A generation has fled since a stranger was seen in the streets of New Damascus on an errand of business.
The town has nothing to sell except the finest wrought iron in the world. As the quality of this iron is historic and the form of it a standard muck bar for use in further manufacture you order it from afar at a price based on what is current in Pittsburgh.
Sellers of merchandise miss New Damascus on purpose. It is a catalogue town. It buys nothing because it is new, nothing it does not need, has no natural pride in waste whatever.
Strangers are not unwelcome, only they must not mind to be stared at. The town is shy and jealous and has the air of keeping a secret.
There are no sights to see. Once people came great distances, even from Europe, to see the New Damascus blast furnaces. They were the first of their kind to be built in this country, had features new in the world, and made the scene wild and awesome at night. All that is long past. There is only a trace of the mule railroad by which ore came down from the mountains. Where the furnaces were are great green holes. Nature has had time to heal her burns. No ore has been mined or smelted at New Damascus for many years. Yet the place is still famous for its fine wrought iron. The ore now comes from the top of the Great Lakes, stops at Pittsburgh to be smelted, and arrives at New Damascus in the form of pigs to be melted again, puddled and rolled into malleable bars. That may be done anywhere. It is done at many places. But it is so much better done at New Damascus than anywhere else that the product will bear the cost of all that transportation. The reasons why this is so belong to tradition, to the native pride of craftmanship, to that mysterious touch of the hand that is learned only in one place and cannot be taught. The iron workers here, descended from English, Scotch and Welsh smiths imported to this valley, are the best puddlers and rollers in the world. Therefore as people they are dogmatic, stubborn and brittle.
There is the old Woolwine mansion on the east hill, there is the Gib mansion on the west hill. Nobody would recommend them to the sense of wonder. Besides they are disremembered. They were once very grand though ugly. They are no longer grand and have been made much uglier by architectural additions of a cold ecclesiastical character. One is a nunnery. One is a monastery. The church got them for less than the walks and fences cost. Only a church could use them. All that the indwellers knew about them is that the woodwork polishes easily and must have been very expensive. The grounds are still nice.
The river is lovely, but nobody has ever cared for it esthetically. The town is set with its back stoop to the river, as to an alleyway or tradesmen’s entrance, facing the mountains where its wealth first was.
Sights? No. Unless it be the sight of a town that seems to exist in a state of unending reverie. This is fancy. New Damascus appears to be haunted with memories of things confusedly forgotten, as if each night it dreamed the same dream and never had quite remembered it.
In the Woolwine library there is a memory of distinction in sixty parts,—bound volumes of the New Damascus Intelligencer back to 1820. There was a newspaper! An original poem, a column humorous, a notable speech on the slavery question, the secret of Henry Clay’s ruggedness discovered in the fact that he bathed his whole person once a day in cold water, and the regular advertisers, all on the first page. One of the advertisers was a Wm. Wardle, bookseller, stationer, importer of all the current English imprints, proprietor of a very large stock of the world’s best literature, periodicals, and so forth. Wm. Wardle’s name is still on the lintel of the three-story building he occupied until about 1870. The ground floor now is rented to a tobacconist who keeps billiard tables in the back for the iron workers, the upper floors are in disuse, and there is no bookshop in New Damascus. Well, that is a sight, perhaps, only nobody would think to show it to you, because much stranger than the disappearance of that important old bookshop is the fact that no one can remember ever to have missed it.
If you mention this curious fact to the First National Bank president he helps you look at the faded name of Wardle above the tobacconist’s sign and says, “Well!” precisely as he would help you to look at one of the great green holes where a blast furnace was and say, “Well, well!” never having seen it before.