Charles Carleton Coffin Part 13

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While Carleton enjoyed that kind of work, ethical, literary, benevolent, and political, which appealed to sentiment and aroused sympathy to the burning point, he was an equally faithful coworker with G.o.d and man in enterprises wholly unsentimental. He who waits through eternity for his creatures to understand his own creation, knows how faithfully good men can cooperate with him in plans which only unborn and succeeding generations can appreciate.

Out of a thousand ill.u.s.trations we may note, along the lines of electric science, the names of Professor Kinnersly, who probably first led Franklin into that line of research which enabled him to "s.n.a.t.c.h the sceptre from tyrants and the lightning from heaven," and Professor Moses Gerrish Farmer, who broke new paths into the once unknown. As early as 1859, Mr. Farmer lighted his whole house with electric lights, and blew up a little s.h.i.+p by a tiny submarine torpedo in 1847, and in the same year propelled by electricity a car carrying pa.s.sengers. Yet neither of these names is found in the majority of ordinary cyclopedias or books of reference.

Familiar with such facts, both by a general observation of life, and by a special and critical study of the literature of patents and inventions, Carleton felt perfectly willing to devote himself to a work that he knew would yield but little popular applause, even when victory should be won,--the abolition of railway level or "grade"


During a brief morning call on Carleton, shortly after he had been elected Senator in the Ma.s.sachusetts Legislature for the session of 1890, I asked him what he proposed especially to do. "Well," said he, "I think that if I can get all grade crossings abolished from the railroads of the whole Commonwealth, it will be a good winter's work."

Forthwith he set himself to study the problem, to master resources and statistics, to learn the relation between capital invested and profits made by the railway corporation, and especially to measure the forces in favor of and in opposition to the proposed reform.

About this time, the chief servant of Shawmut Church was studying an allied question. While the "grade crossing" slew its thousands of non-travelling citizens, the freight-car, with its link-and-pin coupling, its block-b.u.mpers, its hand-brakes, its slippery roofs, its manifold s.h.i.+ftings over frogs and switches, slew its tens of thousands of railway operatives. On the grade crossings, the victims were chiefly old, deaf, or blind men and women, cripples, children, drunkards, and miscellaneous people. On the other hand, the freight-cars killed almost exclusively the flower of the country's manhood. The tens of thousands of hands crushed between b.u.mpers, of arms and legs cut off, of bodies broken and mangled, were, in the majority of cases, those of healthy, intelligent men, between the ages of eighteen and fifty, and usually breadwinners for whole families.

The slaughter every year was equal to that of a battle at Waterloo or Gettysburg. Fairy tales about monsters devouring human beings, legends of colossal dragons swallowing annually their quota of fair virgins, were insignificant expressions of damage done to the human race compared to that annual tribute poured into the insatiable maw of the railway Moloch. Every great line of traffic, like the Pennsylvania or New York Central Railway, ate up a man a day. Sometimes, between sunrise and sunset, a single road made four or five widows, with a profusion of orphans.

Yet two men, each of the name of Coffin, and each of that superb Nantucket stock which has enriched our nation and carried the American flag to every sea, were working in the West and the East, for the abolition of legalized slaughter. Lorenzo Coffin, of Iowa, a distant cousin of Carleton's, whom so many railway men always salute as "father," had been for years trying to throttle the two twin enemies of the railway man, alcohol, and the freight-car equipment of link-and-pin coupler and hand-brake. It was he who agitated unceasingly for national protection to railway men, and to the brakeman especially. He and his fellow reformers asked for a law compelling the use of a brake which would relieve the crew from such awful exposure and foolhardy risk of life on the icy roofs of the cars in winter, and for couplers which, by abolis.h.i.+ng the iron link and pin, would save the constant and almost certain crus.h.i.+ng of the hands which the s.h.i.+fting of the cars compelled when coupled in the old way.

For a long time Lorenzo Coffin's efforts seemed utterly useless. This was simply because human life was cheaper than machinery, and because public opinion on this particular subject had not yet become Christian. It was Jesus Christ who raised the value of both the human body and the human soul, abolished gladiatorial shows, raised up hospitals, created cemeteries, even for the poorest, made life insurance companies possible, and put even such value on human life as could be recovered in action by law from corporations which murder men through sordid economy or criminal carelessness. Lorenzo Coffin wrought for the application of Christianity to railway men. When finally the law was pa.s.sed, compelling safety-couplers and air-brakes, and when, in the const.i.tution of New York State, the limit of five thousand dollars replevin for a human life destroyed by a corporation was abolished, and no limit set, there were two new triumphs of Christianity. In these phenomena, we see only further ill.u.s.trations of that Kingdom of Heaven proclaimed by Christ, and ill.u.s.trated both in the hidden leaven and the phenomenal mustard-seed.

A sermon by the pastor of Shawmut Church, on "Lions that devour,"

depicted the great American slaughter-field. It set forth the array of figures as given him in the reports of the Inter-State Commerce Commission, sent by his friend, the Hon. Augustus Schoonmaker, of Kingston, New York, and then in Was.h.i.+ngton, one of the Commissioners.

There was considerable surprise and criticism from among his auditors, and the facts as set forth were doubted. There were present, as usual on Sunday mornings in Shawmut Church, men of public affairs, presidents of banks, the collector of the port of Boston, a general in the regular army, a veteran colonel of volunteers, several officers of railway companies, and, most of all, Mr. Charles Carleton Coffin. He and they thought the statements given of the slaughter of young men on railroads in the United States must be incredible. Even Carleton had not then informed himself concerning that great field of blood extending from ocean to ocean, and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, which every year was strewn with the corpses or mangled limbs of twenty-five thousand people. He thought his friend in the pulpit must be mistaken, and frankly told him so.

On the following Sunday, having received the figures for the current year, from the best authority in Was.h.i.+ngton, the preacher was able to say that his statements of last Sunday had been below reality, and that, instead of exaggerating, he had underestimated the facts. This gave Mr. Coffin, as he afterwards confessed, fresh impetus in his determination to get grade crossings abolished in Ma.s.sachusetts.

Having first personally interviewed the presidents of several great railroads leading out from Boston, and finding one or two heartily in favor of the idea, two or three more not in opposition, and scarcely a majority opposed, he persevered. He pressed the matter, and the bill was carried and signed by the governor. It provided that within a term of years all grade crossings in Ma.s.sachusetts should be abolished.

This will require the expenditure of many millions of dollars, the sinking or elevating of tracks, and the making of tunnels and bridges.

The work was n.o.bly begun. At this moment, in May, 1898, the progress is steadily forward to the great consummation.

Though his measure for the protection of human life received very little popular notice, Carleton counted it one of the best things that G.o.d had allowed him to do. And certainly, among the n.o.ble and truly Christian measures for the good of society, in this last decade of the century, the work done by Lorenzo Coffin in Iowa, as well as in the country at large, and by Senator Charles Carleton Coffin in Ma.s.sachusetts,--a State whose example will be followed by others,--must ever be remembered by the grateful student of social progress. Surely, Carleton proved himself not merely a politician, but a statesman.

The welfare of the city of Boston was ever dear to Carleton's heart.

He gave a great deal of time and thought to thinking out problems affecting its welfare, and hence was often a welcome speaker at club meetings, which are so numerous, so delightful, and, certainly, in their number, peculiar to Boston. He wrote for the press, giving his views freely, whenever any vital question was before the people. This often entailed severe labor and the sacrifice of time to one who could never boast very much of this world's goods.

When the writer first, in 1886, came to Boston to live, he found the horse everywhere in the city; when he left it in 1893 there was only the trolley. The motor power was carried through the air from a central source. It is even yet, however, a test of one's knowledge of Boston--a city not laid out by William Penn, but by cows and admirers of crookedness--to understand the street-car system of the city. Most of the street pa.s.senger lines fell gradually into the hands of one great corporation, which vastly improved the service, enlarging and making more comfortable, not to say luxurious, the accommodations, and by unification enabling one to ride astonis.h.i.+ng distances for a nickel coin.

From the peculiar shape of the city and the converging of the thoroughfares on Tremont Street, fronting the Common and the old burying grounds, the s.p.a.ce between Boylston Street and Cornhill was, at certain hours of the day, in a painful state of congestion. Then the stoppage of the cars, the loss of time, and the waste of temper was something which no nineteenth century man could stand with equanimity. How to relieve the congestion was the difficulty. Should there be an elevated railway, or a new avenue opened through the midst of the city? This was the question.

To this subject, Carleton gave his earnest attention. He remembered the day when the now elegant region of the Back Bay was marsh and water, when schooners discharged coal and lumber in that Public Garden, which in June looks like a day of heaven on earth, and when Tremont Street stopped at the crossing of the Boston and Albany railway. Even as late as 1850 the population included within the ten-mile radius of the city hall was but 267,861; in 1890, the increase was to 841,617; and the same ratio of increase will give, in 1930, 2,700,000 souls. In 1871, seventeen million people were moved into Boston by steam; in 1891, fifty-one millions. At the same ratio of increase, on the opening of the twentieth century, there will be 100,000,000 persons riding in from the suburbs, and of travellers in the street-cars, in A. D. 1910, nearly half a billion.

Carleton, the engineer and statesman, believed that neither a subway nor an elevated railway would solve the problem. He spoke, lectured, and wrote, in favor of a central city viaduct. For both surface and elevated railways, he proposed an avenue eighty feet wide, making a clear road from Tremont to Causeway Streets.

Moreover, he believed that the city should own the roads that should transport pa.s.sengers within the city limits. He was not afraid of that kind of socialism which provides for the absolute necessities of modern a.s.sociated life. He expected great amelioration to come to society from the breaking up and pa.s.sing away of the old relics of feudalism, as well as of the power of the privileged man as against man, of wealth against commonwealth. He believed that transportation within city limits should be under public owners.h.i.+p and control. He therefore opposed the subway and the incorporation of the Boston Elevated Railroad Company.

One of his most vigorous letters, occupying a column and a half, in the Boston _Herald_ of July 17, 1895, is a powerful plea for the rejection by the people of an act which should give the traffic of the streets of Boston and surrounding munic.i.p.alities into the hands of a corporation for all time. He considered that the act, which had been rushed through the legislature in one day at the close of the session, was a hasty piece of patchwork made by dovetailing two bills together, and was highly objectionable. He wrote:

"Why shall the people give away their own rights? Do they not own the ground beneath the surface and the air above the surface?... What need is there of a corporation? Cannot the people in their sovereign capacity do for themselves all that a corporation can do? Why give away their rights, and burden themselves with taxes for the benefit of a corporation?

"Does some one say it is a nationalistic idea? Then it is nationalism for Boston to own Quincy Market, the water supply, the system of sewerage. Far different from governmental owners.h.i.+p of railroads, with the complications of interstate commerce, is the proposition for public owners.h.i.+p of street railways. A street is a highway. Why shall not the subway under the street, or the structure over it, be a highway, built and owned by the people, and for their use and benefit, and not for the enrichment of a corporation?"

After forcibly presenting the reasonable objections to the bill, he closed by pleading that it be rejected, and that the next legislature be asked to establish a metropolitan district and the appointment of a commission with full power to do everything that could be done under the bill, "not for the greed of a corporation, but for the welfare of the people."



Carleton's biographer having resigned the pastorate of Shawmut Church at the end of 1892, the work was continued by the Rev. William E.

Barton, who had been called from Wellington, Ohio. He began his ministrations March 1, 1893. As so very many families forming the old church, and who had grown up in it from early manhood, youth, or even childhood, had removed from the neighborhood, it was necessary to reorganize to a certain extent. The great changes which had come over the South End, and the drift of population to the more attractive neighborhoods in the Back Bay, Brookline, Dorchester, Newton, Allston, and other beautiful suburbs of Boston, caused much derangement of previously existing conditions. The tremendous development of the means of transportation by the steam, horse or electric railways, to say nothing of the bicycle, had caused a marvellous bloom of new life and flush of vigor among the suburban churches, while those in the older parts of the city suffered corresponding decline. The Shawmut Church, like the Mount Vernon, the Pine Street, and others, had to pa.s.s through experiences which make a familiar story to those who know Philadelphia, New York, and London. The work of the old city churches had been to train up and graduate sons and daughters with n.o.ble Christian principles and character, to build up the waste places and the newer societies. Like bees, the new swarms out from the old hives were called to gather fresh honey.

The exodus from rural New England and from Canada enlarged Boston, and caused the building up and amazing development of Brookline. With such powerful magnets drawing away the old residents, together with the multiplication of a new and largely non-American and Roman Catholic population into the district lying east of Was.h.i.+ngton Street, the older congregations of the South End had, by 1890, been vastly changed. Several had been so depleted in their old supporters, that churches moved in a body to new edifices on the streets and avenues lying westward. In others the burdens of support fell upon a decreasing number of faithful men and women. Where once were not enough church edifices to accommodate the people who would wors.h.i.+p in them, was now a redundancy. In the city where a Roman Catholic church was once a curiosity are now nearly fifty churches that acknowledge the Pope's supremacy.

These things are stated with some detail, in order to show the character of Charles Carleton Coffin in its true light. After a laborious life, having borne the heat and burden of the day in the churches where his lot was cast, withal, having pa.s.sed his three score and ten years, one would naturally expect this veteran to seek repose.

Not a few of his friends looked to see him set himself down in some one of the luxurious new church edifices, amid congenial social surroundings and material comforts.

Carleton sought not his own comfort. When the new pastor and the old guard, left in Shawmut Church to "hold the fort," took counsel together as to the future, they waited with some anxiety to hear what choice and decision Mr. Coffin would make. He had already selected the ground and was making plans for building his new home, "Alwington," at No. 9 Shailer Street, Brookline,--several miles away from his old residence in Dartmouth Street. It was naturally thought that he would ally himself with a wealthy old church elsewhere, and bid farewell, as so many had done, to their old church home, taking no new burdens, risks, or responsibilities. During the conference in the Shawmut prayer-room, Carleton rose and, with a smiling face and his usual impressive manner, stated that he should give his hopes and prayers, his sympathy and work, his gifts and influence to Shawmut Church; and, for the present at least, without dictating the future, would cast in his lot with the Shawmut people. A thrill of delight, unbidden tears of joy, and a new warmth of heart came to those who heard. As time went on he so adjusted himself to the change, and found Dr. Barton such a stimulating preacher, that any thought of sacrifice entirely vanished.

When the first Congregational Church of Christ in Ithaca, N. Y.,--the city named by Simeon DeWitt after his Ulysses-like wanderings were over,--sent out its "letter missive" to the churches of the Central a.s.sociation of New York State, and to Shawmut Church in Boston, the latter responded. It was voted to send, as their messengers, the pastor, Rev. Dr. Barton, and Mr. Coffin; Mrs. Barton and Mrs. Coffin accompanied them. These four came on to the Forest City and its university "far above Cayuga's waters." With the delight of a boy Carleton enjoyed the marvellously lovely scenery, the hills robed in colors as many as though they had borrowed Joseph's robe, and Cayuga, the queen of the waters in New York's beautiful lake region. Most of all he visited with delight that typical American university which, Christian in spirit, neither propagates nor attacks the creed of any sect.

With its stately edifices for culture, training, research, and religion, it had risen like a new city on the farm of Ezra Cornell.

This far-seeing man, like Mr. Coffin, had, when so many others were blind, discerned in the new force, electricity, the vast future benefits to commerce, science, and civilization. Ezra Cornell had helped powerfully to develop its application by his thought, his money, and his personal influence. Ezra Cornell, in Irish phrase, "invented telegraph poles." Moses Farmer, the electrician, invented the lineman's spurred irons by which to climb them.

Besides attending the Church Council in the afternoon, Carleton made an address in the evening that was to one flattering and to many inspiring. Later on, the same night, he attended the reception given to the Faculty and new students at the house of President J. G.

Schurman. He was delighted in seeing the young president, with whose power as a thinker and writer he had already acquainted himself.

Carleton's last and chief literary work, done in his old home on Dartmouth Street, was to link together in the form of story the Revolutionary lore which he had gathered up from talks with partic.i.p.ators in "the time that tried men's souls." From boyhood's memories, from long and wide reading in original monographs, from topographical acquaintance, he planned to write a trio or quartet of stories of American history. He wished to present the scenes of the Revolution as in the bright colors of reality, in the dark shadows which should recall sacrifice, and with that graphic detail and power to turn the past into the present, of which he was a master.

As he had repeatedly written the story of the great Civil War from the point of view of a war correspondent actually on the ground, so would he tell the story of the Revolution as if he had been a living and breathing witness of what went on from day to day, enjoying and suffering those hopes and fears which delight and torment the soul when the veil of the future still hangs opaque before the mind.

His first instalment, "The Daughters of the Revolution," was published by Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., in a comely and well-ill.u.s.trated volume. It deals with that opening history of the eight years' war with Great Britain which at the beginning had Boston for its centre and in which New England especially took part.

In his other books, "Building the Nation," "Boys of '76," and "Old Times in the Colonies," Carleton had not ignored the work and influence of the "home guard" composed of mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins, and grandmothers; but in this story of the "Daughters" he gave special prominence to what our female ancestors did to make the country free, and to hand down in safeguarded forms that which had been outraged by King and Parliament.

How widely popular this volume may have been, the writer cannot say, but he knows that one little maiden whom he sees every day has re-read the work several times.

In a subsequent volume of the series, Carleton proposed to repicture the splendid achievements of the colonial army in northeastern New York. Here, from Lake Champlain to Sandy Hook, is a "great rift valley" which lies upon the earth's scarred and diversified surface like a mighty trough. It corresponds to that larger and grander rift valley from Lebanon to Zanzibar, through Galilee and the Jordan, the Red Sea, and the great Nyanzas, or Lakes of Africa. As in the oldest gash on the earth's face lies the scene of a long procession of events, so, of all places on the American continent, probably, no line of territory has witnessed such a succession of dramatic, brilliant, and decisive events, both in unrecorded time and in historic days, from Champlain and Henry Hudson to the era of Fulton, Morse, and Edison.

In the Revolution, the Green Mountain boys, and the New York and New England militia under Schuyler and Gates, had made this region the scene of one of the decisive campaigns of the world. Yet, in the background and at home, the heroines did their n.o.ble part in working for that consummation at Saratoga which won the recognition and material aid of France for the United States of America. Besides Lafayette, came also the lilies of France, alongside the stars and stripes. The white uniforms were set in battle array with the buff and blue against the red coats, and herein Carleton saw visions and dreamed dreams, which his pen, like the camera which chains the light, was to photograph in words. He had made his preliminary studies, readings, personal interviews, and reexamination of the region, and had written four or five chapters, when the call of the Captain to another detail of service came to him.

Life is worth living as long as one is interested in other lives than one's own. "_Dando conservat_" is the motto of a famous Dutch-American family. So Carleton, by giving, preserved. In the summer of 1895, after j.a.pan had startled the world by her military prowess, Carleton went down to Nantucket Island, and there at a great celebration delivered a fine historical address, closing with these words:

"Thus it came to pa.s.s that he who guides the sparrow in its flight saw fit to use the sailors of Nantucket, by s.h.i.+pwreck and imprisonment, as his agents to bring about the resurrection of the millions of j.a.pan from the grave of a dead past to a new and vigorous life. Thus it is that Nantucket occupies an exalted position in connection with the history of our country."

Of this he wrote me in one of his last letters, February 27, 1896:

"I have read 'Townsend Harris' with unspeakable delight. I love to think of the resurrection of j.a.pan in connection with the Puritans of Ma.s.sachusetts,--the original movement culminating in Perry's expedition having its origin in the s.h.i.+pwrecking of Nantucket sailors on the of that empire." Mr. Coffin brought out this idea in his earlier and later address which he gave at Nantucket.

Charles Carleton Coffin Part 13

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