The Great South - Down the Mississippi

The Grand, Terrible, Treacherous Mississippi

The Fowl Market, Cairo, Illinois
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Our first night on the river was so extremely dark that the captain made fast to a shelving bank, and the “Great Republic” laid by till early dawn. Then we sailed down past the fertile bottom lands of Missouri and Illinois——past Grand Tower, with its furnaces and crowded villages—past the great cypress swamps and the wooded lands, until we came to Cairo, at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi.

 One broad lake spread a placid sheet above the flat country at the Ohio's mouth. The "Great Eastern" might have swung round in front of the Illinois Central tracks at Cairo. Stopping but to load more bags of corn and hogsheads of bacon, with hundreds of clamorous fowls, we turned, and once more entered the giant river, which was then beginning to show a determination to overflow all proper bounds, and invade the lands upon its banks.

When the rains have swollen its tributary rivers to more than their ordinary volume, the Mississippi is grand, terrible, treacherous. Always subtle and serpent-like in its mode of stealing upon its prey, it swallows up acres at one fell swoop on one side; sweeping them away from their frail hold on the main land, while, on the other, it covers plantations with slime, and broken tree trunks and boughs, forcing the frightened inhabitants into the second story of their cabins, and driving the cattle and swine upon high knolls to starve, or perhaps finally to drown. It pierces the puny levees which have cost the States bordering upon it such immense sums, and goes bubbling and roaring through the crevasse, distracting the planters, and sending dismay to millions of people in a single night. It promises a fall on one day; on another it rises so suddenly that the adventurous woodsmen along the border have scarcely time to flee. It makes a lake of the fertile country between the two great rivers; it carries off hundreds of wood-piles, which lonely and patient labor has heaped, in the hope that a passing steamer will buy them up, and thus reward a season's work.

Out of each small town on its western bank, set too carelessly by the water's edge, it makes a pigmy Venice, or floats it off altogether.
A Submerged Town
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As the huge steamer glided along, on the mighty current, we could see families perched in the second stories of their houses, gazing grimly out upon the approaching ruin. At one point a man was sculling from house to barnyard with food for his stock. The log barn was a dreary pile in the midst of the flood. The swine and cows stood shivering on a pine knoll, disconsolately burrowing and browsing. Hailed by some flustered paterfamilias or plantation master bound to the nearest town for supplies, we took him to his destination. As we passed below the Arkansas and White rivers, the gigantic volume of water had so far overrun its natural boundaries that we seemed at sea, instead of upon an inland river. The cotton-woods and cypresses stood up amid the water wilderness like ghosts. Gazing into the long avenues of the somber forests, we could see only the same level, all-enveloping flood. In the open country the cabins seemed ready to sail away, though their masters were usually smoking with much equanimity, and awaiting a “fall.”

While we are gossiping of the river, let us consider its peculiarities and the danger of its inundations more fully. Below the mouth of the Missouri, the great river takes a wholly different appearance and character from those of the lovely stream which stretches from Lake Pepin down; and some of the old pilots say that section of it below St. Louis should have been called the “Missouri" rather than the Mississippi. The Missouri, they claim, gives to the Father of Waters most of its characteristics, which dominate it until it has been reinforced by the Ohio, the Arkansas, the White and the Red. The river is forever making land on one side, and tearing it away on the other, the bends in its course not permitting the current to wash both banks with equal force. The farmer on the alluvial bottoms sees with dismay his corn-field diminish year by year, acres slipping into the dark current yet the ease with which corn, cotton and sugar are raised in their respective localities along its banks is such, that they willingly run the risk. The pilots complain bitterly of the constant changes in the channel, which it requires the eyes of Argus almost to detect. They say that the current might be made to bear more upon the rocky shores, thus avoiding disastrous losses of land and many crevasses.” The stream is so crooked that a twenty miles sail by water is sometimes necessary where the distance across the promontory, round which the steamer must go. is not more than a mile. Sometimes the current, tired of the detour. itself brushes away the promontory, and the astonished pilots see a totally new course opened before them.

The occasional inundations of the alluvial lands are so little understood, and the general course of the Mississippi is comprehended by so few, that a little sketch of its progress downward to the Delta country may prove interesting.

At the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers properly begins what is known as the Lower Mississippi, although the name is not usually applied to the stream until it has crossed the grand “rocky chain” or bed extending across its channel between St. Louis and Cairo. All below this “chain,” in the Mississippi Valley, is alluvium, through which the river meanders from one bluff to another— the bluffs being from forty to one hundred miles apart. Touching these bluffs at Commerce, Mo., on the west bank, it courses across the valley, passing the vast prairies of Lower Illinois, known as “Egypt,” on the east, meets the Ohio at Cairo, and strikes the bluffs again at Columbus, on the eastern or Kentucky shore. It skirts these bluffs as far as Memphis, having on its west the vast earthquake lands of Missouri and Arkansas. It then once more crosses its valley to meet the waters of the White and Arkansas rivers, and skirts the bluffs at Helena in Arkansas, flanking and hemming in the St. Francis with her swamps and “sunk lands.” Reinforced by the White and Arkansas, it again crosses its valley to meet the Yazoo near Vicksburg, creating the immense Yazoo reservoir on the east bank, extending from the vicinity of Memphis to Vicksburg, and the valleys and swamps of the Macon and Tensas, on the west side. These latter have no terminus save the Gulf of Mexico, as the river does not approach the western bluffs after leaving Helena. From Vicksburg to Baton Rouge the river hugs the eastern bluffs, and from Baton Rouge to the mouth is the pure “delta country,” for a distance of more than two hundred miles.

All of this vast valley below the rocky chain crossing the river channel lies lower than the high water line of these powerful waters. and the efforts of men to stay an inundation seem very puerile. The valley is divided into several natural districts, one embracing the lands from the chain to the vicinity of Helena, where the St. Francis debouches; another from Helena nearly to Vicksburg on the east bank, for the Yazou valley; a third comprises the country from the Arkansas to the Red River, known as the Macon and Tensas valley; a fourth runs from the Red River to the Gulf, on the west side; and a fifth from Baton Rouge to the Gulf on the east side.

A Crevasse on the Mississippi River
Some of these districts have been imperfectly leveed; others have never been protected at all, and the general opinion is that when high water does come, the fact that there are a few levees increases the danger of a complete inundation, as the stream, finding itself restrained, breaks the barriers which attempt to control its current.

 Under the slave system, the planters on the lowlands were able to guard against ruin by water by elaborate preparation and vigilance, which they cannot summon now; and it is believed that nothing but the execution of a grand national work by the general government will ever secure to the delta that immunity from ruin so desirable for people already prostrated by war and political knavery.

Yet the inundations do not come with alarming frequency. In 1867 the lowlands were overflowed and distress ensued; and in this year (1874) the confusion, distress, and trepidation have been terrible to witness. Starvation has stood at thousands of doors, and only the hands of government and charity have saved hundreds from miserable deaths. Below Memphis, and in a wide belt of country round about, along the bottom lands in the State of Mississippi, and throughout the Louisiana lowlands, we hear of immense damage. In an hour the planter is doomed to see a thousand acres, which have been carefully prepared for planting cotton, covered with water two or three feet deep. The country round about becomes a swamp—the roads are rivers—the lakes are seas.

The overseers and negroes have been at work since the last crop was gathered, repairing the fences and cleaning the ditches; early in January they pulled down the old stalks, started the plows to throw quadruple furrows over the broad fields, then, throwing out the “middles,” left a sloped bed of fresh ground to plant on, and loose earth to cover with. If the spring freshet breaks over this prepared earth, and reduces it to a mud-puddle, the work is all to be done over again, and the whole season is hindered. Planting ordinarily begins about the last of March. Piles of cotton seed are distributed about the field, and it is strewn along the beds—a ton of seed to eight acres,— and then covered, or “barred off,” as the plantation slang has it. When the stalks have appeared, the “scraping” begins, and all save the most vigorous plants are weeded out. Every day until early in July is then occupied with the guarding of the crop against the caterpillar and the hundred other dangers that threaten it, the picking beginning in the first days of September. Meantime some of the hands have been preparing baskets, and setting the gins in order; new laborers, often double and treble the number employed during the rest of the season, arrive, and until Christmas all are busy with cotton picking. The year is none too long for the round of culture, even beginning in earliest spring, and a deluge is a terrific blow to the planters.

As the Mississippi Valley, south and north, will in future be one of the most populous sections of the American Union, and as the great network of rivers which penetrate to the Rocky Mountains, and the mighty cañon of the Mauvaises Terres  are so well adapted for commercial highways; as a score of States and territories border on the Mississippi alone, why should not the National government at once undertake the control and care of the stream and its tributaries, finding out the best system for preventing inundations, and remedying, as far as possible, the dangers and difficulties now incident to navigation?

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Last updated 10/03/2009.