Conneaut in Literature

A Hoosier Holiday
by Theodore Dreiser
with illustrations by Franklin Booth
1916, reprinted 1998


MORE splendid lake road beyond Erie, though we were constantly running into detours which took us through sections dreadful to contemplate. The next place of any importance was the city of Conneaut, Ohio, which revealed one form of mechanical advance I had never dreamed existed. Conneaut being “contagious” as Philosopher Dooley used to say, to the coal fields of Pennsylvania—hard and soft—and incidentally (by water) to the iron and copper mines “up Superior way” in northern Michigan, a king of transshiping business has sprung up, the coal from these mines being brought here and loaded onto boats for all points on the Great Lakes. Similarly copper and iron coming down from upper Michigan and Wisconsin on boats are here taken out and loaded into cars. I never knew before that iron ore was powdered for shipment—it looks like a dull red earth—or that they stored it in great hills pending a day of use,--hills which looked to me as though a thousand ships might not lower them in a year. John D. Rockefeller, I am told, was the guiding spirit in all this development here, having first seen the profit and convenience of bringing ore form the mines of Pennsylvania and incidentally returning in the same carriers coal to all parts of the Great Lakes and elsewhere. A canny man, that. Won't some American Homer kindly sing him as one of the great wonders of the world?
Optically and for a material thrill, the machinery for transshiping these enormous supplies was most interesting to me.
Suppose you were able to take an iron car weighing say thirty or forty thousand pounds, load it with coal weighing thirty or forty thousand pounds more and turn it up, quite as you would a coal scuttle, and empty the contents into a waiting ship. . . Then suppose you looked in the car and saw three or four pieces of coal still lying in it and said to yourself, “Oh, well, I might as well dump these in, too,” and then you lifted up the car and dumped the remaining two or three pieces out—wouldn't you feel rather strong?
Well, that is what is being done at Conneaut, Ohio, morning, noon, and night, and often all night, as all day. The boats bringing these immense loads of iron ore are waiting to take back coal, and so this enormous process of loading and unloading goes on continually. Franklin and I were standing on a high bank commanding all this and a wonderful view of Lake Erie, never dreaming that the little box-like things we saw in the distance being elevated and turned over were steel coal cars, when he suddenly exclaimed, “I do believe those things over there are cars, Dreiser,--steel coal cars.”
“Get out!” I replied incredulously.
“That's what they are,” he insisted. “We'll have Speed run the machine over onto that other hill, and then we can be sure.”
From this second vantage point it was all very clear—great cars being run upon a platform, elevated quickly to a given position over a runway or coal chute leading down into the hold of a waiting steamer, and then quickly and completely upset, the last few coals being shaken out as though each grain were precious.
“How long do you think it takes them to fill a ship like that?” I queried.
“Oh, I don't know,” replied Franklin meditatively.
“Let's see how long it takes to empty a car.”
We timed them—one car every three minutes.
“That means twenty cars an hour,” I figured, “or one hundred cars in five hours. That ought to fill any steamer.”
A little further along the same shore, reaching out toward the lake, were eventually was a small, white lighthouse, were those same hills of powdered iron I have been telling you about—great long hills that it must have taken ships and ships and ships of iron to build. I thought of the ownership of all those things, the iron and copper mines in northern Michigan, the vast coal beds in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and how they were acquired. Did you ever read a true story of them. I'll wager you haven't. Well, there is one, not so detached as it might be, a little propagandistic in tone in spots, but for all that a true and effective work. It is entitled “A History of Great American Fortunes,” by one Gustavus Myers, a curious soul, and ill repaid, as I have reason to know, for his untiring energy. It is really a most important work, and can be had in three compact volumes for about six dollars. It is almost too good to be true, a thorough going, forthright statement of the whole process. Some of his expositions make clear the almost hopeless nature of democracy,--and that is a very important thing to discover.
As I have said, this northern portion of Ohio is a mixture of half city and half country, and this little city of Conneaut was an interesting illustration of the rural America grappling with the metropolitan idea. In one imposing drug or candy store (the two are almost synonymous these days) to which Franklin and I went for a drink of soda, we met a striking example of the rural fixity of idea, or perhaps better, religiosity of mind or prejudice, in regard to certain normal human appetites or vices. In most of these small towns and cities in Ohio these days, total abstinence from all intoxicating liquors is enforced by local option. In Conneaut local option had decided that no intoxicating liquor of any kind should be sold there. But since human nature is as it is and must have some small outlet for its human naturalness, apparently they now get what are sometimes called near-drinks, which are sold under such enticing names as “Sparkade” (which is nothing more than a carbonated cider or apple juice), “Gayola,” “Cheercoala,” and a score of other,--all dosed, no doubt, with a trace of some temporarily bracing drug, like caffeine or kolanut. The one which I tried on this occasion was “Sparkade,” a feeble, watery thing, which was advertised to hail all the invigorating qualities of champagne and to taste the same.
“Has this any real champagne in it?” I asked the conventional but rosy cheeked girl who waited on me, jestingly.
“No, sir. I don't think so, sir. I've never tried it, though.”
“What?” I said, “Never tried this wonderful drink? Have you ever tasted champagne?”
“Indeed, not!” she replied, with a concerned and self-preservative air.
“What, never? Well, then, there's your chance. I'm going to drink a bottle of Sparkade and you can taste mine.”
I poured out the bubbling stuff and offered it to her.
“No, thank you,” she replied haughtily, and as I still held it toward here, “No, thank you! I never touch anything of that kind.”
“But you say it is a nonintoxicant?”
“Well, I think it is, but I'm not sure. And anyhow, I don't think I'd care for it.”
“Don't you belong to some society that is opposed to intoxicants of all kinds?” I queried teasingly.
“Yes sir. Our church is opposed to liquor in any form.”
“Even Sparkade?” I persisted.
She made a contemptuous mouth.
“There you have it, Franklin,” I said to him. “You see—the Church rules here—a moral opinion. That's the way to bring up the rising generation—above corruption.”
But outside Conneaut was so delightful. There was such a downpour of sunlight upon great, wide armed trees and mottling the sidewalks and roadways. In the local garage where we stopped for oil and some tools all was so orderly and clean—a veritable cosmos of mechanical intricacies which set me to meditating on the cast array of specialties into which the human mind may delve and make a living. Citizens were drifting about in an easy, summery way it seemed to me,--not with that hard pressure which seems to afflict the members of many larger cities. I felt so comfortable here, so much like idling. And Franklin and Speed seemed in the same mood.
Query. Was it the noon hour? or the gay, delicious sunlight seen through the trees? or some inherent, spiritual quality in Conneaut itself? Query.
Beyond Conneaut we scuttled over more of that wonderful road, always in sight of the lake and so fine that when completed it will be the peer of any scenic route in the world, I fancy. Though as yet but earth, it was fast being made into brick. And positively I may assure you that you need never believe people you meet on the road and whom you seek information as to shortest routes, places to eat, condition of roads or the best roads. No traveling motorist seems to know, and no local resident or wiseacre anywhere is to be trusted. People tell you all sorts of things and without the slightest positive information. Franklin told me that the wise loafers who hang about the post office and public stores, and had lived in Hamilton County all their lives, had been for years uniformly misdirecting passing automobiles as to the best or shortest route between Carmel and Nobelsville, Indiana. In some cases it might be done, he thought, in a spirit of deviltry, in other prejudice as to the routes was responsible, in still others nothing more than blank ignorance as to what constitutes good roads!
Here in Conneaut, as we were entering the city by “the largest viaduct in the world,” we asked an old toll keeper, who collected thirty cents from us as a token of his esteem, which was the shortest and best route to Ashtabula and whether there wasn't a good shore road.
“Well, now, I'll tell you,” he began, striking a position and beginning to smooth his abundant whiskers. “There is a shore road that runs along the lake, but it hain't no good. If you're a-goin' fer business you'll take the Ridge Road, but if you're just out joy ridin' and don't care where you go, you can go by the lake. The Ridge Road's the business man's road. There hain't no good road along the lake this time o' year, with all the rain we've been havin.'”
Franklin, I am sure, was inclined to heed his advice at first, whereas I, having listened to similar bits of misinformation all the way out from New York, was inclined to be skeptical and even angry, and besides the car wasn't mine. These wretched old fixtures, I said to myself, who had never been in an automobile more than half a dozen times in their lives, were the most convinced, apparently, as to the soundness to their information. They infuriated me at times, particularly when their advice tended to drive us out of the course I was interested in, and the shore road was the road I wanted to follow. I persuaded Franklin to pay no attention to this old fussbutton.
“What does he know?” I inquired. “There he sits at that bridge all day in and day out and takes toll. Farmers with heavy loads may report all sorts of things, but we've seen how fine the dirt roads have been everywhere we've followed them.”
Speed agreed with me.
So we struck out along the shore road and nothing could have been better. It was not exactly smooth, but it was soft with a light dust and so close to the lake that you could see the tumbling waves and throw a stone into them if you chose; and at certain points where a cove gave a wider view, there were people bathing and tents tacked down along the shore against the wind. It was wonderful. Every now and then we would encounter young men and women bathers ambling along the road in their water costumes, and in one instance the girl was so very shapely and so young and attractive that we exclaimed with pleasure. When she saw us looking at her she merely laughed and waved her hands. At another point two young girls standing beside a fence called, “Don't you wish you could take us along?” They were attractive enough to make anybody wish it.

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