How the Mississippi River Made Mark Twain… And Vice Versa

No novelist captured the muddy waterway and its people like the creator of Huckleberry Finn, as a journey along the river makes clear

Mark Twain, Mississippi River
For Twain, the “magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide” was the stuff of dreams (the St. Louis waterfront today). Dave Anderson

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.

Hannibal (site of the Mark Twain home and museum)—his “white town drowsing in the sunshine”—retains the sleepy charm immortalized by the author. Dave Anderson
“When I was a boy,” Twain wrote, “there was but one permanent ambition among my be a steamboatman.” (Today, a riverboat docks in Memphis.) Dave Anderson
The Great River Road follows the mythic waterway Twain evoked: “It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. ” Dave Anderson
Hannibal takes time travel seriously: For kids in period dress, Twain home staffers organize readings of the novelist’s works at the Mount Olivet Cemetery. Dave Anderson
Hannibal, the novelist’s boyhood home on the Mississippi, “had me for a citizen,” Twain once quipped, “but I was too young then to really hurt the place.” Dave Anderson
Hannibal (site of the Mark Twain home and museum)—his “white town drowsing in the sunshine”—retains the sleepy charm immortalized by the author. Dave Anderson
Kris Zapalac , on the Mississippi near the site of the Underground Railroad route that she discovered. Dave Anderson
Tom & Huck Statue - at the foot of Cardiff Hill in Hannibal, MO. Dave Anderson
Vicki and Terrell Dempsey, at their home in Quincy, Illinois, wrote the book Searching for Jim about slavery in Hannibal. Dave Anderson
Cindy Lovell, former Executive director of the Mark Twain home and museum, brings school-aged kids to the Mount Olivet Cemetary for candlelight readings of Twain works. Dave Anderson
The Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, MO. Dave Anderson
Tom and Becky look alike contest in Hannibal in 2012. Dave Anderson
View of the Great River Road. Dave Anderson
Road sign for the Great River Road. Dave Anderson
In Dubuque, Robert Carroll is the guide to an old dredge boat called the William M. Black. Dave Anderson

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.

At the crossing, I tried to imagine the silent nighttime boarding and departure and the bitter disappointment across the river. Because of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act requiring citizens of free states to aid in the capture of freedom seekers, Illinois represented not freedom to a slave but rather a different kind of danger. I thought of Mark Twain’s Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, hiding on the island to avoid the fate ultimately dealt to Esther. Meanwhile, Huck, disguised as a girl, learns from an otherwise kindly Illinois woman that she suspects a runaway slave is camped on the island and that she has alerted her husband, who is about to head out to capture him. That scene leads to the most famous use of the first-person plural pronoun in literature: Huck dashes back to the island, awakens Jim, and instinctively signs on to his struggle with the words, “They’re after us.”

Kris and I stepped into the nearby information center housed in a square metal former Coast Guard building and were welcomed by a lively, loquacious host. Kris hadn’t been to the site in a while, and when our host learned that she was the one who had discovered the facts of the crossing, he beamed and high-fived her and included me as well, though entirely undeserving. He said to her, “You’re a great lady. You’re a great lady.” Kris shook her head. “I’m a historian,” she said.

I left Kris to her current project—researching hundreds of freedom suits filed by slaves in Missouri courts—and drove up the Missouri segment of the Great River Road known as the Little Dixie Highway. I passed through the small town of Louisiana, where young Sam Clemens was put ashore after being found stowed away on a steamboat from Hannibal, 30 miles up the river. He was 7 years old. I thought about the difference between the boy who had grown up in Hannibal in the 1840s and ’50s and the Mark Twain who had written the island scene in Huckleberry Finn. I had recently read Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens’s World, a book by Terrell Dempsey, a former Hannibalian now living not far from that town in Quincy, Illinois. Dempsey had long doubted that Hannibal’s full slave history had been properly told, and he and his wife, Vicki—an attorney like himself—began to spend evenings and weekends spooling through the local newspaper archive.

To read Searching for Jim is to understand the racist cruelty of the society in which Clemens grew up—the grinding labor that was the slaves’ daily lot; the beatings they endured, sometimes to the point of death; the white citizens’ loathing for abolitionists and free blacks; the racist jokes passed from one newspaper to another, some of which young Sam, as an apprentice printer, set in type. The Clemens household kept slaves, and Sam’s father sat on a jury that sent three abolitionists to prison for 12 years. To reread Mark Twain with a fuller sense of that world is to appreciate the long moral journey he had to make in order to—like Huck—sign on to Jim’s struggle.

I met Terrell and Vicki in their home in Quincy—an 1889 Queen Anne, one of dozens of enviable Victorian homes in the town’s East End Historic District. Terrell proposed a boat ride despite threatening weather. We drove to the dock on Quinsippi Island, unwrapped their modest pontoon boat and headed out. We passed close by a tow pushing nine covered barges and speculated about their contents. Three of the barges rode high in the water—empties, Terrell explained to his landlubber guest.

We talked about Clemens’ early environment and what he wrote—and didn’t write—about it. I mentioned something that had struck me in my recent rereading of Life on the Mississippi, a book not just about Clemens’ piloting years but also—the bulk of it, in fact—about life on the river when he revisited it in 1882. Slaves were a constant presence on antebellum steamboats, both as forced laborers on the deck and in chained droves being taken downriver. Yet there is no mention of them on the boats in the memoir portion, nor is there reflection on their absence in 1882.

Terrell, a bluff fellow, said, “He didn’t want to remind people where he came from.”

As the hum of the outboard stirred large carp into the air (but not into the boat), we talked of other omissions and shadings in Mark Twain’s works. A memoir by a piloting colleague of Clemens’ tells of how they both avoided being drafted as Union pilots in the summer of 1861 when the general in the St. Louis office who was about to complete the paperwork became distracted by some pretty women in the hall and stepped out the door. This allowed the near-conscripts to desert via a different door. It’s a perfect Mark Twain story that Mark Twain never told.

Vicki, huddling against the wind off the river, said, “He also never wrote about defrauding the abolitionist society.”

This was a curious episode uncovered by literary scholar Robert Sattelmeyer and then skillfully sleuthed by him. The Boston Vigilance Committee was an abolitionist group that rendered financial support to fugitive slaves and occasionally put its funds to other uses. For example, if someone wrote to the society from, say, Missouri, that he needed financial help to go to, say, Boston, the committee might very well respond with cash if the circumstances were right—as they seemed to be in this case, according to a September 1854 entry in the treasurer’s ledger book: $24.50 paid to one “Samuel Clemens” for “passage from Missouri Penitentiary to Boston—he having been imprisoned there two years for aiding Fugitives to escape.” Sattelmeyer established that only one Samuel Clemens lived in Missouri in this period and that no Samuel Clemens had served in the state penitentiary. The explanation must be that young Sam, like his later creation Tom Sawyer, enjoyed a good joke at others’ expense, and what better dupes to hoodwink than those meddling abolitionists?

Why would Clemens do such a thing? Because he was an 18-year-old who had grown up in a slave state. A little over a decade later, he would woo Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York, daughter of an abolitionist not just in theory but in practice: Her father, Jervis Langdon, helped fund the work of John W. Jones, a former slave and Underground Railroad conductor who aided hundreds of escaped slaves on their flight north. I wondered aloud, there on the boat, if Clemens’ anti-abolitionist prank ever made it into the Elmira dinner table conversation during his two-year courtship.

“Doubtful,” said Terrell. He revved the outboard, looked back at the carp leaping in our wake, and grinned. “That really pisses them off,” he said.

The next day I visited Hannibal, a town that will always feel as small as it was when Clemens grew up, bounded as it is by a bluff on its north side, another bluff just 12 blocks to the south, and the river to the east. I was curious about changes in the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which I hadn’t visited for two decades. The concise narrative in the museum’s “interpretive center” (completed in 2005) presented Clemens’ early life without overload. Mercifully free of the looping banjo and fiddle music that had dogged me through other river museums, the room was silent save for a single whispered comment I heard from one museumgoer to another, “I didn’t know he was so poor.”

I was happy to see a large photograph of Sam’s older brother Orion in the interpretive center, looking more distinguished than his reputation. Orion was a bumbler with a disastrous career record, but he was earnest and good-hearted. Sam, in adulthood, showed an anger toward him that had always seemed excessive to me. Now, looking at the portrait on the heels of that one overheard comment, I wondered if Sam’s anger could have gone back to the fact that when he was just 11 and his father died, poverty forced his mother to remove him from school and apprentice him to a stern local printer, and this would not have been the case if Orion, ten years his senior, hadn’t been an incompetent from birth and had been able to provide for the family.

I next went to the boyhood home, sliced down one side from front to back like a dollhouse, its three rooms on each of its two levels protected by glass but still allowing an intimate view. A high-school boy behind me, upon bursting into the parlor from the gift shop, said to himself, with feeling, “This is sweet!” The home was working its magic on him. On the wooden floor of the kitchen lay a thin rug with a sign explaining that a slave would have slept here, rising early to light the fire for the household. This pallet was installed at the suggestion of Terrell Dempsey, who has agitated over the years for the museum to give more attention to slavery. Before him, in the 1990s, Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin made a similar appeal, and the museum indeed now does the subject justice.

After my tour, I sought out the museum’s executive director, Cindy Lovell. While I was in her office, curator Henry Sweets looked in on us long enough to hear me express delight in the exhibits before he hurried off to attend to his many duties, as he has done since 1978. The two of them are Twainiacs even beyond what you would expect from their positions. Cindy, speaking of other curators and scholars, will say, “He’s a geek for Twain,” and “She’s got the bug” and “She gets it.” Or the death sentence: “He gets things wrong.” Don’t try to quote Mark Twain in her presence. She will finish the quotation—with corrections—and extend it beyond your intentions.

Cindy gave me a director’s-eye view of Twain World—a place with at least five headquarters (in addition to Hannibal: Berkeley, California; Hartford, Connecticut; Elmira, New York; and his birthplace in nearby Florida, Missouri). “They’re wonderful people,” she said. “It’s a great community.” Unfortunately, though, Clemens’ artifacts are spread hither and yon. A 12-foot mirror from his Fifth Avenue New York apartment is in a Dubuque river museum. “It’s crazy!” she said. “They’re all over the place. Florida has the family carriage!” The carriage properly belonged in Hartford, where it had seen regular use by Sam, Olivia and their three daughters, not in the Missouri burg Sammy had left at age 3. I imagined a coordinated multi-party swap happening, like a kidney exchange, where each museum received the goods that suited it.

At Cindy’s suggestion, we repaired in my rental car to two Twain geek haunts—the Mount Olivet Cemetery, where many Clemenses repose (father, mother and brothers Henry and Orion; as for Sam, Olivia and their children, they are all buried in Elmira), and then the Baptist cemetery, where Tom Sawyer read “Sacred to the Memory of So-and-so,” painted on the boards above the graves, and you can read it now on the tombstones that have replaced them. Here, before Tom’s and Huck’s terrified eyes, Injun Joe murdered Dr. Robinson. Cindy told me of her fondness for bringing school-age writers to the cemetery at night and reading that passage to them by candlelight. They huddle close. (Alas, no more. As if to demonstrate the comity in Twain World, not long after my visit, Cindy became executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford.)

It’s a big river, as they say, and I had to move on. Comedian Buddy Hackett once said that words with a “k” in them are funny. By this measure Keo­kuk is overqualified. Orion moved to this Iowa river town just across the border from Missouri, and although he characteristically struggled as a newspaper editor, he succeeded in becoming an opponent of slavery, much to the chagrin of young Sam.

I stayed at a B&B on Keokuk’s Grand Avenue, well named for the view of the river the broad street commands from the bluff. In the morning, two bright-eyed, white-shirted couples joined me at the breakfast table. They said they were from Salt Lake City, I said I was from Vermont, and we agreed not to discuss politics. Each couple had a son “on mission,” one in Russia, the other in New Caledonia, and the four of them were on a weeklong pilgrimage along the Mormon Pioneer Trail that traces the migration of the faith’s persecuted forebears from western Missouri east to Illinois, then west again, finally to Utah. They asked about my travels, and I mentioned Mark Twain. One of the men, with an ambiguous smile, said that Mark Twain had written that the Book of Mormon was “a cure for insomnia.” (Actually, “chloro-form in print,” which I didn’t recall at the table. Where was Cindy when I needed her?)

I wanted to ask about their pilgrimage, but I hung fire on the phrasing. “Do all Mormons do this?” would sound as if I saw them as a herd. My every thought seemed rooted in stereotype. The sole coffee drinker at the table, I felt like an alcoholic with each sip. When one of the men checked something on his iPad, I thought, “Hmm, so Mormons are allowed to use iPads.” We parted on the friendliest of terms, but I felt the gulf of a vast difference, created mainly by my ignorance.

I drove north on Grand Avenue, passing homes in a range of styles—Queen Anne, Dutch Colonial Revival, Gothic Revival and Prairie School—all in a six-block stretch. But these piles, unlike the Quincy houses I had admired, did not suggest a neighborhood as much as isolated testaments to an earlier prosperity. The road dropped down, wound along the river and then delivered me without fanfare into the tranquil village of Montrose, with churches sized to match its population. Just to the north, I happened upon one of the reasons the B&B pilgrims had come here. Across the river in Nauvoo, Illinois, beginning in 1839, Mormon settlers cleared swamps and established a town that swiftly grew into the largest in the state. The surrounding communities, threatened by the Mormons’ beliefs—and their success—murdered leader Joseph Smith in 1844, and in 1846 they began to drive the Mormons out of the area. The first to flee crossed the river on ice in February, though many perished, and, at the site where I now stood, the survivors huddled and looked back on the temple and the town they had lost. On the trip so far I had passed several crossings along routes once traveled by Native Americans being forcibly relocated to Indian Territory. This place too, I thought, is a Trail of Tears. I looked down the road, hoping that my B&B pilgrims might come while I was there so that we could become reacquainted on their turf, but the timing wasn’t right.

Onward. The 250-mile Wisconsin segment of the Great River Road recently won a “Most Beautiful Road Trip” survey conducted by the Huffington Post, beating out Hawaii’s Hana Highway and California’s Big Sur Coast Highway. I needed to see it for myself. The next day, I headed out from Dubuque before dawn, crossed into Wisconsin and panicked when the highway seemed to take me at right angles away from the river. But the pilot-wheel signs reassured me and steered me through rolling farmland back to the river. The landscape began to feel different from what I had experienced so far, and I knew why: I was in “the driftless area.” The most recent glacial period in North America, the Wisconsin Glaciation, spared this part of the river basin for reasons “that are poorly understood,” especially by me. “Drift” is the deposit left behind by a glacier (thus the name), but what most distinguishes the terrain is its unscoured range of towering bluffs along the river. These begin to appear about 50 miles north of Dubuque.

The bluffs are one of two surprises in the driftless area. The other is that the river sometimes becomes a lake. Locks and dams are often the cause, flooding upriver sloughs and bottomlands. But Lake Pepin, 21 miles long and so wide that the sight of it is initially disorienting, has a natural origin. At its southern end, Wisconsin’s Chippewa River flows on a steep gradient that delivers massive amounts of sediment into the Mississippi. Over the centuries, the encroaching deposit created a “delta dam,” backing the Mississippi up until it flooded to the bases of the confining bluffs.

Not far from Lake Pepin, I came across a sign for Maiden Rock. The “historical” marker told the tired story of the Indian maiden forcibly betrothed to a brave who was not the brave she loved, the tale climaxing in her despondent plunge to the rocks below. Winona was the maiden’s name, and the cliff looming over me was perfect for the job. Clemens passed by here in 1882—new territory for him, having plied the St. Louis-New Orleans line—and in Life on the Mississippi he tells the tale of Maiden Rock, not in his language but in the inflated style of a professional tour guide who has happened onto the steamboat. In the guide’s version, however, Winona lands on her matchmaking parents, who are gazing upward from below, wondering what their daughter is up to. The impact kills the couple while cushioning Winona’s fall, and she is now free to marry whomever she wishes. The unorthodox denouement, though ostensibly spoken by the humorless guide, is pure Mark Twain. What better way to blast a cliché to flinders?

At one point on the Wisconsin stretch I pulled over to watch a tow approach. I counted the barges: 15, three across and five long, the maximum on the upper river; south of St. Louis, up to 25 barges can be combined. Since the tow was going downriver, it was probably carrying corn or soybeans; upriver loads are more likely to be coal or steel. I watched the pilot navigate a tricky turn, although “tricky” is relative. In Clemens’ day, a pilot navigated by memory and skill at reading nuances in the river’s surface; today, buoys mark a channel 300 feet wide and nine feet deep. Still, it’s not easy. At a museum at the Alton, Illinois, lock and dam, I had entered a pretend pilothouse and bravely manned a panoramic simulator to pilot a tow along a digital St. Louis riverfront—a challenging stretch because of its many bridges with nonaligned pilings. In short order I crashed into the Eads Bridge, but mainly because I was distracted by the anachronistic Admiral I saw moored on the riverfront, a bygone restaurant boat where my wife once had some really bad fish. Later, outside the museum, I watched a northbound tow “lock through”; it rose 20 feet in just 30 minutes, thanks to massive inflow pipes that fill the lock, large enough to drive a truck through. Animals sometimes end up in the pipes—deer, pigs, cattle—and wash into the lock. No human bodies though—I asked. A nice first chapter for a mystery novel, I would think.

Satisfied that the Wisconsin Great River Road deserved its renown, I crossed to Red Wing, Minnesota, and turned around for the trip south.


“Do you love the river?” Terrell Dempsey had surprised me with this blunt question as he guided his pontoon boat toward the dock in Quincy. Before I could answer, his wife said, “We love the river” and then elaborated. As a young woman, Vicki interviewed for her first job in Louisiana, Missouri. Coming from St. Louis, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to live in such a small place until she got a view of the river from a vista above the town. “I’d never seen anything so beautiful,” she said. “I had to live there.” And they did. After a year, what seemed like a better job opportunity arose in Clinton, Missouri. “We hated it,” she said—because it was inland. They moved to Hannibal, to a house three blocks up Hill Street from the Clemens home, and they have lived on the Mississippi ever since.

I met many lovers of the river. An artist at the Applefest in Clarksville, Missouri, told me she had come there decades earlier “with a guy”—she said it in a way that foreshadowed the ending—and then she had happily stayed on “after the guy was long gone.”

In Dubuque, where I toured an old dredge boat called the William M. Black, the amiable guide, Robert Carroll, told me he grew up in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to the grinding roar of dredge boats cleaning out the river channel. He spoke so authoritatively about the William M. Black that I had taken him for a former deckhand. But no—he had spent his adult life as a court reporter in landlocked Cedar Rapids. He moved to Dubuque after he retired. “I missed the river,” he said, though he didn’t have to—I knew it was coming. Carroll now spends his days happily introducing visitors to every rivet on a boat much like the one he heard as a boy.

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