In Which My Talent Is Recognized

Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow by Georgia O'Keeffe (1923)

In 2005 my dad authored an essay titled, simply, “Sex.” In it he related the following anecdote, of which I have no memory:

As a parent I tried not to make the same mistakes as my mother, but it wasn’t easy. When my son Brendan was somewhere between four and seven, he was watching a public television show about reproduction in our upstairs bedroom with my wife Franny while I was downstairs washing dishes. I later learned that at one point he began drawing madly and asked his mother if what he had drawn was in fact a vagina. When she stammered something possibly incoherent, he asked her what it was and what the sex act was. She, true to her upbringing, told him to go ask me. When he came into the kitchen, he showed me the picture, a remarkable likeness of a vagina for such a young kid, and then he asked me how the act was done. I thought about blowing him off but decided to be frank. I explained it graphically but briefly, and that’s all he wanted. He received the information in the same manner he would have if the question had been how dew was formed. He absorbed it and then walked away having already lost interest. I had finally done something right as a parent!

image: Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow by Georgia O’Keeffe (1923) 

Sailing the Black Star Line

The packet ship Huguenot of Thompson's Black Star LIne, New York to Liverpool, being struck by lightning (Peabody-Essex, Salem, Mass.)

My great-great grandfather, John R. Wolfe, arrived in America from Ireland in 1847. He sailed on the Cornelia with his wife, Honora, and their young son James, along with Wolfe’s cousin Maurice’s family. The packet ship, which weighed 1,040 tons, was built by Brown and Bell of New York and and part of the Black Star Line. Owned by Samuel Thompson, the Black Star Line ran eighteen ships between Liverpool and New York in 1847, sailing every six days. John F. French was the ship’s master.

The ship pictured above also was owned by the Black Star Line, about which you can find more in Queens of the Western Ocean: The Story of America’s Mail and Passenger Sailing Lines by Carl C. Cutler (1961).

I must admit that I had hoped, prior to conducting this research, that the owner of the Cornelia might have been Robert Bowne Minturn, my wife’s great-great-great grandfather. Part owner of Grinnell, Minturn, and Company, one of the largest and most successful transporters of Irish immigrants to the United States during the Famine years, Minturn operated the Blue Swallowtail Line between Liverpool and New York. In other words, my wife’s family transported Irishmen just like my family, and even on Brown and Bell–built ships.

Anyway, the Wolfes arrived arrived in New York City from Liverpool on August 23, 1847. You can find their names on this passenger list: Maurice, his wife, Ellen, and their children James, Ellen, Maurice, Mary, and Johanna; and John Wolfe, his wife, Honora, and their son, James. (Here’s the full page, in pdf form.)

Detail of Passenger List, Cornelia, 1847

There are a couple of problems here. John R.’s son James was not thirty-five; he was four. Probably a simple mistake. Additionally, Maurice may have had other children, alive at the time, who settled in the United States but who are not listed here.

Whatever the case, Cutler’s book shows us where the Black Star ships docked in New York (pier 30 or thereabouts)—

—and the New York Daily Tribune (August 23, 1847, page 3) reports on the ship’s arrival:

Details from the New York Daily Tribune, August 23, 1847, page 3

The newspaper records provide a bare account of the journey—passed a ship bound for Liverpool on July 22, sighted what was perhaps the John R. Skiddy on August 1, encountered a fishing boat off Marblehead, Massachusetts, on the sixth—while mentioning that five passengers died en route. The ship’s more celebrated passengers, however, including Arthur St. George—namesake to a line of Irish politicians—arrived safely. (Here’s the full page from the Tribune, in pdf form.)

From New York, the Wolfes traveled to LaSalle County, Illinois. How did they get there? What kind of money did they have? Did they have contacts in that place? Alas, I don’t know …

image: the packet ship Huguenot of Thompson’s Black Star Line, New York to Liverpool, being struck by lightning (Peabody-Essex, Salem, Mass.)

The Wreckage That Was Davenport

image: Robin Hood Flour Mill, 1975 (Flickriver user David Sebben)

In a new memoir, Ben Miller evokes our shared hometown in a way that is almost a little eerie. When you’re from Davenport, Iowa, as opposed to, say, New York, you’re not accustomed to encountering the streets of your youth in books. But in this passage, Miller puts us in the car with him and his mother, traveling from Rock Island, Illinois, across the Mississippi River to Davenport sometime late in the 1970s:

The junker galloped off the end of the end of the vibrating bridge grating and landed with a double thump. Urban Iowa hummed under our wheels. We shed the trestle shadows and veered onto River Drive. There was the modular Clayton House hotel, where a neighbor lady, Buddy’s mother, had once been arrested for turning tricks. There loomed the sooty French and Hecht factory, where Lonnie had once worked the line—Lonnie the red-haired live-at-home son of a Tennessee minister who had come north to study chiropractic science at Palmer College, wanting to combine preaching with medicine, and who, after graduating, had sold that brown house to Buddy’s mother and her husband in the raccoon coat, who, in turn, sold the place to the driver of a Frito-Lay delivery truck. There were the winks of the TIME & TEMP billboard, the bulb chorus blinking, blinking, blurting staccato notes of light.

Miller goes on to mention Al’s Wineburger restaurant on the left and the Robin Hood Flour factory silos on the right, particularly memorable to us Davenporters of a certain age for having exploded in May 1975, killing one man. Too much dust. You can see a bit of the wreckage in the image above. But you know, for whatever reason, it’s the “Time & Temp” reference that really got me: in the 1970s, you could get this information by looking at the clock, by watching the news, or by calling a special number on your rotary telephone. So a digital—digital!—billboard was so … cool!

I’ll write more about this book at some point. I have some strong feelings about it, not all of them positive. But for now, here’s how Miller leaves off:

I felt as if the car were suspended between industrial lots, as if we weren’t moving at all, as if instead it was the glaring night passing through us at a high speed that still everything. The river a blacker night flowing through thinner city dark. The river night of Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, who had first glimpsed the Mississippi at this spot, crossing from Rock Island into Davenport in On the Road.

image: Robin Hood Flour Mill, 1975 (Flickriver user David Sebben)