This letter was written in 1851 by 25 year-old Oliver Bourne Green (1826-1906), an Engineer overseeing the construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad near Fish Creek, Virginia [now West Virginia]. Oliver was the son of William Elijah Green (1777-1865) and Julia Plimpton (1786-1865) of Worcester, Massachusetts. He married Emily Louisa Pomeroy (1828-1917) in August 1855 in Chicago. Later in life, Oliver built the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal and other enterprises on the Great Lakes. He was connected with many of the developments of the Chicago river and was a general contractor for the parks system of Chicago.
Oliver wrote the letter to his friend, Anna E. Belden (1817-1913), the daughter of Taber Belden (1788-1859) and Mira Allerton (1782-1859) of Amenia, New York. She lived there and in nearby Dover Plains with her parents and several siblings. Following her parents’ deaths in 1859, she resided with her brother Joseph in Amenia, where she died on July 1, 1913.
Evening of July 21st 1851
Although I ought perhaps to assume a recumbent posture in order to be prepared to faithfully & successfully improve the long tomorrow if I live to see it, yet will I just commence a line to you, my dear Miss Belden, lest delay should demand from me more apology that I have now to make for so long neglecting your gladly received letter of the 10th ult. My apology I doubt not will prove an acceptable one to you who generally have so very slim ones to offer for your own delay. To give it then, I have since the reception of your last changed my location to another part of the road. In fact, I was somewhat expecting the change at the time I received your letter & therefore thought it well to delay writing till I could definitely give my new address which is Fish Creek P. O., Marshall county, Virginia.
If what I have offered does not seem to you to cover all the ground, I will further say that I came upon work that had been in the hands of a gentleman (an Irishman) who either from design or ignorance had very much neglected it. This has rendered my labor doubly arduous & will keep it so for a long time to come. I have just time by rising early & remaining up late to eat my meals & occasionally to say a word to a friend though the time for this last gratification may be almost said to belong to others. And here almost before I have begun a letter I must begin to beg an answer. I have experienced another of the beauties of that profession you were wont to admire so much. I have been taken from social relations that were very unpleasant & from religious privileges that were moreso & put right entirely, almost with strangers & way, way in the backwoods. My Sabbath School which I was instrumental to a great extent in forming & much interested in sustaining, I have been obliged to leave & come here to see the Sabbath & God’s name profaned by all — even by females in what may be termed the First Families. I am aware that this is a part of the Master’s Vineyard & that he has called me to labor in it with the assurance, “As thy day, thy strength shall be,” but withstanding all this, my fried, it is hard to sunder ties of friendship however recently they may have been formed. And it is hard too to begin to live among strangers in whom you find it hard to get any interest — even enough to lead you to do them good. But I need not intrude my little trials here upon you & I am wandering from the question which I was about to ask. It is that you will so far sympathize with me in these disagreeables of life as to attempt to mitigate (if that is not too strong a word) them by an occasional line, not regular monthly epistles, but a note or letter or volume often. I have a large family with many of which I correspond freely & I have some few outside that family — engineering brethren — to whom I frequently write, but they all don’t give me letters enough. If you only knew how good it seems, how like a beam of sunshine in a cloudy day, to have the weekly mail deliver you an epistle with the well known superscription of some absent friend, you would in your charity send if it were but a well directed envelope, I think.
But i took this sheet to begin upon. I have much to say & feel like saying it all now but my duty calls me. Till I find time to resume, adieu.
Here, Thursday evening, July 24th, I resume though I will freely confess what will I presume be quite apparent — that I am much less in a writing mood than when I left this sheet on Monday evening. I spent more of that evening in reading over some of your former letters than perhaps I need to have done but I needed some little indulgence & surely that was a harmless way of taking it, was it not? I will wind up this sheet with a remark on the weather which has been rather wet today after a drought.
Here, Friday evening, August 1st, I again resume, it having proved as I intimated on the 24th inst. that I was then not in a writing mood. So little was I so, that I consigned the eight pages that were dragged out that evening to destruction — a thing I seldom do, but sometimes when I have a particular correspondent.
Here then alone in our lone office at nearly ten P. M., I will begin the answer to your last less the opportunity by which I expect to send to the mail tomorrow may slip by unimproved. I have spoken I see in sheet No. 1 of being very much occupied. I have this evening been engaged in dealing with men under peculiar circumstances or at least what would seem so in our region of the country but here it is nothing new. Some laborers — quite a body — had come some distance to work for one of my contractors but being threatened by someone of an opposite clan, they were all on the return, but I have overtaken them & induced them to return, assuring them that we would see them protected at all rates.
You have no idea of the depth of feeling there is between those of opposite parties. It matters not which is uppermost, might makes right. They claim (each party) certain parts of the line as their own & attempt to allow no others to work on it but we will teach them better. At any rate, I intend to do what I can towards letting them know that the fact of their being in a free country does not exactly give them liberty to do as they like & to legislate for themselves. We are however badly sustained by Western Virginia people & laws as a general thing. It makes me feel most decidedly flat to see a grog shop right near here in full blast & no chance to reach it. The Irish will not in one case in ten criminate one another. They are a miserable race indeed. I am more & more convinced of it everyday & I must say I do think it in a great degree owing to their being so terribly priest ridden. The work that I am on as you may be aware is a very prominent one in this country & the Engineer Department is upon the very best system.
The Chief Engineer comes first, then Division Engineer having from thirty to forty miles in charge, then Resident Engineer having six to eight miles. Each Resident has two assstants (a Rodman & Chairman) to aid him in doing all the work necessary to a proper construction of the work. I alluded to this to shew the power & responsibility of the Engineers, each Resident having power to discharge any man employed upon this work who does not behave himself in a becoming manner. This gives us, you see, the control often of many hundred men at once which involves some trouble as you may suppose. But enough of this. I came in determined to write to you this evening but after I made my bed which I leave all day to air that I may make it up at twilight & thus save so much daylight for my eyes, & attended to two or three regular duties, I saw it was getting late. But thinks I, it is a shame to delay any longer so at it I am.
That “dolce farniente” [pleasant idleness] of which you speak is very pleasant where ones conscience will allow one to indulge in it. I have something besides conscience generally here in the evening which keeps me in sufficient exercise. I refer to the quantities of mosquitoes & gnats that infest our place which is within twenty feet of dense underbrush of the woods. Our sleeping rooms are in the office building — one at each end — & the office in the middle. I have not yet finished furnishing my room though have things very comfortable & tidy. Rather singular you’ll think for a gentleman to have it tidy but it is so. I am very old bachelorfied in this matter. To have one boot out of its place would tend to make me lose sleep — perhaps.
But one dwelling place is in sight & that is a cabin. At this place we take our meals & I must tell you about it that you may know something of what is done in these wilds. The outside would frighten you, I fancy, if you thought you had to live in it. It is built as nine-tenths of the houses are — of logs. The roof looks severe. There is I believe a “loft” over the lower story which is all in one room and in in size, I should say, about the size of your parlor — the one on the right of the front door. In this room which served as bedroom, dining room, play room, kitchen, & sometimes temporarily as her house, live a man, his wife, a young woman — a sort of adopted daughter — & oh, is she not ugly — three boys, a baby of very recent date, & till quite lately, a wild Irish girl who had been employed as a temporary assistant. The engineer corps of this residency consisting of your humble servant & two assistants, with a dog or two and several ducks which are very fond of lying close about the door help complete the family. How neat & nice everything is. I need not tell you after what I have said if I add the fact that some are in bed, some out, & some half out or getting out while we are there, which let me assure you, is seldom longer than to satisfy the appetite & leave the palate to take care of itself. It is but just to them to add that “the loft” will I believe lodge some of them. They are very hospitable and offered me a bed freely when I first came. Such stowing as this is by no means uncommon in this section.
I hope ere long to have a house built in which we can live according to our own fancy. Such barbarism as I now have I wish to be free from as soon as convenient.
But I am away from your letter. I must plead guilty to being “not a little bit but very naughty” not to have the same charity for you which your showed towards my delay. I see I decidedly counted without my host in appealing to Miss Clara against you. I have now concluded since I have two arrayed against me to take & bear all that comes promising that my tameness will partially protect me.
Thank you for all the f—–. I had nearly said fine things but will not. But for all you said of my brother. I have noticed & heard spoken of the resemblance in the intonation of voice in the same family. I must agree with you that his hair does not curl as mine. His better speaking of his all I think I have destroyed but think I have nearly his language. He says “I was much pleased with my call at your friend Miss Belden’s. I think her very intelligent. She is ahead of me in conversation though I succeeded in keeping up while I staid.” I could have told him he not expect to keep up in conversation as I only expected to in talking, not in conversing.
Thank you for the interesting intelligence which I had somewhat anticipated — that of Miss Mary’s decision in religious matters. I rejoice at it not as you may suppose as you half intimate in another place, because another is added to my own sect, but because I hope one and that my friend has been led to accept the offers of the gospel & to consent to be saved by “Jesus’ blood alone.” You say something of your own views on religious subjects & speak of writing me a whole letter on the subject. Do so, I will not promise fully to answer it as I may not be able but I shall read it with the intense interest I feel in the subject in general & in connection with you as one of my friends. You wish you possessed that faith that gives us certain knowledge of the future. Do you ask often & earnestly for it? You speak of having some good aspirations and seem to rest on them & on the trying to do what good you can as the ground of your acceptance with God. Please tell me where you find such a basis for salvation & does it not so away with salvation by Jesus Christ alone. I do not intend to catechise you. Pardon me if it seem like it & pardon me, my dear friend, if I say that I cannot bear to see you resting on what seems to me so insecure a foundation all your hopes for eternity. That God will give you that knowledge of the right way to eternal happiness & that faith which shall make you feel sure & certain of everything that relates to your “future destiny? is the wish & prayer of your friend, — Oliver B. Green
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