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“Day SIX 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 lived in Muscatine briefly during the summer of 1855 while working at the local newspaper, the Muscatine Journal, which was partly owned by his brother, Orion Clemens.
He noted some recollections of Muscatine in his book “Life on the Mississippi”:
“And I remember Muscatine—still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equaled them. They used the broad smooth river as a canvas, and painted on it every imaginable dream of color, from the mottled daintinesses and delicacies of the opal, all the way up, through cumulative intensities, to blinding purple and crimson conflagrations which were enchanting to the eye, but sharply tried it at the same time. All the Upper Mississippi region has these extraordinary sunsets as a familiar spectacle. It is the true Sunset Land: I am sure no other country can show so good a right to the name. The sunrises are also said to be exceedingly fine. I do not know.”
Thanks to the exquisite sunrise I’d see the morning before, I did know. This morning, Day 6, in Muscatine, I was rewarded with another lovely sunrise. The Mississippi curves west and south here, placing the rising sun over the middle of the river, like yesterday. Not far from where we docked, with a palette of orange sherbet colors as a backdrop, the Norbert F. Beckey Bridge sparkled with its decoration of pre-dawn colors similar to the Quad Bridge – this time red, white and blue. It is the only bridge on the Mississippi lit by LED lights.
Muscatine began as a trading post. Its name may have come from the Mascouten Native American tribe. Major William Williams, visiting in 1849, made these observations: The town had a large steam mill, two printing establishments, 6 churches, 4 physicians, 8 lawyers, a courthouse and a jail. Every steamboat passing by, headed upstream or down, stopped there.
From the 1840’s to the Civil War, Muscatine had Iowa’s largest black community, consisting of fugitive slaves who had traveled up the Mississippi from the South and free blacks who had migrated from the eastern states. Alexander G. Clark Sr., a black man born free in Pennsylvania, was among the founders of the local African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1848. He was a barber and later became a wealthy timber salesman and real estate speculator. Before the Civil War, he worked to assist fugitive slaves and overturn racist laws. In 1863, he helped organize Iowa’s black regiment, the 60th United States Colored Infantry. In 1868 he sued for and achieved desegregation of Iowa’s public schools. In 1879, his son Alexander Jr. became the first black graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law. Alexander Sr. then attended the college and became its second black law graduate at age 58. In 1890, he was appointed ambassador to Liberia by President Harrison. He was one of four Muscatine residents appointed as a diplomatic envoy between 1855 and 1900.
Today Muscatine has a population of about 54,000. It is located on a series of bluffs and hills at a major west-south bend in the Mississippi River, where the turn in the river gives the city about 260 degrees of riverfront. Bayer U.S.-Crop Science manufactures herbicides and pesticides and employs over 400 people here; the Kraft Heinz Company employs over 300.
My first hop off the tour bus today was to visit the National Pearl Button Museum, honoring what was Iowa’s “Pearl Button Capital of the World” at the turn of the 20th century.
Thanks to German immigrant John F. Boepple, Muscatine’s button industry exploded in the 1890s. Germany’s international import tariffs had caused the button maker to travel to America in search of mussel shells from the fresh waters of the Mississippi River that would reignite his button business. The industry of cutting mother-of-pearl buttons from these shells continued for the next sixty years. By 1905, Muscatine’s factories were producing 1.5 billion pearl buttons annually. Muscatine is known as Pearl City or the Pearl of the Mississippi. Towns up and down the river got in on the action. It was called the Gold Rush of the Mississippi.
The National Pearl Button Museum has artifacts, photos, and videos to tell the stories of immigrants, entrepreneurs, and everyday folk working in the pearl button industry. For some reason no one can explain, the locals called the mussels “clams.” Those who harvested the mussels were called “clammers.” Some buttons were dyed different colors, and the process is described in the museum. The dying process can take overnight or longer to achieve a more even color.
While the pearl button industry brought prosperity to the local economy, over-harvesting of the mussels came at an environmental cost. By 1908, the U. S. Congress was aware of the impact and a fisheries biology station was created to monitor the situation. The mussel species were nearly driven to extinction; as a result, the river’s quality was diminished.
Mussels filter particulate matter from the waters they occupy, from ten to 15 gallons of water per day. Since the mussels can filter out heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and harmful bacteria, there is growing interest in using them to pre-treat water for human consumption. Even decaying mussel shells release nutrients into the river.
Some species of freshwater mussels can live a hundred years. Like tree rings, the rings of mussel shells provide information about river health over time. Channel catfish, walleye, largemouth bass and skipjack herring are host species for several varieties of the mussels.
Next I rode the bus to the Muscatine County Environmental Learning Center, where a staff member walked around the facility carrying a lovely brown snake which I petted. A raptor handler introduced us to a rescued barred owl.
After visiting the Center, I tried to locate the Mark Twain Scenic Overlook which is supposed to afford a view of the Mississippi as it makes the west-to-south bend of 260 degrees. This was my own idea, based on a Google search, and not part of the cruise’s designated tour. I walked in the right direction, but not far enough to find it. Heading back to the paddle wheeler, I enjoyed a nice walk along the waterfront. I passed a plaque noting the flood height of the river in July 1993 at a record 25.8 feet.
We stayed a half day in Muscatine, giving lots of time to watch and photograph the river throughout the afternoon. The red gangways at the front of the riverboat pointed downstream, like arms outstretched, several decks directly below the cluster of calliope pipes. At the rear of the boat, red paddlewheel blades rhythmically churned the water into white foam. One could see the paddlewheel and the river behind it through portholes on the second deck.
Mid-afternoon I went to the auditorium to hear the Riverlorian tell the story of the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history. Few have heard of this tragedy, which was equal to or may have been worse than that of the Titanic. The story goes like this:
On April 27, 1865, the steamship Sultana, a side-wheeler coal-burning steamboat, exploded and burned on the Mississippi River while dangerously overloaded with passengers. The disaster was overshadowed in the press by events surrounding the end of the Civil War, including the recent assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Although designed with a capacity of only 376 passengers plus 85 crew members, the steamer was carrying 2,130 when three of the boat’s four boilers exploded and caused the riverboat to sink near Memphis, Tennessee.
The Sultana was smaller than the stern-wheeler I was travelling on. It measured 260 feet long, compared to the American Queen’s length of 418 feet. Its capacity was 460, compared to the American Queen’s of between 600 and 700 passengers and crew.
The Sultana had two side-mounted paddle wheels driven by four fire-tube boilers. These kinds of boilers could generate twice as much steam per fuel load as conventional flue boilers at that time. In those days, steamboat boiler explosions were common. Mark Twain’s brother perished during one such event.
The water levels in the Sultana’s boiler system had to be carefully maintained at all times. As the steamboat made her way north following the twists and turns of the Mississippi, she listed severely from side to side. Her four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side so that, if the boat tipped sideways, water would run out of the highest boiler. The fires still heating the now-empty boiler created hot spots leading to metal fatigue, significantly increasing the risk of an explosion. When the boat tipped the other way, water rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure. Typical steamboat construction was made of layers of highly flammable lightweight wood covered with paint and varnish, making any explosion catastrophic.
Thousands of Union prisoners of war had been released from Confederate prison camps and were awaiting transfer to the northern states. The U.S. Government was paying $2.75 per enlisted man and $8 per officer to any steamboat captain who would transport these men north. The Sultana’s Captain James Cass Mason made an unethical deal with Captain Reuben Hatch, the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Hatch proposed guaranteeing a full load of 1,400 prisoners if Mason would agree to give him a kickback. Mason did.
On the steamboat’s way to pick up the released prisoners, one its four boilers sprang a leak. A complete repair job would have taken several days. To ensure other steamboats didn’t take on the prisoners, Mason and his chief engineer convinced the mechanic to make temporary repairs, which would only take a day. While the repairs were being made, the Sultana took on the paroled prisoners.
By the time the Sultana backed away from Vicksburg, she was severely overcrowded with over 1,953 paroled prisoners (553 more than originally planned), 22 guards, 70 fare-paying cabin passengers, and 85 crew members, for a total of 2,130 people.
The Sultana traveled upriver for two days, fighting against one of the worst spring floods in the river’s history. In some places, the Mississippi overflowed her banks and spread out three miles wide. The boat’s struggle against spring floods would have caused constant listing and metal fatigue of its boilers, as described above.
The steamboat stopped at Memphis and unloaded 200 men. A short distance upriver, she took on a new load of coal from some coal barges.
At around 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the Sultana was about seven miles north of Memphis, a boiler exploded, followed a split-second later by explosions of two more.
The steam from the explosions tore through the crowded decks above and completely demolished the pilothouse. Experienced crew members covered their faces with their coats, knowing anyone who breathed in the steam would perish. The twin smokestacks toppled over. The forward part of the upper deck collapsed onto the middle deck, killing and trapping many in the wreckage. The collapsing decks formed a slope that led down into the exposed furnace boxes. The broken wood caught fire and turned the remaining structure into an inferno. Many of the paroled prisoners had been severely weakened at the Confederate prison camps. Survivors dove into the water, but in their weakened condition, they soon ran out of strength.
A southbound steamer arrived soon after the explosion and rescued many survivors. At the same time, dozens of people began to float past the Memphis waterfront, calling for help. Crews of docked steamboats immediately responded to help with the rescue.
Those who survived the initial explosions had to choose between being caught in the boat’s flames or risking their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from the tops of trees semi-submerged by the flood along the Arkansas shore. Most of Sultana’s officers, including Captain Mason, were killed.
A report blamed Vicksburg’s quartermaster Captain Hatch for the overloading of the vessel. Although brought up on court-martial charges, the well-connected Hatch had previously secured letters of recommendation from President Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant and escaped conviction. No one was ever held accountable for the disaster.
Without a pilot to steer the boat, the Sultana drifted six miles south to the west bank of the river and sank five hours later near present-day Marion, Arkansas. Since then, the Mississippi River has changed course several times. The main channel now flows about 2 miles east of its 1865 position. In 1982, what is believed to be the wreckage of the Sultana — blackened wooden deck planks and timbers — was found about 32 feet under a soybean field on the Arkansas side of the river, about 4 miles from Memphis.
Which maritime disaster was the worst? The Titanic had 2,240 passengers and crew on board, which the ship was designed to carry; over 1,500 lost their lives when it sank. The Sultana had 2,130 passengers and crew on board, although it was only designed to carry 460. The official count of Sultana casualties by the United States Customs Service was 1,547 — more than the Titanic.
For lunch I had had the most delicious, tender Memphis BBQ ribs. Then dinner was amazing: a delicious smoked trout dip, wild rice corn fritters, Louisiana seafood chowder, a salad of roasted beets, zucchini and feta cheese, followed by cold water lobster tail, then chocolate cake and coffee.
Because I went to the Riverlorian’s presentation on the Sultana, I missed our passing through a lock in the afternoon, but after dinner I caught our trip through another one framed by lovely post-sunset hues. A tree was turning to gold and red along the side of the lock. American white pelicans gathered near white Tainter gates controlling the water flowing through the dam. (See Notes below for more details on Tainter gates.)
And I had the opportunity to see the lock workers receive a box filled with containers of soft ice cream from the American Queen. The story goes like this: It used to be that the Federal Government funded providing coffee to the lock workers. At some point, the budget changed and no more coffee was provided. It’s said the process of boats going through the locks began to slow down. So, the boat crews began giving the lock workers food when passing through. The American Queen is supposed to be known for having the best soft ice cream of any boat on the Mississippi, which they provide in containers to those managing the locks. It is said that the boats pass through the locks much more quickly these days.
By 6:40 p.m. when we finished exiting the lock, skies were completely dark. The weather was quite a bit warmer than the first few days of the cruise, and we stayed out on the Observation deck long into the evening, listening to more stories from the Riverlorian.
Day Six was another wonderful day. Each day seemed better than the last.
“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die,
even the undertaker will be sorry.” – Mark Twain
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The Tainter gate is used in dams and locks worldwide. The Upper Mississippi River basin alone has 321 of these gates. This gate is a type of radial arm floodgate used to control water flow. It was invented by and named for Wisconsin structural engineer Jeremiah Burnham Tainter in 1886. He was an employee of a lumber firm, Knapp, Stout and Co. The floodgates were originally developed for use in one of the company’s dams.
A side view of a Tainter gate resembles a slice of pie with the curved part of the piece facing the upper pool of water and the tip pointing toward the lower pool.
Pressure forces on a submerged body act perpendicular to the body’s surface. The design of the Tainter gate results in every pressure force acting through the center of the imaginary circle of which the gate is a section, so that all resulting pressure force acts through the pivot point of the gate, making construction and design easier.
When a Tainter gate is closed, water bears on the upstream side. When the gate is rotated, the rush of water passing under the gate helps to open and close the gate. The rounded face, long radial arms and bearings allow it to close with less effort than a flat gate. Tainter gates are usually controlled from above with a motor assembly.
The National Pearl Button Museum interpretive displays; The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary; Muscatine County Environmental Learning Center interpretive displays and barred owl demonstration; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; American Queen Voyages Hop-on Hop-off Tour Map of Muscatine; American Queen Voyages “Daily Voyage” newsletter, 10/22/2022 (Muscatine Issue); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscatine,_Iowa; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tainter_gate; https://visitmuscatine.com/386/Norbert-F-Beckey-Bridge; https://muscatine.com/major-employers/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sultana_(steamboat); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_the_Titanic; https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/barred-owl.
What a wonderful trip, thank you for sharing! Such an enjoyable read, I feel like I’m right there with you! Safe travels and thank you for sharing Julie!
Thank you so much !!
Ah yes, now I remember. I started the great river road journey at Muscatine. BTW did I ever mention that I went to high school and college in Iowa. But now I think that you know more about Iowa than I do, lol.
And thank you so much for reading all the stories!
I can’t believe how much you can eat! It all sounded healthy though. And those poor parolee’s just trying to go home (reminds me a bit of the boat people after Vietnam and much later, the Syrian refugees. An interesting and informative read. How long did this whole trip take?
LOL! I ran around all day and then ate and ate! Thanks so much for taking the time to read these! The trip took 8 days total. I hated for it to end. And, yes, those poor parolees!