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COASTING ON PONKAPOAG
Looking backward from these days of slothful ease in getting about it seems as if the golden days of Ponkapoag were those of a generation and more ago. Then it was an isolated hamlet. To be sure, there was a railroad a mile and a half away and the venturous traveller might go north or south on it twice a day, though few Ponkapoag people were that sort of venturesome travellers. The days of the stage coaches had passed and the place was more thrown upon its own resources, especially for excitement, than it had been since they had made it a stopping point on a main thoroughfare. The railroad brought bustle to many hamlets, but it took it away from Ponkapoag and left it a sleepy hollow. Even the days of the Cherry Tavern and the Ponkapoag Inn were past and the poet Aldrich and other people of latter-day renown had not appeared to make it famous.
Now the trolley car buzzes up and down the long steep slopes of Ponkapoag Hill and the automobiles honk in endless procession both ways. The old houses stand, but a new generation occupies them and the cosey, self-centered life of the old village has completely passed. Even the people who knew its traditions of a half-century ago are gone, too, and though the Christmas snow brought good coasting I doubt if it brought many coasters to the old hill. Yet Ponkapoag Hill was once famous in the region all about for its coasting and the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the Ponkapoag coasters. On days and nights in the old-fashioned winters, when the sledding of big logs to the sawmill on Ponkapoag brook had made the course down the hill one glare of adamantine snow between deep rifts, the population of the village used to turn out; not the big and little boys and girls only, but the grown-ups even to the venerable gaffers of those days who could remember how they used to coast there before the Civil War was thought of, when the Cherry Tavern still fed scores of pleasure-seeking Bostonians on big, luscious black-heart cherries each June, and in winter the Ponkapoag Inn had its patrons from the big city not only for coasting but for pickerel fishing on the pond.
Modern easy methods of transportation and communication have put the typical New England village, with its manly, self-reliant, self-centered life, out of existence, and with it have passed or become decadent many of its community sports. I doubt if Ponkapoag will ever again see such coasting as it has seen, and I fancy the same may be truly said of hundreds of big hills in other towns. The sport still holds in one form or another, but it has changed. Coasting in the streets is rightly forbidden now in many communities. The chances of meeting dangerous obstructions in these days of multitudinous automobiles and omnipresent trolley cars are too great: In the old Ponkapoag days such things were unknown, and the rarely occasional sleigh or wood-sled was little to be feared. The drivers who were not coasting themselves knew the coasters had the right of way and "cleared the lulla" to let them by.
There came nights like that of the Christmas just passed when the still, dry air intoxicated the coasters and carried their shouts far tinder the golden moon. Then there would be a constant procession of swiftly flying forms from the brow of the hill where Blue Hill loomed clear-cut against the velvet sky behind, to George B.'s blacksmith shop, at least. Certain flyers were fabled to go farther and, on perfect sledding, to make the gentle declivity clear to Potash Meadow and brook. Such as did this were famous the region through.
It is probable that the coasting on Ponkapoag Hill began with the coming of white settlers to the region, "the Dorchester Back Woods." The Indian invented the toboggan, but he seems to have used it for a sled of burden and not as a pleasure chariot. Coasting is essentially a white man's joy. No white man could have a toboggan at the top of a snow-clad hill and not immediately use it to coast down on. It is in the blood. Tradition has it that the legions of Caesar came over the Alps, and finding the snowy slopes in front of them, immediately sat down on their shields and slid down upon the Northern races they had come to conquer. Many a New England youngster in days gone-by learned to come down a hill on a barrel stave in much the same way; he, too, with blood of the conqueror in his veins. The toboggan wasn't really invented; it grew. From that invention has worked out many devices specially fitted to the sport under special conditions. Switzerland has seen coasting come up from the utilitarian exuberance of the Roman legions to a sport which is international and which draws coasting experts from all over the world. They call it tobogganing, which, of course, it is not and in modern days at least never was, for it is all done on a sled with runners. "Schlittli" the Swiss call it, and though it seems a far cry it may be that our word sled has been developed from it. At least both begin with S.
Elaborate books have been written about "tobogganing" as it has developed at Davos and St. Moritz, in the Alps. The Swiss Schlittli seems to be much like what the Yankee boys call a "girl's sled," a board seat set high on skeleton runners, that I fancy were at first of the plain wood but later came to be shod with flat iron. On this the coaster sits and goes down the hill sedately, feet foremost. Thus the early Swiss tobogganing was done, the rider steering by putting out a foot to the right or left, after the fashion of the small girl today on her similar sled. Such coasting is done by careful elderly people in St. Moritz or Davos today, only they use wooden pegs held in either hand to steer by. The courses on which they coast are short and straight, modest little coasts such as befit their condition. Then American sports brought to Switzerland the clipper sled. It easily outdistanced the Schlittli, and for the swift, winding courses on which the races were held became the favorite. The clipper sled was born in America, and millions of boys here have them today. They are swift, sturdy, and well fitted for the sport. Their solid wooden runners were long ago shod with flat steel, but for a generation that has been superseded by spring steel, round runner-shoes that add to the swiftness most materially.
In 1877 the first of this coasting was done by the English at St. Moritz, and ever since the courses there have been steadily improving, and "toboggans" as well. The final word has become a skeleton frame of steel, the wooden runners being entirely removed from within the shoe and the rider occupying a thin board hung between the upper frames. The under part of the heavy steel runner is grooved so as to grip the ice, and the whole "rocks" after the style of the old-fashioned "rocker" skate. Thus on a curve the rider, putting his weight aft is able to turn more rapidly without the sled losing its grip on the ice beneath. On these the Swiss coasters negotiate S curves at surprising speed, and are estimated to reach sixty or even seventy miles an hour on the straight stretches of the world-famous course. As might be supposed by any one who coasts, this speed is not made with the rider sitting on his sled girl fashion. Long ago the American visitors taught the St. Moritz coasters that the way to ride a clipper sled on a swift coast was to go "belly-bump," prone on one's belly, with a foot ready to steer at the right or left as the case might be. The stability is surer because the centre of gravity is lower, the wind resistance is less, and the method is safer and better, if it is not so dignified. The records made thus converted the most phlegmatic Englishmen at St. Moritz, and since then this has been the approved fashion.
But we have gone coasting a long way from Ponkapoag Hill. There, long before the Swiss course was thought of the evolution in sleds was going on, and though Ponkapoag did not evolve the steel-frame skeleton coaster it got some tasty rigs of its own. Similar things were brought out all over New England, I fancy, on all big hills where Yankee boys coasted. One of these was the double-runner, or double-ripper as it was sometimes called, rather ominously. I meet double-runners on the hills sometimes now-a-days, but not the leviathans of old. The beginning of this community coaster is simple. It is two clipper sleds fastened together so that the rear one runs in the tracks of the front one. Then came a board placed lengthwise across the two and the double-runner was fairly begun. Later this board came to be a long plank that would hold a dozen. With that the capacity of the common clipper sled was reached. But they did not stop at that at Ponkapoag. They built two big sleds specially, shod them with proper steel runners at the local blacksmith shop, and set high above them an enormous, stout plank with foot rests and all sorts of modern conveniences.
The men who told of this enormous rig, a "double-ripper" in very truth, are dead and I can't prove it by them, so I hesitate to state the length of this mammoth coasting device and the number of people it would carry lest aspersions be cast on their veracity -- and mine -- but it was very long and would carry a surprisingly large number. All Ponkapoag was wont to come out of moonlight nights and ride upon it, and its fame carried that of the little village very far. To have coasted on the big Ponkapoag double-runner was as much a thing to be mentioned boastfully in certain sections as it was in others to have been presented at court.
Bob-sled is a proper, dictionary name for the ordinary form of this device and it is used at Davos and St. Moritz for jolly family parties on the straight courses. There they equip it with a bugle to herald its approach with joyous tootings, a bridle of steel wire by which it is steered in combination with pressure on a lever by means of the feet of the steersman, and also with a curious brake which consists of a nail studded board so rigged to the rear sled that the last man can drop it down to the ice and anchor it by the grip of the nails, thereby retarding its speed. The steersman on the mammoth Ponkapoag bob-sled steered by a rope bridle and the use of his feet on a stout wooden cross-bar, and his position was no sinecure. He had at least a ton of people on board and he had no brake.
After the leviathan slid over the brow of the hill and began its downward course there could be no slowing up, no backward sled tracks, till the end of the course was reached. He must negotiate the curve at Captain Bill Tucker's corner at lightning speed and must rightly manage the mass in mighty momentum after that, if he would not spill them all in Ponkapoag brook. The big Ponkapoag bob-sled needed no bugle to herald its coming. When it started off and especially when it swung the curve at Captain Bill's the mingled melody of delight and dismay, masculine and feminine, could easily be heard a mile, and throughout the course the chant of the coasters carried runic warning well ahead of the approaching thunderbolt. In the legend of it all I find no mention of anyone being hurt.
A great if not famous inventor once lived in Ponkapoag. James Basin came from one of the Channel Islands, a French Huguenot, with his family, and settled in the little village; it would be hard to tell why. He invented the "Basin trumpet," a curious kind of cornet with which one gets change of pitch by turning a crank with one hand while holding the instrument to the mouth with the other. This was played in the choir in the Congregational church of those early days. He invented many other musical instruments, one the forerunner of the cabinet organ which made a fortune for certain New Englanders. He invented a braiding machine which has since his day made millions for Rhode Island factories. It may be that he invented the strangest form of double-runner that I have heard of, and which was used on Ponkapoag Hill, but I fancy not. That I guess was an inspiration worked out on the spat by some hardy Yankee. It consisted of a great wood-sled on which half the village could be accommodated. This was hauled by horses to the top of the hill, a boy of more than ordinary courage, strength, and -- it seems to me -- skill, sitting on that diminutive sled in front of the great on-rushing mass and guiding it in safety to the bottom of the hill, time after time.
That a boy should have been found that would turn this trick after he had once successfully done it is not so difficult to believe as that one should have the hardihood to undertake it for the first time to find out whether he could do it or not.
This Yankee Casabianca, or whatever he ought to be called, I myself knew after he had reached years of middle life and I dare say discretion. I remember well his breadth of back and depth of chest, and I think it quite true that he once lifted a barrel of flour in his teeth, but whether he got his start in physical strength steering that Ponkapoag-invented double-runner down the long hill, or whether he had to have the strength inborn in the first place to be able to do it, I cannot say.
They have a wonderful curve over at St. Moritz known as the "Cresta Run," 1320 yards long and abounding in hair-raising thrills from start to finish. Hardly has the rider, lying prone on his steel-skeleton flyer, got under good headway before he comes to the "church leap." Here a swinging descent shoots him into a double compound curve where he must flash to the left and again to the right in letter S fashion, helped to be sure, by raised banks on either side as he needs them. The banks help, but it takes lightning combinations of wisdom, skill and strength to make the turns in safety for all that, nor does he have a chance for a long breath before he shoots at ever increasing speed into the "battledore" where the course turns almost at a right angle and shoots him on into the "shuttlecock" where he must negotiate another right angle. Then he must immediately take "stream corner" and be ready for his plunge into "the straight." From this again he has to take "Bulpett's corner." By this time he may be going seventy miles an hour, but "cresta leap" is before him, after which he has only to go up the steep hill which is supposed to arrest his speed at the finish. Yet even here his skill must be in full play, as riders have been known to go forty feet in air over the crest of the hill and take a fine plunge into the soft snow beyond. Indeed, the soft snow waits the venturesome rider at every turn of the famous St. Moritz course, and many there be who go to it before "church leap" is fairly negotiated, thus early in the game. The whole course, nearly a mile, is frequently made in a little over a minute and a quarter.
All this is fine to see, without doubt, and finer still to do, but do you know, if I could have my choice and could see but one, I would choose to see that leviathan double-runner of a half-century ago swinging the curve at Captain Bill Tucker's corner, followed by that big wood-sled with the half of Ponkapoag's population on it, and hear the joyous Yankee shouts as they resounded all the way from the crest of the hill to George B.'s blacksmith shop.