John O'Hara arrives at Mexico Road
Updated: Sep 13
Springtime, before 1850
The words of John O'Hara, reimagined
I’ve been following the logging trail through these Adirondack woods, swatting black flies until my arms ache from the work of it, spitting them out of my mouth and snorting them out of my nose for an hour, now. My cap is pulled down over my ears, making me look like an eejit, and I don’t care at all. The steam is rising out from my woolen gansey, but if I took it off, the flies would eat me alive, bones and all. I found the creek they told me to follow, well enough, and crossed it, stone by stone, as well as could be done. No matter the boots got wet. They’ve so many holes in them, they won’t hold water.
This is the first time I’ve let myself stop since I got off the boat down at the Barge Canal. Some call it by it’s original name: the Erie Canal. From Frankfort, where I alighted, I made my way to Little Falls, where the Mohawk River’s waterfall plunge of forty feet has been altered by a lock system that opened up the Great West! Successful waves of earlier immigrants farm the rich soil along the shores of the River. I know I can’t buy any of that land. Like the other Irish who arrive late in the game, I know the cheap land is up north of Little Falls, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. The logging bosses need men who can work hard and long until they save enough money to bring their relatives over from The Old Country and buy a piece of land to farm.
Right where I stop to rest, under a tree whose leaves have not yet come out, I see a small, white flower with a red heart. I take its three petals between my fingers and thumb, liking the satiny feel of its firm flesh. It didn’t smell good, but I took a liking to it, and looked for more of them as I made my way north. They seemed to grow near the roots of maple trees.
If I was still a lad when I started working my way from New York City, through Albany on the Hudson River and the Barge Canal, I was a man when I left it behind me, and it’ll be too soon if I never go back. The simplicity I brought with me from home in Ardee waned, surely tempered by the months I spent in the bowels of the City of New York, and stretched to its limits along the Hudson, as I made my way on foot or on board a boat. I never took my eyes off the goal of making it to the wilderness where my American relatives promised I’d find work that paid enough to send money home. By the time I got to Albany, and turned my eyes west, I’d learned by fist and by folly about humanity and the depths to which a lad could descend in his need to stay alive.
I bartered away my freedom for passage west. I agreed to work on a canal boat, thinking I’d just work my way along until I got to Little Falls, in Herkimer County, where family could be found. Working on the canal boats, we rarely spent time on shore, except to pick up provisions. Sometimes, we didn’t even get off the boat, but the local women would come down to the canal side with their breads and vegetables and chickens. They’d wrap them up and throw them over the water into the boat, and we’d take our money, wrap it back up in the same bundle, and pitch it back to the farmer’s wife. Every farmer had a little kitchen garden that his wife would keep, for things to eat in season, and to preserve, dry, pickle, and smoke, for the winters.
Farms close to the water felt the pull of the woods, all the time. The forest was always just waiting for a chance to yank back the tilled soil into its wilderness.
They remind me, these women, of my own mother, who is more dear to me every day I am away from her. I remember her in the little patch she kept next to our cabin in Ardee.
They tell me there were 6,000 to 8,000 boys on the Erie, which they were calling the “Grand Canal,” most orphans, and most Irish. They were children. They had no rights, no protections, no options except hope. They longed for their mothers, and fought their way from Albany to Buffalo, against older boys and men who took every advantage of them.
I was so thin and weak, when I started on the Canal, that I was like a child, even though I was well over twenty years old. The conditions in Ardee, with famines and partial famines, and the rents being raised, meant that we were always on the edge of starvation. I was just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to keep up with my work, keeping my head low.
Another boy was working on the boat, just older than I was myself . He tortured me by taking away my food, unless I did the work that belonged to him. I let it happen. Until, one day, I don’t know how it came about. I pushed him away with the heel of my hand. The next thing I knew, I had my thumbs inside his cheek pouches. That fight was a beautiful, a joyous thing to me. In the midst of joy, I was seeing red and crying like a baby. I made my torturer say, “Enough!” It wasn’t long after that the Captain put me ashore. I think he knew I was no longer a boy. I think I knew it, too.
Arriving at the New Home
By the time I had made my way to where Spruce Creek is joined by Buck Creek, I had nothing in my stomach. I dropped to my knees and scooped handfuls of water into my mouth. I soaked my head, ran my hands through the black bush of hair, and pulled the woolen cap down over my ears again. The flies. I figured I must be close to the saw mill. It’s there I’d find the man who’ll give me the work I’ll do until I’ve earned enough to buy my own piece of land.
I had made my way up the east side of the Spruce Creek, where no cabins can be seen. The trail disappeared from time to time, and I had to hunt around to find the markers I was told to find: the flat rock just where the road starts to veer a little to the east, then jogs back northwest to the place where the ford can be found.
As I passed a lush little brook that flows from the east to the Spruce, I spotted a rise of ground and thought to myself, "That it would be a fine place for a cabin." From there, on the trail and through brush, I made my way to the place where Buck Creek flows into the Spruce. I searched for safe fording, and jigged my way across to the lumberjacks’ boarding house, run by Mr. Luther.
I had been looking for the little brook that flows into the creek from the north until, just where the creek deepens into a dark pool, there it came, ripping out of the hills. I felt good that I found it, just where I’d been told it would be!
No one really ever lived here. Not even native Indians! There are boarding lodges for the men who work in the woods, and a rare woman or two who cooks for them, but it has been a place to work, not make a home.
Once the trees had been cut to stumps, it could be seen that the earth was mostly stone. With nothing to break the wind, with the trees gone, what soil there was swept into piles in the shelter of cliffy hills, or washed away into silty bottom for the Spruce Creek. I thought to myself, didn’t they do the same in Ireland, in the long ago? They took down the hardwood, shore to shore, and made masts for the ships of England. Stones and stumps, they left for the Irish people to plant their potatoes around. My parents and theirs and theirs, back beyond knowing, worked that earth in patches no bigger than the back of your hand, to pay the rent on land their ancestors had stolen from them hundreds of years before, when the English set their minds to owning the world.
Ardee, my birthplace, is full of rich agricultural rolling hills and lovely rivers and streams. Still, my parents couldn’t cut up our O’Hara patch of earth into any smaller pieces to give to their sons, for it would disappear altogether. So, I left, in 1844, to find a better way. You wonder, don’t you, why you forget all the hard things about home when you’re away, and think only of what was dear to you. The lovely bog, the smells of the market on fair days, the church where we all were taken to be baptized and the cemetery where we laid one another to rest. Amid the ancient roads and ruins, Ardee in County Louth is a place on the road from someplace else to another place, Dublin to Letterkenny.
No need to stop in Ardee, except to catch your breath, or change horses. Or on a market day, to meet with friends and, perhaps, dance in the square. I think of the castles nestled among row houses, with families still living in them after hundreds and hundreds of years. The chairs that Ardee was famous for making. The Irish tongue. The schools we had to hide, and the schoolmasters who risked their lives to teach us. I bring all of these memories with me to America. Plenty of rain, but we called it, often, “a soft day.” Snow is rarely general all over Ireland.
This Mexico I have searched for is a place, I have been told, where on a sunny May day the snow will suddenly fly sideways so thick that all is white. The Spring snows gathered on the nearby Oak Mountain, unsettled by one single day of thunder and lightning, makes water that hangs in sheets from the sky. It comes roiling downward into little Spruce Creek to set it all of a sudden into torrents that rise up and fly south to the east-seeking Mohawk. It was hard for me to believe such stories. I had just crossed over the very same Spruce Creek, stone by stone, without getting my boots wet! In time, I got to see such a sideways snowstorm on a sunny spring day! Knowing just the day when Oak Mountain and Spruce Creek would come together in their springtime mayhem made the work of loggers easier, as they shoved their stores of timber from the muddy shores of the Creek into the ephemeral transportation system of racing runoff floating the lumber to market.
The trail, from the German Settlement around Curtis Corners, on the southeastern side of the Creek, headed north to the place where Buck Creek comes down out of the hills into the Spruce. Here was a good place to build a bridge, connecting the east to the west side of the Creek.
After I had crossed over to the west side of the Creek, I climbed a small rise, and could see that from that point, the trail became an intersection. One spur headed north to the Creek as it veered west, and the other turned south and east until it went out of sight in the thick wilderness.
The Lumber Camp and the Sawmill
I didn’t mind the life of a lumberjack; it’s a hard day’s work, but the food is good. The company of the men is enjoyable in the hours before they drop into bunks and sleep like the logs they harvest until the dawn’s about to come.
Every year, I would have a little more to send home, and expected that I’d have my mother and my brother, William, with me soon. Then, we’ll bring my brother, Pat, and my sisters, Mary, Catherine and Margaret. The land in northern Salisbury can be had cheap, and we’ll make our farms there, not far from where I’m lumbering, just a little south from the lumberjack’s boarding house. It’s not a pretty place. The old trees have been taken, and the stumps that remain, are seen to be dots between rocks. They say that not even the Natives ever lived, or even camped here, it’s that inhospitable. The winters are long and harsh and the first warm days bring hordes of black flies; later in the summer, mosquitos swarm, especially in the swampy areas along Spruce Creek. Brown bears find spaces in the earth, up against boulders left over from ancient changes in the earth, in which they spend the winter, and sleep with their cubs until springtime berries lure their empty bellies out into the lengthening sunlight. It’s never a good idea, especially when the snows are melting, around the time the lumberjacks send the winter’s logs hurtling down the Spruce, to go digging around in a cave. A mother bear can kill you with one swipe of her paw, when she’s hungry, and protecting her cubs.
Neighbors took care of one another here, just as we did in Ardee. Of course, most of the neighbors along Mexico Road were related to me. My brother, Patrick, bought 30 of my 100 acres from me, and we farmed on the west side of Mexico Road, along the west side of Spruce Creek. Our brother, William, bought that lovely little rise I admired the first day I made my way up the trail over on the east side. He married Mary Welch, and her family has a farm right next to his. Our sisters, Mary and Margaret, married two Murray brothers, and their farms are just on the other side of William. Our Sister, Catherine, married into the Welsh family, as did William, and her farm was just north of his. Our mother lived to see us all married and in our own homes in this new country. It did her heart good. She talked all the time about the old country, but she was as proud as a mother could be of the earth we owned here, free and clear. I can see her when I close my eyes, and hear her singing the songs that few but we did know. That memory is dearer to me than I know how to say. Sleigh bells always seem to jingle too merrily by far at Christmas time, because our mother died three days after Christmas, in 1856. She was so proud of the cabin I built, and loved to bring new people into it, to show it off.