Miss Kingdom imprisoned – Travelling in America in 1793 — French emigrant Family – Ojibbeway Chief — Mr. Thurman – Engineering Talent – Plans for Senate House, Washington – Park Theatre, New York – Locomotive Windmill — Cannon Foundry — Death of M. Pharoux — Admitted Citizen of New York – Declines to return to France – Naval Successes of England – Block Machinery first suggested
NO sooner had England entered into the coalition with the continental powers against France, than all communication between France and England was at once cut off, and the English then found on French soil were, without regard to sex or age, hurried away to prison. At Rouen, the house of the American consul was found to be no protection.
Fortunately for Miss Kingdom, the prisons were already full to overflowing ; she was, therefore, with some others, conveyed to a convent, and placed under the surveillance of the nuns. The fare was wretched, and the lodging miserable. Black bread of the coarsest kind, with pieces of straw mixed with the dough, constituted the principal food; while the beds were formed of boards, with a billet of wood for a pillow. Still, the sympathy and kindness exhibited by the poor nuns, and the relief which she experienced in having companions of her own sex, offered some compensation to Miss Kingdom for so much physical discomfort and privation. The little luxuries, also, which the friends of the nuns would, from time to time, convey within the walls, were received with no ordinary thankfulness. The little cream jug, filled, whenever opportunity offered, by the trusty old servant of the Macnamara family in the neighbourhood, is still retained as a memorial of the sufferings and the sympathies of that fearful time.
Many of the hours not devoted to religious observances were employed by the nuns in the cultivation of the arts ; and Miss Kingdom was indebted to instructions obtained in this convent for her skill in making artificial flowers.
During her imprisonment, Miss Kingdom, not knowing when her own turn might arrive, had frequently to witness the loss of some of her companions, who were condemned to the guillotine. At length the hope of rescue died out ; death was casting his dark shadow before him, and the small remnant of her companions were in despair, when behold, one morning in July 1794, the doors of the convent were thrown open, and they were declared free to depart whither they would.
Stunned by so unlooked-for a reprieve, they were for a time utterly unable to realise the fact that the arch tyrant of the revolution no longer lived, and that the reign of terror had ceased. The joy of M. and Madame Carpentier was unbounded. With open arms they received their young friend, and, as the best service which they could now render, lost no time in obtaining for her a passport to her own country.
Brunel, happily unconscious of what was passing in France, continued to devote himself to the duties of his profession, supported by the hope of one day placing himself in a condition to claim the object of his affections, for whose sake he desired to consecrate
“In worthy deeds each moment that is told.”
Unfortunately, I have been unable to obtain any notes or correspondence relative to the eventful coup d’essai of his engineering life.
Communications with Europe were difficult, tedious, v and expensive. I have, however, often heard Brunel speak of his sojourn in America as a period of pleasurable excitement, enhanced, perhaps, by dangers as well as difficulties.
The only channels of communication which at that time existed between New York and its northern and eastern frontier, were by Lakes Champlain and George ; and by the Mohawk and Wood’s Creek Rivers, the Oneida Lake, and the Onandago River, to Fort Oswego, on Lake Ontario.
At Albany, a hundred and forty-five miles from New York, the difficulties commenced. A waggon road for sixteen miles brought the traveller to Shenectady. From thence up the Mohawk River to the little falls, a distance of sixty-five miles was performed in bateaux — light flat-bottomed boats, pointed at the ends, weighing about fifteen hundred-weight each, and worked by two men with paddles and setting poles. At the little falls occurred the first portage, or land-carriage, which led over a marsh for about a mile. To accomplish this, the bateau was landed and placed on a sort of sledge devised by German colonists—and so drawn
beyond the falls, where the water-carriage was again resumed for about fifty miles, when another portage of six to eight miles, according to the season, occurred. This brought the traveller to the Wood’s Creek River, where the labour of transport ceased for a time. For a distance of forty miles, this beautiful river pursues its gentle course to the Lake Oneida, from the eastern end of which the turbulent Onandago breaks its way, for about thirty miles, over rapids and rocky falls to Fort Oswego, on the Lake Ontario. This fort was one of a chain of forts extending from the source of the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi, by which the French had, at one period, sought to deprive the English colonists of half their possessions. We have the testimony also of two English travellers, as to the condition of the public thoroughfares about this period, south and north of New York.
Mr. Francis Baily, one of the distinguished founders, if not the originator of the Royal Astronomical Society, describes in his journal, 1796-7, a journey from Baltimore to Philadelphia, in company with Mr. Ellicot, the government surveyor of the United States.
The public conveyances seem to have been very similar in character to the char-à-banc of the present day. “ An open coach on springs, with leather curtains, fitted up with four seats placed one before the other, suspended from the top, capable of being raised or lowered, and each seat capable of accommodating four persons ; so that the whole of the passengers face the horses.” The roads were almost impassable.
“We did manage,” says Mr. Baily, ” to get twelve miles before breakfast; about thirteen miles between breakfast and dinner; and about twelve more miles before supper; having walked nearly half the way, up
to our ankles in mud.” Occasionally the coach was fairly “bogged,” and left for the night.
Mr. Isaac Weld also, who travelled through the States in 1795-6-7, describes his journey from Albany to Lake Champlain, called by the Indians Caniad-eri Quarante, mouth, or door of the country.
The carriage, which after much difficult negotiation Mr. Weld and his companion were enabled to obtain, and which the proprietor boasted “ was the very best in Albany,” had no springs, and was little better than a common waggon. The traces frequently broke, and the bridles as frequently slipped off the horses’ heads. In traversing one causeway, near Fort Edward, the animals were unable, without assistance, to extricate the wheels of the vehicle from between the partially decayed trees, of which the road was formed.
From Albany to Skenesborough, a distance of forty miles occupied twelve hours, and the last twelve miles no less than five hours. Well may Mr. Weld speak of the contemplated connection of Lake Champlain with the north, or Hudson River, by the improvement of the navigation of Wood’s-Creek River, already suggested by MM. Pharoux, Desjardins and Brunel, as the most important project of the day.
If, then, the ordinary route presented difficulties, those which were to be overcome in the progress of exploration may be partially conceived. By indefatigable perseverance, and the display of no common resources on the part of their young assistant, the object of MM. Pharoux and Desjardins was accomplished.
During this exploration, an incident occurred which made a lively impression upon the mind of Brunel, and of which he never afterwards spoke but with emotion.
As the party were rounding, in their canoe, a small creek on the Black River where the rich foliage kissed the surface of the water, and entirely shut out the banks from view, children’s voices were distinctly audible, “ Viens papa— viens maman, voilà un bateau.” Who shall describe the effect of these simple sounds upon the hearts of the exiled travellers, as they broke the silence of an American desert? There, in the backwoods, was a family which had fled, as they had, from the horrors of the revolution, supporting themselves by the work of their own hands, and indebted to the forbearance and kindliness of wild and lawless Indians for that life and peace which had been denied to them at home. Brunel and his companion were, in their turn, able to give pleasure by imparting more recent news of their country.
The same confidence, with which this family had been treated by the Indians, was extended to Brunel and his companions. The friendly character of this intercourse was curiously illustrated, so lately as 1845, upon the visit of some of those people to England; when Lady Hawes (Sir Isambard’s eldest daughter) took the opportunity of inquiring of a young Ojibbeway chief (who visited England on a mission for the establishment of an Indian settlement) whether he had ever heard of a white man called Brunel, who visited his country long ago. “No,” he replied, “but I have heard my grandfather talk, with pleasure, of a wonderful white man called Bru-né.” As these people always drop the final consonant, the name would appear to be identical.
Returning to Albany, the party took their passage on board a sloop for New York. The vessel was run upon a sand-bank, and detained two tides. When about to resume her voyage, “ un homme sage,” as Brunel described Mr. Thurman, an American loyalist and a merchant of New York, came on board.
This gentleman had always exhibited a strong sympathy for the loyalists of France; often solacing them in their sorrows, and ministering to their wants. With M. Pharoux and young Brunel he readily fraternised; and before the voyage to New York was ended, he had engaged them to survey a line for a canal to connect the River Hudson with Lake Champlain.
The engagement with Mr. Thurman became, therefore, the turning-point of Brunel’s life. He had intended to return to his own country, if tranquillity should be restored, and a constitutional government established; but the fortuitous connection with this “ homme sage,” determined his destiny. France, and her brilliant naval service, was abandoned for America, and the humble profession of a civil engineer.
The name of Thurman is still remembered with reverence in New York, as that of one who, by promoting internal communications, tended best to develope the resources of his country.
To M. Pharoux was confided the conduct of the operations; but as difficulties increased, the superiority of Brunel’s genius became so apparent, that M. Pharoux did not hesitate to resign the command into the hands of his more gifted companion; and thus was Brunel, by the force of his character and the influence of circumstances, placed in the position best calculated to promote his own happiness, and to confer lasting benefit upon his kind.
His attention was now directed, not only to the projection of canals, but to the improvement of the navigation of rivers. His ingenuity soon suggested the means of freeing the beds from masses of rock and embedded trees; and, by lateral cuts, of evading falls and cataracts, which rendered navigation not only dangerous but often impracticable. He may therefore be considered as the pioneer of those great inland communications, which have tended so largely to promote the commercial prosperity of the States.
The connection so auspiciously formed with Mr. Thurman, opened to Brunel other and more brilliant opportunities for the exhibition of his constructive powers. Success attended all his efforts; and thus, in the course of less than twelve months, he had achieved a name and secured an independence.
The building which served as the great councilchamber of the nation at Washington possessed neither the accommodation which the business of the States required, nor the architectural dignity which the majesty of Congress demanded. It was therefore resolved that architects should be invited to send in plans for a new structure. Amongst the competitors appeared Brunel and his friend M. Pharoux, an architect, it must be remembered, by profession ; but so superior in arrangement, elegance, and grandeur of design were the plans of Brunel, that the judges were relieved from all difficulty of selection. Principles of economy, however, interfered ; and while they robbed the nation of a noble structure worthy of its greatness, they also deprived Brunel of that honour and those emoluments to which his attainments and his skill entitled him. Fortunately the time and talents which he had displayed in this new field of art were not suffered to be lost. Plans were soon after demanded for a theatre in New York. With considerable modifications of the former design, Brunel’s were accepted.
M. Pharoux again competed; but so far from feeling the slightest jealousy or ill-will, he was amongst the first to offer his congratulations to Brunel, and to solicit as a favour that some of the decorative portion of the work might be accorded to him; not only that their friendship might be perpetuated, but that he might also secure the privilege of “free admission.” Brunel and Pharoux were not the only “émigrés” who contributed to the éclat of the Park Theatre. A French nobleman, the Baron de Rostaing, and a barrister, M. Savarin, were enabled to turn to account, both on the stage and in the orchestra, talents which in early life they had cultivated only as sources of private gratification and amusement.
An anecdote is related of the young architect during his connection with the theatre, illustrative not only of his ingenuity, but of his love of a joke. At a grand public masquerade given on the opening, an elegantly constructed locomotive windmill made its appearance on the stage, the only apparent opening to which was a window near the top. The singularity of the construction excited, naturally, a surprise which was increased to astonishment, when a voice was heard to issue from the machine, uttering a variety of political as well as personal satires which exhibited an intimate acquaintance with the social condition of New York. This could not be long endured. A call was made for the Thersites of the mill to show himself, under a loud threat of summary chastisement by the demolition of the machine and the exposure of the frondeur.
When the excitement was at its height, and the destruction of the windmill seemed inevitable, the machine was gradually brought over one of the trapdoors on the stage. Brunel, and the companion whose wit had caused this uproar, allowed themselves to drop gently through, and thus to effect their escape from the theatre undiscovered. The disappointment of those who had already breathed a vow of vengeance may
be well conceived when the machine was found to be empty; and as Brunel and his friend left New York that night for Philadelphia, the mystery was not explained.
However fit the designs for this theatre may have been to exhibit an unusual amount of talent and resource, and to whatever extent the execution of them may have served as an introduction to more general architectural practice, the work failed to procure Brunel any direct pecuniary benefit. Unfortunately this building was burnt down in 1821, and there remain no authenticated drawings to show the peculiarities of its construction. The cupola by which it was surmounted is said to have resembled that over the Corn Market in Paris ; while in the boldness of its projection and the lightness of its construction it was far superior.
So high had Brunel’s talents raised him in the estimation of the citizens of New York, that they resolved to appoint him their Chief Engineer. In that capacity he was soon called upon to prepare designs for a cannon foundry. Before his time no establishment of that kind existed in the State; nor does it appear that Brunel had ever directed his attention to that branch of engineering. At Douai, Ruelle, and Strasburg, the old method of loam-moulds, and partially hollow castings, with the subsequent application of the cutters, or alésoirs, for boring, still prevailed ; but of this method Brunel had no practical knowledge, any more than of the improvements introduced into England, where, at that time, about 27,000 tons * of iron were being annually converted into cannons, mortars, carronades, shot and shells.
If, however, the want of precedent made a greater demand on his invention, it also relieved him from the paralysing influence of authority. Left free to solve the problems presented to him, he very soon organised an establishment for casting and boring ordnance, which, from its novelty, practicability and beauty, was considered, at that time, unrivalled; and which in itself was sufficient to place its originator in the foremost rank of mechanical engineers. **[ ** “ L’ingénieux mécanisme qu’il imagina pour exécuter l’opération du forage des canons, ses nouveaux alésoirs, l’adaptation des mouvemens par le moyen desquels il remuait, il faisait tourner facilement des masses si lourdes, une foule d’inventions et d’idées fécondes qu’il mit au jour, suffiraient pour établir sa célébrité.” – Notice historique par Frère.]
Shortly after the completion of the theatre at New York, Brunel had to mourn the loss of his enlightened patron and liberal friend, M. Pharoux, amicus usque ad aras. He had returned to his hydraulic undertakings on the Black River, one of the most turbulent of the northern streams. This river takes its rise on the western declivity of the Essex Mountains, and after a course of about 120 miles, sometimes interrupted by cataracts, and sometimes hurried onward by rapids, it discharges its waters into Lake Ontario, at Sacket’s Harbour. In his attempt to cross the great falls of this river, M. Pharoux, and seven of his companions, perished; a fate to which Brunel might have been also exposed, had not a protecting Providence opened to him another and a safer path.
New York seems to have been, at this time, considerably indebted to French genius for many of its most important works.
The defence of the entrance to its land-locked bay had long been in contemplation. Between Staten Island and Long Island the bay contracts to the width of a mile, and receives the name of “ Narrows.” To a French officer of talent and experience, Major L’Enfant, was intrusted the task of preparing designs for the defence of this channel ; but the evidences which now attested Brunel’s engineering qualifications scarcely justified the citizens in neglecting to secure his opinion and assistance. Accordingly, other designs were obtained from him, which seem to have been those ultimately adopted.
In 1796, we find Brunel admitted to the privileges of a citizen of New York. (See Appendix A.)
Of the amount and variety of his labours, and the difficulties against which he had to struggle during his residence in that city, there remain, unfortunately, no records. We have, however, incidental testimony that his genius received but inadequate reward in America ; still he resolutely declined to entertain urgent and repeated invitations to return to his own country. France had now entered upon a new phase of her political existence. She had shaken off the yoke of the sanguinary monsters of the Revolution, and had established an Executive Directory which afforded some guarantee for good order and wise polity, while her arms were everywhere triumphant. Holland, under the title of the Batavian Republic, had become her ally; Russia had deserted her coalition with Austria ; and Austria herself, by the Treaty of Campo Formio (October 17, 1797) had been compelled to acknowledge the power of France. Notwithstanding all this, Brunel felt that his country offered no real security, either for personal or political freedom. He still doubted whether the leaders of the Revolution understood the true principles for which they were contending, and were likely, therefore, to use with discretion the power with which they might become invested. He had learnt to think that freedom was of progressive growth, and that France, which had been so long deprived of the first elements of liberty, could not suddenly be brought to walk in the steps of America, without a Washington to guide her councils.
Respect for constitutional authority formed a leading characteristic of Brunel’s mind; no man more strongly condemned the immoral feeling which could speak lightly of the crimes of great military or political usurpers.
The formal censure which Christianity passes upon usurpation and tyranny, had for him the reality —not to say the solemnity—of conviction. It was, therefore, no wonder that he should continue to resist every temptation (even in after life, and when the imperial power had been firmly established) to take up
his abode in France. At the period to which we now refer, Brunel one day received an invitation from Major-General Hamilton—the distinguished aide-decamp and secretary to Washington—to meet at dinner
a M. Delabigarre, recently arrived from England. The absorbing subject of conversation in all society was the success achieved by the British navy at Cape St. Vincent and at Camperdown; at General Hamilton’s table these naval victories formed naturally an interesting matter of discussion, leading to a consideration of the principles of naval architecture and the supply of the materials of ships of war.
M. Delabigarre seemed to have directed his special attention to these subjects, enlarging more particularly on the manufacture of ship’s blocks.
He described with accuracy the nature of the machinery in use at Southampton by the Messrs. Taylor, and spoke of the large and increasing cost of those articles.
Brunel listened with attention and with interest, pointing out what occurred to him as defects, and suggesting that the mortises in the shells of the blocks might be readily cut with chisels, two and three at a time.
There are no records to show how the suggestion here thrown out took root in his mind, developed into form, and ultimately expanded to proportions so great as to embrace the whole requirements of the British navy. A memorandum in one of his subsequent journals simply states that “the shaping machine I conceived while I was roaming on the esplanade of Fort Montgomery; then not a house was in sight, except at the landing below and at Verplante Point.” If, however, Brunel laboured under the disadvantages of want of experience and example in the manner of accomplishing his work, he was the more impressed with the necessity of giving his whole mind to the questions presented to him. To investigate a problem upon its own merits is not always easy. To conceive the end to be accomplished requires a mind more comprehensive in its grasp, and therefore more rare in its development, than that which exercises itself in the means to be employed; but when both the imaginative and constructive faculties are united, we have the real inventor, the man to whom antiquity accorded the highest honours.
“Founders and senators of states and cities, lawgivers, extirpers of tyrants, fathers of the people, and other eminent persons in civil government,” says Lord Bacon, “were honoured but with titles of worthies or demi-gods; whereas, such as were inventors and authors of new arts, endowments and commodities towards man’s life, were ever consecrated amongst the gods themselves : and justly, for the merit of the former is confined within a circle of an age or a nation, and is like fruitful showers, which, though they be profitable and good, yet serve but for that season, and for a latitude of ground where they fall; but the other is, indeed, like the benefits of Heaven, which are permanent and universal, coming in aurâ leni,’ * without noise or agitation.”
The influence of authority, while it tends to remove the asperities and smooth the irregularities which interrupt and sometimes endanger the interests of society, has the effect, also, of repressing originality of thought and of weakening the faculty of invention.
“Men there have been,” says Macaulay, “ignorant of letters; without wit, without eloquence ; who yet had the wisdom to devise and the courage to perform that which they lacked language to explain. Such men have worked the deliverance of nations and their own greatness. Their hearts are their books; events are their tutors; great actions are their eloquence.”
“Les grands services font les grands hommes, car la vraie gloire n’appartient qu’aux idées fécondes.”