Sunday, May 17, 2015

A well loved river in these parts

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, rivers, americana, culture, history, north american history

A friend thought it might be time that I learned more about the loveliest river in this area, so he gave me The Brandywine by Henry Seidel Canby, a book in the series "Rivers of America", edited primarily by Stephen Vincent Benét. The book was originally published in 1941; I read a paperback edition of 1969. The pen illustrations within are by Andrew Wyeth, and include sketch versions of paintings I've seen in the Brandywine River Museum and the Sanderson Museum. I live within a couple of miles of the Brandywine River, and I cross it via one bridge or another several times weekly. I also spend hours at a time along its banks in the gunpowder yards, so I guess it is high time!

Dr. Canby was born along the Brandywine in 1878, and though he spent many years as a professor at Yale, he returned to Wilmington frequently. We see through him this small, though significant river as it was between 75 and 130 years ago. Through both personal knowledge and wide reading he can trace the history and culture of the area as none other. In his childhood, though mills for making flour, textiles and gunpowder abounded, much of the Brandywine was still in a rather unspoiled state.

The forbidding geology had a lot to do with this; it was easier to build roads around the middle gorge than to try to cross it. If I recall correctly, Canby wrote that there were seven bridges crossing the river between Forks of the Brandywine in Pennsylvania and its confluence with the Christina River in Wilmington, a linear distance of about 14.5 miles, but more than 20 river miles. In that distance it descends more than 210 feet, a slope that averages roughly 10 feet per mile, but in the middle reaches it drops 33-34 feet per mile, making it one of the most favorable mill streams in the middle Atlantic region. It also means that what Canby calls "the gorge of the Brandywine" has some of the steepest terrain in northern Delaware and southern Chester County, Pennsylvania.

The author writes of the river as a lover of his beloved. He quotes other writers at some length, sometimes deploring their over-sentimentality, though he reflects it himself, just in the more restrained manner of a Yalie in all his dignity. It is a river worthy of much sentiment! During the days on which I volunteer in the yards at the Hagley Museum, situated in the steepest part of the gorge, I find the idle times are anything but onerous, being filled with visual delights backdropped by the rustle and grumble of the river.

It would not do justice to the book to simply catalog its 14 chapters. They are quite comprehensive. Rather, three items struck my fancy. Firstly, that the iconic "log cabin" was introduced by settlers along the Brandywine in the late 1600's, but did not spread beyond the area until nearly 1800. Elsewhere, and earlier here also, the vertical-log palisade was used where defense was needed, and various sorts of European structures otherwise, though they were usually quite unsuitable, particularly when badly constructed (the usual case). A log cabin is much easier for non-professionals to build into a sound and minimally drafty dwelling. Had Abraham Lincoln been born 5 or 10 years earlier, he would not have been born in a log cabin!

Secondly, there were no "Indian wars" along the river. Violent relations with native peoples were practically unknown here, and the great wars of legend took place many miles to the west and mainly after the Civil War. The Lenape and other "Delaware Indians" did find themselves exploited, but tended to complain through legal channels, and when they'd had enough most of them moved elsewhere of their own accord, primarily because of failure of the shad runs rather than violence. Nobody at the time understood clearly that all the mill dams were choking off the migration of the shad.

Thirdly, as already mentioned, in 1940 there were but 7 bridges along the lower Brandywine, and much of the river was comparatively unspoiled. Today fishermen are advised not to eat fish caught in the Brandywine anywhere south of the Forks, and by my count the bridges number 23: 17 road bridges, 3 foot bridges (one half collapsed) and 3 railroad trestles. There are also 9 mill dams still in existence, though only the 3 at Hagley are still in use to keep millraces filled. Compared to many mid-Atlantic rivers, though, the Brandywine still has significant unspoiled stretches. The existence of Brandywine Creek State Park protects one stretch of nearly 5 miles, and Hagley has kept another mile or so in a condition similar to that of 1921 when the mills closed.

I didn't yet  mention the Battle of the Brandywine, George Washington's failed attempt to keep the British from taking Philadelphia. Several good books about the battle had been published by 1940, so Canby gives a well-attested sketch of the engagements, but designedly leaves the details to others. The view from miles above: neither commander knew the area, nor had anyone with good local knowledge on staff; the farmers thereabouts were Quakers and were determined to help neither side of the conflict; scouts sent hither and yon brought conflicting reports; and the British were luckier in finding fords north of the Forks about which Washington was ignorant (as they also had been a day earlier), so they could flank the Colonials and get ahead of them. Thus, the British wintered in Philadelphia and the Colonial army in Valley Forge.

There is much, much more to the book, though it is less than 300 pages. To learn more of the river's geography, history of settlement, business growth, literature and art, and its role in American industrialization, you'll find this book a valuable and very entertaining resource.

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