The Man Who Swam the Full Length of the Mississippi River

How Fred Newton found himself neck-deep in history

Fred Newton promotes his record-breaking journey.
Fred Newton promotes his record-breaking journey. Courtesy of the Newton Family

The morning of July 6, 1930, Fred Newton waded into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and started swimming. He told reporters he planned to reach New Orleans in 90 days. An athletic 27-year-old from Clinton, Oklahoma, Newton aimed to be the first person to swim the river’s length, hoping the exploit would bring wealth and fame. His younger brother Byron followed in a rowboat, carrying supplies and taking notes to document Fred’s torturous journey.

On the second day, Newton encountered floating mats of manure and stinking animal parts dumped off the stockyards of South St. Paul. But he kept swimming, even amid the Upper Mississippi’s treacherous whirlpools. Along the way, Newton stopped in riverside towns. A talented artist, he sometimes painted signs for local businesses in exchange for a meal or a bed.

By December, the water was frigid, so Newton donned wool underwear and slathered himself in axle grease for insulation. When he reached New Orleans on December 29—three months behind schedule—a crowd gathered to greet him, and the New Orleans Athletic Club offered him a hot bath.

Though Newton’s feat earned him a world record, it didn’t bring him riches. He went on to make a living as an insurance salesman and later founded a company that sold orthopedic products. He died at age 89 in 1992 in Gainesville, Texas, where, according to his son Phil, he mostly preferred to watch other people swim.

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