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THE MOODS OF THE MISSISSIPPI

BY RAYMOND S. SPEARS


The Indians who knew the Mississippi River before the advent of Joliet and LaSalle named the vast phenomenon "The Father of Waters." White men who live upon the river or along its swampland banks now know whence came that expressive term. After one has been with the stream long enough for its novelty to have worn away, acquaintance and proximity do not diminish the wonder aroused by the huge torrent. Far from it! One learns to realize a magnificent presence which is neither of the stream, nor of the banks, nor of the wide, low sandbars, nor of the long sweep of the caving bends, but which is doubtless the personification of all these. It was not alone the physical size and manifest strength of the stream that compelled the name "Father of Waters," but the awesome, overwhelming, unbending grandeur of the wonderful spirit ruling the flow of the sands, the lumping of the banks, the unceasing shifting of the channel, and the send of the mighty flood.

Until the white man at last directed his analytical faculties toward the investigation of the unwritten code of laws governing the rise and fall, the sweep and send, the flow and rush of the torrent, expression of the river wonders found egress in myths and speculations, traditions and romance, as those who have read the lives of Hennepin, Joliet, Marquette, La Salle, and lesser men, may remember. Then came the trained enthusiasm and tireless vigilance of keen observers. Charles Ellet paved the way for Humphreys and Abbott, and in the report made by the two latter one finds the spirit of the river almost reduced to cubic feet and bald statements of hydraulic laws. "Every important fact connected with the various physical conditions of the river and the laws uniting them being ascertained, the great problem of protection against inundation was solved." That was written in August, 1861.

For thirty years men had groped with learned effort among the mysteries of river-floods, tides, discharges, causes, and effects, as exemplified by the Mississippi. Countless thousands of facts were brought together, studied, weighed, grouped, and placed in wonderfully orderly array, so convincingly that it seemed the river mystery had been reduced to black and white, with copious indexes. Twenty years later, the greatest riverman of all, Eads, ran amuck among the theories and deductions. For one thing, he declared the folly of levees parallel to the river current. He came as near knowing the river as any one can. He walked along its bottom under a diving-bell; he traveled on its surface; he sat upon the bank and studied the wanderings of the torrent day after day. He knew its dangers, for he had landed as a youth in St. Louis, penniless, having been "burned out" on a river steamer. The time came when he erected the first human structure that compared with the mighty waters in vastness,—the Eads Bridge at St. Louis. Then, at his own risk, he tamed the shoals at The Passes.

The Indians measured the river with their eyes. They knew its width, but not its length. Better, perhaps, than any one else has since known, they were acquainted with the terror of the great fluctuations of the river heights. Tradition does not preserve the stories of Indian adventure with the floods, but in the bottoms, notably in the Yazoo Swamps, are mute evidences of the spring rise of prehistoric years. Here and there are mounds on whose tops, buried by the mould of centuries, are bones, flint implements, and fire-remains. There the Indian families took refuge above the overflow against which they had provided by heaping up hills of refuge, mindful of the spring floods. White men have fenced off with dirt hundreds of miles of bottom-lands, seeking to protect them from the overflow; but back in the swamps to this day, one finds the people building their homes on the high places. Some even keep skiffs, rafts, and houseboats at their cotton plantations in order to have an ark of refuge when a levee breaks or is topped by the waters.

People who live far from the Mississippi banks, in the depths of the swamplands, watch the water-flow in their nearest bayous or rivers or delta streams with anxiety born of long and unhappy experience. Down on the Atchafayala, one finds people who read the waters better than sailors read the wind. Every morning the "swamp angel" goes to the bayou bank and gazes long at the water. Perhaps the bank is twenty feet high, and the water red. He knows then that Red River has the Mississippi "eddied"—that Red River is higher than the Mississippi. Perhaps the water rises day by day, week after week, and continues to be red in shade. Then the water-gazer detects a change. The red shade becomes a tinge lighter, and there is a difference in the send and lunge of the waters.

"Hi-i-i!" the swamp man exclaims, "Ole Mississip's a-risin'!"

Little by little the Mississippi waters overcome the Red River ones. Red River is "eddied," backed up by the superior flow of the great stream. The time comes when the bayou is as yellow as the Mississippi, and is rising under the impulse of waters from Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, instead of a flow across the plains from the Rockies. There are men who claim to detect an Ohio rise by the look of the waters in the swamps of Louisiana.

When Atchafayala is bank-full, the water pours to right and left into the swamps over the "low lands." The high land and low land of the Mississippi bottoms is one of the most surprising of Mississippi features. At New Orleans one hears of a ridge between the city and Lake Pontchartrain. A man from a hill country has a vision of a massy height of land, with gullies and steep places and far views. But that ridge which is historic in the annals of Louisiana rises about three feet eight inches above the surrounding lowlands. They measure their hills and valleys with six-inch rules in the lower regions of the bottoms. I was going down Atchafayala a few years ago, when an old fisherman asked me to take particular notice of a highland on the left bank half a mile down stream.

"Why," he said, "that land's four inches higher than any other land for twenty miles along 'Chaffelli! I'm going to build a house there, yassuh!"

For days after the whole of the surrounding region was under water, this height of land was above the level. Back there, fifty miles from the Mississippi, and as far from any height of land above the overflow, the swamp people watch for the long flood wave which rolls down the Mississippi in memorable years, as some people watch for droughts, others 'for financial panics, and still others for flights of grasshoppers or visitations of boll-weevils.

At no other time is the Mississippi so impressive and majestic as during "high water." When the river is out of its banks near the crest of the levees, excitement and dread is in the heart of every lowlander. If anything happens, the blow will fall on him. At such times, every man has his duty to perform. Cattle, horses, and hogs are driven to the highlands,—perhaps rafted across the sipe water to Crowley's ridge, or driven swimming by canoe men from knoll to knoll, to safety above overflows. Everything is made as ready as can be against the possibility of the levee breaking—against the dreaded crevasse. Men walk the levee, Winchester in hand, along regular sentry beats day and night, watching and listening for the noise of flowing water. If a little stream once breaks through the levee, it will quickly wear away a hole, and the hole, if not filled in time, may widen to a break half a mile wide, through which the flood waters would flow, inundating and killing countless cotton plants, besides tearing up and ruining square miles of land.

Muskrats, crawfish, rotten sticks, and men are the makers of crevasses. Where the river flows between two levees, and the high water is coming higher, threatening both east and west bottoms, human nature says, "Thou shalt die ere I die!" Hence the Winchesters. If one can break away the levee opposite, the flood pressure will be relieved, on the home levee.

There is another notable spectacle to be seen at the highest of a flood. When the water comes close to the levee-top, and the levee protects a thickly populated lowland, sacks are filled with dirt and piled on the levee. If hands are scarce, the white men get on their horses, ride out and herd the stout negroes, and perhaps miles of levee are banked higher by these not-too-willing workers. Thus at Helena, Arkansas, one spring, the citizens of that city held back the flood that was two feet higher than the permanent levee-top, by piling on earth-filled sacks.

In whatever direction one may turn his attention, the Mississippi overshadows all the bottom-lands. What winter is to the mountains, droughts to the plains, blights and fungi to the market-gardener, and frosts to the orange-grower, floods are to the people of the Mississippi lowlands. From the mountains of southwest Virginia to the Red River raft, people date their traditions from the flood years,—the tide of 1867, the flood of 1903.

The manifestations of the river strength are so many that the white men, like the Indians, cannot regard it as a mere phenomenon. "He's shore comin' this mohnin'!" a shanty-boater says, watching the surge of a river rise swaggering down some wide crossing. "He's feelin' purty ca'm an' decent, yassuh!" the same man will remark when the river is holding steady at the nine-foot stage, say, on a quiet October afternoon.

In the hearts of the river people—the shanty-boater, the riverside dwellers, and the people of the lonely bends—one finds clear manifestations of the spirit of the river. The old river man takes his moods from the river. When the river is ugly and rising—when, for instance, there are about 750 grains of sediment to the cubic foot of water, and the river is at a 45-foot stage—the face of the river man clouds and his tongue becomes tart and surly. But when there are only about 250 grains of sediment to the cubic foot of water, and the stage is down to 7 or 8 feet above low-water mark, the river man is likely to be in a cheerful mood, "singing like a blackbird."

The ice and drift are the ugliest of river phenomena. No man on the river is cheerful when the ice comes grinding down from the Ohio or Upper Mississippi. One might think a sunshiny February day would bring good cheer and gentleness to a heart, but not so on the river. That is one of the harshest of river facts. At Rosedale, Mississippi, a few years ago,—to illustrate,—a man started across the river in a skiff. Ice was flowing by, but the fleets seemed scattered and harmless as they poured by to the music of bird songs in the radiance of spring sunshine. The man was more than half-way across, when a great mass of ice came circling around and around in the fleet toward him. He saw it coming,—saw the tree trunks grinding around, and heard the ice-pack screaming. The ice closed in on him, surrounded him in spite of his stoutest pulling at the oars, twisted his boat into fragments, and then sucked him down, screaming, into the mass. A minute later the frozen whirlpool flung apart, and the fragments scattered and bobbed serenely in the afternoon sunlight.

On the other hand, the river never is more buoyant and cheering to those close to it, than when the settled gloom of wintry cold, sleet, and night is upon it. Just when the human soul is oppressed by the sadness and terror of a lonely bend, something comes dancing down the murk, and with an exclamation of inexplicable joy, the river man reaches for his fiddle or banjo and begins to sing—not a boisterous, reveling song, but some strange incantation, some weird, exhilarating chant whose inspiration is found in the breadths and depths and murks of a Mississippi night.

One can express the Mississippi River in cubic feet. In the morning, on December 3, 1901, the gauge-reading at Helena, Arkansas, was 1.5 feet. The area of the cross section of the river water was 51,100 square feet. The mean velocity of the current was 2.19 feet per second. The discharge per second was 112,000 cubic feet. That afternoon, a subtle change had come over the stream. It is expressed by a gauge reading of 1.53 feet, a velocity of only 1.93 feet per second, and a discharge of 99,000 cubic feet per second. The river was higher, but flowing slower—loafing along, as one might say.

The same phenomenon is observable when the river is high. Thus, on March 23, 1903, the gauge-reading at Helena was 50.4 feet. The area of the cross-section was 210,500 square feet. T h e velocity of the current was 6.71 feet per second. The discharge per second was 1,413,000 cubic feet. O n the 24th, the water was .28 feet higher, the cross section was 1500 feet greater, but the discharge was 43,000 cubic feet less per second because the velocity was .25 feet slower per second.

The river is never twice alike. There are a dozen different velocities for each tenth of an inch gauge-reading. Sometimes the river rises fast, sometimes slowly. It may drop twice as fast at one time as at another. Sometimes the flow seems to "bank up" in a bend, and again the current sucks along apparently unresisted. The seeing eyes of the river men see the ugliness of a coming flood-wave in the look of a crossing or reach. Again, they catch the gentleness of the slacking and loafing waters by the wash of an eddy under a wide sand-bar.

Whether one gazes upon the river with the eye of a mathematician or of a poet, the result is the same. One finds himself face to face with a great creature whose moods one may partly express in cubic feet and velocities, and partly in words descriptive of psychological phenomena. Complete expression of the subject seems out of question.

In due course, perhaps humanity will add to its means of description. For sometime past there has been an effort to express the river in terms of mere dollars and cents. One is bound to say that the endeavor has not been without success. Thus, the Mississippi River Commission has received and expended "in specific appropriations" by Congress, $52,179,555.51. To this might be added many scores of millions put in by state and private endeavor. Possibly, the significance of the vast amount may be better understood if one mentions the fact that in Lake Providence Reach $3,863,741.51 was spent in an effort to gain a navigable depth of 9 feet of water through the shifting sands. About 7 feet was actually secured. On Ashbrook Neck, on about a mile of river, $655,878.56 has been spent to prevent a cut-off—a short cut across a narrow strip of land—which would change the regimen of the river.

To the money already expended, it is now expected a sufficient sum will be added to discover how much it will cost to "tame and control" the largest and most uncertain river in America.

Perhaps there is no fact regarding the attempts to make a tame and navigable stream of the Mississippi more interesting than the one that contractors and boomers demand that the river itself be controlled, at a least possible cost of $200,000,000. Between New Orleans and Cape Girardeau there are hundreds of miles of caving banks and rolling waves of sands to be mattressed and jettied, in order to secure a permanent depth of 14 feet throughout the channel's course. A canal dug down the river lowlands would reduce the distance from over 1000 miles to less than 600 miles. The cost of dredging a canal down the bottoms, putting in the twenty-five or thirty necessary locks and rights of way, would amount, all told, to less than $75,000,000. The canal would, at one stroke, solve the question of draining the St. Francis and Tensas bottoms. It would reduce the cost of maintaining a navigable channel of 14 feet permanent depth from $10,000,000 a year to less than $1,500,000, and it would cut the time required to secure a 14-foot channel from an uncertain number of years to two or three years.

The fact that the Mississippi Valley demands the taming of the Mississippi itself can be traced to the river's own lawless challenge flaunted in the face of humanity time out of mind. The people of the Mississippi Valley are at heart not so anxious for a deep-water way and for the sight of ocean-going steamers at the wharves of St. Louis, Vicksburg, Memphis, and other river towns, as they are for the sight of the river humbled and humiliated and in shackles.

The Mississippi is the greatest irritant in the United States. Its fickleness, conscious power, and taunting eddies bring oaths to the lips of the most respectable and law-abiding residents along its lower course. The greatest admirers of the river, the people who sing its praises with the most emphasis, are the ones who go off on a tangent of temper quickest when they find a new caving of river-bank headed toward the newest and most expensive levee, built to protect great plantations, while just across the stream arise worthless bluffs and useless sand-bars. Talk to a Mississippi River man,—shanty-boater, pilot, raftsman, plantation owner, or city merchant,—and he will brag about the river wonders. Its bigness charms him, and makes him feel large and elated. Bring him around to his own experiences with it, and suddenly a shade of resentment crosses his face, as he recalls a shanty-boat wrecked by a cyclone, a steamboat snagged, a raft torn up in some bend, a plantation under-cut and washed away, or a season's trade spoiled by an overflow and crevasse.

"We love the river, damn it!" is a literal expression.

The river is a constant invitation to battle, and there is to-day no more remarkable or suggestive spectacle anywhere than that of millions of people making ready to clinch with the influence they call "Ole Mississip'!"

The river is no mere problem in mathematics; it cannot be expressed in terms of poetry; its complete history is beyond the ken of man. It is a mystery of longing and power, striving through the ages toward the consummation of some titanic ambition for quiet flowing, down a beautiful, gently-sloping valley among the wide vistas of an orderly continent. This is, perhaps, as close to the meaning of the river as one can come.


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.