No matter how much Walt Whitman’s philosophical beliefs and sexual preferences rankled the priests of Camden, no matter how many mimeographed form letters of protest were sent in by Camden’s parochial schoolchildren, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) held firm. The new bridge would bear Whitman’s name.
Thing is, Whitman didn’t much care for bridges. But the Good Gray Poet had been dead for six decades when the DRPA deliberated on the new bridge’s name. But if he could have been consulted on the matter, Whitman would have declined the honor. “I have always had a passion for ferries,” he wrote, “to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems.”
Back in Brooklyn at the mid-century, Whitman regularly crossed the East River to Manhattan, often making his way up into the ferry’s pilot-houses where he could take in the “full sweep, absorbing shows, accompaniments, surroundings.” He had no kind words to share when construction of the Brooklyn Bridge got underway in the 1870s. Anyway, by then, living in bridge-free Camden, Whitman doubled down on his passion, finding in each ferry ride crossing the Delaware River a “refreshment of spirit.”
Whitman’s ideal crossing was about experience, not efficiency. On the deck of a bridge, high above the water, he’d be disconnected from the river’s sounds, sights and smells – its culture. Sure, crossing would go faster on a bridge, but it would deny Whitman what a city by a river city was all about, what he lived for.
In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” his poem of 1856, Whitman transforms would-be mundane mid-nineteenth-century experience into something glorious and transformative. “Crossing” confirmed not only Whitman’s utter joy in the moment (“Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face! / Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face”) but, as Whitman scholar Howard Nelson points out, Whitman expected such moments would always be part of urban life:
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
However, “a hundred years hence,” both ferries were gone. “Whitman did not foresee the demise of the ferries,” explains Nelson, he assumed “people in the future would, like him, see the gulls turning in late afternoon light, the rise and fall of tides, the river flowing, and the sun…” Such experiences even suggested “a kind of immortality.”
“I have never lived away from a big river,” wrote Whitman. “I don’t know what I should do without the ferry, & river, & crossing, day & night.” After a debilitating stroke in 1873, Whitman regarded the Camden Ferry as therapy, crossing back and forth as many as half a dozen times in a day. To assure access, he bought a house within walking distance of the ferry landing. Toward the end of his life, too frail to make his way to the waterfront, Whitman delighted in having it come to him. “One of the watermen came to see me yesterday afternoon & told me all ab’t the river & ferry (of wh’ I knew so much & was fond-but now kept from a year & more).”
In New York, the Brooklyn Bridge (built 1869-1883) eventually killed off Whitman’s treasured Fulton Ferry. It’s last crossing took place in 1924. Likewise, Philadelphia’s Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) did away with Whitman’s much-loved Camden ferry on March 31, 1952 when the Millville, skippered by Capt. Clayton E. Dibble, pulled away from Philadelphia for the final time. Construction of the Walt Whitman Bridge began one year later.
Today, crossing the Delaware in the style of Whitman is not only impossible, it’s an unfamiliar experience. All we have are left to remind us are Whitman’s words:
“Then the Camden ferry. What exhilaration, change, people, business by day. What soothing, silent wondrous hours, at night, crossing on the boat, most all to myself—pacing the deck, alone, forward or aft. What communion with the waters, the air, the exquisite chiaroscuro—the sky and stars, that speak no word, nothing to the intellect, yet so eloquent, so communicative to the soul.”
“A January Night.—Fine trips across the wide Delaware tonight. Tide pretty high, and a strong ebb. River, a little after 8, full of ice, mostly broken, but some large cakes making out strong timber’d steamboat hum and quiver as she strikes them. In the clear moonlight they spread, strange, unearthly, silvery, faintly glistening as far as I can see. Bumping, trembling, sometimes hissing like a thousand snakes, the tide-procession, as we went with or through it, affording a grand undertone, in keeping with the scene. Overhead, the splendor is indescribable, yet something haughty, almost supercilious, in the night. Never did I realize more latent sentiment, almost passion, in those silent interminable stars up there. …
“Night of March 18 ’79.—On the edges of the river, many lamps twinkling—with two or three huge chimneys, a couple of miles up, belching forth molten, steady flames, volcano-like, illuminating all around—and sometimes an electric or calcium, its Dante-Inferno gleams, in far shafts, terrible, ghastly-powerful. Of later May nights, crossing, I like to watch the fishermen’s little buoy-lights—so pretty, so dreamy—like corpse candles—undulating delicate and lonesome on the surface of the shadowy waters, floating with the current.
“April 5, 1879.—With the return of spring to the skies, airs, waters of the Delaware, return the sea-gulls. I never tire of watching their broad and easy flight, in spirals, or as they oscillate with slow unflapping wings, or look down with curved beak, or dipping to the water after food. The crows, plenty enough all through the winter, have vanish’d with the ice. Not one of them now to be seen. The steamboats have again come forth — bustling up, handsome, freshly painted, for summer work — the Columbia, the Edwin Forrest, (the Republic not yet out,) the Reybold, the Nelly White, the Twilight, the Ariel, the Warner, the Perry, the Taggart, the Jersey Blue — even the hulky old Trenton — not forgetting those saucy little bull-pups of the current, the steamtugs.
“For two hours I cross’d and recross’d, merely for pleasure—for a still excitement. Both sky and river went through several changes. …”
[Sources: Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (first published in Leaves of Grass, 1856); Walt Whitman, Specimen Days in America, (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882); “Ferryboats Span Delaware Tonight for Last Time,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1952; Arthur Geffen, “Silence and Denial: Walt Whitman and the Brooklyn Bridge,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 4 (1984),(PDF); Joann P. Krieg, “Democracy in Action: Naming the Bridge for Walt Whitman,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 12, no. 2 ( 1994), (PDF); Howard Nelson, “’Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ ,” (from J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998); M. Jimmie Killingsworth, “Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study in Ecopoetics,” The Walt Whitman Archive (first published by the University of Iowa Press, 2004).]