Down The Ohio And Mississippi

We embarked on a little steamboat which drew twelve inches of water, and whose single wide paddle-wheel was at the stern, and extended the whole width of the hull. A succession of dams made the river navigable at that season of low water, and at each dam we were let down by a lock to a lower level. At the high stage of water dams and locks are all buried deep beneath the surface, and larger steamboats go careering over them.

What I best remember, in crossing the Alleghanies and descending this river, were the beds of coal. It seemed to be everywhere just below the surface. We saw it along the route, where the people dug the fuel for their fires out of a hole in the yard, ten feet from the door. Along the high perpendicular banks of the river there were strata of coal ten or twelve feet thick. Men were digging it down with picks and sliding it into flat-boats, which, when the river rose, would float down with the current to Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans. These frail boats—long boxes made of deal boards nailed together, and loaded nearly to the top—would many of them be lost. The swell of a passing steamboat, or a snag or a sawyer in the river, would sink them. They would ground on sand-bars. A sudden hurricane sometimes sinks a hundred of them. Perhaps a third of the whole number are lost, but the coal costs almost nothing—three halfpence a bushel—and brings a price proportional to the distance which it floats in safety.

At Pittsburg, a city of coal and iron, smoky and grimy as Newcastle or Birmingham, we took a larger boat, but still a small one, for Cincinnati. The Ohio was very low. We passed slowly down, getting pleasant glimpses of the towns upon its banks, and especially of the flourishing cities of Cincinnati and Louisville.

I was disappointed with the Ohio for a few hundred miles from its source, most unreasonable tourist that I was. I recall whatever I may have said to its disparagement. The Ohio, charming in all its course of a thousand miles, becomes grandly beautiful below Louisville for the lower half of its course. Were it but deep as well as broad and splendid in its great reaches and graceful curves and picturesque banks, nothing would be wanting to its pleasing souvenirs. But I have tried its current at an unfortunate period,—the river at its lowest point. At its highest it would be fifty feet deeper,—a great torrent pouring onward towards the sea.

We were all of us in high spirits on the “Fort Wayne.” The crew was firing up, and singing merrily below; and in the cabin we were sitting round our good coal-fire, chatting, reading, and some playing poker, calculating the next morning but one to wake upon the Mississippi. So passed we down merrily, until, sunk upon a bar, we saw the wreck of the steamboat “Plymouth,” which two nights before had been run into by another boat, which sunk her instantly, and her deck-passengers woke up under the waters of the Ohio. Twenty unfortunates were drowned; and our passengers, accustomed to the river, spoke of it with perfect indifference, as a very common affair.

We passed this bar safely, touching bottom indeed, as we often did; but in passing over the next we grounded firm and fast. The engines were worked at their greatest power, but in vain. Efforts were made all day to get the boat off, but without moving her, and older voyagers began to tell pleasant stories of boats lying for three weeks on a sand-bar, and getting out of provisions and wood. For us passengers there was but patience, but for captain and crew there was a hard night’s work in a cold November rain. They went at it heartily, and when we woke up in the morning the steamboat was afloat, and as soon as she had got in a fresh supply of wood we went merrily down the Ohio again, putting off by a day our arrival at the Father of Waters. So we went, talking on morals and politics, reading the “Wandering Jew,” and playing poker, until dinner came; and just after dinner we came to another bar, on which we ran as before, giving our crew a second night of hardship and toil, and us a more thorough disgust of low-water navigation. We got off by morning as before, by great exertion and the steady use of effective machinery, the boat being hoisted over the bar inch by inch by the aid of great spars, blocks, and windlass.

There was still, but a short distance below this spot, the worst bar of all to pass…. Having been twice aground and lost nearly two days, our captain determined to take every precaution. He hired a flat-boat, into which were discharged many tons of whiskey and butter, and which was lashed alongside. A boat was sent down to sound the channel and lay buoys. This done, just as breakfast was ready, all the male passengers were summoned to go on board the flat-boat, fastened alongside, with the butter and whiskey, so as to lighten the steamer as much as possible, and when we were all aboard we started down. As luck would have it, the current carried the boat a few feet out of her proper course, and she stuck fast again. The wheels could not move her, and we jumped on board again to eat our breakfast, now grown cold from waiting.

This despatched, we went out on the promenade deck, and to our chagrin saw the “Louis Philippe,” which left Louisville one day behind us, coming down, looking light and lofty, with a flat-boat alongside. She came down rapidly, and passed close by us, her passengers laughing in triumph at our predicament. The “Louis Philippe” had not got her length below us before she too stuck fast and swung round into a more difficult position, lying broadside upon the bar, with the strong current full against her. The laugh was now on our side, and the “Louis Philippe” gave rise to the more jokes, because her hurricane-deck was entirely covered with cabbages, with their stumps sticking up, giving her a droll appearance, while our hurricane-deck was filled with chicken-coops. It was time now to go to work in earnest. More freight was discharged into our lighter, and all the passengers, except the women and children, were sent on board her. We thickly covered the barrels of whiskey and kegs of butter, and the captain, to keep us off the steamer, cast us loose, and we floated off with the current, and were safely blown ashore on the Kentucky side, about a mile below, leaving the two steamers above to get off as soon as they were able.

When our flat-boat touched the Kentucky bank of the river, her ninety passengers jumped joyfully ashore, and with noisy hilarity scattered along the beach. The morning was beautiful. The clear sunlight glittered upon the river and lighted up the forest with golden radiance. The sky was blue, and the air cool and bracing. The land was high, well wooded, and fertile. Seeing a substantial-looking double log house a short distance from the river, about a dozen of us went up to warm our fingers at its fire….

In a few moments our lucky boat swung round and came down for us, leaving the less fortunate “Louis Philippe” to get off as she could, and her passengers to learn not to halloo before they got out of the wood. And now—now, by the first light of the morning for this grand, this terrible Mississippi!

It was a misty moonlight night when we came to the confluence of the Ohio with the Mississippi. We had come down a tedious, and in some degree a perilous, course of one thousand miles; we had still a thousand miles to go before arriving at New Orleans, which is the next stage of our Southern journey.

The Mississippi and the Ohio come together at an acute angle, and their waters flow down in unmingled currents, differing in color, for a long distance. Even at night we could distinguish the line which divides them. The Ohio water is filled with fine sand and loam; the Mississippi is discolored with clay besides, and the water looks like a tub of soapsuds after a hard day’s washing.

Whoever looks upon the map with a utilitarian eye sees at the confluence of these great rivers a favorable point for a great city. A few years since an English company took possession of or purchased this site, and, with a capital of nearly a million of pounds sterling, commenced operations. They lithographed plans of the city and views of the public buildings. There were domes, spires, and cupolas, hotels, warehouses, and lines of steamboats along both rivers. How fair, how magnificent it all looked on the India paper! You should see the result as I saw it in the misty miasma, by the pale moonlight. Cairo is a swamp, overflowed by every rise of either river. The large hotel, one of the two buildings erected, is slowly sinking beneath the surface. Piles will not stand up, and, however deep they are driven, sink still deeper. The present business of the place, consisting of selling supplies to steamboats, and transferring passengers from the down- to the up-river boats, is done on floating store-boats, made fast to the shore. Cairo has since been built into a considerable town by dyking out the rivers, and was an important naval and military point during the Civil War….

This is my thirteenth day of steamboating,—the usual time across the Atlantic,—and I have four days more at least. You may well suppose that a hundred passengers are put to their trumps for amusement. The “Wandering Jew” did very well as long as it lasted. Some keep on reading novels, having laid in a stock or exchanged with other passengers, but cards are the resource of the majority. The centre-tables, as soon as breakfast is over, are occupied with parties playing poker or loo, and are covered with bank-notes and silver. Many who do not play look on to see the frolics of fortune. Several of these players are professional gamesters, and quite cool, as men who hope to win by chance or skill ought to be. Others, in their flushing cheeks and trembling hands and voices, show how the passion is fastening upon them. These are driven by weariness and tempted by the smallness of the game to commence playing. The passion increases day by day, and so do the stakes, until, before reaching New Orleans, the verdant ones have lost all their money, and with it their self-respect and their confidence in the future. Depressed by shame, disheartened at being in a strange city without money, they are in a miserable condition, and ready to throw themselves away. They become dependent upon the blacklegs who have led them on, are instructed in their evil courses, made their tools and catspaws, and perhaps induced to enter upon courses of crime of a more dangerous character. All this comes of playing cards to kill time on the Mississippi.

While those who need the excitement of betting play at games of bluff and poker, some amuse themselves with whist, and old-fashioned fellows get into a corner and have a bout at old sledge; and now at eleven o’clock the great cabin of our boat presents a curious appearance. Playing around the tables, with noisy, joyous laughter, are half a dozen merry little boys and girls. These have all got well acquainted with each other, and seem to enjoy themselves thoroughly.

I can give you little idea of this portion of the Mississippi. The river is very low, and does not seem large enough to be the outlet of the thousand streams above; for the waters on which we float come not only from the melting snows of the Rocky Mountains, but there are mingled with them the bright springs of Western New York, a large part of Pennsylvania, part of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and a large portion of the Western States. Yet, with all the waters of this vast area, our boat can sometimes scarcely keep the channel. Last night, running at her full speed, she went crashing into a snag, with a concussion and scraping which woke us all up, and made the timid ones spring out of their berths. Our safety was in our going down-stream instead of up,—the difference of rubbing the back of a hedgehog the right and the wrong way. These snags are great trees which cave off and are washed down the current; the roots become embedded in the bottom; and the stem and branches, pointing down-stream, and half or wholly covered with water, form a terrible steamboat de frise, which tears an ascending steamboat to pieces, but generally allows those going with the current to pass over or through them with safety.

The river is full of islands, so that you often see but a small portion of its waters; it winds along in so many convolutions that you must steam a hundred miles often to make twenty in a straight line. Many of these bends may be avoided at high water by taking the cross cuts, called “running a chute” when the whole country for twenty miles on each side is submerged.

Usually, on one side or the other, there is a perpendicular bank of clay and loam some thirty feet high, and here and there are small plantations. The river gradually wears them off, carrying down whole acres in a season. From this bank the land descends back to the swamps which skirt nearly the whole length of the river. These in very low water are comparatively dry, but as the river rises they fill up, and the whole country is like a great lake, filled with a dense growth of timber. These curving banks, the rude and solitary huts of the wood-cutters, the vast bars of sand, covered gradually with cane-brake, and the range of impenetrable forest for hundreds of miles, comprise a vast gloomy landscape, which must be seen to be realized….

While the scene is fresh in my memory let me describe to you my last morning upon the Mississippi. But why do I speak thus of a scene which can never fade from my remembrance, but in all future years will glow the brightest picture which nature and civilization have daguerreotyped upon my heart?

I rose before the sun, while all the east was glowing with his refracted light. The steamboat had made excellent progress all night, not being obliged to stop by fog, and was only detained a short time by running plump into the mud on the river’s bank; but she soon backed out of that scrape.

We had here, fifty miles above New Orleans, an almost tropical sunrise. The Mississippi, as if tired of its irregularities, flowed on an even current between its low banks, along which on each side are raised embankments of earth from four to ten feet in height,—the levee, which extends for hundreds of miles along the river, defending the plantations from being overflowed at high water.

As I gained the hurricane-deck the scene was enchanting, and, alas! I fear indescribable. On each side, as far as the eye could reach, were scattered the beautiful houses of the planters, flanked on each side by the huts of their negroes, with trees, shrubbery, and gardens. For miles away, up and down the river, extended the bright green fields of sugar-cane, looking more like great fields of Indian corn than any crop to which a Northern eye is familiar, but surpassing that in vividness of the tints and density of growth, the cane growing ten feet high, and the leaves at the top covering the whole surface. Back of these immense fields of bright green were seen the darker shades of the cypress swamp, and, to give the most picturesque effect to the landscape, on every side, in the midst of each great plantation, rose the tall white towers of the sugar-mills, throwing up graceful columns of smoke and clouds of steam. The sugar-making process was in full operation.

After the wild desolation of the Mississippi, for more than half its course below the Ohio, you will not wonder that I gazed upon this scene of wealth and beauty in a sort of ecstasy. Oh! how unlike our November in the far, bleak north was this scene of life in Louisiana! The earth seemed a paradise of fertility and loveliness. The sun rose and lighted up with a brighter radiance a landscape of which I had not imagined half its beauty.

The steamer stopped to wood, and I sprang on shore. Well, the air was as soft and delicious as our last days in June,—the gardens were filled with flowers; yes, bushels of roses were blooming for those who chose to pluck them; while oranges were turning their green to gold, and figs were ripening in the sun. It was a Creole plantation,—French the only language heard. A procession of carts, each drawn by a pair of mules, and driven by a fat and happy negro, who seemed to joke with every motion and laugh all over from head to foot, came from the sugar-house to get wood, of which an immense quantity was lying upon the banks of the river, saved from the vast mass of forest trees washed down at every freshet.

I cannot describe the appropriateness of everything on these plantations. These Creole planters look as if nature had formed them for good masters; in any other sphere they are out of their element,—here most decidedly at home. The negroes, male and female, seem made on purpose for their masters, and the mules were certainly made on purpose for the negroes. Any imaginable change would destroy this harmonious relation. Do they not all enjoy alike this paradise,—this scene of plenty and enchantment? The negroes work and are all the better for such beneficial exercise, as they would be all the worse without it. They have their feasts, their holidays,—more liberty than thousands of New York mechanics enjoy in their lifetimes, and a freedom from care and anxiety which a poor white man never knows. I begin to think that Paradise is on the banks of the Mississippi, and that the nearest approach to the realization of the schemes of Fourier is on our Southern plantations.


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