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The Mississippi River: A Brief Sketch
A weary, tattered Hernando de Soto and his decimated band of Spanish soldiers hacked their way through dense and tangled brush in the lush river land where they marched in search of gold and riches. They found instead disaster, death and disappointment. Their travels took them to the great river that cuts and winds through the continent over nearly 3,000 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico—the Mississippi. They were the first white men known for certain to have reached its banks but were unaware of their place in history. In 1542 de Soto died and was buried in the mile-wide river.
Other explorers, trappers, voyagers and, finally, settlers followed the Spaniards into the rich river valley over the next 200 years. In 1682, La Salle descended nearly the entire length of the Mississippi to the mouth, where he claimed all lands drained by the river for his native France. In 1699, the Frenchman d'Iberville led a party from the mouth of the river up into Natchez Indian territory and in 1716, the French established Fort Rosalie, the first permanent white settlement on the river and today the site of Natchez, Mississippi. New Orleans was founded two years later.
Navigation of the river developed rapidly during the eighteenth century. New Orleans, located near the mouth, became an international port as valuable furs and other goods floated down the river to be shipped to European countries. The settlement at Natchez grew as a result of land rich for agriculture and its protected location on the high bluffs. Flimsy rafts and flatboats made the long and often treacherous trip downstream where, at their destination in Natchez or New Orleans, they were taken apart and their wood sold for lumber.
During the late 1700s, the westward-moving nation came to depend more and more on the Mississippi River for the transportation not only of goods, but also of people. The need for a boat that could return up the river was crucial to increasing profits as well as to giving travelers an alternative to such thief-infested land routes as the Natchez Trace. These needs led to the development of the keelboat. Sturdy and skillfully proportioned to carry dozens of tons of freight in its rounded bottom, the keelboat was equipped with poles by which a hardy crew of men propelled it forward against the current. Some keelboats had sails to aid in navigation; in some situations the crew hauled the boat upstream by a rope from the riverbank; and other times they simply rowed.
Returning north by river instead of land did not assure passengers' safety, however. Hostile Indians, river pirates and the river itself with its unpredictable current, snags and sandbars made the journey a gamble. The keelboatmen were a rough, tough breed, suited to the rigors of the life they had chosen. Mark Twain described them in Life on the Mississippi as:
rough and hardy men; rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers, coarse frolickers in moral sites like the Natchez-under-the-hill of that day, heavy fighters, reckless fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul-witted, profane ... yet, in the main, honest, trustworthy, faithful to promises and duty, and often picturesquely magnanimous.
Many of the most raucous river tales grew out of the days when keelboats ruled the Mississippi and the boatmen stopped at landings in Memphis, New Orleans and Natchez (known then as Natchez Under-the-Hill) to carouse. They fought, gambled, hustled prostitutes and often destroyed property. Legend has it that Natchez was the favorite stopover, offering the best brothels and bars. This colorful breed of river man survived for several generations, even into the days of the steam-driven boats.
Steam came to the Mississippi in 1811. The New Orleans, designed by Robert Fulton, carried three passengers: Nicholas Roosevelt, his pregnant wife and their dog. The crew included a captain, an engineer, six deck hands, a cook and three servants. Though some in Pittsburgh, where the journey began, considered it scandalous for Roosevelt to take his pregnant wife on the risky journey, for Mrs. Roosevelt it was, in her words, "jolly." She had, after all, spent her honeymoon in 1809 on a flatboat trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.
The New Orleans arrived in the city for which it was named in January 1812, having survived hostile Indians, a fire on board, the New Madrid earthquake and the birth of Mrs. Roosevelt's baby. Before New Orleans, however, was Natchez, where the entire town had gathered at the Natchez Under-the-Hill landing to greet the boat. As the captain had allowed his fires to slow and his steam to diminish, he found the boat drifting too far downstream with the swift current. The boat slipped past Natchez as the onlookers' anticipation turned to dejection. Additional fuel and a new surge of steam set the boat on course again, however, and it turned back up the crowd-filled shore. When it left town, the New Orleans carried a load of cotton, the first ever to be shipped by steamboat from Natchez.
For all its success in going down the river, the New Orleans proved to be poorly designed for travel any farther north than Natchez. Fulton's boat resembled his Hudson River steamboats, which had hulls too deep for the Mississippi's snags, sandbars and swift currents. It took a Mississippi River man to understand the application of steam there. That man was Henry Shreve, who had navigated pirogues, flatboats and keelboats for several years by the time the New Orleans made its maiden voyage. Shreve knew that a Mississippi River steamboat should have a shallow hull, and that it in fact should be very similar to a keelboat in design. In 1816 he designed such a boat, the Washington, which traveled up from New Orleans to Louisville in 24 days, a trip that might have taken a keelboat six months. Shreve's design opened the river to steam navigation, and all Mississippi River steamboats in the following years copied the basic design of the Washington.
The Washington measured 136 feet in length and 28 feet in width. Because of its shallow hull, the machinery was placed on the deck. To add space, a second deck was built and atop that, a little house for the pilot. Though strange and clumsy in appearance compared to the graceful boats designed by Fulton, the Shreve boat worked: it glided across the swift Mississippi waters. Shreve placed an engine on each side for the wheels so that maneuvering in and out of small places along the river was virtually effortless.
During the late eighteenth century more and more settlers moved into the rich lands of the lower Mississippi. The cotton gin was perfected, and large numbers of slaves were brought into the area. This coming together of productive people, rich land, the cotton gin, slave labor and the steamboat produced great opportunities for landowners, who took advantage of them to amass great fortunes. Mansions appeared along the lower riverbanks and high on the bluffs at Natchez and Vicksburg. Steamboats brought fine furnishings for the mansions, as well as fashionable clothing, expensive food items, books and entertainers to satisfy the growing sophistication of the people in towns such as Natchez and New Orleans. Steamboating and cotton, then, embarked on a journey together in the early nineteenth century that lasted a hundred years.
The wealthy population during this time looked to steamboats for transportation, too, and the boats became more and more luxurious as well as faster as the middle of the nineteenth century approached. The trip by steamboat from Louisville to New Orleans that had taken 20 days in 1820 took only six by 1838. The demands for smaller boats grew—boats that could travel the small tributaries and bayous to carry mail and supplies to plantations and pick up small shipments of cotton, pork and other produce.
The phenomenal growth of steamboat traffic on the Mississippi came to an abrupt halt as the Civil War began. Southern boats pulled up into shadowy estuaries to escape destruction and, in some cases, remained in those boggy hiding places through the war, lost forever, rotted and ruined beyond repair. Some, including Mark Twain, said steamboating was gone forever. Fortunately, those prophets were wrong. Steamboat building, other than some packets ordered for troop transportation by the North, did come to a halt during the war, and many routine steamboat schedules ceased. But when the war was over, river men were swift to pick up where they had left off. Steamboat builders joined forces to form pools of boats, such as the great Anchor Line and the Southern Transportation Line.
During the 1870s and early 1880s, some of the grandest boats ever seen on the Mississippi were built. The luxurious boats of the 1850s faded in comparison to the J. M. white, for example. Built in 1878, the White was unequaled in luxury and grandeur. A river reporter, after seeing the boat, wrote this poem:
Aladdin built a palace,
He built it in a night;
And Captain Tobin bought it
And named it J. M. White.
Capt. John Tobin, who built the White, was one of several steamboat captains who ran successful palatial boats in the postwar years. Two others were John W. Cannon and Thomas P. Leathers, who were the rival captains on the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez for the great race in 1870.
Steamboatmen knew, however, that theirs was not an easy task—to keep steamboat trade alive despite the spreading networks of railroads over the nation. Trains gradually proved to be too much competition, as steamboats battled many other handicaps during the last few years of the nineteenth century. High water on the river interrupted navigation as landings were flooded; low water prohibited navigation by big boats, which feared grounding on sandbars or banks; yellow-fever epidemics in New Orleans and other places on the lower Mississippi halted river trade altogether every few years for as long as two to three months. Despite some Federal assistance, river improvements, such as dredging and harbor work, were slow.
The pace of the entire country was quickening, and trains were fast. They were becoming more economical; even cotton planters were finding rail transportation convenient. Trains were also becoming more comfortable for travelers.
As the twentieth century was born, steamboating began to die. It was not a sudden death: many steamboats continued to travel the Mississippi into the 1920s and '30s. By that time, however, powerful diesel boats had begun to dominate river transportation. The second coming of steamboats to the Mississippi was a brief moment in the history of the river but for that short time, the steamboatmen reigned with style.CHAPTER 2
A Second Chance
Steamboats whistled and puffed along some 9,000 miles of waters in the heart of nineteenth-century America. They steamed down from Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela joins the Allegheny, into the Ohio River to the queen city of Cincinnati, then south to the Mississippi; down from St. Paul past island forests and on to the Illinois grasslands, steaming from the clear Mississippi of the North to the muddy waters of the South; out of the wide Missouri from 2,000 miles west; out of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers from the East and out of the White, the Yazoo, the Ouachita, the Big Black and the Atchafalaya in the lush lands of the South.
Indian villages, trappers' settlements, trading posts and small farms had served the early adventurers floating down the river in search of new lands. By the first half of the nineteenth century, there were villages, towns and cities—sprawling commercial centers such as St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans on the lower river and, between them, smaller but thriving cities and towns such as Helena, Arkansas; Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, and Bayou Sara and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Interrupted by the Civil War, steamboating on the Mississippi made a brief but strong comeback for a quarter of a century in the postwar years. The formation of steamboat companies resulted in greater efficiency, as groups of individual boat owners combined their capital and experience to rescue the steamboat industry from its near-ruined state and launch the finest, most luxurious boats ever to run the Western waters. Efficiency, comfort and luxury were their only hope, for railroads competed ruthlessly for steamboat business. Even in small cities like Natchez, river men formed packet companies consisting of perhaps two or three boats. These small local traders traveled to other small towns and plantation landings a distance of a hundred miles or so and back several times a week. And as cotton again flourished, so did the need to distribute great quantities of other goods to the lands along the nation's greatest water system. It was a second chance for steamboating that grew slowly in the 1870s—especially in the South, where the restrictions of Reconstruction continued to thwart economic recovery—but one that grew rapidly and thrived in the two decades that followed.CHAPTER 3
A Ghostly Bird
Melodious, gay, haunting, frightful, a steamboat's whistle sang like a ghostly bird from its lofty perch atop the pilothouse. As individual as the boat itself, the whistle announced which boat was coming from around the bend when it was yet miles away
"It's the James Howard!" shouted a boy at play on the bluff high above the Natchez Under-the-Hill landing.
Or maybe it was the Charles Rebstock, the Stella Wilds, the Belle Lee, the Guiding Star, the Golden Rule, the City of St. Louis, the Belle Memphis, the Natchez, the Robert E. Lee, the New Mary Houston or any one of over 2,000 boats that traveled the Mississippi waters during the last three decades of the nineteenth century
River-town boys knew the boats by their whistles; so did most others in the town. Two of the most famous whistles were those on the Will Kyle and the Paris C. Brown. It was said that a boy's greatest ambition in 1883 was to be able to imitate the "unearthly shrieks" of their steam whistles. The shrieking whistle of the Will Kyle was said to have brought on a storm when it blew upon the boat's arrival in Natchez. Passing a small town on the Ohio River on a Sunday morning, the Kyle is reputed to have blown its whistle as services were underway in a small church, causing the minister, followed by the entire congregation, to come "rolling out of church as though a hive of bees had been turned loose inside." It is said that the next day, two men who had heard the whistle during the night at another point along the river formed a posse to hunt the "great, wild animal" they had heard.
In Paducah, Kentucky, authorities adopted an ordinance in 1885 prohibiting steamboats from whistling while within a half a mile of the wharf. One reason may have been to prevent incidents like the one that occurred at the Natchez landing on an August day in 1889, when the steamer Charles D. Shaw began to whistle and startled a horse attached to an empty buggy The horse bolted into a coal yard, ran over a woman, destroyed the buggy and made a big mess of the yard.CHAPTER 4
A Boat for the Times
"If luxury and comfort are what they want, then that is what I'll give them," Capt. John Tobin must have thought as he planned the boat he would call the J. M. White. It would be a grand boat, built for the Greenville and New Orleans Packet Company, in which Tobin was one of several partners. Skeptics predicted that river travel and transportation were doomed by the spreading networks of railroads. "Nothing like the boats we saw before the war will be seen again on the Mississippi," they said. When they saw the J. M. White gracefully making its way down the river in 1878, however, they had to admit that it was the grandest Mississippi River steamboat they had ever seen. Soon it was called "Mistress of the Mississippi." Though not the largest of all boats—the Grand Republic held that distinction—the J. M. White was enormous: 320 feet long and 91 feet wide. Ornate, commodious and sumptuous, it set a standard never again equaled.
On a cold December night in 1886, as the J. M. White lay at Blue Store Landing near Bayou Sara to take on a load of cottonseed, the second engineer, on watch with his partner, thought he saw a small lantern flickering just above the cotton cargo about midway down the main deck. He walked in that direction to investigate and to his horror saw not a lantern but flames rising from a cotton bale.
"Fire! Fire!" he yelled. The watchman roused at once and began to ring the huge bell; he rang it furiously until encroaching flames forced him to move.
Awakened by the clanging bell, the chief engineer, asleep in his quarters on the texas deck, sprang out of bed and found himself engulfed by smoke. He woke others in the quarters, and they crawled out onto the deck. Their only way of getting off the boat was to climb down one of the stanchions on the vessel's right side and onto the shore.
The pumps had been started, and two streams of water began to battle the flames. It was hopeless. The frightful swiftness of the fire overpowered all efforts to extinguish it.
Officers had aroused sleeping passengers, many of whom escaped by leaping into the water. Women and children screamed for help. A railroad superintendent, traveling with his wife and two daughters, reportedly threw the two children into the water but burned to death with his wife on the deck outside the ladies' cabin.
Excerpted from The Mississippi Steamboat Era in Historic Photographs by Joan W. Gandy, Thomas H. Gandy. Copyright © 1987 Joan W. Gandy and Thomas H. Gandy. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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