Thoreau’s Long Island Railroad Sojourn

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Thompson’s Station “About ninety years ago, there was born in Concord, Mass, a boy who never really grew to be a man, though he lived forty-four years. It is true that he got to be tall and strong, with a deep bass voice; that he wore a beard, and that from all external appearances he would have at once been taken for a full-sized man. But at heart he was always a boy. He never got over the habit of looking at things from a boy’s point of view. Instead of regarding the world as a place for serious business, where men must work so many hours a day and produce so many dollars’ worth of goods, and till the fields and labor hard in factories, or offices, or stores, and ‘get along’ – instead of all these things, he always seemed to consider the world as a great, fine, glorious playground — a place to be enjoyed and appreciated. This man-boy was Henry David Thoreau.” – From Gilbert P. Coleman’s “The Man Who Was Always A Boy.”

In March of 1845, at the age of 28, Henry David Thoreau left home to make a solitary life for himself near Walden Pond. He spent the next two years living on the property of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose famous essay “Self-Reliance” had inspired the young Thoreau’s life, writing, and ideas. The Sage of Concord, that great repository of a uniquely American wisdom, shortly came to find himself learning from a protégé more than ten years his junior. Even after leaving Walden, Thoreau would not only serve as a mental apprentice to Emerson, but assistant, house-guest, and maid.

It was in the course of this situation that, in 1850, Margaret Fuller, a leader of the transcendentalist movement and supporter as well as observer of the recent Italian revolution, along with her husband and son, were reported missing in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island. Emerson sent Thoreau to investigate, hoping against hope that Fuller might have survived, and, barring her survival, that of the manuscript on which she had been working.

Emerson wrote:  “At first, I thought I would go myself and see if I could help in the inquiry at the wrecking ground and act for the friends. But I have prevailed on my friend, Mr. Henry D. Thoreau, to go for me and all the friends. Mr. Thoreau is the most competent person that could be selected and … he is authorized to act for them all.”

Among his qualifications, Thoreau was an assiduous student of natural history, having written popular accounts of the flora and fauna of his native Massachusetts as well as those encountered on trips. Now Thoreau traveled down to Long Island, keeping both Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists apprised of his movements.

Interestingly, The Days of Henry Thoreau, by Walter Harding gives an account of an apocryphal story wherein Thoreau and Margaret Fuller were imagined to be engaged. When questioned on the subject, Thoreau was indignant, answering, “No. In the first place, Margaret Fuller is not fool enough to marry me; and second, I am not fool enough to marry her.” Oddly, the relationship between the two began with perceived hostility and Emerson warning Fuller against Thoreau’s “perennial threatening attitude.” While both Fuller and Thoreau wrote for Emerson’s Dial, espoused related philosophies, and inhabited the same circle of contemporaries, the relationship between the two remains ambiguous.

What is certain is that, when called upon by Emerson, Thoreau was at the ready.

Traveling from Massachusetts, Thoreau made his way toward Suffolk County via rail; the day before his arrival, Thoreau gave an itinerary.

“If Wm E. Channing calls — will you say that I am gone to Fire-Island — by cars at 9 this morn — via Thompson”

Thompson was Thompson’s station, one of the newer stops on the burgeoning Long Island Railroad. The construction of new lines meant that previously uninhabited parts of the island could now be developed. Just a year before Thoreau’s visit, a post-office had been established at the station to serve the growing local community. Francis M.A. Wicks was both station and post master, his great homestead serving as railroad stop and post office. This same year also marked the start of plans for the experimental village of Modern Times, soon to be founded in the area and based on the economic and social schemes of Stephen Pearl Andrews and Josiah Warren. It is fitting that, in its infancy the planned village, shortly to become known as a home and magnet for reformers of every stripe, should have received a visit – and perhaps blessing – from a future saint of reform.

From Thompson in central Long Island, Thoreau travelled to the shore and to Fire Island. Here he saw the remains of the wreck of the Elizabeth and learned its story. Just yards from the beach, pounded by wave, the Elizabeth had broken up. Margaret Fuller, her husband, and her young son had been trapped aboard, struggling within earshot of helpless, shore-bound rescuers.

Among the refuse, Thoreau searched for pages that might have survived the wreck. Beach pirates followed in his wake, scouring for valuables. In the end, he found only a few buttons. Margaret’s writing desk, her book, and the Fuller’s themselves had been lost forever. Thoreau returned to Long Island, to Thompson, to the city, and, once more, Concord. The newspapers of the day, in which Fuller had been a fixture, lamented the loss.

Today, the manuscript notes of Thoreau’s journey have been digitized and can be viewed online at Harvard’s Houghton Library; the relevant materials have also been collected in editions of Thoreau’s works and Emerson’s complete letters.

Photo: Thompson’s Station, provided by the Brentwood Public Library historical collection.

2 thoughts on “Thoreau’s Long Island Railroad Sojourn

  1. Natalie Naylor

    Enjoyed this piece. I knew Thoreau had come to Long Island to search for Margaret Fuller’s body, but hadn’t realized he wrote about his trip. A couple of months ago the local Fire Island community erected a marker or plaque for Fuller, replacing the one which had been washed away in a storm many decades ago. Thank you, Peter and John, for the New York History blog.
    Natalie Naylor


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