Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Mississippi

“I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river which is incommunicable to those who have not…The river cast a spell over the entirety of my life. It was always with me.” ---T.S. Eliot, poet

This mighty river is part of me now. I have travelled its length from south to north, I have slept and walked beside it, smelled it, heard it, seen its flora seen and head its fauna, and know the swiftness of its current. I have been at the beginning and at the end, and driven its length on the scenic byway known as The Great River Road. I have heard and seen the barges moving through the day and night. I have spent time with the crews who move the powerful small “tugs” that push them. I have spent time with port operators who load the grain, rock, and coal and met the men and women who run the locks and dams on the upper river. I have met and gotten to know people who live along its banks.

Yet after all that, I do not know the River.

Those who grow up on its banks, live along it, depend on it, get their wages from it in a direct or indirect way, who get their weather from it, derive their pleasures from it, and endure its heartbreak truly know it. Those of us who come, look, take pictures, and ask questions are merely what we seem, visitors to it, and its ways. To know the River, you must experience it in good times and bad. You must live it.
The River is a living thing, a life changing force. It is a River of commerce and beauty. It is a River of treachery, whimsy, floods, and pestilence. The level of the water changes dramatically by area and by season. It has a current that, even in normal times is remarkably swift which, in some places in some seasons, requires the “up bound” barges to give way to those moving down, in a barely controlled in that often very narrow and ever changing channel. It is all these things, all that can be quantified, and yet so much more. The people who run the river tugs can sense when things are right or wrong. They run 24 hours a day with crews of six to 22 depending on the size of the load and the part they are travelling. There are no Locks or Dams below St Louis, so the loads and the size of the tugs increase, and the River becomes more undisciplined and unpredictable. It is a very cheap way to get lots products a very long thing way, but it is complicated. Barge traffic accounts for 40 per cent of Louisiana’s freight, for example, and other states have comparable statistics.

The Mississippi drains 31 states from Montana to New York and flows nearly 2350 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana. It discharges an amazing 600,000 cubic feet of water into the Gulf of Mexico every second. Commercial traffic occurs on many of its tributaries, such as the Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers. It is divided into an Upper and a Lower Region. The Upper Region flows from the headwater at Lake Itasca Minnesota to where the Ohio River enters the stream. On the Upper Region there are Locks and Dams that control the ebb and flow to assure nine feet of water under the hull of the barges. It is a beautiful place but in a different way than the lower part. There are bluffs and rocky prominences along the shore. There is more recreation here. The river is gentler, more controlled. The hot baked, rich, loamy bottomland is scarcer.
It is a difficult thing to know, this River. It is a statistical phenomenon, but that does not begin to tell its story. There have been tomes written about its commerce, about the disease, the pollution it has spread, the people, the wars, and how it has been tamed. All of that is an important part of its soul, but so much of our history is tied to it that it is easy to be distracted and see it as only a waterway and it is decidedly not.
It is both the lifeblood and the scourge of the people who live on it and near it. It has the habit of changing course when it floods so that many places that were thriving years ago are gone. Whole commercial centers from the 1800’s are now underwater many miles from its present banks. It has broken the heart and bankrolls of many, shattered the peace in its rage, and brought pestilence, fever, and flood to its people. It is easy to be distracted and travel the side roads of the life of a Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) or Ulysses S. Grant who have a small part in its history and lore, but little to do with its purpose. The River was the first true national commercial highway and very much remains one.
The River has been important to this country far beyond what most that live on the coasts and consider it part of “the fly over country” can begin to imagine. The rich black soil, the “bottom land” has yielded magnificent crops in abundance for the earliest of peoples here. After them, the Indian, then White settlers from at least three countries who controlled parts of it for a time, and then the United States have used it. Long after the country was united farmers rhapsodized, as Sgt. York, the great hero of World War One once did, when he said all he wanted was to go home and “get myself a good piece of bottomland,” as it was a much more important prize than any medal a President might give him.
Were it not for the Corps of Engineers and the levees and dams on the River there would be whole cities yet in danger of being washed away in the spring thaw and rains. If the River was not controlled, St. Louis and other cities would either not exist today or would have been built and rebuilt many times over and miles from where they are. Enormous feats of engineering been accomplished to keep those places from being overwhelmed by the whim of the river. It can be debated whether it is bad or good that man continues to “engineer” the River. Yet even with those efforts, it is hard to quantify the terror and heartbreak the River can bring to those who live near it and work on it.
The River is the heartbeat of the towns and cities on its’ banks. It may not be as important to the commercial interest of each of them now, but it is their soul. The natives talk of it as we do the weather. They know when the water is high, low, too high, and too low. They worry about the River and speak of it as a living thing. It is their River, their barometer of good and bad.
Over the years it has changed course so often and radically it is hard to know where some places were when the first whites settled in the towns on its banks. At a place in Arkansas, for example there is what is known on the River as a “cut off lake,” Lake Chicot. Generally, these were, and are, formed when the river floods and finds an easier path to flow down to the Gulf. This beautiful lake now covers the area of the original county seat of Chicot County. In fact that town, Columbia, was swallowed whole twice by the River and Lake Village is now the County seat, safely on the banks of Lake Chicot, but 20 or more miles from the River. It is common. It has happened all along its length.
In Mississippi, Grand Gulf was, as it name implies, a grand place in the early 1800’s, with 76 blocks of homes and businesses. Fifteen stern wheelers and packet boats visited every month. It had paved streets, an Opera house, newspaper, and all the comforts of a southern city of its time. It was the major shipping point for cotton grown in the Mississippi bottomlands. It was on a bend in the River where the Black River enters. In 1840, Yellow Fever came, and ten years later, a tornado touched down. Then, between 1850 and 1860 the currents of the River took over and a staggering 55 blocks were lost to the River. By the time the Union Army and Navy came to Grand Gulf in 1863 on its way to Vicksburg, it had been reduced from a flourishing commercial and cultural center to a village of 158 people. There are subtle changes to the River as you travel north. It is not as wide near Cape Girardeau and St. Louis, but it is still deep and swift. Barges are still pushed in “32s” and “28s,” four across and seven or eight barges long. Yet there is a difference. It is narrow and yet seems tamer here, better controlled. A campground called The Vale of Tears State Park in Missouri is right on the River. Barges move through day and night and one learns to distinguish from the throb of the huge diesels whether they are “up” or “down bound,” full or empty. Crews are changed here. A Zodiac boat will ferry tired men in and a fresh crew out. Barges will often pause here to wait for the down bound traffic to clear the bend just up river.
On a quiet Sunday morning heading north, I noticed another side road with signage that marked it as “The Port of…” and the name of the very small town I was in or just leaving. I had seen many of these going up the River. I took the turn and found three silos there and conveyors running to the River’s edge. I met the man in charge of it and he explained that it was where the barges were filled and the loads made up. It never occurred to me that they would be this far away from large cities. It made sense because it was a short distance from the quarries and farms. It was a quiet day with no loads to be made up, only maintenance to be done, so he and his crew were happy to share how the loading is done. They knew the economics of this shipping method, that sand, grain, asphalt, rock for roadbeds, and timber could go down the river at a tenth of the cost of any other method. They explained how barges so much larger than truck beds are measured in acreage, not feet. These men had a job they did well, and were happy to explain it to a stranger. They knew “their” stretch of the River as well as anyone could.
There was no plan to spend much time in Illinois yet in the end I had a ride on a tug, watched a day as the barge load was “made up,” and got to know the people of the small river towns. I used the Mississippi Palisades State Park at Savanna, Illinois as a base for a week to explore both the Iowa side of the river as well as the U.S. Grant home and Galena just to the north.
By Memorial Day I was moving up the River through more small towns. After one night in an Iowa Park called Pike’s Peak it was off to a little bit of Wisconsin and a lot of the Minnesota side on the Great River Road. The small towns were fun and the two and three car ferries that still ply the River a delight to ride. The Lock and Dam complexes come more often up here in the far northern reaches. The people who run them are informative and friendly, glad to tell the visitor how it all works and why it is important.
I revisited the headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park so that I could put my hand in the River at the place it rises and begins its southern journey.
So now I had “done” the Mighty Mississippi River and know more of it than I ever have or will need to know. It was a wonderful journey. It feels as if it was a continuum and not just a trip from place to place. The common factor in all the miles was the River. It affected everything I did, where I went and who I met. It was an agreeable experience. One it will take time to absorb fully, because there is so much to understand.


  1. Thanks for story of Grand Gulf, which got my memories flowing of places I had visited along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

    Cairo, another place of great importance once, now a shell.

    And Quincy, a beautiful town where the riverboat captains built their homes, but now you "can't get there from here" because we don't use the river for travel anymore.

    And my favorite, (Old) Shawneetown, Illinois, on the Ohio River. One of two towns chartered by the U.S. government (the other being Washington, D.C.). Lafayette visited in 1825. Now essentially a ghost town since the big flood in the 1930s. It has an amazing Greek Revival bank building built in the 1840s, which is jarring to see sitting there in the middle of the desolation that has overcome the place.

  2. Oh, what an interesting read! Thank you! Here I live only 1-1/2 hours from the Mighty Mississip, but you know much more about it than I do. I did do posts about Pikes Peak and McGregor a couple months back after a journey there with my daughters to enjoy the autumn scenery. We agreed that an autumn without visiting Pikes Peak is just not right.

    You must have ridden the ferry that crosses at Cassville, Wisconsin.....we did that many years ago, too. Galena.....I've been there a couple of times.....great main street full of old buildings.

    Did you ever hear of the huge caves--abandoned mines, I believe they are--along the river at Clayton, Iowa, which are used for grain storage? I've seen pictures of them.....would love to see them for real, though I don't know if tours are allowed. LOTS of grain gets loaded on barges at the tiny Port of Clayton....or used to, anyway. Maybe not so much now that ethanol plants are the big thing in Iowa.

    Some folks from my area, who have the time and the resources, have cabins and trailers up "at the River", where they spend weekends during the summer. Oh, that would be such fun, to have a get-away place available relatively close by; though, I know there is plenty of work involved with upkeep and maintenance.

    I've no good river stories to tell.....and only once have been on a boat ride on "The River", that being on a tour to view St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.

    Thanks for posting this.....very enjoyable reading.

  3. Sempringham,

    Thanks for some additional memories. I have not been (yet) to Shawneetown but had heard of it. I will be coming back that way this spring and will try to see it.

    Cairo is sad and I have a friend born in Quincy (site of a Lincoln Douglas Debate I recall) who was shock to find what I did there.


    The caves are there and Port Clayton was still shipping plenty when I went through there. I believe they will let you go in the caves...I didn't try.

    Thanks for the kind words about the post.

    I am sure that is at least one of the ferries I saw or was on.