Great Journeys: The Mississippi

Part 3: Becoming a great river

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, and one of the most spectacular sights in the world. But the Upper Mississippi River runs through its own spectacular canyon nearly three times as long.

Perhaps most people don’t think of the Mississippi as a canyon river, since what first springs to mind is the flat agricultural land of the Lower river — the cotton fields of Mississippi or the levees of Louisiana — but from Minnesota to the mouth of the Ohio River, the mighty river courses down a canyon bordered by rocky bluffs on either side.

The bluffs over Winona, Minn., for instance, look like mountains in the early morning mist, something from a Chinese painting hanging there over the town. They are not actually that high — only a few hundred feet — but in the exaggeration of the mist, they might as well be Rockies.

On the top of one of those bluffs, south of La Crosse, Wisc., you look out over the placid river and there’s a skin of fog that blanks the river from your face and all you can see is the top of the bluff on the other side. Trees run up their sides, and at the top, is the beginning of endless farm land.

“The majestic bluffs that overlook the river, along through this region, charm one with the grace and variety of their forms and the soft beauty of the their adornment,” wrote Mark Twain in his Life on the Mississippi. “And it is all as tranquil and reposeful as dreamland, and has nothing this-worldly about it — nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”

In the autumn, nearly every day begins with a thick fog filling the bottom of the canyon like bisque in a bowl. Sometimes it doesn’t burn off till 2 in the afternoon.

When the mist does burn off, the clouds reflected in the calm water seem to be twice as deep as the surface. They are ghosts of clouds on the surface of the water that mottle its color.

The opposing bluffs are in places as close as two miles and elsewhere,  as near St. Louis where the Missouri joins the Mississippi, they are as far apart as 11 miles.

Between the two palisades the river meanders from bank to bank, a mazy, braided stream that creates shallows, sand bars, reefs, islands and channels. Before the river was dammed and controlled, the constantly shifting channels gave river pilots fits. The education required to run a steamboat packet up the river is retold in Twain’s book.

It was a river, he wrote, “whose alluvial banks cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sandbars are never at rest, whose channels are forever dodging and shirking, and whose obstructions must be confronted in all nights and all weathers without the aid of a single lighthouse or a single buoy; for there is neither light nor buoy to be found anywhere in all this three or four thousand miles of villainous river.”

The dams brought a change to that. Now the upper river is in part a string of placid lakes, between which the watercourse wanders in willow thickets and island labyrinths.

The seasons also bring change to the river, which is always either rising or falling. In spring, the river is usually highest; in late fall, the most shallow.

But even at its lowest, the river has a channel 9-feet deep and 300-feet wide maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Towboats lashed to their barge rafts churn up and downstream constantly. Twain would have been astounded.

From the beginning of its American history, the river was a commercial route and towns sprang up along its banks. Steamboats ran up and down the waters with the regularity of freight trains and the regular trade kept the towns solvent.

In 1834, 230 steamboats and 4,000 flatboats were listed on the Mississippi alone. In 1853, St. Louis had 3,307 visits from steamboats, exclusive of the daily mailboat.

Along the banks there appeared such towns such as Davenport, Rock Island, Burlington, Keokuk, Quincy and Memphis. Boats carried skins and lumber from the north, grain and meat from the central region, coal from Ohio — all heading south to New Orleans. Northbound boats carried cotton, sugar, molasses and a host of raw materials for the factories of the north.

But history, the westward expansion and the railroads have changed that. What had been north-south river traffic before the Civil War, afterwards became east-west rail traffic. The towns along the Upper Mississippi shores shriveled and shrank.

Boats that made whistle-stops at every small town disappeared and the large rafts of barges took over, with point-to-point cargo service that hit only the larger cities.

You can see the effect in towns like Dubuque, Iowa, or Twain’s own Hannibal, Mo.

The old part of town is built down at the bottom of the bluffs along the waterfront. Old houses with graceful 19th-century architecture inhabit the decaying grid of streets. Often the buildings are abandoned, with missing window glass and crumbling brickwork.

In the best places, like Dubuque, the cities are still nostalgically beautiful. In the less lucky, more windows are boarded up than open.

And in all of them, the road to the top of the bluff behind the city tells the tale of modern America. Dubuque by the river may be picturesque, but on top of the bluff looking down on the town, there are strip malls, KFCs, Burger Kings and car dealerships. The town is on two levels, and two degrees of esthetics.

But also from the top of the bluffs, you get the real sense of the river as a canyon. For the bluffs are only one-sided. There is no crest and back side to them: On their top, they stretch out in an infinite plateau of rolling farm country.

One moment, you are driving through a landscape that could have been painted by Grant Wood, the next, you descend to the river and corn or wheat gives way to silver maple and thick alder and willow tangles.

To be continued

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