Not all is changed

The Samoset House in Plymouth, from Atlas of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1879.

A few years ago, PBS began airing the BBC travel documentary series Great American Railway Journeys, with host Michael Portillo, a British journalist, broadcaster, and former government official. Mr. Portillo traveled across the United States and Canada, mostly by train, his journeys informed by the 1879 Appleton’s Railway Guide to the United States and Canada, originally published in two volumes and usually referred to simply as Appleton’s Guide.[1]

What I found so interesting about Mr. Portillo’s travels is that all these years later, Appleton’s still seemed so relevant and useful. There are, of course, specifics in the guide such as steamship and railway fares, accommodations, and restaurants that have faded into history, as have many of the railway routes themselves, but it says something about our landscapes that more than a century later so much of what the guide highlighted, places then significant and worthy of attention, are still worthy. With guidebook in hand we can travel back in time, being there and here at once, tying the past to the present, in a sense dissolving the years. The guidebook also serves as something of a baseline, a comparison, helping us to visually assess the inevitable changes and reconstruct the lost history that still remains palpable, present, in so many places, despite being subsumed by modern life. Family historians well understand that “presence.” How else but by such a palpability are we to explain the emotional response of visiting the places of our ancestors except that we connect with their presence. Walking in those footsteps somehow completes us.

Appleton’s travel guides were published by D. Appleton & Company of New York, a firm that Daniel Appleton (1785-1849) began as a dry goods business in his hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts. In time, Appleton added the importation of English books to his general store, moving to Boston and then to New York City, where he published his first book in 1831. He eventually devoted his business exclusively to printing and publishing a wide range of history, science, theology, and general literature.

By Daniel’s time, the noteworthy Appleton family had generational roots in Massachusetts, planted by the immigrant Samuel Appleton (1586-1670). Having arrived from Little Waldingfield, Suffolk, he settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he took the freeman’s oath in 1636. The Appleton name still resonates on Boston’s North Shore, as does New England’s agricultural past, at Appleton Farms, a nine-generation family farm now owned by the Trustees of Reservations.[2]

A poignant obituary in the New York Tribune, dated 31 March 1849, call[ed] Appleton one of the country’s principal booksellers…

Daniel Appleton, the great-great-great-grandson of Samuel, married Hannah Adams in 1813. The couple had eight children, their sons succeeding Daniel in his “honorable business career and laudable enterprise” upon his death. A poignant obituary in the New York Tribune, dated 31 March 1849, calling Appleton one of the country’s principal booksellers, noted that Mr. Appleton had been apprised of his “approaching dissolution for some months, and had accordingly closed up all his worldly affairs, and awaited the hour of his departure with perfect calmness and Christian composure.”

I reflected on the railway guide not too long ago when I stumbled upon a newspaper story from 1870 (originally published in 1868) titled, “What to See at Plymouth and How to See It,” written by the prominent Plympton-born Congregational clergyman and scholar Henry Martyn Dexter (1821-1890). Ordained in 1844, Rev. Dexter served as editor-in-chief of Congregationalist publications and was a frequent contributor of historical essays to newspapers and periodicals. He was also recognized as an authority on Pilgrim and early colonial history, being, as he was, a lineal descendant of George Morton, who supervised the publication of the Winslow and Bradford tract known as Mourt’s Relation.

Rev. Dexter’s Plymouth essay, published in The Congregationalist and Boston Recorder, reminds us, as do Appleton’s guides, of our enduring landscape, sacred historical memorials, and precious cultural heritage … and that not all is changed.

“A very good and satisfactory visit – if one is in haste – can be made to Plymouth, by the use of a single day,” Dexter begins. Leaving Boston at 9:00 a.m., the Old Colony (the nickname for the Plymouth Colony) train, on a line established in November 1845, arrived in Kingston at 10:35, and five minutes later the waters of Plymouth Harbor came into view. Were the traveler of 1868 to be transported to 2022, he or she could still make a fine day of Dexter’s itinerary.[3] Following in his footsteps, on “emerging to the outer air” from the “new and pretty station-house,” one takes the short street (then Depot Avenue) a few steps to its junction with Court Street, “where you will find, standing very pleasantly in its green lawn and with its beautiful overshadowing trees, the Samoset House.”

The train depot and area around the Samoset House, from Atlas of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1879.

Here Rev. Dexter reclaims for the twenty-first-century visitor – lets us reimagine – a piece of Plymouth’s lost history, a landmark of the old town, the handsome four-story, 100-room wooden public house that was built by the Old Colony Railroad Corporation and opened in early 1846, in conjunction with the rail line. Over the decades the Samoset Hotel (at the corner of Court Street, now Route 3A, and Samoset Street, now Route 44) – occupying land once owned by Continental Army surgeon Dr. James Thacher (1754-1844) – played host to countless summer visitors as well as dignitaries including Daniel Webster, Presidents Hayes and Harding, and retired President Grant.[4] For nearly a century the Samoset House was Plymouth’s “grande dame,” until it was claimed by fire in April 1939.

We stroll with Rev. Dexter along Court Street to a stone building with “pillars in front, and a small iron elliptical fence in the yard.” Here is Pilgrim Hall, whose cornerstone was laid in 1824. The iron fence once enclosed a portion of what Dexter calls Forefather’s Rock, that chunk of Plymouth Rock broken off in 1774 and displayed in Town Square where, over the years, visitors chiseled away at it. Removed to the yard of Pilgrim Hall in 1834, the piece was reunited in 1880 with its other half at the waterfront under a canopy that Dexter calls “sufficiently fanciful in its design.” Charmingly, Dexter directs visitors to go “down the steps leading thither and stand upon it, and you are where the first settlers landed.” A new, majestic portico in a reconfigured waterfront park – making the Rock inaccessible to all but scofflaws – was designed in 1921 for the Pilgrim tercentenary.

At Pilgrim Hall, the times have changed somewhat since Dexter’s time.

At Pilgrim Hall, the times have changed somewhat since Dexter’s time. The “venerable Lemuel D. Holmes” no longer lives next door, bringing the key, collecting your twenty cents, and acting as “your cicerone,” but the intriguing artifacts remain the same: Pilgrim furniture, documents, signatures, samplers, portraits, timbers of the Sparrow Hawk – wrecked on Cape Cod in 1626 – and Henry Sargent’s magnificent painting, Landing of the Pilgrims, first loaned to Pilgrim Hall for its opening day in 1824 and given to the Pilgrim Society in 1835. It is still a centerpiece of the museum.[5]

Writing, as he was, in 1868, Rev. Dexter offers his assessment of what he called “an illustration of the folly of the present generation,” a large plaster model at Pilgrim Hall of a proposed monument, 150-feet high with “colossal statues of Faith, Morality, Law, Education, and Freedom, and various lesser adornments.” Noting that a “huge foundation has actually been laid,” Dexter was describing the magnificent National Monument to the Forefathers that was finally completed in 1889 atop Allerton Street. Perhaps, as the years were unfolding after the foundation had been laid in 1859, the people of Plymouth had begun to question whether the ambitious and imposing monument occupying an 11-acre site might ever be completed. After much sturm und drang, it was completed … and posterity sees it not as folly but as a fully integrated visual expression of the Pilgrim experience.[6] One wonders if Rev. Dexter was able to visit and behold it before his sudden and unexpected death.

Emerging from Pilgrim Hall, one passes along Court Street, “toward the village,” writes Dexter, arriving at the “beautiful and spacious” 1820 Court House, now repurposed as Plymouth’s Town Hall. This “new” Plymouth County Court house had replaced the 1749 Old County Courthouse, a two-story wooden structure in Town Square, now a seasonal museum.

The “main block” of the 1820 courthouse was a two-story, Federal-style building five bays wide with a center entrance and copper-roofed cupola. Thacher, in his History, called it an “elegant edifice of brick, and in point of symmetry and just proportion, … in perfect keeping with the best models of modern architecture.” In 1857, just thirty-seven years after its construction, the courthouse was remodeled with the addition of a bay on each wing, removal of the center entrance, and installation of separate entrances for each wing. Much of the façade that today’s visitor sees is the 1857 building about which Rev. Dexter wrote. The figure of Justice still stands in her niche.

Rev. Thomas Cushman’s grave, from 1691, on Burial Hill, Plymouth.

Continuing, one comes to Cole’s Hill, where “the dead of the first winter were buried.” Up Leyden Street, “which occupies the same position with the street first settled, and so is the oldest street in New England,” one approaches the Town Square where Main Street – the continuation of Court Street – crosses Leyden, and “you are in what was the center of the original settlement of Plymouth,” Elder Brewster’s house in its time standing on the corner. Climbing the steep ascent you are on Burial Hill “where, after 1623, or thereabouts, the Pilgrims were buried.” The view from this hill on a pleasant day and with a full tide in the harbor, writes Dexter, is magnificent, the town lying at your foot.

Finishing his day in Plymouth, Rev. Dexter returns to Samoset House to take the return cars for the city, finding his expenses for the outing to have been two fares of $1.15 each, $1.00 for dinner, and twenty cents for Pilgrim Hall, a total of $3.50 for one of the “most satisfactory day’s works in sight-seeing you ever did.” Of course, he added, “you will do better to stay longer,” partaking of sea sport, Burial Hill at sunset, Clark’s Island, and Billington Sea.

Perhaps this summer, visitors to Plymouth will take him up on that advice.


[1] See a copy of an 1893 edition of the guide at Internet archive. A facsimile of the 1879 guide is in print.


[3] Passenger service on the Old Colony line was discontinued in 1959; some branches were restored beginning in the late 1990s, though the terminus at Plymouth was changed to a site outside of town. Plymouth Station closed in 2021, but is expected to reopen in July 2022.

[4] Barnstable-born Dr. Thacher is the author of History of the town of Plymouth, from its first settlement in 1620, to the present time (1835), a copy of which can be found at A prominent surgeon in Plymouth, he is buried on Burial Hill.

[5] The Sparrow Hawk has recently been in the news as archeological analysis appears to have positively confirmed that the timbers are the legendary Pilgrim-era vessel.

[6] The power of Faith, 15 December 2021.

About Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Amy Whorf McGuiggan recently published Finding Emma: My Search For the Family My Grandfather Never Knew; she is also the author of My Provincetown: Memories of a Cape Cod Childhood; Christmas in New England; and Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song. Past projects have included curating, researching, and writing the exhibition Forgotten Port: Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage (for the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum) and Albert Edel: Moments in Time, Pictures of Place (for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum).

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