Below St. Louis after the last dam on the Mississippi, the river opened up to towboats pushing as many as forty-five barges at once. On the Madoc Ferry crossing over to Illinois, the captain said pushing the little ferry "on the hip" could be tricky in the fast Mississippi current. At Thebes, I watched a tow slowly work itself around one of the many wide bends in the lower river. Downstream tows have right of way, and this process of "backing down" can take as much as 3 or 4 hours, during which time the upstream boats must wait. I found wrecks of tows that didn't make it. Also in Thebes I came across an 1848 courthouse on a bluff above the river. The fugitive slave Dred Scott had been imprisoned here. The bars were still on the windows.
At Cairo, Illinois, the Ohio
contributes more water to the Mississippi than the main stem coming from
the north. In fact, it seemed that all America washes past Cairo--so
many rivers from all parts of America had fed the flow--the Minnesota,
the Wisconsin, the Illinois, the Missouri, and now the Ohio, to name just
a few. At Cairo, I stood on the spit of land where the two great rivers
meet. The Mississippi from my right added all the mud it had gained
from the Missouri. The Ohio was a deeper black. I watched
as they mingled and boiled together. The towboat Arnold Sobel came
down from the Mississippi and turned to go up the Ohio, but it halted
while a river supply boat brought on supplies. A few hours before
I had taken pictures of the Sobel from high up on the Chester bridge.
One of the oldest Mississippi
towns, New Madrid, Missouri, sits on top of a giant loop in the river.
A terrible earthquake hit New Madrid in 1811. The river foamed.
Trees came cracking
During the Civil War, the Union
wanted to take control of the Mississippi from Cairo down to the Gulf,
nearly a 1000 miles of meandering river. New Madrid was especially
important. Confederates tried to hold on to a heavily fortified island
upriver called Island Number 10 (the tenth island below the confluence
of the Ohio and the Mississippi), but Union forces built a six-mile-long
canal in 19 days through a swamp. The canal essentially cut off
the wide bend in the river and allowed Federal forces to supply troops
to the north so the island was vulnerable from both sides. The Rebels
finally gave up in 1862, and when Island Number 10 fell, the river was
open to Union forces all the way to Vicksburg.
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