A Remarkable Curiosity: Dispatches from a New York City Journalist’s 1873 Railroad Trip across the American West
By Amos J. Cummings and Jerald T. Milanich
University Press of Colorado, 371 pages, $26.95
In 1873, Amos Jay Cummings, a popular New York Sun newspaperman and decorated Civil War veteran, set out on a westward adventure aboard the newly-completed transcontinental railroad. During his six-month sojourn from Kansas to California, Cummings telegraphed amusing, engaging and spirited commentaries of the American West back to readers in New York.
Collected by scholar Jerald T. Milanich in A Remarkable Curiosity: Dispatches from a New York City Journalist’s 1873 Railroad Trip across the American West are Cummings’ long-since forgotten accounts of a land and personalities unlike anything New Yorkers found familiar. They included eccentrics like Pedro Armijo, the New Mexican sheep tycoon who was one of the most extensive livestock breeders in the West, the Mormon prophet Brigham Young and one of his wives, the indignant lecturer Ann Eliza Young, who was pursuing a divorce at the time Cummings arrived. Other characters included three-card Monte players, confidence men, railroad magnates, gold seekers, land speculators and wheat farmers.
Cummings’ wit and mental acuity captured the political, economic, racial, ethnic and sexual traits and stereotypes of the West with amusement. He writes of one encounter:
While the passengers were eating supper at Ellis a few days ago a trapper and a conductor indulged in a little intellectual conversation. The conductor endeavored to persuade the trapper into an endorsement of his peculiar views by drawing a revolver upon him, whereupon the trapper whipped out a brace of six shooters, and began snapping them promiscuously about the room. Sixty people, men and women, made a rush for the door…The conductor whizzed out of the door like a comet, and a gentleman weighing 295 pounds managed to stow himself away under a small dining table. He said that he had dropped his watch key, and was looking for it. After all were safe on the cars it was discovered that the trapper’s pistols were not capped, and fifteen of the railroad men and passengers ran out of the dining room with loaded revolvers in their pockets.
Cummings’ firsthand chronicles provide a glimpse into frontier life. While journalists, historians and Hollywood have embellished stereotypes of dueling pistols on dusty streets, Milanich’s exacting notations support the veracity of Cummings articles and expand on them with biographical sketches and historical introductions.
Although he is virtually forgotten today, Cummings was one of the most famous newspapermen in the United States during his lifetime, in part because of stories like these. Born in Conklin, N.Y., Cummings attended the common schools before apprenticing to the printing trade at age twelve. In addition to serving in the Civil War – for which he received the Medal of Honor – he was elected to Congress as a representative from New York. Once described as “the most popular journalist in the United States,” he engaged readers with his caustic wit and insatiable appetite for knowledge.
Cummings loved to chat with the diverse characters he met on his journeys. He wrote about card tricksters who preyed on tourists, buffalo bone hunters on the prairies and the hardships suffered by settlers who had been enticed to move to the then-desolate Kansas plains. He painted a verbal portrait of the West’s topographical wonders, and he was drawn to the West’s gold and silver mines and the business enterprises – many of them shady – that resulted in fortunes earned, stolen and squandered.
Cummings’ journalistic explorations, augmented with the author’s additions, coalesce into a fun, engaging read for anybody interested in the Old West. Thanks to Milanich’s desire to share these dispatches and his appreciation of Cummings’s literary and linguistic value, a forgotten journalist can absorb an audience again.