Modern history

A Train to the Coast

Warm air baked in waves from a sea of rooftops across the city. Crowded tenement rowhouses were steeped in odors of sweat and boiled cabbage, laundry motionless over dank alleys where children and dogs made retreat. The wealthy drowsed on a sticky Saturday morning, while the gentlemen of the press, dark stains under serge vests, reported “complete stagnation of the normal action of the human race” with outbreaks of “intense suffering” among the poor and destitute.

A baby died in the arms of her mother waiting in the office of the overseer of the poor to charge her husband with desertion. Another infant perished from sunstroke at the moment of victory in the Sixtieth Street Business Men's Association baby parade. A dockworker collapsed and died receiving a ship at port. A man had a heart attack reaching for the front door of his house. A young police officer suffering “acute mania from heat” climbed to the top of a five-story building and jumped off. July would transform Philadelphia into a tomb sized for a thousand new corpses, most of them destined for the local potter's field.

The warming air disturbed the order of nature at all levels. The Cruelty Society sent out a water brigade as thirty thousand horses faltered at their wagons. A crazed bulldog jumped back and forth between two porches, trapping the families inside until it collapsed and died. Three men braved the deadly currents of the Delaware River to cool off—and drowned, one with his head stuck in the bottom on a dive. A mystery arose on the river: A severed human foot, size seven and a half, surfaced near shore—a murder victim, police said, or a swimmer eaten by a large fish. What fish was capable of such a feat, police hadn't a guess.

By midmorning on July 1, the migration to the sea began. Across downtown Philadelphia, thousands of Italian, Irish, Jewish, and Polish immigrants and working-class men, women, and children, laden with rope-tied rugs and straw hampers stuffed with towels, bread, and sausage, bottled water and beer, made their way to the trams. Crowds thronged to Broad Street Station, where the Pennsylvania Railroad crossed the Delaware River to Atlantic City, Cape May, Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Beach Haven. Newsboys on street corners shouted, hawking copies of the Bulletin: “Record Thousands Rush to Shore,” the headlines declared. They were day-trippers who would return before nightfall, blistered and sunburned but proud to have participated in the new fashion of beachgoing. The luckless, unfamiliar with the Jersey shore's legendary undertow, might not return at all. But the exclusive hold of the affluent on the ocean had fallen. It was the largest migration to the shore in the city's history. The railroads of the Industrial Age had opened the seashore to the masses.

Twenty blocks west of downtown, the Vansants' servants hoisted great steamer trunks into two automobiles parked behind Number 4038, near the rear entrance reserved for domestics. The trunks were laden with hand-fashioned silk and cotton clothing, damask linens, new wooden tennis racquets, swimming costumes, photographs and paintings, the portable Victrola. Both vehicles were filled to the rails (there were no roofs on cars in 1916) with luggage—and with the doctor and Louisa, their four children and friends, maids, cooks, servants, and nannies in tow. The Vansants traveled in the grand style of the last century, a time when old-moneyed Philadelphians packed carriages and boats to simple, elegant resorts to spend the entire summer. They were not especially comfortable with the invasion of the multitudes. In the words of Old Philadelphia social icon Sidney Fisher, “The masses in this as in everything else have destroyed all decency.” Suddenly, one rode a railroad car “crowded to excess with all sorts of people,” Fisher said. “This I have never seen before.”

The masses made travel an ordeal. Motorcars and carriages, electric trolleys and wagons, jammed the narrow seventeenth-century lanes of William Penn's old city. The roar of the new machines mingled with smells of gasoline and horse dung. Over Broad and Market Streets floated a murky brown haze that Dr. Vansant had noticed only recently—the exhaust from the city's growing number of automobiles.

As the Vansants motored east on Spruce, Independence Day flags festooned every shuttered business window, every rowhouse porch, giving the procession an odd mixture of a festive and funeral quality. It was a massive show of support for England in the European war. The newspapers this year were campaigning for a “safe and sane” Fourth. One hundred and eighty-five Philadelphians had been seriously injured in 1915 by fireworks, cannons, firearms, gunpowder, torpedoes, and toy pistols. The doctor was glad to remove his children from such dangers.

Ahead loomed a highlight of the trip for Charles—Broad Street Station. The mammoth redbrick station was the railroad hub of America, sending its Tuscan-red locomotives emblazoned Pennsylvania to thirty-eight states. Some of Charles's most pleasant memories were of riding the Pullman to Boston and New Haven with hundreds of his classmates to watch Penn play football against Harvard and Yale.

Red-capped porters with an ethereal grace led the Vansants to a Pullman, while the hordes of passengers crowded the regular trains. To ride a Pullman on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1916 was to experience the golden age of passenger railroading. More Americans rode the rails in 1916 than they ever had before, or would again, and never was an American railroad as mighty as the Pennsylvania. The “Pennsy” was a nation unto itself, with factories, boats, hotels, coal mines, grain elevators, and telephone and telegraph companies, revenues greater than some countries—and twenty-eight thousand miles of tracks that served almost half the nation's population by rail. A man on the overnight Broadway Limited from Philadelphia to New York to Chicago could enjoy all private car accommodations, sip Manhattans in the bar-lounge observation car, dine on roast duck à l'orange in the dining car, and get a morning trim in the barbershop.

The Vansants were bound for none of these civilized points on the map. By devouring all of its competitors, the Pennsy could take a man to the end of the world, or close enough for a connection there. By lease arrangements, the Pennsy's influence extended to smaller railroads, the tiny cross-hatched lines in the farthest corners of the map, such as the New York & Long Branch (N.J.) Railroad, and its subsidiary, the Tuckerton & Manahawkin Railroad. Through the aegis of the obscure Tuckerton & Manahawkin, the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad controlled service to Long Beach Island, New Jersey. There, at the southernmost point on the island, was the barren, easternmost point of the Pennsy empire, reached by the new service, the Beach Haven Express.

The express offered a service to the Jersey shore that would not be equaled in the rest of the century—four daily round-trips between Philadelphia and tiny Beach Haven, only two hours away. With the improved service, Dr. Vansant planned to join his family at the seashore every few days, while still working the entire summer. He would be more available to his patients, and able to return to the city quickly in case of an emergency. He would also enjoy hours on the train in the company of his son. Charles planned to commute from the sea to his job as a salesman at Nathan Folwell and Company, the textile manufacturer. Dr. Vansant was looking forward to time alone with the boy. He thought his son needed his guidance and more masculine influences. He was hoping vacation, too, would toughen up the boy. Away from the effete society of Cape May, in rustic Beach Haven his son could meet the rugged challenge of the sea. While mothers worried about the dangers, Victorian fathers considered the ocean a portal through which a boy became a man—a test of the social Darwinist doctrine of the day that “only the fittest survive.”

The doctor's love for the boy was not immediately apparent. His conversations with his son were formal and distant, fissures in a glacier that bound father and son together yet separated by cold, refracted spaces. A stern patriarch, Dr. Vansant had little patience for the foibles of his oldest child, yet he felt a love for his son he could not express. To read their relationship as distant would be a modern failing, for beyond clubs and sports and masculine rituals, their bond concealed hidden power. It was from father to son that the family inched over the landscape of generations and time.

In the person of Charles, Dr. Vansant harbored aspirations far greater than his own rise from the merchant class to the bourgeoisie. Being visited late at night by the doctor, in dark suit and black bag, making his rounds by horse and carriage in the nineteenth century, it would have been impossible not to sense his austere determination. Eugene could trace his American lineage back to 1647 and the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Indeed, he was himself a culmination of the line, the best-educated Vansant in the family's long history. But the Vansants were nouveau arrivé in Philadelphia, having come in the 1830s. So it was that the doctor possessed a rather time-honored ambition: to establish a distinguished Philadelphia family, an enduring legacy, as permanent a mark as a man could leave in a restless, modernizing country. If it seemed quixotic to modern sensibilities—Americans in 1916 were motoring everywhere on the map, claiming no fixed home, no memory of the past—it was perfectly normal in Philadelphia, an old city with the most deep-rooted of American aristocracies.

For Dr. Vansant the first step in making a legacy was to introduce Charles, known to family members as “the shining only son,” to the world of men. The doctor invited him after his twentieth birthday into the retreat of the smoking parlor at 4038 Spruce, where the men retired for billiards, political discussions, and cigars while the women sipped tea in the parlor. Upstairs was a small exercise room where father and son lifted weights together, following the new and popular regime of German bodybuilding. Father and son took the roadster to the prestigious Cape May Country Club, where amid the endless marshes and scrub pines by the ocean, Eugene taught the boy the recently imported Scottish game of golf.

Through formal ritual and a thousand unspoken ways, Eugene tried to shape his son's view of being a man, of being a Vansant, from an identity to a calling. After Charles graduated from Penn, Dr. Vansant introduced his son to the prestigious Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, of which the doctor was the national treasurer-general and Pennsylvania governor. Charles, carrying forth the line, would be a member. In addition, the boy was warmly welcomed to the Union League, one of the most elite private clubs in America. The doctor's timely word with Nathan Folwell, whose textile mill was one of the country's largest, landed Charles his first job in 1914 as a salesman.

Charles was among the first wave of American men to climb the corporate ladder. He was eager to prove to his father that he was a “go-getter,” a new and popular American phrase. He never suffered the despair of the Lost Generation. A contemporary of Charles Epting Vansant's, Francis Scott Fitzgerald—another young man born to a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family in the 1890s, a Princeton man to Vansant's Penn—would write in another four years in This Side of Paradise of the disenchanted young “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” But not now, not yet, not in this summery interlude before America entered the Great War.

Charles had grown up in a time of American hubris, iron and steel, certainty and progress. He was excited by his generation's idealistic dreams of the future, and particularly enjoyed a fanciful poem written by one of his prep school classmates in 1906, titled “In 1999”:

Father goes to the office

In his new bi-aeroplane

And talks by wireless telephone

To Uncle John—in Spain

Mother goes a-shopping

She buys things more or less

And has them sent home C.O.D.

Via “Monorail Express.”

Sister goes a-calling

She stays here and there a while

And discusses with her many friends

The latest Martian style

And when her calling list is through

She finds a library nook

And there with great enjoyment hears

A new self-reading book.

Although Dr. Vansant was immensely proud of his son, it was pride that masked a certain uneasiness or even shame. The boy, just like his sisters, had inherited his mother's looks and charismatic, creative personality. The doctor's concern was a classic one in the Victorian age, faced by the German burgher Thomas Buddenbrooks in Thomas Mann's popular novel of the turn of the century: how to hand his thousand-year mercantile line to his artistic son? The doctor knew that there had been two personality types in the Epting and Vansant lines for many generations: the stoic and the creative, the latter manifested in a famous Vansant opera singer who collapsed on a Paris stage during a performance. All four of his children, even “baby” Eleanor, eleven years old, were precociously creative, and the doctor knew from his colleagues at the Hospital for the Criminally Insane and experts in melancholy, that such gifts could be unhealthy and unproductive, especially in a boy. Discipline, self-denial, honor, and duty, strength in deeds and not words were the elements of Victorian manhood.

In the demanding way of a patriarch who has invested great expectations in his son, Dr. Vansant had groomed Charles from an early age to carry the family torch. He enrolled the boy at age thirteen in a prestigious prep school such as no Vansant had enjoyed—the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia, whose venerable stone halls were a passage not only to manhood but to the Ivy League and the Philadelphia oligarchy.

But Charles struggled to fit the model. A thin and fragile boy, he failed to hold up to the rigors of baseball, football, cross country, or any of the varsity sports that allowed a boy to proudly wear the E on his sweater. Instead, he tried hard to position himself as the rakish class wit. In his graduation picture for the class of 1910, he is wearing the standard dark suit and high starched Arrow collar, but he is the only one in the class sporting a gold watch fob and chain—styling himself in an acceptable masculine image of the day, the Edwardian dandy. Later at Penn, Charles tried out for the French Club and German dramatic society.

Thus the doctor, seeing in his son a feminine spirit, urged him into business, and pressed upon him the need to develop stoicism through physical, manly pursuits.

The central question for the doctor involved the boy's manliness. Eugene Vansant wasn't alone in his worries. His colleagues at the club shared a deep concern for the femininity of their own sons. It was a larger concern, too, of the President. In the Industrial Age, Woodrow Wilson said, young men lost the attachment of a father and work that bound them through history. Men left the farm, the stable, and smithy for the factory and office, leaving their sons home in the company of women. Concerned about the softening of boys in the Victorian age, Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts, where “manliness was taught by men, and not by those who are half men, half old women.” All-boy prep schools soared in popularity to provide surrogate fathering: to remove a boy from the world of his mother and five o'clock teas, “from the contagion of his sisters' company . . . and thence to Rugby.”

Feminine softness was a difficult reputation for any young man, especially in an age when President Roosevelt rallied the nation to the “strenuous life.” By 1913, the best-known and highest-paid author in the world was Jack London, the adventure writer who believed life was a “testing ground of the strong.” Size, strength, and gusto were paramount—the bigness of bridges and railroads, steamships and skyscrapers, the Standard Oil Company, the big stick of American imperialism abroad. Life was a competition of beasts, a social Darwinist struggle for supremacy, with mankind prevailing over the lower orders and superior men triumphing above all others. Charles and his friends could quote by heart the new naturalist philosophy, from Frank Norris, from Upton Sinclair—and from Jack London's The Sea Wolf:

I believe that life is a mess. It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves or may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all.

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