On Friday evening, November 14, 1879, the Skaneateles Library opened its season of lectures at Legg Hall with Benjamin Franklin Taylor speaking on “The Golden Gate.” The year before, Taylor had published a memoir of his railroad journey from Chicago to San Francisco, entitled Between the Gates, an allusion to passing through the gardens of the Prairie State, Illinois, on the way to the Golden Gate, the rocky strait between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific.
Taylor was a nationally known newspaper writer, a popular poet and a lecturer of the first rank. Traveling with the Union army during the Civil War, he sent dispatches to the Chicago Evening Journal that were hailed for their vivid depictions of battle. (His account of the Union assault on Missionary Ridge is a classic.)
He did not, however, have a fan in General William T. Sherman, who hated reporters in general and Taylor in particular. After Taylor sent a report to the Journal saying, “our lines now extend from Nashville to Huntsville,” Sherman was outraged that his positions would be revealed to the enemy and ordered the immediate arrest of Taylor as a spy, to be followed quickly by his trial and execution. Taylor, catching the gist of the news before the written orders arrived, hurriedly decamped. Frank Moore in his Rebellion Record (1868) noted, “This order resulted in the withdrawal of Mr. Taylor, and the abrupt termination of his series of delicious letters.”
After the war, Taylor traveled extensively, writing about his railroad journeys in The World on Wheels (1874) and lecturing all over the country. He wrote sentimental verse that was printed in virtually every newspaper in America, but he claimed to be a poet only out of necessity. In his lecture “Motive Powers,” he told this story:
“Twenty years ago, on a dreary December evening, I sat in an upper room in the great metropolis, by the side of a sick girl. Not long before I had pledged to her all that a man can pledge to his heart’s choice. Now in her need I lacked the means to give her proper care and comfort. From a city hundreds of miles away had come a demand for one of those commonly mechanical things known as New Year’s Addresses. It was a question of poetry and bread, or no poetry and no bread. Fifty dollars was the motive power.”
And what kind of a speaker was this author and poet? Alphonso Hopkins, in his Newspaper Poets (1876), described Taylor’s style:
“It was not any grace of oratory which won him regard, for as an orator he does not excel. His rare power of pleasing, when upon the rostrum, does not lie in address, although he is by no means an unpleasant speaker. The charm is in his thought, not in the style of his utterance. He reads his lectures at a galloping rate, with little regard for elocutionary effect, hardly pauses to take breath, and scarcely gives opportunity for proffered applause. Simile, metaphor, sentiment, roll off his tongue in such quick succession that one barely has time to realize the beauty of each; and audiences go away in a daze of splendid rhetoric, unable to recall half the beauties of thought with which the hour has overflowed—not vastly instructed, perhaps, but with a very satisfying memory of the hour and the man.”
At Legg Hall, Taylor spoke on his trip to California and it would have been an enthralling armchair journey as he took villagers out to the rugged Pacific coast, into an opium den in San Francisco’s Chinatown, on to Yosemite, the Mojave desert, orange groves and the City of Angels.
When Taylor died in 1887, the New York Examiner & Chronicle,which had published much of his writing, noted, “He was a great master of words, and his fertile imagination never left them without something to be uttered that was worth reading… His life was a struggle, his income seldom being equal to his necessities, but his heroism never failed him.”
Taylor’s remains are buried in the Colgate University Cemetery, in Hamilton, N.Y. His father had been the president of the school and Benjamin was a graduate, when the school was still known as Madison University. His gravestone reads, “Benj. F. Taylor, Passed through the gateway of gold, February 24, 1887.”