Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by Lee Sandlin, Pantheon, 270 pp., $26.95
In 1882, Mark Twain boarded a steamboat in St. Louis and set off down the Mississippi. The great chronicler of the river, who before achieving literary fame had worked its waters as a steamboat pilot, was returning to the Mississippi after an absence of more than 20 years to revisit the vibrant river towns he had known as a young man. As Twain later wrote in Life on the Mississippi, what he found instead were a string of dilapidated or abandoned settlements separated by lonely stretches of river pouring “its chocolate tide along, between its solid forest walls, its almost un-tenanted shores, with seldom a sail or a moving object of any kind to disturb the surface.” The Mississippi of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn was gone. The weight of commerce had shifted to the railroads. And even the once-indomitable river appeared transformed, its waters cleared of snags by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and illuminated at night by a seemingly endless chain of oil lamps along its shores. In the decades to come, locks and dams and channels and levees would make river navigation more efficient than ever. But, for Twain, the taming of the mighty Mississippi brought sadness. “Piloting, at a good stage of water, is now nearly as safe and simple as driving stage,” he wrote, “and is hardly more than three times as romantic.”
In Wicked River, Lee Sandlin, a longtime writer and essayist for the Chicago Reader, sets out to restore the Mississippi to its natural, roiling state. Like the river itself, the book flows erratically from the Minnesota headwaters to the Louisiana Delta. Along the way, Sandlin picks through the flotsam and jetsam of time to assemble a folk history of life on the river from the early 19th century until the end of the Civil War—a period, he writes, during which the Mississippi last ran “wild as a river does in nature.” The resulting portrait is unrelentingly grim, substituting filth, disease, and early death for the corncob pipes and paddle wheels of our childhood imagination.
The book’s pages are populated by a dizzying (and, at times, overwhelming) number of characters—plantation owners, missionaries, soldiers, slaves, minstrels, circus freaks, war profiteers, witch doctors, riverboat gamblers, grifters, drunks, prostitutes, pirates, vigilantes, thieves, and killers. Sandlin delves deeply into his source material, stitching together discrete stories and bits of folklore and apocrypha into a larger whole, but the long line of cameo appearances might leave readers weary and wishing that he had been more judicious in his selection.
More compelling is his description of the river itself and of the “voyageurs” (including, in 1831, a 22-year-old Abraham Lincoln) who guided their rafts, barges, and keelboats through its hazards. Flowing more than 2,300 miles through mostly uninhabited wilderness, the Mississippi of the early 1800s might as well have marked the edge of the world. Its deep-water current, fed by frigid northern meltwaters, was prone to sudden changes in course that demolished whatever happened to be in its path. Floods almost biblical in scale were common, as were violent storms that could reduce visibility to near zero. Then there were the river obstacles—hidden sandbars and submerged trees that could pulverize even the strongest keelboat. One in five river journeys ended in disaster. “Every traveler on the river got to know the sight of bodies drifting with the current, or hanging from a floating island, or bobbing among the logs piled up on a river bend,” writes Sandlin. “The red shirt that the voyageurs wore, the closest thing the river had to a uniform, could be spotted a mile off, like a distress signal.” To fall overboard was a death sentence. The boats could not turn around in the current, and men unfortunate enough to find themselves adrift would often drown or die of hypothermia. Those who reached shore were no less doomed: alone in the wilderness they made easy prey for bears, panthers, and wolves, or for the river pirates and hostile Indians that patrolled the water’s edge.
The introduction of steamboats changed all this, enabling river traffic to move in both directions. By 1850 they had become the preferred mode of transport, but the speed and convenience they offered brought new dangers. Steamboats made numerous stops up and down the river, becoming ideal vectors for diseases like cholera and yellow fever, counterfeit money, and all manner of criminality. They were also floating tinderboxes. In 1849, a fire aboard a steamboat called the White Cloud in St. Louis seared through the ship’s mooring lines, sending it careening into the other steamboats along the levee. As Sandlin recounts, soon 23 of them were burning, and the fire quickly spread to the buildings onshore. The warehouse district and much of the rest of St. Louis were incinerated in the flames. In rebuilding, the city wisely traded lumber for less-flammable red brick. The irony was thick, then, when just seven years later, its entire fleet of steamboats was again destroyed, this time by a late-season ice flow.
The book’s best parts include Sandlin’s detailed account of the Civil War siege of Vicksburg and his retelling of yet another steamboat disaster: the sinking of the Sultana. On a rain-driven night in April 1865, the ship was steaming upriver from Memphis loaded with more than 2,200 former Union prisoners—five times its recommended capacity—when one of its boilers exploded. The blast killed hundreds of passengers instantly and plunged the survivors, many of them already weakened from time spent in Confederate prison camps, into the freezing water. Hundreds more died before they could be rescued. The tragedy ultimately claimed more than 1,500 lives, making it the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, but, as Sandlin points out, “there was a general sense back east that it was, after all, just another sunken frontier steamboat.” Still absorbed in the news of Lincoln’s assassination only weeks before, most Americans paid the Sultana little mind, and the Mississippi flowed on as remorselessly as ever. Sandlin writes:
Over the next few years, the river shifted course, and the channel was emptied of its current. The great banks caved in, and the bottom was covered over by wash after wash of mud and silt deposited from upstream. Eventually the last traces of the channel and its islets were swallowed up. The soil grew rooted with meadow grasses and wildflowers and trees; then the land was cleared and cultivated, and the Sultana rested deep beneath the soybean fields of Arkansas.
In salvaging our memory of the Sultana and the many other tales of a now-forgotten culture, Sandlin has reclaimed a precious piece of our history.