Go West Young Man

Furness's smoking room, 711 Locust Street

In the years after the Civil War, Michael Lewis tells us in Architecture and the Violent Mind, Frank Furness spent his summers in the Rocky Mountains. Later, too busy for cavorting but still in love with the west, Furness built himself a mancave, complete with pelts, western scenes, a ram’s head, rustic furniture, rough wooden beams and floor, Indian relics, etc., and here he entertained guests–including Walt Whitman–smoked, and dreamed.

He never rid himself of the west–but then he wasn’t alone among Philadelphians. Looking west was old sport for Philadelphia artists, who discovered sometime early in the 19th century that true American culture wouldn’t emerge in copying European masters but in the wild nature of the continent. Men like Charles Bird King, only a Philadelphian for a short time, became obsessed with Indians (they had scalped his father during the War for Independence). John James Audubon quit the scene here and headed west in 1812 or so, and never returned. Titian Ramsay Peale II quit the home of overbearing dad Charles Willson and got himself on as many western expeditions as naturalist artist as he could.

Elisha Kent Kane

A little later came Elisha Kent Kane, who died the most famous man in America. A sickly child who overcame everything by exploring the globe. The west wasn’t enough for Kane, who hit the arctic. His Arctic Explorations sold 150,000 copies in 1853. The bad climate killed him at 37. His funeral train stopped in New Orleans, Cincinnati, Baltimore, where thousands of people—elite, working class, women, children—lined the street. It ended in Philadelphia. A building on Chestnut Street displayed a banner, “Philadelphia mourns an illustrious son, and the world a martyr to science and humanity.” Another: “Science weeps, Humanity Weeps, the World Weeps.”

Then there was Owen Wister, who hit Wyoming in 1885 while Furness hit it big with the Philadelphia and Reading, and turned the frontier bug and love of things Teddy Roosevelt into the Virginian–the first cowboy novel.

In those days, naturally, Stetson Hats were made here.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



1 Comment


  1. Another interesting West-Philadelphia connection: Beacon Rock, one of the most notable geologic landmarks of the Columbia River Gorge (about 40 miles east of Portland) was first written about by William Clark in 1805, when he and Meriwether Lewis’ Corps of Discovery finally made their way downstream toward the Pacific. One hundred ten years later, the monolith was purchased by Henry Biddle in the interest of preserving it and protecting it against development, and he eventually deeded it to the state of Washington, where it is now a state park.

    Henry Biddle was an engineer, botanist and photographer based in the Northwest at the turn of the 20th Century. He was also a descendant of the prominent Biddle family of Philadelphia, which included the financier Nicholas Biddle, who edited Lewis & Clark’s journals upon their return, and which today includes Owen Biddle, who plays bass with The Roots and Jesse Biddle, the Phillies’ 2010 first round draft pick.

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