In the footsteps of Dickens’: Re-tracing the author’s visit to Utica

“I am an old-fashioned man in an old-fashioned shop, in a street that is not the same as I remember it. I have fallen behind the time, and am too old to catch it again.”

Charles Dickens wrote those words in “Dombey and Son,” a novel first published in its entirety in the mid-1800s. Twenty years later, they could just as easily have described his trip to Utica on March 17, 1868.

This excellent article was written by  Rob Roth  the Observer-Dispatch

Baggs Hotel in Utica, NY from eBay
Baggs Hotel in Utica, NY from eBay

On that St. Patrick’s Day, he was a 56-year-old accidental tourist, stuck in an unfamiliar city, wishing to be much farther down the line.

He was on his way to a reading in Albany, but the flooded Mohawk River dictated otherwise.

The events unfolded like a Dickensian plot: British subject, 3,500 miles from home, waylaid in a Victorian city where spirited adventure undoubtedly ensues.

Unfortunately after 150 years, there are few clues as to the rest of the plot.

I became intrigued by the author’s stopover when I started to work at the Observer-Dispatch in 2000. The newsroom, I was told by a veteran O-D editor, was a football field away from where the “A Tale of Two Cities” author had stayed at Bagg’s Hotel.

My appreciation of Dickens grew after I watched the 2007 PBS production of “Bleak House,” and later read the sublime book.

A holiday tradition with my daughters is watching the George C. Scott version of “A Christmas Carol.” Sharing my appreciation, my daughter Addie can recite lines before they’re delivered.

Imagine the words “I wear the chains I forged in life,” delivered in a sweet tween voice.

“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”

A Christmas Carol

When I walk around the O-D building at Oriskany and John streets on my lunch break, perhaps in Dickens’ footsteps, there’s little left in the skyline to conjure up Victorian Utica.

The enormous Bagg’s Hotel that once dominated the scene was torn down in 1933.

But there are a few glimpses from St. Patrick’s Day 1868 to put some flesh on the famous author and his visit, however.

Dick Costa, who worked at the O-D and now lives in Preswick Glen, uncovered a letter from a rare book collection that Dickens wrote two days after his Utica visit. It describes the novelist’s impatience with the flooding, but also that he enjoyed the food and service.

Frank Tomaino’s well-researched “This Week in History” column in the O-D has provided other clues over the years.

“A reporter for the Utica Observer wrote that Dickens wore a brown suit, a little round top hat and ‘looked every inch an Englishman.’”

“Dickens dined at Bagg’s Banquet Room.”

In doing research at the Oneida County Historical Society, I found an excerpt from the next day’s Utica Morning Herald showing that the unplanned visit was a sore spot for Utica’s civic pride.

“Mr. Dickens arrived on the 1:55 train from the west, and being unable to proceed, put up at Bagg’s Hotel, contented to wait till something should ‘turn up.’ Toward evening he walked out with Mr. Dolby and took a brief view of Genesee St. No doubt he contemplated how much he had lost by so far under rating Utica as not to deem it worthy of a reading. He is advertised to read in Albany this evening, and will therefore, go east at the earliest opportunity this forenoon.”

You can still feel the bitterness that Utica didn’t rate a reading.

A 20th-century equivalent might be the Beatles having a layover at Griffiss on their way to a sold-out concert in Chicago.

Dickens was the rock star of his day. So close – yet so far.

One of the more interesting tales from that trip concerns the incredulous desk clerk at Bagg’s Hotel. He would only believe it was Dickens after seeing the famous man’s signature on his register, then ran around proudly showing it to everyone he could find.

You can only imagine the strangeness he must have felt with a famous person from a far-off land appearing there before him.

“Every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”

A Tale of Two Cities

Just when I thought my Dickens’ odyssey had ended, a last find emerged.

Dickens stayed in Room 11.

I know that because I’ve seen the register that convinced the dubious attendant.

Historical Society Executive Director Brian Howard and I found a singular register in the “dungeon” of the Utica repository.

As he leafed through the pages, the clock hands began spinning back to a time of steam trains and smoky chimneys pouring out soot above the bustle of the city.

“Mr. Charles Dickens, England,” flows across the page in a rusty gray cursive, a small piece of Victorian Utica crossing over into the age of Facebook and Instagram.