A wonderland on the Blackstone Canal at Uxbridge in 1838 by Joe Doherty
'Tis never too cold/ for tales to be told/ of winter and its
magical ways,/ of olden times and forgotten rhymes,/ of Uxbridge in earlier days
Try to picture them - twelve young missies, leather-booted, wool-bonneted, tramping through the snow on a clear winter morning in late January, 1838. See their faces, so round and red! All eyes fixed on the towpath ahead …
It was only a hop, skip and a jump from the Uxbridge Academy to the Blackstone Canal. After crossing the Uxbridge town common, the girls had merely to traipse down Mendon Street, then cut across the old Prospect Hill burial ground. The canal towpath waited just over the next rise.
The dozen damsels were all students at Uxbridge Academy's "Female School." The Academy was a private institution opened in the fall of 1820, described by one historian as "an academy and select school for young ladies …" Young men were not admitted to Uxbridge Academy until 1836; even then, the boys were kept apart from the girls.
The "Female School," familiarly known in 1838 as "The Laura A. Washburn School" (perhaps named for the schoolmistress of that year), was conducted on the first floor of the brick Masonic building, north of the Uxbridge common. The boys received their instruction at Capron Hall, where Mr. Andrew Stone presided as schoolmaster.
What the Uxbridge schoolgirls found waiting for them beside the canal that morning would surely have become a lost memory if not for the efforts of William A. Mowry, Ph.D, who recorded the particulars in his 1897 book, Uxbridge Academy: A Brief History:
"In January 1838, when the two schools were carried on, the young ladies' school being in the academy building and the school for young gentlemen, under the care of Andrew L. Stone, being in Capron's Hall, the young ladies were accustomed to take daily exercise in sliding upon the ice of the [Blackstone Canal] aqueduct just below Capron's mill."
The canal aqueduct was a high, wooden structure that loomed above the Mumford River. It consisted of five wooden spans supported by huge stone piers. It had the appearance of a bridge, but the upper horizontal portion was actually a wide, wooden flume through which canal boats floated on their way to Worcester or Providence, conveniently bypassing the Mumford and the difficult terrain below. In summertime, local boys were known to cool off by waiting under the aqueduct for excess water to pour out the bottom with terrific -- and refreshing -- force. In winter, the frozen aqueduct apparently offered the girls of Uxbridge Academy a tempting icy surface on which to slide.
On this day, however, winter had loosened its grip on the canal and water flowed freely in the aqueduct. Cheated of their daily slide, the girls wandered along the towpath until at last a strange sight caught their eye: a small tree or bush where none should grow. And dangling from its slender branches, a letter addressed to "Ladies of the L.A.W. School." Most mysterious of all, a large package rested at the base of this curious tree.
"What it was and how the girls made answer to it will best appear in what follows," Dr. Mowry continues. "Suffice to say that it was generally supposed that Mr. Stone was responsible for the gift and the poetry, but it is not known who wrote the reply."
The letter was handwritten in ink, doubtless in a schoolmaster's elegant script. It began:
LADIES OF THE L.A.W. SCHOOL
In the mermaid's cave there was song and glee
And hearts that bounded with gayety
And eyes that beamed like ocean pearls
Which the maids wore 'mid their glossy curls.
And wild were the strains of the minstrel's power
In the crystal halls of emerald bower;
And merrily then where the dancers wove
On the sparry floor of the coral grove.
Enshrined in the oil of the dancing ring,
On the amber throne, sat the elfin king,
And caught from the ray of the spirit-gem
Was each star that gleamed from his diadem.
And the crimson banner that floated above
Like the rosy atmosphere of love,
ith each gentle swell of the deep blue sea
Swept backwards and forwards silently.
But sudden amid the festival throng
The dancers paused, and hushed was the song
For the messengers came from the upper air,
That keep their watch so faithfully there.
With folded wing,
Before the king
They bent the knee
As to their better
And gave a letter, To His Majesty.
The silence broke,
And thus they spoke:
"Ye are come, ye are come, with your joyous tread,
On the slippery path of the frozen wave
Ye have wandered since dawn through valley and mead, And your welcome is sweet at the water-nymph's cave.
"Far down in the deep is one emerald bower,
And we dance in the isles of the coral grove;
But we haste with the flush of the morning hour
To wait for the coming of those whom we love.
"The dayspring is bright
With its orient light,
And its cloud-mantling purple and gold;
But the glance of the eye
Can its luster outvie,--
'Tis the language that breathes of the soul
"And well do we know
By the cheek's rich glow
And the steps falling light like the faun
'Tis a gay happy band
We have met on the strand,
To greet with the cheer of the dawn.
"But here,We fear.
Some apology must
Be considered as just
By the Ladies who honor our table,
That we bring them today
No costly array
Of something good
To be used for food;
But we pray you excuse us
And do not abuse us
Since we have done as well as we are able.
"So, thinking no ill,
Partake with good will,
Nor scorn it because it is little;
It will stay your stomach
Till you can come at
Some better and heartier victual.
"Pass on in your beauty - pass on in your mirth;
Pass on with the joy of the fresh-awakening earth; We bid you adieu, as you glide to the shore
For the hour, it is fled, and the song, it is o'er."
(dated) January 25, 1838
"To this the girls wrote the following reply," Dr. Mowry records, "leaving it where the above was found:"
This beautiful morning, as we went to walk
And were much engaged in instructive talk
We found the canal on which we would slide
Was melted and flowing like a very high tide.
When thus disappointed, our walk we prolonged
And bent our swift steps the tow-path along
Till we found ourselves near to the water-nymph's cave That is swept by the path of the rolling wave.
Thus admirers of nature a strange sight espied,-
A tree or bush growing from the bridge side;
Strange sight it sure was! A tree's roots to take
In a board; and letters on trees - why don't its limbs break?
Beneath its light shade
A large package was laid
Full of hearts, sugar kisses and candy
Who could wish for a dessert more dainty?
Some passed this great wonder
Without looking under
To see what the water-nymphs brought
But one of more wisdom than others poetry sought.
The whole was next divided among the gay band;
Some had candy, some kisses, some hearts;
Of the twelve who walked on the strand
Each person we think had her part.
And now we will thank the donor so kind
For the dainties thought fit to provide
And hope this first trial at rhyme
Will be excused for want of time.
(dated) Uxbridge, Jan. 30, 1838
A magical moment on a winter's morn, born of a teacher's kindness and the ephemeral innocence of youth. Both poems were afterwards published in The Lily, a small literary magazine created by the students of Uxbridge Academy. The twelve girls were all old women by the time Dr. Mowry recounted the tale in his 1897 book.
The players are gone, but the story lives on,
Humble though it may be.
Winter has magic,in no sense tragic
unless you refuse to see …
© 1995, 2006 by Joe Doherty, PO Box 31, South Salem NY 10590-0031. email@example.com