological Observations on the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia, New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845, pp. 45-49.

© 1991, Thomas D. Cornell
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