‘The lofty heights’

[Author’s noteThis series of excerpts from Regina Shober Gray’s diary began here.]

PP231.236 Regina Shober Gray. Not dated.
Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
A great feature of Regina Shober Gray’s diary is the way she translates what she sees into words that help the reader ‘see,’ too, entering in to her experience. For this installment of the Gray diary, the Grays are traveling across the Alps on their way to Switzerland: Dr. Gray[1] is once again losing ground, while his wife and their children Sam and Mary do what they can to keep him comfortable.

Hof Ragaz, Ragaz, Friday, 5 July 1878: We reached this place,[2] Wednesday p.m., July 3d, having left beautiful “Serbelloni” on Monday at 10 a. m. We had a lovely 2 hour sail to Colico where we took our last look at enchanting Lake Como – and where our commodious Berlino & four horses and round, rosy, jolly young coachman awaited us, and gave us a hot drive of 3 hours to Ghiavenna,[3] where we passed an anxious night at the “Conradi,” a very good hotel. The drive & jolting put the Dr to a good deal of pain & I feared he would not be able to proceed next day; but he did go on.

The town is quaint & picturesque & squalid, as are all the small Italian towns; with very narrow streets, high white walls, balconies filled with growing plants in brilliant flower; overhanging stores in dirty old mouldy cellars, in dark damp passageways, where the passersby flatten themselves against the walls to let you pass and stare at you with big black, blazing, appealing eyes – and where groups of pretty children with rosy, sun-kissed skins fall into picturesque poses, by force of nature I suppose, in this grand old art-imbued Italia where the very air breathes poetry, music, and art – certainly our lean Yankee peasantry never looks so bewitching, or seems as do these, to have just walked out of a picture frame or an opera!

This grand old art-imbued Italia…

Tuesday, July 2d, we started at 7 a.m. and had a bright glorious drive from Ghiavenna for several hours, amid vineyards & magnificent chestnut groves (the people depend much on their chestnuts for food). Alas! for the fallacy of human hopes by noon it clouded over, and by the time we crossed the summit of Splugen (wh. by the way rose still high above our highest point), we found it very bleak and raw, snow fields below as well as around and above; and just here our dear Doctor who had been in much pain, insisted on getting out to walk for change of position, & and in stepping out, for he would not want to be helped, he lost his balance, and staggered against the fence, wh. alone saved him from being thrown on to the lower level [of the roadway] we had just left! whether the agitation this caused, hurt him, I know not but in a few minutes Sam [Gray][4] put him back into the carriage blue & shivering with a heavy chill, which greatly alarmed us – but brandy & warm wraps [and] laudanum to lull the pain soon brought him round again.

If severe physical ailment is to be added to his morbid depression…, it will simply be impossible to continue our tour; if every rail road car & carriage drive is to aggravate the kidney trouble, we must get him home as early and as soon as possible; and that will be virtually giving up hope for him; and how can I do that? …We were told not to be discouraged if we saw no gain for months – but [to] stay on for a year, or two if needful, and if we have to take him back next fall the rest of my life will be one long inappeasable regret and self-reproach, that we did not “endure” longer for him, even against his own craving for home and his hourly beseeching appeals to be taken there. My poor darling he does so long for his home, as I know I should do, were I as sick & suffering as he is…

The beetling cliff overhanging the road…

[After an early start the next day in rain and gloom along the Via Mala,] we saw enough to thrill us with amazed delight – the narrow gorge, the roaring river, 100s of ft below, the countless rushing cascades, the beetling cliff overhanging the road were truly magnificent, even though the lofty heights were buried in cloud. But I was so disappointed for the young people, thus to have their one chance of seeing all the frowning grandeur of this stern mountain pass, so lost, that I could have cried heartily for that alone, even had I not been agonized all the time for my dear husband’s suffering, who might have been a little lifted out of his pains & fears, had we had a bright day for these grand views.

On the Italian side we saw about the finest minor cataract I ever saw, where the little river Madēsimo plunges its full stream down 700 ft of sheer descent, broken into clouds & wreaths of foam & spray long before it reaches the lower level, whence it roars down in foam to join the Hinter Rhein[5] deep in the gorge below; but all the cascades are beautiful in these mountains. The brilliancy & variety of the wild flowers amazed us; the fields were literally enamelled with every shade & kind of blossom – a perfect glory of colour.

The Curtis party, who went over a week before we did & did a great deal of walking, being more fortunate in weather, collected 75 different varieties! And everywhere the marvellously thrifty cultivation of every square foot of precious soil, terraced up with sunk stone walls, to the very foot of the frowning cliffs which make the huge rock skeletons of these amazing hills. We reached Coira[6] in time for the 5 p.m. train to Ragaz – and are happy in having a comfortable suite of rooms, with a balcony to ourselves and lovely views in every direction.

Continued here.


[1] Dr. Francis Henry Gray (1813–1880) married Hedwiga Regina Shober in 1844. This entry comes from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

[2] A health resort in the Canton of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

[3] Colico and Ghiavenna are in Lombardy.

[4] The Grays’ second son, Samuel Shober Gray (1849–1926).

[5] A tributary of the Rhine River.

[6] Chur in Graubünden.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

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