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The Mississippi - “Father of Waters”

The romance of the Mississippi steamboats and show boats is not perhaps as great as it was, but hundreds of squat and elaborately decorated paddle steamers still ply on the muddy waters of the mighty river


MISSISSIPPI STEAMERS serve one of the world’s greatest waterways

MISSISSIPPI STEAMERS serve one of the world’s greatest waterways. Although they have some characteristics common to most river steamers, the Mississippi boats have developed along lines of their own. Many are stern wheelers, some have screws working in tunnels, and nearly all have two slender funnels, often fitted with spark arresters, arranged forward.

READERS of the works of Mark Twain will need little introduction to the old-time river steamers on the mighty Mississippi and its tributary streams, for that immortal author himself, in the course of his chequered youth, trained and graduated as a Mississippi steamboat pilot. Those were indeed the golden days of the Mississippi steamers, when they enjoyed an absolute monopoly of passenger and freight traffic up and down the vast waters of the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Ohio.

To this day the white, swan-like stern-wheelers, with their tall, transversely placed smoke-stacks, go churning up and down the muddy waters of “Old Man River”; but the age of the Mississippi steamboat’s greatness is really past, and nowadays it needs a good deal of imagination to recapture the magic of the mid-nineteenth century “Steamboat Time”.

The Mississippi is no ordinary river. It is not ordinary even by the standards of giant rivers, for it has a length of 1,192 miles from its source to where it joins the Missouri. In addition there are the 2,908 miles of the River Missouri above the confluence of the two rivers at Alton, Illinois, near St. Louis. Thus the combined length from the sources to the great delta in the Gulf of Mexico is more than 4,000 miles.

For a distance of roughly 1,150 miles the Mississippi meanders through a vast, flat, alluvial valley, in the northern part of which it is joined by the great River Ohio at Cairo. In this alluvial plain, floods are relatively frequent, for, although the river is banked by “levees” or earthen dykes, its

level is constantly rising, because of the silting up of the bed, and the bursting of the levee ensues almost as a matter of course. Below Cairo the maximum flood volume may be no less than 1,400,000 cubic feet of water a second, and it has been reckoned that in a year the amount of silt carried down to the delta below New Orleans would form a solid block of mud a mile square and 260 feet high.

It is not surprising, therefore, that such a monster as this performs prodigies at times. A tiny cut made in the levee at a point where the stream makes a broad sweep will change the whole course of the river in that neighbourhood within a few hours. Thus will be formed a large island surrounded on three sides by the old river bed and on the fourth by the new cut. On many occasions the river has in this way abruptly shortened itself by thirty miles or more.

The Mississippi is one of the more recent Mississippi steamboats

A RIVER STERN-WHEELER of 144 tons gross, the Mississippi is one of the more recent Mississippi steamboats. She was built at Dubuque, Iowa, in 1931, and her home port is St Louis, Missouri. She has a length of 126 feet, a beam of 26 feet 4 in, and a depth of 4 ft 11 in.

A classical example of this took place at Vicksburg, between New Orleans and Memphis. Vicksburg was originally situated on the river bank. The river suddenly changed its course, and now Vicksburg is up a navigable backwater. A far worse fate overtook the township of Napoleon many years ago. The town stood at the confluence of the Rivers Mississippi and Arkansas. The Arkansas undermined the town and within a short time swept the whole of it, with the exception of one small house, into the middle of the Mississippi.

Though efforts have been made to confine and canalize the vast river, it continues to choose its own course and to change its mind periodically. Of the town of Napoleon, Mark Twain said: “It was an astonishing thing to see the Mississippi rolling between unpeopled shores and straight over the spot where I used to see a good big self-complacent town twenty years ago”. In her recovery, Napoleon has never yet progressed beyond the status of a small village.

The site of Napoleon, however, has had its great days. For it was here, at the mouth of Arkansas, that the “Father of Waters” was first seen by the eyes of a white man, when the Spanish explorer de Soto stood at the confluence and watched the mighty coffee-coloured torrent rolling southwards to an unknown destination.

That was in 1542, when Henry VIII was still on the English throne and English colonization in America was a thing yet to come. Considerably more than a century elapsed before any further exploration took place. Then La Salle conceived the idea of rediscovering the reputed giant river. About the same time, Joliet and Marquette set off independently of La Salle, who had received a special commission from Louis XIV of France.

The Rivers Mississippi and Missouri have a combined length of more than 4,000 miles

FROM SOURCE TO DELTA the Rivers Mississippi and Missouri have a combined length of more than 4,000 miles. The confluence of the two rivers is at Alton, Illinois, above St. Louis. The Ohio River runs into the Mississippi at Cairo. The Mississippi river system drains in all an area of about 1,250,000 square miles. The width of the river varies between St. Louis and Cairo from 650 feet to 4,000 feet at low water. From Cairo to the delta, the navigable channel has a minimum width of 250 feet and a minimum depth of 9 feet, although a depth of 35 feet is frequent.

Joliet and Marquette departed down the Wisconsin River in canoes, and reached the Mississippi on June 17, 1673. They had with them only five other men, but fortunately the native red men proved friendly after a few initial and rather alarming demonstrations. The object of this expedition was to find a new passage to China, the idea being that the Mississippi might possibly discharge its waters into the Gulf of California, and so afford a short cut to the Pacific.

The brave Frenchmen drifted down the river in the canoes, sleeping in them at night. Racked by hardship and tortured by clouds of mosquitoes, they persevered, and at last reached the confluence, where de Soto had stood more than 130 years before. For the second time the site of Napoleon became historic. The great inland voyage was completed without accident, and the explorers returned safely and triumphantly to Canada.

La Salle’s expedition did not get under way until the winter of 1681-82. Joliet and Marquette had advanced the theory that the Mississippi flowed not into the Pacific, nor yet into the Atlantic, but into the Gulf of Mexico. It remained for La Salle to prove this. He and de Tonti, with a party of twenty-three Frenchmen and eighteen red men, started off on the ice with their canoes mounted on runners. They struck the Mississippi at Peoria Lake and turned southwards.

Once again the native tribes received the intruders with friendly demonstrations, and in the southern part of the valley there were found advanced Indian tribes living in brick-built villages at least as elaborate as the primitive towns of Celtic Britain at the time of the Roman invasion. At long last La Salle and de Tonti stood on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The theory of Joliet and Marquette had been proved correct and the Mississippi navigated from its winter-bound upper waters to the tropical swamps of its delta.

“Fulton's Folly”

Nearly three-quarters of a century elapsed before the colonization of the valley by white men really began, bringing with it the regular navigation of the river. This was first carried on by huge rafts and “keelboats”, which were large barges carrying a single squaresail and steered by a large stern oar. At first glance, and viewed from the side, the keelboats were almost hulking caricatures of Viking ships without the usual row of long oars.

Keelboat transport continued into the first part of the nineteenth century, and overlapped early steam navigation. The first steamboats at once monopolized the upstream traffic, but the keelboats continued to carry cheap freight downstream for approximately twenty years. The keelboatmen, having come down the river, would sell their craft in New Orleans, and return to the North as deck passengers in the steamers.

A wharf typical of those on the Mississippi and its tributaries

WHEN COTTON WAS LOADED a forest of derricks and smoke-stacks — to use the term known from the earliest days of the Mississippi steamboats — dominated the scene at a riverside wharf. The tall castellated smoke-stacks resembled the chimneys of early railway locomotives. This photograph shows a wharf typical of those on the Mississippi and its tributaries in the early days of the present century.

In the beginning of steam navigation on the Mississippi, Robert Fulton’s famous Clermont was apparently destined for those waters, for on August 17, 1807, the following quaintly phrased announcement appeared in the pages of the American Citizen: “Mr. Fulton’s ingenious Steamboat, invented with a View to the Navigation of the Mississippi from New Orleans upwards, Sails to-day from the North River near the State Prison to Albany, the Velosity (sic) of the Steamboat is calculated at four miles an hour; it is said that it will make a progress of two against The Current of The Mississippi, and if so it will certainly be a very valuable acquisition to the Commerce of the Western States.” The Clermont, unjustly named “Fulton’s Folly”, remained on the Hudson River, making trips between New York and Albany, more than 100 miles up the river. It was Fulton, however, who brought steam to the Mississippi. In this project he was associated with Nicholas Roosevelt and in 1811 produced the first Mississippi steamboat, the New Orleans, a side-wheeler similar to the Clermont.

Her maiden voyage, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to New Orleans Was completed in fourteen days. In 1814 she made the run from New Orleans to Natchez, a distance of 268 miles, in the then astonishing time of six days six hours and forty minutes. Before the year was out, another steamboat, the Comet, covered the distance in five days and ten hours. That was the record for 1814. By 1870 the time for the passage had been reduced to a little over seventeen hours.

The real prototypes of the steamboats of later days were the Etna and the Vesuvius, which appeared in 1817. They were large vessels for the period, of 450 tons burden, with hold space for 280 tons of merchandise in addition to 700 bales of cotton. Cotton was one of the staple articles in Mississippi freights then and afterwards.

The Etna and the Vesuvius each had accommodation for a hundred passengers. Though the employment of steam began on the Mississippi only a few years after its first appearance on the Hudson River, marked differences between the Hudson and the Mississippi steamers were necessary from the first. In the total absence of other forms of passenger and freight transport (in the ’thirties, the only railway in the lower valley was a tiny feeder to the steamboats at Natchez), the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio steamers had to be of large size with plenty of cargo space. At the same time, they had to draw the minimum of water.

Shallow Draught Essential

The river steamer that was evolved might be uncharitably described as a giant self-propelling raft. But in practice the steamers, although nearly everything on board was above the water-line, were vessels of a special and carefully designed type. In places, along its meandering and ever-changing course, the Mississippi involves what might reasonably be called swamp-navigation. A steamboat on the Mississippi or Ohio may be from 200 to 250 feet in length and 40 feet in breadth, yet she draws only four to six feet of water.

The early steamers suffered badly from hogging and sagging under the strains imposed by the turbulent, muddy current, and, therefore, a system of stump masts, struts and iron ties was introduced by Colonel Stevens and applied to all vessels of this type built after the pioneer years.

Despite the American Civil War, the great days of the Mississippi steamers were during the 1850-1870 period. There is a family resemblance between all shallow-draught river steamers, whether they are in America, Africa or far away in China. But the classical Mississippi steamer had peculiarities and a dignity all her own. There was no mistaking her, and some of her dignity, with the salient points of her architecture, survives in the Mississippi boats of to-day. We may still see the remnants of their once great race anywhere between New Orleans and the river ports of the upper Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio, though they may lack the romance of the truly splendid record-breakers that were contemporary with Mark Twain.

Imagine a great, flat-bottomed, square-built vessel, with vast ornate paddle-boxes and two tall smoke-stacks with ornamental tops. She has, perhaps, three spacious decks, surmounted by a deck saloon, which in its turn supports an elaborately ornamented pilot house. Lowest of all is the boiler deck, with blue woodwork, through which the fires of eight large boilers glare luridly.

A MODERN RIVERBOAT pushing a new type of barge on the Mississippi at New Orleans. The Ohio, of St. Louis, belongs to the Mississippi Valley Barge Line Company, and has a steel hull, shallow draught and powerful engines. The barges are specially shaped at bow and stern to enable them to be packed together as closely as possible. Fitted into a mosaic pattern, they form one mass rather than a series of units. In the left-hand background is the train ferry L. S. Thorne.

Her upper works glisten with new white paint. The tops of her chimneys or smoke-stacks — “funnels” was not a word in the old steamboatman’s dictionary — are painted bright scarlet and are adorned with spikes or castellations similar to those on an early locomotive. A gaily painted device hangs between the smoke-stacks, for they are placed transversely, forward of the boilers, and a maze of guys steadies them fore and aft.

Extravagant decoration is one of her main features. If her paddlebox is not covered with complicated gilding and scrollwork, surrounding her name, it may be adorned with a huge coloured picture.

On board, oil paintings, executed perhaps with more colour-consciousness than skill or accuracy, adorn the stateroom doors, and much elaborate upholstery enhances the saloons. Then imagine a mile or more of such vessels alongside the St. Louis water-front, crowds of prospective passengers besieging them and great drayloads of freight being hurried up at the last minute; imagine the columns of white steam which rise and black pitch-pine smoke rolling in clouds from the forest of tall, slender smoke-stacks, and you have some idea of river navigation on the “Father of Waters” in its heyday.

The written word may suggest a merely barbaric note, and the black-and-white picture conveys little idea of the majesty of these old vessels. Yet one of them, churning up the broad river or slipping below some green, boldly-formed bluff, with her white paint gleaming in the southern sun and her tall smoke-stacks lifted proudly to the heavens, had the dignity and grace of a giant swan.

A great deal has been written at various times about the fast runs and hazardous races which took place on the Mississippi and its tributary streams in days gone by. Responsible writers have even gone to the length of blaming the racing fever for certain disastrous boiler explosions which took place now and then, ascribing these accidents to reckless engineers, who are alleged to have played dishonest and dangerous tricks with the safety-valves to maintain a full head of steam.


RACING ON THE MISSISSIPPI was once the subject of keen rivalries and great enthusiasm. Many famous races took place between Natchez and New Orleans, a distance of nearly 270 miles. The Sultana made this distance in nineteen hours forty-five minutes in 1844. Eleven years later the Natchez broke this record by covering the distance in seventeen hours thirty minutes. In 1870 the famous Robert E. Lee raced the Natchez over this stretch, and reached Natchez in seventeen hours eleven minutes — six minutes before the Natchez.

Racing steamers, however, were kept in the finest possible trim, and boiler explosions were more frequently caused by the inattention of unhurried and lazy engineers, who let the water-level drop in the boilers, than from excess of zeal on the part of those engaged in racing. The disastrous explosion in the steamer Gold Dust off Hickman, Kentucky, in the early ’eighties, occurred long after the end of the steamboat monopoly had put a'stop to serious and regular racing on the Mississippi.

The first bad accident of this kind took place in the steamer Moselle in April 1838, during an exhibition run on the Ohio. The boat had gone a little way upstream from Cincinnati to create a suitably grand effect by ploughing back past the quays at full speed. Without any warning, the boilers exploded, blowing the entire vessel to fragments and killing more than a hundred people on board. Some estimates placed the death-roll as high as two hundred. It is recorded that one

of the boilers, still more or less whole, shot up vertically to a great height, and came down as if it were a meteorite in one of the streets of Cincinnati, making an enormous hole in the road surface.

It is surprising what some of the steamboat boilers stood in the way of neglect and incompetent management without blowing up. We have firsthand evidence about one of the old Fulton steamers in which a boiler became not only completely empty of water but also red-hot, owing to unpardonable negligence on the part of the stokers. When a smell of red-hot metal and a sudden mysterious lack of steam attracted attention, the long-suffering boiler was at once filled with cold water. How it survived such treatment remains a mystery, but it did survive, though the joints of the copper steam pipes were completely melted.

Although explosions were more the result of neglect than of excessive zeal during races, there is no doubt that acts of great recklessness took place in the early days of racing. About the same time as the disastrous explosion in the Moselle, a keen race took place on the Mississippi between the steamboats Pioneer and Ontario. During the race the Ontario purposely rammed the Pioneer. The amount of damage inflicted was slight, but the Pioneer was forced to drop back behind her rival.

Shortly afterwards, the Pioneer returned the Ontario’s unpleasant compliment. This time a passenger was killed by the crash, several were injured, and a great deal of material damage was done. Racing was forbidden for a while after this untoward incident, but it was impossible to stamp out the old enthusiasm for long.

A famous racing ground was the stretch from New Orleans to Natchez. The length varied round about 268 miles, according to the vagaries of the river. In 1844 the Sultana made this distance in nineteen hours forty-five minutes. This was a record which was not beaten for more than a decade. The Eclipse was reputed the fastest steamer of her day, yet in 1853 she failed to beat the old Sultana by two minutes. In 1855 the steamer Natchez, the second record-breaker of that name, made the run in seventeen hours thirty minutes.

In a great race between the Natchez and the Eclipse the tall smoke-stacks of the two steamers became red hot, and so terrific was the glare from the furnaces during night-running that villagers on the river banks went rushing to their neighbours’ houses, shouting that two steamboats had caught fire in mid-stream.

The American Civil War put an end to racing during the middle ’sixties, and to a great extent suspended all but the barest emergency traffic on the river. Steamers were commandeered as gunboats, and battles by land and by water raged along the banks of the river. At Vicksburg (Miss.) there is a monument to 16,000 men who fell in the fighting.

The Peoria is a steamboat of 302 tons gross

UNLOADING FREIGHT on the picturesque Illinois river-front at Beardstown, Illinois. One of the larger craft, the Peoria is a steamer of 302 tons gross, built at Philadelphia in 1897 as the Philadelphia. She is 126 feet long, 25 feet in beam and 14 feet in depth. The Peoria has a crew of eighteen and is driven by 450 horse-power engines.

A less sombre story of the war is told by Mark Twain, who recalled that a pilot once hid in his exposed pilot house while his colleague went ashore to “see the fight.” The steamer came under fire, and the unhappy pilot gave himself up for lost, hiding behind the pilot-house stove. Though the thin bulkheads were riddled by gunfire, he came off un scathed and emerged from his hiding place in time to be publicly congratulated by General Polk for his “bravery and gallant conduct” (in not having left his post). The pilot afterwards said: “I judged it wasn’t so, but it was not for me to contradict a general officer.” Later, it was discovered that his more adventurous fellow-pilot had not been ashore at all, but had been hiding in the darkest and bullet-proof part of the hold.

In 1870 the racing enthusiasm broke out again, and it was in that year that the historic run of the Natchez and the famous Robert E. Lee took place. The Robert E. Lee was the winner. She ran from New Orleans to Baton Rouge (Louisiana) in eight hours twenty-five minutes, and to Natchez in seventeen hours eleven minutes. For hours the steamers were close together, frequently steaming abreast. The Natchez reached her namesake city only six minutes after the Robert E. Lee. Then bad luck dogged the older Natchez, and she lost seven hours one minute through engine trouble and, it was claimed, through fog.

The Robert E. Lee reached Vicksburg in twenty-four hours thirty-eight minutes, Memphis in two days six hours nine minutes, and St. Louis, 1,218 miles from New Orleans, in three days eighteen hours fourteen minutes. The Natchez arrived at St. Louis only three hours forty-four minutes after the Robert E. Lee, in spite of her disastrous seven hours’ delay farther down the river.

A chapter on old-time Mississippi steamboating would be incomplete without a passing reference to the “floating theatres” which were at one time such a feature of the river. Organized entertainment was decidedly deficient in the Mississippi valley until recent times.

Riverside Entertainments

Thus there were born the famous “Show Boats”, which plied up and down the river and gave performances at outlying towns and overgrown villages on the banks. The coming of the cinema dealt an insidious blow at the show boats, as it has done at music halls and other places of entertainment elsewhere, but at least one show boat, the Mo, has survived into the nineteen-thirties, and still gives riverside performances as in days gone by.

Though most institutions suffer an eclipse after a period of greatness, they do not necessarily die out. Nothing really worth while dies out. The Mississippi steamboat of to-day is less showy than her forebears; a large stern-wheel takes the place of the gaudy paddle-boxes of former days. She is no longer the wonder of the riverside villages, though occasionally she still races

a rival steamer over 1,200 miles of muddy water.

For the handling of freight in bulk, the river steamer on the Mississippi or its tributary streams is still an important factor. A big stern-wheeler can tow or push more than 55,000 tons of coal in flat-bottomed barges at a fraction of the cost entailed by an equivalent series of freight trains on the adjacent railways.

After the war of 1914-18 an attempt was made to revive the river traffic by the Inland Waterways Corporation. This Government-controlled concern has built many fine steam- and diesel-driven vessels. On the river, too, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains many fine dredgers and snag boats.

On March 30, 1924, a huge self-contained steam barge, the Birmingham, was placed in service on the stretch between New Orleans and St. Louis. Another special craft is the side-wheel train ferry steamer L. S. Thorne, which carries the cars of the Texas and Pacific Railroad across the river at New Orleans. She has two railway tracks on her main deck, with her engines and boilers on either side of them, and the pilot-house on a bridge amidships. Thus to this day the Mississippi river traffic is carried on by the descendants of the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee, under a generation of skippers and pilots whose fathers and grandfathers were steamboatmen on the great crooked reaches of the “Father of Waters”.

The John D. Grace at New Orleans

AT NEW ORLEANS, the John D. Grace has her gang-plank hanging over the bows suspended by a derrick ready for disembarking passengers and cargo. The Mississippi at New Orleans is a mighty waterway for ocean-going vessels, as well as for the picturesque river craft.

Click here to see the photogravure supplement to this article.

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