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An Ohio Boy’s Fascinating Trip To The Centennial Exposition In Philadelphia In 1876 – True Story

This story was told by Mr. John Nichols, attorney, of Cincinnati, Ohio, to a group of relatives and friends gathered at the home of his brother, George W. Nichols in Mt. Washington, a suburb of Cincinnati, on the “Fourth of July,” 1926 – the opening day of the Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia.  This transcript of the story was found in the belongings of John’s daughter, Julia, which were divided among relatives when she passed away.  The writer of the transcript is not known.  And so the amazing story begins:

In 1876 I was a boy of fifteen years, living with my mother, grandmother, sister and brother on a farm near Batavia, Ohio, and boys at that time did not travel as they do today, and as this trip to Philadelphia was my first without members of my own family, it was strongly impressed on my memory, and I remember it better than many taken in recent years.

I took this trip with three gentlemen, friends of our family, William Bowman, Jacob Bowman, and James Avey.  Jacob Bowman had been in the employ of my father for many years, and after my father’s death had gone to Nevada and struck it rich in the silver mines.  James Avey had been a neighbor of my father and mother, and had gone to Iowa, and made a fortune there.  William Bowman had been educated by my father, and in June 1876 had graduated from the University of Athens, Ohio.

Jacob Bowman and James Avey had come back East on their way to the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, and came to see my mother, and requested that she let me, a boy of fifteen, accompany them on their trip East and to the Exposition, to which she consented, and I went with these three men.

We went to Cleveland, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Albany, down the Hudson River to New York, where we stayed several days, and then to Philadelphia, arriving there the morning of July 3rd, 1876.

We left Cincinnati in the morning, about ten o’clock I think, got to Cleveland in the evening and stayed there that night as it was almost impossible to get a sleeper, and we had to travel in day coaches.  I remember that we arrived at Utica, New York, in the morning, and after sitting in a day-coach all night, I was tired and dirty, and when the train stopped there, I got off and went to a horse-trough near by and washed my hands and face.  From Buffalo to Albany I sat in the same seat with John Kelley, famous Tammany leader and prizefighter.

I will never forget our stop at Niagara Falls.  We picked up there a gentleman from the state of Tennessee, who continued from that point on with our party.  He was the editor of a paper in one of the larger towns of Tennessee.  He had red hair, reddish-brown whiskers, wore a plug hat and a long linen duster, carried a carpet bag and an old-fashioned umbrella; and all of the men in our party wore boots.  This editor from Tennessee was out to see everything that was to be seen – and I remember that on going over to the Canadian side, some fellow tackled us to put on rubber coats and hats, and he would take us two or three hundred feet under the Canadian Falls.  None of the party were anxious to go but the Tennessean, but we went, and when we arrived at the bottom, the wind had changed, driving the spray against the Canadian side so that you could not get within one hundred feet of the Falls.  This so enraged the editor from Tennessee, that he started after the guide with his umbrella, and ran him to the top of the steps which we had come down, and across the driveway at the top.  We paid two dollars each for the privilege of getting wet.

In New York City we stopped at the old St. Dennis Hotel – and I remember going to the bar of the St. Dennis the first day we were there and one of the men asking for beer.  The barkeeper asked us if we wanted a “schooner,” and not one of us knew what a schooner was, and to avoid a display of our ignorance, we said “yes,” and each man was handed over the bar a glass as big as a celery-glass of the old style.  Neither were they informed as the places of interest to visit in New York, and I was very much pleased to be able to tell them, owing to the fact that for many years we had had in our home “Harper’s Weekly,” and I had become somewhat familiar with the different places from the illustrations in this weekly paper.  We visited the A.T. Steward Store – it was the greatest store in the world at that time, and is now Wanamaker’s; visited the shipping port, and there were a great many foreign war vessels in the harbor, visited Governor’s Island, and the Bowery, Central Park, and Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  The Brooklyn Bridge at that time was unfinished, but the piers were erected and almost completed.  I think it was in New York that we first learned of the “Custer Massacre.”

In Philadelphia we were fortunate in getting located at a private house, out near Fairmount Park.  The five of us occupied one large room.  I slept on a cot next to a window which opened out on the back yard.  The first night we were there, there was a cat fight in the back yard, which continued for quite a while – the gentleman from Tennessee finally becoming so excited in trying to quiet the cats, threw the boots belonging to Bowman and Avey out the window at them.

We were at Independence Hall on the “Fourth of July,” where the largest crown that I had ever seen had assembled to celebrate the occasion.  The only persons that I recall of distinction who were on the platform were General William T. Sherman and General Sheridan.  I do not recall who made the speeches, as I only stayed there for about an hours, as I had no place to sit down, and being short and fat, I couldn’t see over the heads of the people who were in front of me.

We then went to the “Ohio Building” on the Exposition grounds, and in one of the rooms there was a large book where visitors were requested to register.  Tilden had just been nominated the Democratic party for the presidency.  Boy-like, I registered, gave my address, and in the blank space for remarks I wrote “Hurrah for Tilden.”  A fine looking gentleman was immediately behind me, and said he was glad to see a young man stand up for his party.

From the Ohio Building we went to the building where they had the first telephone on exhibition.  We had to form in line to get to listen over it, and I had dropped behind the gentleman who had spoken to me in the Ohio Building – but when we came to the telephone he very kindly pushed me in front of him, and I put a saucer-like receiver to my ear and heard someone say, “When in the course of human events.”  I then turned the receiver over to this gentleman, who asked me what I had heard, and I told him, and he asked me if I knew from what it was quoted – and I told him the “Declaration of Independence.”  I did not know who this gentleman was until afterward, when I was informed that it was General Rutherford B. Hayes, who had just been nominated by the Republican party for the presidency.  One of the men in our party was very skeptical about the telephone business, and spoke of ventriloquists, and when it came his turn they had taken up another phrase from the Declaration of Independence, and he heard that – the gentleman from Tennessee did not believe in it either, so a day or so after we made a little tour of investigation about that wire business, and we found that the wire was an ordinary one of two miles in length – no question about that.

In Philadelphia we saw the Liberty Bell, and I ran my fingers down the crack in it.  We saw a library chair that at one time had been owned by George Washington – it had a leather seat fastened down with brass tacks, and I pulled out one of the brass tacks and kept it for a souvenir.

I came home before my friends did.  I had gotten homesick, and the crowds were so great everywhere that I wanted to get home.  I remember that when I reached home, they were having an old ladies’ dinner, and the friends of my mother and grandmother were anxious to hear of my trip, and my mother called me in and asked me to tell them some of the interesting things I had seen at the Exposition.  I told them one of the most interesting things that I saw was the statue of a little flower-girl, which had been made in Italy – you could readily distinguish the various flowers in the basket she had on her arm, and she had on little slippers, one of which was unlaced, and had on stockings which had been knitted, and you could see every stitch carved in the marble distinctly.  Then I told them of the telephone, which I have described before.  After I told the telephone story I was given to understand by my mother that I had told enough and was excused.

After the party had left our house, my mother and grandmother called me into the dinning room and told me not to repeat the telephone story, that no would believe you could hear a man’s voice over a wire two miles in length, that little boys sometimes had vivid imaginations – and were apt to tell things that were not only incredible but untrue, and that hereafter I should leave out the telephone story if anyone asked me about the interesting things I saw on my trip.  Of course I was very much crestfallen to think that my mother and grandmother would think me a liar, and so when our friends who had been with me reached home, I had them corroborate my statement – but even that did not satisfy them because we had also told them about the “schooners” in New York and in Philadelphia, and they thought that might have something to do with it.  But years afterward, I got even with my mother.  I had just gotten home, and Henry Myrick had called me on the telephone from Washington D.C., and after I had talked to him, I asked mother if she knew to whom I had been talking, and she said, “no, except his name is Henry,” and I told her it was Henry D. Myrick of Washington City – and said “now mother, do you believe I heard the message over the telephone in Philadelphia,” and she said, “John, I guess I will have to apologize.’

And what George W. Nichols, younger brother, remembers of John’s visit to the Exposition is going with him down the long lane that lead from their house out to the main road, and asking John if he wouldn’t bring him a knife back with him.  Then going George went back to the house, and his mother saying, “well George, I guess you will have to do a little hoeing in the garden today.”  When John returned, the first thing he said to John was, “have you got my knife?”  And John had it.