From John Hennessy:
Charles Dickens was world-famous in 1842 when he made a trip to Virginia that brought him through, of all places, White Oak. At the time, there was no direct rail line between Washington and Richmond, and so Dickens took the common route: by steamboat down the Potomac to a landing at Belle Plain on Potomac Creek, and thence by carriage through White Oak to Fredericksburg, where, after a night’s rest, he picked up the train for the final journey south to Richmond. Dickens later wrote about his American travels, and left a vivid description of our part of Virginia in the process–a description focused largely on landscape and slavery. You can find a full account of his journey to our neighborhood here, starting on page 152. Dickens, by the way, was among the last to have to endure the trip by stage from Potomac Creek to Fredericksburg. The rail line from Fredericksburg to Aquia Landing opened literally weeks after Dickens’s visit. His journey took him past White Oak Church (below), which still stands in Stafford County.
By the way, if you are interested in more footfalls of famous people in the Fredericksburg region, the Fredericksburg Area Museum (which has made itself one of the best regional museums in Virginia) now has an exhibit up on old Town Hall called, of course, Footfalls of the Famous, which describes some of the more curious and interesting famous visits to the Fredericksburg region over the decades. Can you name, for example, the then-unknown wagoner (later famous for adventure) who hauled tobacco and grain from Culpeper to Fredericksburg in the late 1750s?
On to Dickens’s wonderful account….
Soon after nine o’clock we come to Potomac Creek, where we are to land; and then comes the oddest part of the journey. Seven stage-coaches are preparing to carry us on. Some of them are ready, some of them are not ready. Some of the drivers are blacks, some whites. There are four horses to each coach, and all the horses, harnessed or unharnessed are there. The passengers are getting out of the steamboat, and into the coaches; the luggage is being transferred in noisy wheelbarrows; the horses are frightened, and impatient to start; the black drivers are chattering to them like so many monkeys; and the white ones whooping like so many drovers: for the main thing to be done in all kinds of hostlering here, is to make as much noise as possible. The coaches are something like the French coaches, but not nearly so good. In lieu of springs, they are hung on bands of the strongest leather. There is very little choice or difference between them; and they may be likened to the car portion of the swings at an English fair, roofed, put upon axle-trees and wheels, and curtained with painted canvas. They are covered with mud from the roof to the wheel-tire, and have never been cleaned since they were first built…..The first half-mile of the road is over bridges made of loose planks laid across two parallel poles, which tilt up as the wheels roll over them; and In the river. The river has a clayey bottom and is full of holes, so that half a horse is constantly disappearing unexpectedly, and can’t be found again for some time.
But we get past even this, and come to the road itself, which is a series of alternate swamps and gravel-pits….And so we do the ten miles or thereabouts in two hours and a half; breaking no bones, though bruising a great many….
This singular kind of coaching terminates at Fredericksburgh, whence there is a railway to Richmond. The tract of country through which it takes its course was once productive; but the soil has been exhausted by the system of employing a great amount of slave labour in forcing crops, without strengthening the land: and it is now little better than a sandy desert overgrown with trees. Dreary and uninteresting as its aspect is, I was glad to the heart to find anything on which one of the curses of this horrible institution has fallen; and had greater pleasure in contemplating the withered ground, than the richest and most thriving cultivation in the same place could possibly have afforded me.
In this district, as in all others where slavery sits brooding, (I have frequently heard this admitted, even by those who are its warmest advocates:) there is an air of ruin and decay abroad, which is inseparable from the system. The barns and outhouses are mouldering away; the sheds are patched and half roofless; the log cabins (built in Virginia with external chimneys made of clay or wood) are squalid in the last degree. There is no look of decent comfort anywhere. The miserable stations by the railway side; the great wild wood-yards, whence the engine is supplied with fuel; the negro children rolling on the ground before the cabin doors, with dogs and pigs; the biped beasts of burden slinking past: gloom and dejection are upon them all.
In the negro car belonging to the train in which we made this journey, were a mother and her children who had just been purchased; the husband and father being left behind with their old owner. The children cried the whole way, and the mother was misery’s picture. The champion of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, who had bought them, rode in the same train; and, every time we stopped, got down to see that they were safe. The black in Sinbad’s Travels with one eye in the middle of his forehead which shone like a burning coal, was nature’s aristocrat compared with this white gentleman.