Travelling from the Steel City to the big country

The enormous Californian redwoods that captured Samuel Doncaster's imagination.
The enormous Californian redwoods that captured Samuel Doncaster's imagination.
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The wondrous sights and sounds of America have been brought back to life after the discovery of letters written in 1895 by a Sheffield industrialist who much preferred home.

The image of the Yosemite National Park, the geysers in Yellowstone National Park, the skyscrapers of New York City or the stunning Horseshoe Falls at Niagara are enough to fire anyone’s imagination.

Whinfell Quarry Garden open day: Friends of Whinfell Quarry Garden chairman David Jordan (left) and gardener Joe Smith

Whinfell Quarry Garden open day: Friends of Whinfell Quarry Garden chairman David Jordan (left) and gardener Joe Smith

But to see these sights more than 120 years ago, having never ‘Googled’ them or seen them on a TV documentary, is something else entirely.

But on August 17, 1895, Samuel Doncaster – a wealthy steel magnate – set out for the journey of a lifetime, travelling across the entire width of the United States of America.

He recorded it all in letters to his wife, Mollie, who was back home in Sheffield. The letters – all bound in a book – mark every American city, town park and vista he visited.

These letters are now in the hands of David Jordan, the chairman of Whinfell Quarry Garden, which Samuel Doncaster established after his American adventure, which has been immortalised in an 85-page book of letters.

But for Samuel, while well-travelled for his era, ‘real’ beauty was at home, in Sheffield.

“All our comparisons are in favour of our dear old country and I would rather have a quarter of an acre at my house in Abbeydale than a million acres of these acres that are flying past us right now,” he wrote to his wife.

His first letter of the trip records him boarding the ship – the Campania – in Liverpool. The Campania was a huge vessel whose engines alone were 47 feet high. These colossal machines had some bearing on the ship’s speed – even in 1895, it took only five days to travel from Liverpool to New York City.

These journeys were a big deal, as Samuel suggests in his first letter.

“We watched the great crowd on the quay who were seeing off their friends.”

Indeed, it was an enviable journey – the Campania was the most luxurious ship of its time. Its public rooms were panelled in oak, mahogany and satinwood. It also had the first open fireplace ever used on a passenger liner.

And, naturally, it was huge, weighing 13,000 tonnes. “There is great competition to pilot this ship and her sister the Luciana,” wrote Samuel. “As their tonnage is so big and their pilots are paid according to tonnage. We were told his fee would be about £150.”

This would be around £35,000 in today’s money. For one crossing.

There was no shortage of space on the Campania, either, as he wrote.

“The saloon deck is over 300 yards round, so one only had to walk six times round it for a mile.”

The luxury of the boat was matched by its cuisine. “The feeding in the saloon is very good and there is an endless variety of delicacies of all kinds – hot rolls in the morning and fine fruit and glorious salads of all kinds. I think they must grow the lettuces somewhere on board, they are so fresh and crisp.”

But while he took to ship’s food and surroundings, he did not take to the American women. “Very few girls on board are pretty but many are vivacious dark-haired and dark-eyed Yankee girls who chatter through their noses incessantly.”

And Samuel was almost as unimpressed with New York, focusing not on the fabulous sights of the Statue of Liberty or New York Harbour but on the hassles of customs.

His stayed at the Waldorf Hotel, where the woodwork was ‘splendid’ and where bathrooms and bedrooms were ‘marbled and tiled all over.’ Clearly, this was an adventure in which no expense was spared.

Many high-ranking British men and women travelled to the ‘New World’ around this time, including writer Rudyard Kipling. There were publications especially-written for British tourists, mapping out the best train routes and sites.

Samuel’s trip took in New York, Vancouver, Niagara Falls, Victoria, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Seattle, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. He travelled on the Grand Trunk from Montreal to Niagara, the Michigan Central Niagara sleeping car, the Chicago Milwaukee and the North Pacific, covering a whopping 10,000 miles.

Some of the trip took his breath away, particularly Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks and the latter’s geysers.

“Water rushes up with a roar and the dense clouds of steam float away mountains high. It truly is a most impressive and awe-inspiring sight.”

It was at Yellowstone where he saw an American bald eagle. “These eagles look grander than any bird I have ever seen. As the sun shines under their great wings, their colour changes and sometimes they look transparent and ethereal and then suddenly black and fierce.”

But while awe-struck by Yellowstone, he was not impressed with Chicago and Detroit.

“These two great cities with 240,000 inhabitants and magnificent buildings have really only come into existence in the last 15 years...In spite of their rich cities, these people are wild heathens and they don’t know what a bit of rural beauty is.”

A little corner of the USA in Sheffield

Samuel Doncaster was particularly taken by America’s botanical treasures. Such was his enthusiasm after the trip that he established his own mini national park here in Sheffield, in the guise of Whinfell Quarry Garden – a Grade II Listed garden.

Today, the garden belongs to the city of Sheffield though it was originally intended for the Doncaster family. And it’s clear that the Whirlow haven was directly inspired by his American trip.

Indeed, he even brought back seedlings and bulbs from Yosemite National Park, as he writes in one of his letters: “We drove with our good friends and stopped to see the ‘Big Trees’.

“Some are nearly twice the height of the Parish Church Spire at Sheffield. I got some of their seed-cones and hope to raise some young ones at home, children of the biggest and oldest trees in the world.”

He’s talking about the Californian redwoods at Yosemite National Park.

Today, here in Sheffield, those seed-cones stand tall in his Whinfell Quarry Garden – the second-tallest redwoods in Yorkshire.

David Jordan – who’s been reading the letters and is chairman to the Friends of Whinfell Quarry Garden – said: “These letters are so good because they provide definite proof that he brought back seedlings from California to plant at Whinfell.

“It is fascinating to read about his trip across America and the time he had, particularly as it was quite a big trip at the time.”

The legacy of Samuel’s adventure was not only immortalised in his letters, it also grows at Whinfell Quarry Garden.