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An essay by George William Curtis

The Departure Of The "Great Eastern"

Title:     The Departure Of The "Great Eastern"
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

I saw the Great Eastern sail away. The afternoon was exquisite--one of the cool, clear, perfect days that followed the storm in the middle of August; and it seemed to hang over the great ship like a cordial smile. But it was the only smile the poor Leviathan received. There was a Christian resignation in her departure. The big ship, like Falstaff, "'a made a finer end and went away, an it had been any christom child: 'a parted even just between" four and five, "ev'n at turning o' the tide." But as when a prince is born, and the bells are rung, and the cannon fired, and the city is illuminated, and with music and shouting the people swarm the streets--and when the same prince, grown to be a bad king and tyrant, dies, outcast and contemned, with never a tear to fall nor a bell to toll for him--even such was the coming and the going of the Great Eastern.

I remember also the June afternoon when she arrived, and at the same hour. The city was excited as London used to be by the news of a famous victory. It was reported early in the morning that she was below, and public expectation, which had been feeding upon print and picture of her, was despatching the population to the Battery, to the wharves, to the excursion boats, and wherever she could be seen. At four o'clock you could see, off Staten Island, a pyramid of towering masts above all other masts. She looked a mighty admiral; and as she came up the bay, attended by the little boats--for all other craft are little beside her--you could easily remember the approach of Columbus to the shore and the canoes of curious savages that darted and swarmed around his ship. Her very size gave her a kind of superiority: the silence of her progress was full of majesty.

The shores teemed with people. The heights of Staten Island twinkled and fluttered with the gay toilets of the spectators that covered them. The Jersey shores were alive. The Battery looked white with human faces. The piers upon the river, the decks of vessels in the stream, and the windows and roofs of the buildings that commanded the water, were crowded with eager watchers. But the prettiest sight was the convoy of every kind that attended the surprising guest. Yachts, sloops, schooners, steamers, and tow-boats, large and small, moved down towards her, came out from the shore, sailed round her, sailed beside her, crossed her bows, followed her, so that the bay was bewitched with excitement. Cannon roared, bells rang, flags waved, and the crowd huzzaed welcome.

Through all the great ship glided majestically on. In response to each fresh salute of steam-whistle the bell was touched upon the deck--it was the quiet nod or smile of a prince in reply to the noisy complimenting of a Common Council. There was an air of dignity and of grandeur in the size and movement of the ship; and as the public was not disappointed in her size, but found that she really looked as large as she had been described and represented; and as every circumstance of her arrival was propitious, so that she slipped quietly into her dock, like a ferry-boat--it may fairly be claimed that the Great Eastern had already won the hearty regard of the New York public.

How she lost it--is it not all related in indignant reports and letters and caricatures? How she dared to charge a dollar for admission--how hapless sailors lost their lives--how she went to Cape May--and there black night rushes down upon the tale. After a visit of forty-nine days, in which she had unhappily, but too surely, worn out her welcome, she prepares to depart. But at the last moment petty suits almost detain her. She shakes them off, however, and with them the cables that bound her to our shore. She slips into the stream. She promptly points her head down the bay. It is a lovely afternoon--it is the same river full of craft--there are the wharves, the windows, the roofs--but where, oh! where are the people? She fires her departing gun. A few loiterers, whom chance or business has called to the water-side, look up for a moment as she goes by. Idle boys upon the wharves joke and jeer at her. Where are the wolves, naughty boys? How dare you cry bald-head? Everything in the river and the city slouches in the every-day costume of habit. There are no gala garments, no fluttering flags, and merry bells, and booming guns, and cheering crowds. The Great Eastern is going away--who cares? She will never come back--so much the better! Alas! the poor old King of yesterday is dying, and there is no one to close his eyes. No; the courtiers are booted and spurred to dash away the moment the breath is out of his body and salute the young Prince, the next Sensation, who shall rule the realm for a day.

When she came in I saw her come up the bay. I saw her come down as she departed. In the distance, blending with the spires of the city and the lesser masts, there was the towering cluster rising above all. I listened for the guns. I looked for the attendant craft. There were neither, except a brief salute from the Cunarder in port. But the bay of New York will be watched for many a year before so grand and stately a sight will be seen again as that great ship making her way through the Narrows to the sea. When she entered the bay she seemed majestic and conciliatory; as she left it, she was majestic and disdainful. Yet this was only the impression of a moment and of the distance. As she neared the forts at the Narrows entirely alone, with no accompanying steam or sail vessel, with all the hard luck of her life behind her and following her even to the latest hour of her stay in America, with the fact that she had utterly lost all hold upon public interest made glaringly palpable by the absolute loneliness of her departure, she yet fired a proud salute as she swept out of the upper bay--a stern farewell that echoed coldly from unanswering shores--and with the stars and stripes floating at her peak, magnificent and majestic, the Great Eastern departed.

Gradually, as she passed far down the lower bay, she returned into the same hazy vastness that I remembered when I first saw her--in which, in the memories of all who saw her, she will forever remain.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Departure Of The Great Eastern