The Blackwater Chronicle — serialized

Giles Snyder
9 min readJun 13, 2022

Wish I had thought of serializing DHS’s The Mountains while I was reading and posting about the series earlier this year.

DHS is often mistaken as The Chronicle’s author. Understandable, I suppose. He was artist behind TBC’s illustrations and he became a literary rock star writing about the same region of what is now West Virginia. His The Virginian Canaan appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in December 1853, just months after TBC was published.

At the time, DHS was an established artist. It’s believed he agreed to illustrate TBC to help his good friend and cousin, Philip Pendleton Kennedy, the book’s actual author.

Kennedy was known as “Pent” throughout his life. He is something of a tragic figure — a party boy whose drinking got in the way of living a responsible life.

Pent appears as Triptolemus Todd in the narrative. He’s easily identifiable if you know that in real life Pent walked with a limp after shooting himself in the leg. Todd is described as lame after shooting himself in the right knee.

DHS appears as Signor Andante Strozzi. Of course, he’s the artist of the group as well as an amateur musician.

I’d like to say that I came up with the idea of reproducing The Blackwater Chronicle on my own, but I can’t. It came from an email I received from Substack that features what others are doing on the platform. Apparently, serializing books that are in the public domain is a thing.

It will take fourteen weeks.

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CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTORY

If the reader will take down the map of Virginia, and look at Randolph county, he will find that the Blackwater is a stream that makes down from the north into the Cheat river, some few miles below the point where that river is formed by the junction of the Dry fork, the Laurel fork , and the Glade fork — the Shavers, or Great fork, falling in some miles below : all rising and running along the western side of the Backbone of the Alleganies.

The country embraced by these head-waters of the Cheat river is called “ The Canaan” — a wilderness of broken and rugged mountains -its streams falling through deep clefts, or leaping down in great cataracts, into the Cheat, that sweeps the base of the Backbone.

It is to the Blackwater, one among the largest of these streams of the Canaan, that we purpose to take the reader. If, therefore, his fancy urges him to the venture, let him come with us. All he has to do is to set himself down in his easy -chair, and lend us his ears. By the magic of this scroll we shall take him.

This Blackwater (it should be called Amberwater), and north source of the Cheat, rises high up on the western slope of the Backbone, directly across from the Fairfax stone -where the head-spring of the Potomac has its source on this the eastern side of the mountain ; and it is supposed that these head waters of the two rivers are not more than some half a mile ( or mile at most) apart. The Backbone, following a general course from north to south, here turns at almost a right-angle, and takes across to the eastward some fifteen miles, when it regains its former southerly direction, thus forming a zigzag in its course . At the point where it first makes the bend to the east, a large spur — apparently the Back bone itself- keeps straight to the south, and butts down on the Cheat, at the distance of some ten or twelve miles. Between this large spur and the point where the Backbone bends to the south again, is contained the cove of mountains which is called the Canaan. This region of country is in the very highest range of the Alleganies, lying in the main some three thousand feet above the level of the sea.

Until a few years past, the whole of the district embraced by the head — waters of the Potomac and the Cheat was as remote and inaccessible as any part of the long range of the Alleganies. But some few years ago, the state of Virginia constructed a graded road from Winchester to Parkersburg, which passes over the Backbone through the Potomac limits ; and consequently this portion of the district has become opened out somewhat to the knowledge of the world, and has since been settled to a considerable extent. The Baltimore and Ohio railroad also passes near here — at a distance from the head waters of the Potomac varying from ten to twenty miles. The railroad will bring all this region within a day’s travel of the seaboard ; and as the country lies about the head of the Maryland glades — in themselves a source of attraction and contains within its range many tracts of land of great fertility and beauty, it is not irrational to suppose that it will be cleared out and settled with rapidity.

As it is , there is a good settlement around here already — the result, in the main, of the construction of the Northwestern road. Long, however, before this road was made, there was a Mr. Smith who pitched his tent in these wilds some fifty years or more ago, I am informed , and cleared out and improved a handsome estate for himself, lying along the Maryland shore of the Potomac, and containing some fifteen hundred acres of fine land of varied hill and dale. The Smiths are now gone, and the estate has passed into other hands. In the older times a tavern was kept here, for the accommodation of the few people who crossed these mountains. But when the northwestern road came by, the marvels of a good highway were made manifest in the increased travel, that soon became too great for the capabilities of the once-unfriended inn. About this period, a gentleman from the city of Washington, journeying this way to escape the heats of the sea board, was so taken with the pleasant temperature of the air and the wild beauty of the mountains, that he bought the place — — impelled somewhat thereto, no doubt, by the trout in the streams and the deer in the forests. Under his rule a new house was erected, large enough to hold a goodly company. This is the house -fair enough to look upon in its outside array , and comfortable enough within -that now stands imposing, not far away from the old one, on the brow of a lofty hill overlooking the Potomac. “ Winston “” the place is called -so-called because the eighty-seventh milestone from Winchester is won when you reach its door. Edward Towers keeps it -or did , when the Blackwater expedition won the stone. Here, for some years past, many of our citizens, of both Virginia and Maryland, have been in the habit of resorting in the summer and fall months, to fish for trout, hunt the deer, shoot pheasants, wild turkeys, woodcock in their season, and enjoy the invigorating atmosphere of a country whose level is so high above the sea.

The ride to this place over the Northwestern road is exquisitely delightful, and withal as easy as a ride can well be. You travel over a graded slate road -the perfection of a summer highway — engineered skilfully, and at but a low grade, through the gorges and defiles of these fine mountains, and, when crossing any of them, seeming to have been carried over purposely at those points where the scenery is of the grandest or most beautiful character. Take it altogether, for the excellence of the road, and the varied combinations of scenery that are ever presenting themselves to view, there is no route across the mountains anywhere that excels it. With a pair of good horses in a light carriage, you can speed along all the way as if you were taking an evening drive about your home, even though your home be where the roads are the best in the land. And then , what exhilaration of spirit is felt by you as you roll smoothly along at the rate of some ten miles an hour, your horses scarcely stretching a trace -seeming merely to keep out of the way of the wheels ! -on one side of you a deep gorge, a thousand feet down, dark with hemlocks and firs, where a mountain -stream breaks its way to the sea ; above you, high -towering peaks and over hanging cliffs, where the oak or stately fir has cast anchor, and held on for ages in defiance of all the storms of the Alleganies ; while before you , afar off, glittering in the sunshine, are seen in glimpses the green fields and meadows of some fair, luxuriant valley ; and the whole horizon bounded by lofty mountains that seem to defy all approach, but which you at length wind your way through by some concealed cleft, the bed of a stream, with scarcely any more of obstruction than a bowling-green would present to your glowing wheels.

There are but few things more agreeably exciting to the spirits than a rapid drive through the country on a good road. There are some who will not assent to this proposition ; but they are not to be deferred to in these matters of fastness, and do not understand the philosophy of the human soul. “ The power of agitation upon the spirits,” says Dr. Johnson, “ is well known. Every man has felt his heart lightened by a rapid drive or a gallop on a swift horse . “ This might be only a little closet philosophy of the sturdy old despot of letters, maintained in theory but belied in practice, like our famous doctrine of state-rights here in Virginia ; but we have it on record that the rough old viking of our English literature considered it one of the prime felicities of his life to ride in a stage- coach, even at the rate of speed attainable in his day. If one of the soundest moral philosophers that any age or country has produced can be shown as both theoretically and practically enforcing the happiness of rapid motion -at least to the extent that could be achieved by an English stage-coach, and over the comparatively rude thoroughfares leading out of London a hundred years ago — ante Agamemnona, that is, before M’Adam -how much more delightful must be the agitation of your spirits, and the consequent lightening of your heart, when the atmosphere you breathe, as you drive smoothly along behind a pair of untiring thoroughbreds, is the very purest, and the scenes around you are among the grandest or most beautiful of a whole continent! And all this too, recollect, with a splendid craving all over you -feeling it even at your finger-ends everywhere — for food : visions of venison- steaks, and hot rolls, and fresh summer butter, made where the meadows are “ with daisies pied , “ floating through your crowded and hunger-enraptured brain — and with the certainty , too, all the while in your mind, that you can not apparently kill this craving for the time being with anything in the shape of a breakfast, dinner, supper, or what not, but it will be all powerful again upon you in some three or four hours ! -an appetite seemingly endowed with the quality of the phenix, that out of its own ashes renews itself -

-"revives and flourishes,Like that self-begotten bird,In the Arabian woods embossed" -

not surpassed by anything of the sort that we have on record -not by Sancho Panza’s, nor by Rittmaster Dugald Dalgetty’s, nor yet that of the mighty heroes of the Iliad — aptly to describe which the genius of Homer was only equal, when the divine old bard sings of it as the sacred rage of hunger.

If any mortal of these sated days would wish fully to appreciate what this Homeric rage is, let him take this ride to the Alleganies ; and though he should be of a nobler spirit than Esau, yet will he in his inmost soul commiserate that poor devil for having sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

Originally published at https://gilessnyder.substack.com on June 13, 2022.

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Giles Snyder

NPR Newscaster and Porte Crayon newsletter writer.