Josh. Rambler. Soleather. Sergeant Fathom. Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab. A Son of Adam.
I ran through the names in my head as I devoured dry-rub barbecue and piled up napkins at Memphis’ bustling Rendezvous. The restaurant’s slogan—“Not since Adam has a rib been this famous”—had reminded me of Mark Twain’s fondness for comic allusions to Adam, to the extent that he based an early pen name on him. But “A Son of Adam,” along with “Josh” and “Rambler” and his other experiments, belonged to an amateur, a man who occasionally wrote while otherwise employed as a printer, steamboat pilot and miner. Not until he became a full-time journalist, far from the river, in the alkali dust of the Nevada Territory, did he settle on “Mark Twain.”
You work up a hunger walking half the length of the Mississippi—even along a virtual version of the river. I had come to the Rendezvous from the Riverwalk on Mud Island near downtown Memphis—a gurgling scale model of the lower half of the Mississippi from its confluence with the Ohio all the way to the Gulf. The Riverwalk affords an outdoor stroll that covers 1,000 miles on a scale of one step to the mile. A mockingbird kept me company as I sauntered on the buff-colored concrete mosaic and watched kids tumble over the elevation intervals layered on the model’s riverbank, rising from the channel like a stairway of stacked pancakes. What would Samuel Clemens have made of the Riverwalk? He was a grown child who readily took a God’s-eye view of life on earth. He would have loved it.
All that the model lacked was the highway running the Mississippi’s length—the Great River Road, my home for the next several days. My guiding star would be the signs with the pilot-wheel logo that beckons all who are willing to suspend time and turn off the GPS. The Great River Road is a map line drawn in many inks, consisting of federal, state, county and town roads, and even, it sometimes seems, private drives. In Illinois alone, it comprises 29 different roads and highways. Touted as a “scenic byway,” it is often not scenic and occasionally a thruway. But it is a unique way to sample this country’s present and past; its rich, its formerly rich and everyone else; its Indian mounds and Army forts; its wildlife from tundra swans to alligators; and its ceaseless engines of commerce.
One of which was the steamboat—indigenous, glorious and preposterous.
Indigenous. Europe had nothing like it. Charles Dickens, who in 1842 rode three different steamboats down the Ohio and up to St. Louis and back again, had the vocabulary knocked out of him when he first saw one. In American Notes, he writes that they were “foreign to all the ideas we are accustomed to entertain of boats. I hardly know what to liken them to, or how to describe them.” Lacking any “boat-like gear,” they looked as if they were built “to perform some unknown service, high and dry, upon a mountaintop.”
Glorious. They were “floating palaces,” and their tiers and filigrees made them “as beautiful as a wedding cake but without the complications,” as Mark Twain did not say. And they transformed the movement of people and goods on the river, formerly limited to flatboats and keelboats borne by the current, which were destroyed for scrap wood at the river’s mouth or laboriously pulled and poled back upriver. Nicholas Roosevelt (great-grand-uncle of Teddy) introduced the steamboat to the Mississippi when he steered the New Orleans into the river from the Ohio in 1811. During his journey, when he had occasion to turn the boat around and steam upriver, onlookers gaped and cheered.
Preposterous. You can heat an average New England house for an entire winter on four or five cords of wood; the larger steamboats in mid-century burned 50 to 75 cords of wood in one day. And thanks to commercial greed, frontier recklessness and the lust for showboating speed, steamboats were mayflies of mortality. In 1849, of the 572 steamboats operating on the Western rivers, only 22 were more than five years old. The others? Gone to a watery grave from snags, logs, bars, collisions, fires and boiler explosions. Smokestacks discharging the exhaust of open furnaces belched cinders onto wooden decks and cargoes of cotton, hay and turpentine. The most calamitous blows came from boiler explosions, which hurled boat fragments and bodies hundreds of feet into the air. When they didn’t land back on the boat or in the water, victims flew clear to shore and crashed through roofs or, in the words of one contemporary account, “shot like cannonballs through the solid walls of houses.”
Memphis saw the aftermath of many river tragedies. Mark Twain sadly chronicles one in Life on the Mississippi, his river memoir that treats his four years of steamboat piloting before the Civil War. In 1858, Sam, still a “cub” or apprentice pilot, encouraged his younger brother, Henry—sweet-tempered and cherished by the family—to take a job as an assistant clerk on the Pennsylvania, Sam’s boat at the time. On the way to New Orleans, the abusive pilot, under whom Sam had already been chafing for several trips, went too far and attacked Henry. Sam intervened, and the two pilots scuffled. Sam was forced to find a different boat for the upriver return, but Henry remained on the Pennsylvania. Two days behind his brother on the river, Sam received the awful news of a boiler explosion on the Pennsylvania. Henry, fatally injured, was taken to a makeshift hospital up the river in Memphis. When Sam reached his bedside, the sheer pathos of the meeting moved a newspaper reporter to single out the pair of brothers by name. The sympathetic citizens of Memphis—which Clemens would later call “the Good Samaritan City of the Mississippi”—worried that Sam was unhinged by grief and sent a companion to accompany him when he took Henry’s body north to St. Louis.
Fortunately I had no need of the ministrations of the city, though I did find myself delighted to receive many a “sir,” “my man” and “my friend.” An encounter with a stranger on an isolated street in Memphis seemed to call for a nod or greeting, not the averted gaze of a Northern city. Such is the South. But so is this: On my way to my car to head north, I swung through Confederate Park, which sits on the bluff from which Memphians watched the Southern river fleet lose the battle for the city in 1862, and I wandered over to a bronze statue that had caught my eye. It was Jefferson Davis. Etched into the granite base: “He was a true American patriot.” A Yankee leaves a tribute like that scratching his head.
The Great River Road often hugs the river for miles; at other times it seeks high ground. In the Kentucky stretch, to see the river you must take a side trip, say, to the Columbus-Belmont State Park, peaceful now but not always—some of its gentle hills are trench walls from the war. In December of 1861, Ulysses S. Grant, based just up the river in Cairo, Illinois, led 3,000 Federals in a harassing attack here, not on the dug-in Confederate force on the bluff but against a smaller encampment on the Missouri side of the river. The long day of advance and retreat, essentially a draw, included several close calls for the Union brigade commander. Looming over the site is a Confederate cannon, unearthed by a local historian 16 years ago from under 42 feet of soil.
The river has a long history of diggers and salvagers. A few miles up the road, another side trip delivers you to Wickliffe Mounds, site of one of the many Mississippian culture villages along the river. This one dates from circa 1100 to 1350 and was first excavated in the 1930s by a Kentucky lumber magnate and devoted amateur archaeologist, Fain King, who created a tourist attraction that presented the exposed bones of Native Americans as objects of curiosity. But, more important, they are the remains of venerable ancestors, as Congress declared in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. This requires that disposition of native skeletal remains be transferred to tribal descendants or, if unknown, to a tribe best representing them. The “Ancient Buried City” skeletons were ceremonially reinterred by members of the Chickasaw Nation, and the mounds were restored to their original form.
I drove on to St. Louis to meet Kris Zapalac, an energetic historian and preservationist—and debunker. Don’t be surprised if her first words to you address misconceptions she suspects you are laboring under. She might warn you to be suspicious of memorials: “Just because there’s a tunnel somewhere doesn’t mean it was part of the Underground Railroad.” Or she might tell you that slaves escaping to freedom weren’t invariably helped by outsiders, white or otherwise: “People are always looking for a Harriet Tubman.”
Kris picked me up outside the city’s Old Courthouse, where I had spent the morning studying the comprehensive Dred Scott display. Driving north on Broadway, she pointed to the 1874 Eads Bridge, for which she had managed to find a railing design that met code requirements and also closely matched the original. James B. Eads—“B” for Buchanan, but it should stand for “Brainstorm”—was a dynamo of ingenuity. He devised ironclad gunboats for the Union, created the navigation channel for deep-water ships at the mouth of the Mississippi and—my personal favorite—invented a diving bell. Like Henry Clemens, Eads began his river career as an assistant clerk, and as he watched steamboats all around him go down, he saw money to be made from reclaiming their cargo and fittings. He invented a contraption that for years only he was willing to use, and no wonder. It was a 40-gallon whiskey barrel with one end removed and the other linked to a boat by a supporting cable and an air hose. Once he was installed in it, the barrel would be submerged, open end first to capture the air (imagine an inverted glass in a full dish tub). At the bottom, he would wander the underwater terrain, fighting the current and the dismal murk in search of treasure. Eads should have died many times. Instead, he established himself as a pioneering, if somewhat zany, engineer.
Four miles north of the St. Louis Arch, Kris and I arrived at our destination—an Underground Railroad site she had discovered. Here, in 1855, a small group of slaves attempted to cross the river to Illinois, among them a woman named Esther and her two children. However, authorities lay in wait for them on the Illinois riverbank. A few slaves escaped, but most were apprehended, among them Esther, who was owned by Henry Shaw—a name known to all St. Louisans for the vast botanical garden he developed and bequeathed to the city. To punish Esther for the attempt, Shaw sold her down the river, separating her from her two children. Kris, working from newspaper accounts and receipts of slave sales, put the facts together and arrived at the likely spot on the river where the skiff had cast off. In 2001, the site was recognized by the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.