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“DAY ONE of my Eight-Day Mark Twain Riverboat Trip Along the Upper Mississippi”
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em
as much as you please.” – Mark Twain
Mark Twain begins his work, “Life on the Mississippi,” with a history and metrics of the river. He states that the Mississippi is the longest river in the world. He continues with the personality of the river: that it is also the most crooked in the world, since, in one section, it takes 1,300 miles to cover 675 miles as the crow flies. This disposition to curve comes up frequently in Twain’s book: after making sharp curves, the river cuts through narrow pieces of land to become straighter and shorter. One such cut was reputed to have shortened the river by 30 miles in a single jump. Later in the book he shares stories of towns that lost their riverside advantage when the Mississippi took a short-cut and left them land-bound, sometimes by miles.
He reports that the Mississippi receives water from 54 other rivers navigable by steamboats and hundreds more that support smaller vessels, carrying that water to the Gulf of Mexico. He adds that the area of the Mississippi’s drainage basin is as large as the combined areas of the British Isles, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy and Turkey.
He shares a particular I would never have otherwise known: One would expect the river to become wider as it approaches its mouth near the Gulf, but, instead, it becomes narrower and deeper along its journey. About halfway down the river – near the confluence with the Ohio River (near Cairo, Illinois, to be precise – an important town in his story about Huck Finn) – it is about a mile wide at high water with a depth of about 87 feet; yet close to the Gulf, its width is little over a half mile while its depth is 129 feet.
He found a fact in the New Orleans “Times-Democrat” that the river annually empties 406 million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico. The claim is that this amount of mud, solidified, would form a mass one mile square and 241 feet high.
On the history side, DeSoto was the first white man to see the Mississippi in 1542, although he wasn’t looking for a river. The waterway garnered little interest at the time. Almost 150 years later, Joliet and Marquette traveled across the Great Lakes and south through Green Bay, continuing south on the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. In 1673 they came to the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi. The interest of these two men was to confirm whether the Mississippi reached west into the Gulf of California, which they confirmed it did not. Another 130 years passed before many whites settled along the banks and the river had any commerce, in the very early 1800’s.
Commerce along the river was first supported by great barges like the keelboats, carrying loads up and down the length of the river, with a round trip taking as long as nine months. The river men were reported to be as rough and wild as the fur-trapping mountain men. Steamboats finally replaced these barges, accompanied by rafts of timber and coal filling the waters alongside. Mark Twain speaks of seeing these rafts passing his home town of Hannibal when he was growing up. He and his boyhood friends would swim out to the rafts and catch a ride.
And, while I wasn’t about to try a swim in the grand Mississippi, I caught a ride, too – on a paddle wheeler – to travel the river downstream.
On the afternoon of Day One, I was to catch a bus in Minneapolis and ride to Red Wing, Minnesota, to board the American Queen riverboat.
Everything about the tour was flowing perfectly. The cruise line put guests up in a hotel the day before to be sure we would all arrive in time to board the boat. When I arrived at the hotel, I had been allowed to check in early.
This morning, I placed my suitcase with a cruise tag inside my hotel room at 8 a.m. for early pickup and delivery to the boat. The Radisson, where we stayed, is connected to Minneapolis’ Mall of America, so that people don’t have to face the elements during the winter’s bitter cold. The basement of the mall connects to the area’s Light Rail station. Since I had time to kill before boarding the bus, I rode the Light Rail to the northernmost stop, downtown Minneapolis/Target Field, near St. Anthony’s Falls where the Mississippi River begins.
The weather forecast that day was for a high of 37 degrees, dropping to a low of 24 degrees overnight for expected “hard freeze.” The temperature remained this way through Day Three of the trip. I had checked the weather before leaving San Jose, California, and was ready with a black angora cap, neck scarf, ear muffs, thick suede gloves, three layers under a down vest and a heavy winter purple windbreaker with sealed, windproof seams.
The Target Field Light Rail stop was ten blocks from the Mississippi River and St. Anthony’s Falls, where the river begins. While willing to face the freezing cold with a wind chill of 19 degrees, I didn’t have time to make the walk and found out later that was just as well. The water level was so low that there was nothing at the Falls. Later, I heard that a tour bus wouldn’t even stop there because there was nothing to see.
On the way back, I got off at the American Boulevard stop, three stops before the hotel, and walked two blocks to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The Long Meadow Lake Trail is 3.4 miles to Long Meadow Lake and a view of the Minnesota River, which branches southwest out of the Mississippi. Once again, I didn’t have time to walk the whole loop, but I did go down the path a ways. The fall leaves were turning yellow against a brilliant blue sky. At the end of my walk, returning to the hotel, in just two blocks I was transported from National Wildlife wilderness to the urban condition of a Light Rail station.
I was looking forward to tasting local fare on this trip. Back at the hotel, I started off with a lunch of corn-crusted walleye, native wild rice pear and cranberry blend, and a lemon-tarragon remoulade.
At 2 p.m. I boarded the bus from the hotel lobby and rode south to the town of Red Wing. We walked off the bus, across a gangplank and onto the riverboat. A wide, elegant set of stairs greeted us. Our luggage was waiting for us in our staterooms.
Perfection continuing, once onboard the American Queen riverboat, I discovered that the name of my stateroom was Hannibal, the name of the town where Mark Twain grew up. A great omen.
The cruise company warns that the paddlewheel is a noisy affair. I got a cabin on the highest deck possible, furthest away from the wheel. The paddle wheeler has 6 decks, the top being the Sun Deck, the 5th being the Promenade Deck. I was on the 4th deck, the Observation Deck, on the opposite end from the paddlewheel. I couldn’t wait!
The City of Shreveport, Louisiana, is said to be named after a Captain Henry M. Shreve, who piloted the first mechanically successful steamboat down the Ohio. As the story goes, he cut his cabin into 26 small rooms, naming each after one of the 26 states in the union at the time. This claims to explain why boat cabins are now called staterooms around the world.
Any boat run by a steam engine is considered a steamboat; however, most steamboats built in the 19th and 20th centuries were paddlewheel boats. They shared a basic design: a hull made of timber and a wooden paddlewheel. The paddlewheel had a circular center with spokes coming out from it like a bicycle wheel. Planks were attached to the spokes to make the paddle. The wheel was placed on either the side or rear of the boat. Boats with their paddles on the side were called sidewheelers, while boats with their paddles at the rear were called sternwheelers. The American Queen, that I was travelling on, was a sternwheeler.
The paddlewheels were turned by an engine powered by steam. Boilers made of giant copper tubes with two flues and a firebox made the steam to run the engine. The boiler was filled with water. First wood and later coal was used to build the fire to heat the water.
While most steamboats had a similar design, they had different functions. Towboats pushed barges up and down the river; ferries carried people from shore to shore; snag boats cleared dead trees out of the path of other steamboats; packets carried goods, mail and people; and “fuelers” re-supplied other steamboats along the river with wood, coal or oil.
In 1841 the average cost to build a steamboat was $35,000, with a running expense of $200 per day. A trip from Cincinnati to New Orleans and back would take about 20 days.
The American Queen riverboat was built in 1995. She looks exactly as I imagine a riverboat in Mark Twain’s day must have looked. She is 418 feet long. She is 97.5 feet high when her smokestacks are upright and 55 feet high when the stacks and pilot house are completely lowered hydraulically. Her steel-reinforced paddlewheel is 30 feet wide. The boat’s gross tonnage is 3,707 tons. She can travel 11 mph at peak speed with an average of 8 mph. She can carry over 112,000 gallons of fresh water. She has 222 staterooms, can accommodate 436 passengers, and must have at least 167 crew members on board to operate.
There was embarkation business this first day of the cruise. The U.S. Coast Guard requires a safety drill. Each of us put on our life jacket and stood outside of our stateroom. The boat’s crew walked down each hall and confirmed that we had put on our life jackets correctly. Over a loudspeaker, the captain reviewed the various warning bells we might hear.
For some reason I had been assigned a handicapped room, so I had more space than most, including a bathtub. I felt surrounded by luxury. My stateroom was on the fourth level, called the Observation Deck, and not far from what was called the Chart Room. There were maps of the river showing details of every section we traveled through. In each stateroom was a television console that showed the current temperature and tomorrow’s forecast.
The dining room was elegant, with sculpted high ceilings, calling to mind old movies from the 1940’s set on luxurious riverboats. The early seating for my dinner was 5:15 p.m. with four ladies assigned to my table. They hailed from Topeka, Kansas; Cleveland, Ohio; Michigan and Maryland. We all became great friends by the end of the cruise. The fare did not disappoint. My first dinner onboard began with an appetizer of fried green tomatoes, home-made chicken broth, and spinach salad, with an entrée of cornmeal-crusted delta catfish and flourless chocolate torte for dessert.
The paddle wheeler remained at Red Wing overnight.
Red Wing is the county seat of Goodhue County, Minnesota, with a population of about 16,500. It was named for early 19th-century Dakota Sioux Chief Red Wing.
In the early 1850s, settlers from Mississippi River steamboats came to Red Wing to farm. They cleared the land for wheat, encroaching on traditional territory of the Mdewakanton Sioux. Before railroads were constructed across the territory of Goodhue County, Red Wing produced more wheat than any other county in the country, sending the wheat for grinding up to the flour mills in Minneapolis and Saint Anthony. In 1873, Red Wing led the country in wheat sales.
In 1889, the federal government established a Mdewakanton Sioux Indian reservation along the Mississippi River to free up land for new settlers. The city of Red Wing developed around it.
In the last half of the 20th century, the United States Army Corps of Engineers built Lock and Dam No. 3 and deepened the channel on the Mississippi River to improve navigation in this area. Such projects revitalized Mississippi River traffic for shipping grain and coal. The port of Red Wing has gained business as a result. The Mayo Clinic has facilities in this area. And Red Wing is the home of Red Wing Shoes.
I turned in early. Day One had a been a great day. I was looking forward to Day Two.
“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die,
even the undertaker will be sorry.” – Mark Twain
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American Queen Voyages “Daily Voyage” newsletter, 10/18/2022 (Red Wing Issue 791)