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The Epic of the Mississippi

The Epic of the Mississippi


By Raymond S. Spears

MILLIONS of our people, men and women, regard the Mississippi River with affection for its romance as well as with appreciation of its geographical importance and vast commercial value. Its influence permeates the whole country, and there is no hamlet too humble, no metropolis too proud, to admit the strange wonder of the flood that drains more than a million square miles of our national territory. Time and time again it has been decisive in the affairs of the country and of individual citizens, enriching or ennobling some, destroying others.

When delegates from fifteen Western States approach the head of the Railroad Administration, and urge him to use the Mississippi more fully for freight transportation, they dwell significantly upon the commercial needs of the present moment. They point to the tons, the millions of tons, which could be set afloat at Pittsburgh, or Chicago, or Kansas City, and carried down to the deep-sea port of New Orleans. The service of the moment is performed when the practical demand of the hour is expressed, but the feeling of a great nation for a wonderful phenomenon, made up of ten thousand smaller phenomena, looks with fond memory and delight through the history of the mighty river, and picks its subjects for expression according to personal ideas.


Justin Winsor could write his great studies of the Mississippi Basin, every sentence a monument, and Mark Twain could write book after book on the same topic, every sentence a smile, with the underlying pathos of undying humor. Parkman could fill volume after volume with the records of the white men who first explored the great stream and its countless branches, and Emerson Hough could set forth in quick-moving pages the romance of a financial crisis that hinged on the exploitation of Mississippi bottom-lands. Davy Crockett could put into five words—"half horse and half alligator"—a remarkable type of the old-time river-man.

History is woven with science, romance with psychology, in the story of the huge flood made up of the beautiful green waters of the Tennessee and the Cumberland, of the muddy yellows of the Missouri, of the clay-stained tide of the Red River, of underground flows from arid lands tainted with alkali and oil, of the wash from iron and coal, of humic acid from vast forest wildernesses, of the icy meltings of snowcapped peaks, and of bubbling springs in the valley sands.

For more than thirty-five years the United States government has been issuing an unbroken succession of volumes that tell the facts about the Mississippi. The reports of the Mississippi River Commission are the most absorbing scientific documents imaginable. They record in feet, inches, and tenths of an inch the rise of floods and the fall of passing droughts. They discuss waves of running sand and gravel, and the precipitation of microscopic particles of mud into vast acreages of alluvial soil.

These last, under the Department of Agriculture, become subject to learned discussion of cotton-plantations and corn-lands and rice-fields. The Forest Service turns to the matter of cottonwoods, cypress, gums, and live-oaks. The Bureau of Commerce considers the production of pearls—the most beautiful pearls produced in the world—and the questions of coal-transportation, manufactures, and fishing.

The migration of ducks and geese, of fish and humans, and the output of steel-mills, coke-ovens, oil-wells, and coal-mines, mingle together so intricately as to dismay the mental habit that clings to but one tiny thread and seeks to follow one idea through diversities fit for a thousand histories.

The alert mind seizes ten thousand picturesque points in the long story of the Mississippi. One moment it may be pondering on Simon Girty, the predecessor of the old-fashioned Western "bad man," who would ride into a pioneer settlement and "shoot up" the place on horseback, as long ago as the last decade of the eighteenth century; or on Lewis Wetzel, one of the original Indian-slayers, and a great gallant of the frontier, till the women took to despising him for murdering an aboriginal chief who had saved him from torture and death. The next moment the same mind may be amazed by a log raft with two million feet of logs floating in majestic grandeur on a mile-wide river surface, steered by a three-hundred-horse-power steamboat rudder at the stern, and a sixty-horse-power "bug" steamboat at the bow.


Or, again, one can imagine a government engineer turned loose upon the problem of the shifting quicksands of Plum Point or Lake Providence reaches. He has the fact that the Missouri annually pours about two hundred million cubic yards of sand and gravel into the river bottoms past the mouth of the Ohio at Cairo. He has the fact that the flow of the river ranges from seventy-five thousand cubic feet a second to more than two million cubic feet a second, between low water and the grand and impressive overflow.

He must take into account the different currents that prevail with each foot of rise from low-water mark to fifty or sixty feet higher at high tide. He must consider the effect of revetment work on some banks, of the caving of the bottoms into the river at other points, and the steady flow of wave after wave of sand, silt, gravel, and other débris.

He observes that a bare Mississippi River sand-bar under a strong wind blows and drifts like snow, or like the sand waves of the desert. He knows that a short, swift rise of the river means a rushing current of from seven to twelve or fifteen miles an hour, while the long, slow swelling of the vast spring flood makes up by its volume what it lacks in speed. Moreover, in the majestic flood there are hurricane swirls of water that tear the substance of sand-bars and submerged banks. The drift of timber, the spoil of thousands of square miles of flooded lands, tears down the river, the long prongs of snags jabbing into the sides of steamboats. One rush of broken ice tore up two million dollars' worth of property by raiding down the Tennessee into the "safe" ice harbor just above Paducah, dislocating the summer traffic plans of nobody knows how many steamboat lines.

Here is the untamed power of billions of cubic feet of water falling from ten thousand feet of elevation in the Rockies, and from the long gorges of the Appalachians. Here are one hundred thousand miles of rivers, ten thousand miles of navigable streams, and horse-power rampant as all the flesh-and-blood horses of the plains never were. One hundred million people are annually regaled and exasperated by the irresistible powers that nature wields in this great central basin.

Men have dammed the little rivulets of a thousand gullies and valleys in the Appalachians to turn the wheels of grist-mills, so that corn can be ground for pone and sprouts ground for moonshine. They have stretched their masonry across the Great Falls of the Missouri to smelt copper and silver. Myriads of horse-power are beginning to serve the nation by hauling railroad-trains over the long divides. They have bridled the upper Mississippi at Keokuk.

In the rich region of the lower valley they have built more than two thousand miles of breastworks to hold back the spring-tide, to enable the planters of cotton and corn to continue their crop-making, though the surface of the Mississippi be on a level twenty-five feet above their soil, and nineteen feet higher than their heads. They have fronted the most savage and desperate attacks of swirling currents and flood depths. Mattresses of willow-trees, covered by the blasted riprap of Missouri and Arkansas stone, have held firm against the boiling onslaughts of swift waters and the insidious and eternal wear of unremitting pressure.

More to the purpose of the present moment, the government engineers have expelled the quicksands and confined the waters so that from the vagaries of running waves of sand and shallow films of water, true channels have been forced through, and the old two or three feet of available low-water depth has been increased to eight or ten feet, practically guaranteed up a thousand miles of river. Forty years ago James B. Eads confounded the carping can't-do-its and opened the Passes to any steamer's depth of draft.

These engineers have made it possible to bring coal down the Ohio and Mississippi in five-million-bushel fleets, and to raft timber down the Mississippi in fifteen-thousand-ton lots.


No more stirring record of American accomplishment is found than the statement made long ago by a mere note-maker at Wheeling, on the Ohio River, who wrote:


More than ten thousand flatboats, carrying settlers, have gone down the Ohio River this year.


They came on foot over the muddy, punched-up wilderness trails; they rived planks from green timber; they floated away down the Ohio and braved the falls at Louisville. A human flood, they overflowed the banks of the Mississippi, washed back the savage Indian tribes, and took possession irresistibly. When Napoleon investigated the region of the upper Mississippi, he learned that behind the demand for free trade at the mouth of the great river were thirty thousand prime riflemen of Kentucky. The mere fact of that army's existence carried the American flag to the Pacific Coast.

The wealth of the Middle West, of the fifteen Western States that are appealing to the government for the profitable service of the Mississippi, is based largely on the foundation laid when ten thousand steamers plied the great river, in high water and low, before a railroad had entered its basin. Those steamboats, carrying the people, carrying their products, importing their necessities, insured to the nation the States of Missouri, lower Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Iowa, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The river keel-boats that carried the Lewis and Clark Expedition insured the Pacific Coast to the possession of the United States.

The Mississippi River, reaching out into its million miles of territory, has been the vital factor of the country from the hour when Daniel Boone went over the Cumberland Range and saw, with inspired foresight, the soil and the opportunities of the Kentucky valleys. From 1773 the tributaries of the Mississippi have fed the Middle West with the vitality of American ambition, just as at this present time the power of their falling waters is taking up the burden of electric transportation, of watering vast crops, of bearing the products of the industry of twenty-five million American toilers.

Science has determined well enough, as a commercial proposition, the character and limitations, the costs and profits, the facts and influences regarding the Mississippi; but it is fascinating to dream and to speculate on the things that might follow adequate development and use of the Mississippi. The impulse of turning the river's full force into American industry cannot be measured, nor its effect foreseen.

As it is, many thousands have been inspired to action by the mere spectacle of the wonderful torrent and its banks; from Daniel Boone as a hunter and pioneer to James B. Eads as a builder and engineer, from George Washington as a promoter of a vast area's development to the Mississippi River Commission as a conqueror of unbridled floods; from mere pleasure-seekers and shanty-boat dreamers to the students of human trends and efforts, seeking the explanation of success and failure through the study of nature and of history.

The Mississippi River as a force in the development of America has been constant and overwhelming. There is a whole literature based upon it, and from that literature have come some of the most interesting ideals and notions of the American people. For seventy years, unchallenged, a great traffic followed its gentle incline of six or eight inches to the mile.

To-day the timber of the hickories from its bottoms are the spokes of automobiles, and the handles of golf-clubs are sought among the dark corners of its brakes. Millions eat its fish, and the sheen of pearls from its tributaries delights countless women. There is scarcely a garment in the country that might not be improved by a button from a Mississippi clam-shell.

Whatever men may do to the Mississippi, the Father of Waters does not neglect their interests, nor does he fail to rebuke their impertinences and to stimulate their imagination.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.