Stranger on a Bridge


Sometimes it’s interesting where crossing a bridge can lead.

I was out at the Hazen Bridge recently on a misty Saturday morning helping out with one of our regularly scheduled maintenance weekends. And I crossed the bridge over to the other side.

And there I saw a man standing in the mist that no one had noticed before.  He was a handsome man of about 60 with a well trimmed beard, wearing a bowler, a topcoat with a velvet collar, wool waistcoat  with his shirt collar neatly pressed down into wings and a red ascot.

I turned back briefly, and oddly, I noticed that the Hazen Bridge was no longer there. It was now just a shallow spot on the river where it looked as if many people had crossed. That was odd.  

With bright eyes and a welcoming smile, the man introduced himself as Horace and asked “What brings you down to White’s Ford?”

I introduced myself and when I said my name, he said “why, you must be related to our past President. A fine man, party of Lincoln, you know. That was one of the closest elections we’ve ever had.” I wasn’t sure why he thought I was related to the Bush family. I repeated that my last name is “Hays, H-a-y-s”

“Wrong spelling. Guess not then. Don’t much care for that current Cleveland fellow. He’s a Democrat, you know.” I didn’t feel like getting into a discussion about Obama’s birthplace, and I figured it would be unwise to continue talking politics in any case.

“Have you been here long?” I asked.

“My wife Sarah and the family moved out this way in ’56 from Vermont. Lost my two daughters Alma and Ellen on the way out West.” Horace added this last part rather matter of factly as if losing children on a drive from Vermont happened all the time.

“At first we settled out in Metamora.  But then we moved here for the high and dry land. Lived here ever since. I own those rolling hills right behind you there. I raise my cattle and farm over 300 acres of the most beautiful land around. You must’ve passed the homestead about a half mile up the road there. It sits up on the highest piece of land around these parts.” I couldn’t recall having seen any homestead a half mile west of here.

Horace went on: “Great place to raise kids. You have any young’uns?” I told Horace I had two beautiful daughters and that I lived not too far downriver. “Sarah and I raised eight kids. My son Pearl and his wife Addie live right over there.” Horace gestured across the river to the west. And he added with some pride, “My whole family was just featured in the Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County. Came out last year.” I confessed that I had missed that.

 “That’s unfortunate. Say, you must have read the new book by that Twain fellow!”

I recalled that now and then old Mark Twain manuscripts emerge found in people’s attics, and I was intrigued.

Horace continued “The one about that Huck Finn character. I do enjoy a good tale about a river, don’t you?”  I was a bit confused, but since he liked river stories, I thought I’d take the opportunity for a bit of self promotion:  “Have you ever read “Notes from the River” in the Citizen?” Horace replied “Well, I reckon I never heard of either, son.” It figures.

Horace gazed out at the river with a pensive look, “This is surely the most beautiful river around. We love the river, means the world to the family and me.” I quickly replied “I certainly agree with that!”

“And when I saw that high, dry land here in Newcomb Township, I felt like this was the most perfect spot to finally settle down with the family and put some roots down into the soil.” I told Horace I felt exactly the same way when I first saw my property on the river.

“I hear talk about putting a big iron bridge here someday soon; prob’ly could use a bridge, Sangamon’s a temperamental river. Floods all the time and people can’t cross White’s Ford for weeks. They can’t even get over to Shiloh Church on Sundays. It’s the only good place to cross the river north of Middletown.”

“Don’t you mean Mahomet?”

“Well, some of us old timers have a hard time adjusting to the new way of thinking.”

Horace went on, “I hear the automobile is coming with something called an ‘internal combustion’ engine. May be why they want a bridge here. Fascinating. Miracles never cease. It’d never replace my horses of course. But you never know what might happen in the next hundred years, do you, son?”  I replied “No, Horace, I have no idea.”

Horace added “But 1885 was certainly a good year, don’t you agree?” I casually agreed, without admitting that I really didn’t know too much about 1885.

I turned around to look at the Sangamon River with Horace, and surprisingly, there was the Hazen Bridge again. I turned back around and the mist had cleared and Horace was gone.

After the cleanup, I took a walk a half mile up the hill in the direction he’d suggested and there was no homestead. Just a flat piece of quite beautiful land at the top of a hill surrounded by trees perched beside a large gangly looking electrical sub-station.

I walked a little further to the north and came upon a prominent tombstone right up front in Shiloh Cemetery.

Horace Hazen  b. July 13, 1823 d. March 18, 1905.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, May 17, 2012 by Scott Hays



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