There were few occasions in the troubled life of Edgar Allan Poe, commonly known to reviewers of the 1840s as “America’s Shakespeare,” that allowed for a genuine sense of peace and natural well being. His biographers tell us of a life riddled by debt and destitution, jealous contemporaries, greedy publishers here and abroad who stole his work, changed his name, and profited from his genius and labor often without a cent in return. What little he did make from his work was quickly spent trying to keep his family clothed and fed. And when it was all too much for him, when he attempted to create a moment’s respite, an alternative state of mind, it was more often than not, to his regret.
We may only conjecture what his better moments might have been. However, he left for us the description of a personal experience that must have elevated and sustained him in his essay, “Morning on The Wissahiccon” (reprinted later as “The Elk”) which first appeared in The Opal: A Pure Gift for The Holy Days (1844).
Poe often visited the Fairmount Park area during his stay in Philadelphia (1838-1844) and again during July of 1849 a few months before his death. He came here with friends like George Lippard, or John Sartain, the illustrator-owner of Sartain’s Union Magazine who published “Annabel Lee,” and “The Bells” after Poe’s death. As Arthur Hobson Quinn notes in Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Poe would often picnic here with Virginia “in brighter days.”
It is not enough to experience the essay; I want to experience Poe’s journey down the Wissahickon, and if not by skiff, then by “clambering along its banks.” I want to retrack Poe.
The Northwest area of what is today Fairmount Park; the Wissahickon Valley, is about eight and one-half miles from Penn’s Landing in historic Philadelphia. This region rich in natural wonders, was treasured as a place of spiritual transformation 150 years before Poe ever stepped on its banks, or memorialized its beauty in his essay. The landscape with its stunning geological formations, colorful peaks and gorges, varieties of plants and wildlife was sought out in the late 1600’s by Johannes Kelpius, a German Pietist, and his followers, about forty astronomers, musicians, and herbalists, most of whom, like their leader, were mystics with university educations. They lived communally among rock cells and met in a 40 foot square log house. They were bound by a shared vision of a spiritual utopia where they lived in anticipation of the final judgment.
George Lippard, dear friend to Poe, venerated the region and its inhabitants including the ‘monks of the Wissahickon’ and their Native American forbearers, the Lenape. Legend has Lippard, a successful fictionist and social activist of his day, married along its banks in Indian dress under a full moon. His enthusiasm for this place persuaded Mark Twain to reflect that the Wissahickon would remain sacred to him forever. The ground occupied by the mystics may be visited, and there is a cave where it is claimed that Kelpius meditated.
But what did Poe himself have to say about the Wissahickon? He gave early credit to Fanny Kemble who had written of the richness of the vicinity a few years before (1832) bringing for the first time this idyllic setting to the public attention of Philadelphians. Poe reminds us of his love of water, (he once swam six miles of the James River, which may have been a Byronic salute considering the English poet died only two months before,) and his fondness for aquatic travel and the canoe. “River scenery has, unquestionably, within itself, all the main elements of beauty, and, time out of mind, has been the . . . favorite theme of the poet . . . . A singular exemplification of my remarks upon this head may be found in the Wissahiccon . . . of so remarkable a loveliness that, were it flowing in England, it would be the theme of every bard, and the common topic of every tongue.”
The true beauty of the stream lies far above the route of the Philadelphian picturesque-hunters, who rarely proceed farther than a mile or two above the mouth of the rivulet—for the very excellent reason that here the carriage-road stops. I would advise the adventurer who would behold its finest points to take the Ridge Road,running westwardly from the city, and, having reached the second lane beyond the sixth mile-stone, to follow this lane to its termination. He will thus strike the Wissahiccon at one of its best reaches, and, in a skiff, or by clambering along its banks, he can go up or down the stream, as best suits his fancy, and in either direction will meet his reward.
I call The Friends of The Wissahickon (www.fow.org) an organization that has been involved with the preservation of the Wissahickon Valley, and am directed to David Bower of the Fairmount Park Commission. I send him Poe’s directions. In his reply he describes the changes in access points, offers transportation schedules, and suggests some routes Poe may have taken, always allowing for changes in the names of landmarks and roads, and rules out the possibility of determining (through historical maps or otherwise) the ‘second lane beyond the sixth mile-stone’ hopelessly obscured now by natural and human history, (although this has not prevented some from speculating the entrance as far north as Valley Green Inn.) We focus instead on the section of Ridge Road in Poe’s essay. Over the next few weeks in subsequent conversations with Dr. Maura McCarthy, the Executive Director of the Friends, David Bower—both of whom have read Poe’s essay by this time—but also a Commission archivist, Rob Armstrong, who has discovered a map dating from 1850, with mile-stone markers running parallel with Ridge Road, once an Indian trail, we are able to piece together Poe’s most likely route.
Poe entered this natural sanctuary at what is today the Ridge Road and Jannette Street entrance at the west side of the park. At this point, if we are to take him at his word drawn directly from his essay, he took a ‘skiff’ that is, he either rented or borrowed a narrow flat-bottomed boat or canoe, (Bower assures me there would have been such a rental site in the area,) and went downriver passing through various rock formations, where he saw a noble elk. The route downstream would have carried him ultimately to the confluence of the Schuylkill River and the Wissahickon, approximately three miles (of the 7 miles of stream that runs through the park). But what section is this exactly? Poe left a few clues.
There is a stretch “with some of the most magnificent forest trees of America, among them which stands conspicuous the liriodendron tulipiferum,” Poe wrote. When I ask about a shoreline which might host a dense population of the tulip poplar, I am told this tree is abundant throughout the Wissahickon Valley. Nonetheless, I suspect a profusion along the rock out-croppings south of Poe’s entry point. The tulip poplar may exceed 120 feet in height and has been known to live 450 years. I begin to suspect there may still stand some of the same trees Poe admired.
“On the Wissahickon” William Trost Richards
Back to the essay: “Not long ago I visited the stream by the route described, and spent the better part of a sultry day floating in a skiff upon its bosom . . . the lazy brook had borne me, inch by inch, around one promontory and within full view of another . . . a steep rocky cliff, abutting far into the stream . . . . What I saw on this cliff . . . or dreamed that I saw, standing upon the extreme verge of the precipice with neck out-stretched, with ears erect . . . was one of the oldest and boldest of those identical elks which had been coupled with the red men of my vision.” Poe rises on one knee, and in the distance hears a keeper calling to the elk, holding in his hand some salt and a halter. He leads the animal away—a pet of great age—which belongs to the inhabitants of a nearby villa.
The essay was a ‘plate article’ written for an engraving. This casts doubt on the authenticity of the sighting, but not for long. John Gadsby Chapman, (1808-1889) noted for “The Baptism of Pocahontas” commissioned in 1837, which still hangs in the U. S. Capitol Rotunda, created the illustration, and since publications like The Opal were purchased as much for their elaborate bindings and fine illustrations as they were for the stories, poems and essays they contained, it would be reasonable to think Poe had been asked to write an ekphrastic piece to complement the image. Although we do not know what transpired between Chapman, N. P. Willis, the editor, and Poe before the article appeared, it is certain there was a ‘villa’ below the area where Poe accessed the Wissahickon which had a number of pets, among them, elk. Arthur Hobson Quinn’s research showed there was a sanitarium at a place also known as “Spring Bank” estate, and from 1838 through the 1840s, it went through at least three owners, and elk remained on the property for their therapeutic value to the patient-guests. In fact, Quinn claims with certainty that the rock on which the elk stood in the pose described by Poe and illustrated by Chapman, was none other than Mom Rinker’s Rock, named for the Revolutionary War American spy who worked in a local tavern in Germantown. When she overheard enemy troops discussing military operations, wrote down the information, and concealed it in a roll of yarn. As soon as an opportunity presented itself, she would hurry away from her employer, run to the edge of the woods to ascend up the back of the rock, find a flat slate surface, and pretend to do needlework. When American forces marched below during the battle of Germantown, she would clumsily let the ball of yarn fall over the famous rock to alert Washington of British troop movements.
I imagine myself in a skiff approaching that same promontory, just before the elk comes into view. In my replay version, it is Indian summer when the Wissahickon is at its most colorful and inviting. The little craft is drifting calmly with no sound other than an occasional rusty leaf falling on its bow, or the wooden hull knocking lazily against an occasional rock. I am no longer myself. In the milky haze of early autumn, I am a presence among presences.
I could be floating among constellations in some unknown time, or is it possible to be experiencing the phenomenon once described by Poe to Robert Lowell, “I live continually in a reverie of the future . . . . Divested of the rudimental covering [the body] the being inhabits space,—what we suppose to be the immaterial universe,—passing everywhere . . .”
And the great elk we are drifting toward—as if our journeys are all accompanied by this sense of drifting—affection in the balmy air—is still powerful, a symbol of the elusive and mythic in us all, the attainable and yet, the never-to-be-attained.
My efforts to find a building that could have been the site of a sanitarium are in vain, and there are several local archivists who do not think such a place weathered the vicissitudes of age . Maura McCarthy assures me there is no indication of a “Spring Bank” house or villa near Mom Rinker’s Rock. There is a Spring Bank area, however, now part of a residential section, located just above where Poe reported the presence of the elk.
I would learn, years later, from a direct descendent of Samuel Mason, a practicing attorney in Philadelphia of the same name, whose great ancestor acquired the property and administrated the sanitarium from 1825-1838, was responsible for the many pets, including elk–that indeed at this time, there stands a “Spring Bank” estate. It was periodically renovated through the years, and remains today an inhabitable, spacious home and property.
It exists then, not only as a seventeen-room mansion, but suggests as well, a spiritual corollary of the region itself, a sanitarium of the imagination, a place of refuge where there is the dream of drifting forever in affection. It is where I want to believe Poe still lives in his reverie of the future.
The rock where the elk was sighted is best known today for the site of a statue of William Penn erected by John Welsh in 1883. The word “Toleration,” the founding principle of religious diversity, and of the new Republic, is cut in the stone about its base. Welsh, an ambassador to Great Britain, donated the 30-acre site, which extended to the shore of the Wissahickon, including the rock of American folklore, and the place of Poe’s sighting, to the Fairmount Park Commission in 1886.
Before Quinn turned away from Poe’s essay, which he included almost in its entirety in his biography, he echoes his subject: “Little has been done to spoil the beauty of the Wissahickon, and if Poe should return today, he could look up or down the stream from the spot past which he was drifting, and find it hard to decide which view is the lovelier.” Although Quinn’s observations were made in 1941, about a hundred years from the time Poe visited the Wissahickon, everything suggests, past the natural changes that must occur to such landscapes, that the visitor could expect to find the area much like it was, owing to the wise conservation of The Friends of The Wissahickon who have been caring for the park since 1924.
My plans include a return to this place of romance and fable. I hope to enter the Wissahickon at that point described by Poe in his essay, at one of its best reaches, following the shoreline, and I should be in the company of those giant poplars, companions to the Lenape, Lippard, even Poe himself.
“A Scene on the Wissahickon”
William Thompson Russell Smith, 1842.
On Location, Essays of Place