Sunday, February 18, 2007

'Springfield Present and Prospective (1905), The Visible Charm: As It Was, Is, And May Be,' Excerpt I

Here is another excerpt from 'Springfield: Present and Prospective,' a book written by prominent city fathers at the turn of the 20th century, published in 1905 by Pond & Campbell Publishers, and printed and engraved by F. A. Bassette Co., a company that still calls Springfield home. This segment is the beginning of the first chapter: 'The Visible Charm: As It Was, Is, And May Be,' written by Eugene C. Gardner.

Leave it to me to start a project in the middle, but the seventh chapter of the book, titled 'The Story of Springfield' and co-authored by Alfred M. Copeland and Edwin Dwight, has been completely transcribed and is now available for perpetual perusal here on EWM. Here is the link: 'Springfield Present and Prospective, The Story of Springfield' (Pond & Campbell 1905). There are some cool photo links scattered throughout the text, as well.

Anyway. Here is this week's segment. Enjoy:

I. Looking Backward

1. Nature's Legacy

Some cities are born beautiful, like Naples, some achieve beauty, like Washington, and some have beauty thrust upon them, like St. Petersburg, which would have been a great dismal swamp today but for the stubborn will of the first great autocrat of Russia.

If Springfield is not already one of the most beautiful cities in America, it is not for lack of noble birth, for it was beautifully born. Conceived in sunshine and brought forth in verdure, the little old house on the west side of the river, which two and a half centuries ago was the germ of the present city, a helpless, solitary infant, resting on the bare but nourishing bosom of mother Earth and rocked in the cradle of the fertile valley, was even then surrounded by rare and wonderful charms.

Sweeping and swinging between bluffs and forests, the clear water of the river mirrored brilliant pictures of the clouds above, of the graceful elms along its banks, and likewise of Indians, squaws and little papooses who had never heard of 'civic centers of municipal art' nor of scientific public sanitation, but by unerring instinct, selected for their mundane hunting grounds the spots where the grass was the greenest, the water the purest, the trees the most stately and sturdy. Then as now there were mountains round about, which gave a sense of permanency and solemn grandeur without which it is almost impossible to be deeply conscious of a well-established local habitation. We need these lofty barriers, not to mark the visual line that girts us round as the world's extreme and shut us in from the outer universe like Rasselas in his Happy Valley, but as our dwellings must have solid walls and sheltering roofs to localize and intensify the love of home. Domestic life even in frozen, barren Scandinavia is far superior to that of the fleeting Arabs on their level plains.

Here the sun sends down his morning salutation from over the Wilbraham hills and we lift our eyes for his evening benediction to the Green mountain peaks that have tumbled out of Vermont across Berkshire and Western Hampden; while at the north, craggy, crumbling Mount Tom, gray and hoary, but capped by giddy games and crowned with gilded coronet, like a too complaisant Cyclops, still lies between us and the wintry winds that rend his northern side but lose their sharpest sting before descending the southern slope.

Whether we climb to the top of the four-square arsenal tower, grim type and reminder of the 'power that fills the world with terror,' or seek the lofty but narrow point of view that for nearly a century has crowned Mount Orthodox across the river, steadfast, heaven-pointing emblem of the divine gospel of peace, our first emotion is that of surprise; our first impression that a veritable miracle has been wrought and, not all the kingdoms of the earth, indeed, but a measureless map of marvelous beauty has been suddenly unrolled at our feet. Seen from the streets of our city, from the bluffs on either side or from the cars that bind us to the rest of the world, neither the arsenal tower nor the spire of the West Springfield church appears to rise conspicuously above the surrounding landscape, but standing on or near their summits we seem to be lifted above the earth into the regions of the upper air.

After the first surprise at the extent and beauty of the view, the next thought is of wonder and self-reproach, that all our lives, perhaps, we, dullards that we are, have been living and moving in the midst of this delightful environment, oblivious or indifferent to the rarest charms of Nature, the richest combination of river and sky, bluffs and meadows, forests and mountains, too grand and gracious to be permanently defaced even by our clumsiest mistakes. Beyond question it was a goodly heritage, and Springfield must be counted among the cities that were born beautiful.

But these unadorned natural charms like those of infancy and childhood were doomed to suffer changes. The experimental and erratic methods of civilization soon compelled our eager ancestors to assail this perfect picture of Nature's faultless fashioning, and into the midst of her irreproachable work, where use and beauty are never at a variance, to introduce their own bald utilities with little thought beyond the stern necessities of each day and generation. There must be graded roads in place of the blazed and winding trails; bridges above the treacherous fords. Simple cottages and stately mansions with gardens and cultivated fields established themselves where wigwams and huts had hidden in the forest glades. The silent canoe disappeared before the screech of the locomotive, the flashing trolley and the puffing steamer. There must be room for public squares and parks; monuments and statues for our heroes, jails and gallows yards for our criminals. The thick black breath of chimneys darkens the sky which the thin smoke of the aboriginal domestic altars never reached. Huge factories and business blocks make narrow canyons of the old forest aisles. There are churches and saloons, police courts and labor unions, trusts and telephones, armories and schools. All of these with innumerable additions and variations determine and display the external life, the outside picture of the City of Springfield. And each and every one of these features, large and small, forms a thread, dark or light, a band of color, a conspicuous and beautiful decoration, or an uncouth disfigurement on the web we have woven and shall keep weaving as successive generations rise and fall, while the city which never grows old, but, humanly speaking, lives forever, becomes larger and more beautiful every year.

Chapter continued: 'I. Looking Backward, 2. From Center to Circumference.'

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