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“Day ZERO:  Getting Ready for the Mark Twain Cruise”

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em

as much as you please.” – Mark Twain


In mid-October 2022, when the fall colors would be shining their brilliance over the mighty Mississippi, I began an eight-day Mark Twain paddlewheel riverboat cruise down the upper half of the river, run by the American Queen Voyages company

The half-river cruises run either from Minneapolis to St. Louis or from St. Louis to New Orleans.  I chose a cruise on the Upper Mississippi which turned out to be fortunate for two reasons.

First: “In 1886, [Mark Twain] told the Chicago Tribune, ‘Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages — everything one could desire to amuse the children.  Few people ever think of going there, however. . . . We ignore the finest part of the Mississippi.’”

Second:  News was spreading that the drought was affecting the lower Mississippi and some riverboat cruises were being canceled as early as October 6th.  One boat left New Orleans and made it as far north as Greenville, Mississippi, before having to stop.  The passengers were sent home. In late October, it was reported that 2000 barges were backed up at various choke points along the lower river and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had begun emergency dredging to deepen the river at more than a dozen of these choke points.

The plan for my trip was to fly into Minneapolis the day before the cruise, embark at Red Wing, Minnesota, the following day, and travel the river south, stopping for visits at La Crosse, Wisconsin, the Iowa cities of Dubuque, Bettendorf and Muscatine, and Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain’s boyhood home), before ending at St. Louis.

Mark Twain’s book “Life on the Mississippi” had so captured my imagination that I signed up for the river cruise to relive what Twain had experienced. 

Before the trip, I read other books about the mighty river.  “Minn of the Mississippi,” a children’s book written and illustrated by Holling Clancy Holling in 1951, is a delightful tale of a sea turtle who travels the length of the river.  “River Days – Stories from the Mississippi,” a collection of 20 short stories edited by Robert Wolf and published in 2005 by Free River Press, shares memories and perspectives of the river by those living along its waters in today’s times.

From Paul Schneider’s 2015 tome, “Old Man River – the Mississippi River in North American History,” I learned that much of the northern part of the river’s flow is now managed by many locks and dams.  Fourteen dams on the upper Mississippi are located above Minneapolis for power generation and recreation. Another 29 dams contain locks and were constructed to improve commercial navigation of the upper river.

The northernmost lock and dam on the Upper Mississippi River are the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in Minneapolis, built in 1963 but closed in 2015.  By the time the Upper Mississippi reaches Saint Paul, Minnesota, below Lock and Dam No. 1, it has dropped more than half its original elevation and is 687 feet above sea level. From St. Paul to St. Louis, the river elevation falls more slowly, controlled and managed by the series of locks and dams.

Disappointed by the prospect of visiting a river so controlled by locks and dams – so different from what Mark Twain had seen over 170 years ago — I reminded myself that it would have been impossible for the river to remain as Mark Twain described it when he was growing up on the river’s edge in the town of Hannibal, Missouri, and later when he worked as a steamboat pilot from 1857 until the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War, when cannonballs were regularly lobbed at steamboat pilothouses.  For example, in his time, there were no lights lining the edges of the river.  Steamboat pilots learned the course of the waterway so well that they could navigate on moonless nights in complete darkness.  Mark Twain returned to the river some twenty years later and noted changes already occurring:  night lights now lined the river’s edge.

Wikipedia says the name “Mississippi” comes from the Ojibwe or Algonquin name for the river, Misi-ziibi, meaning Great River.  It begins as a trickle from Lake Itasca north of Minneapolis and flows south 2,340 miles past New Orleans, into the Mississippi River Delta and on to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi watershed drains some or all of 32 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains.  

The upper portion of the river creates the shared border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, between Iowa and Wisconsin, between Iowa and Illinois and between Missouri and Illinois.  It passes five more states further south.  Much work has been done to restore the natural environment along the river.  I looked forward to seeing a cleaner, more natural river than I might have thirty years ago.

Tourism, fishing, and recreation contribute to over 350,000 jobs along the length of the river, perhaps $21.4 billion each year.  Over 400 different species of wildlife can be found here.  Some 40 percent of North America’s waterfowl migrate along its flyway.  The 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in Minnesota is one of seven National Park Service sites dedicated to protecting and interpreting the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi provides drinking water for millions and supports a $12.6 billion shipping industry.  It’s one of the greatest water highways on earth, carrying commerce and food for the world.  Half the nation’s corn and soybeans are barged on the section above the Ohio River confluence, known as the Little Mississippi.

Beginning below Saint Paul, the Mississippi is controlled by thousands of wing dikes that moderate the river’s flow in order to provide a consistent flow of water, an open navigation channel and to prevent the river from eroding its banks.

A wing dike or dam is a concrete triangle extending partway into a river, intended to reduce the need for dredging by forcing water into a fast-moving center channel to reduce accumulation of sediment and slow the water flowing near the river’s banks.

I had signed up for this cruise two years earlier, just as Covid-19 hit.  Each summer, as the Covid pandemic increased and new variants developed, I postponed my reservation.  I finally felt ready to try the trip in October 2022 with Covid cases on the decline and appropriate safety protocols in place.  All riverboat passengers would be required to show proof they had received both vaccines.  All passengers would be tested for a fever before stepping onboard.  All passengers would be encouraged to wear their masks on the riverboat as well as on excursion buses.  As an avid mask-wearer, I felt things would be safe.

The cruise line puts passengers up in a very nice hotel the day before each cruise.  I was delighted to discover that the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge was within 30 minutes of the hotel via public transportation.  The Refuge is located along the Minnesota River, which flows southwest out of the Mississippi.  It would be close enough for me to visit before embarking on the cruise the following day.

The Mississippi had been home to the Sioux, Sac and Fox, Ojibwe, Pottawatomie, Illini, Menominee, and Winnebago (Ho Chunk) in the Upper Mississippi and in the Lower Mississippi to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw, Osage, Caddo, Natchez, and Tunica since perhaps 4000 BCE.  The river provided transportation, clean water, and abundant food, including freshwater mussels and fish.

 Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto discovered the Mississippi from the European perspective in 1541.  French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette came next in the 17th century.  Britain, Spain, and France all laid claim to land bordering the Mississippi River until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  Following the United States victory over Britain in the War of 1812, the river officially belonged to the Americans.

After a devastating flood in 1927, the U.S. Government funded levees, dredging, and diking in an attempt to control the river.  A 2010 St. Louis Dispatch editorial had this to say: “For thousands of years, the Mississippi River provided fertile habitat for millions of birds and fishes along its 3,000 miles. Then came the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, damming and channeling the big river until it assumed its form today: A giant barge canal, mostly devoid of animal life.”  While some areas are reconnecting the floodplain to the river, in many areas the levees are seen as the only tool to manage flood risk.  The river also contends with invasive species and excessive nutrient pollution from agriculture not regulated under the Clean Water Act.

In 2014, the American Rivers Organization secured $31 million of funding for the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program.

In the 18th century, the Mississippi was the primary western boundary of the United States.  It has been a convenient line dividing the Western United States from the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern regions ever since.  Regional descriptors include “the highest peak east of the Mississippi” or “the oldest city west of the Mississippi.”  The FCC uses the river as the dividing line for broadcast call-signs, which begin with W to the east and K to the west.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835 – 1910), known by his pen name Mark Twain, has been lauded as the “greatest humorist the United States has produced.”  William Faulkner called him “the father of American literature.”   Most know his novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) and its sequel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884), the latter often called the “Great American Novel.”

Mark Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, which later provided the setting for his novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  He became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi before heading west to join his brother Orion in Nevada.  Twain referred humorously to his lack of success at mining.  His story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” taken from his time working as a miner, was published in 1865 and gained international attention.  It is said his wit and satire, in prose and in speech, earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.

Mark Twain was born shortly after an appearance of Halley’s Comet, and he predicted that he would “go out with it” as well, dying the day after the comet made its closest approach to Earth.  When he was four, his family moved from Florida, Missouri, to Hannibal.  Slavery was legal in Missouri at the time, and it became a theme in his writings.  His father was an attorney and judge who died of pneumonia in 1847, when Mark Twain was 11.  The following year, Twain left school after the fifth grade to become a printer’s apprentice.  In 1851, he began working as a typesetter, contributing articles and humorous sketches to the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper his brother owned. When he was 18, he left Hannibal and continued educating himself in public libraries in the evenings.

Twain describes his boyhood in “Life on the Mississippi,” stating that “there was but one permanent ambition” among his comrades: to be a steamboatman. “Pilot was the grandest position of all. The pilot, even in those days of trivial wages, had a princely salary – from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.” As Twain described it, the pilot’s prestige exceeded that of the captain. The pilot had to “get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river . . . and more than that, must . . . actually know where these things are in the dark.”  

Steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby took Twain on as a cub pilot to teach him the river between New Orleans and St. Louis for $500 (equivalent to $16,000 in 2021), payable out of Twain’s first wages after graduating. Twain studied the Mississippi, learning its landmarks, how to navigate its currents effectively, and how to read the river and its constantly shifting channels, reefs, submerged snags, and rocks that would “tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated.”  It was more than two years before he received his pilot’s license. Piloting also gave him his pen name from “mark twain,” the leadsman’s cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was safe water for a steamboat.

While training to be a pilot, Samuel convinced his younger brother Henry to work with him and even arranged a post of mud clerk for him on the steamboat Pennsylvania. On June 13, 1858, the steamboat’s boiler exploded; Henry succumbed to his injuries.  It is said Twain was guilt-stricken and held himself responsible for the rest of his life. He continued to work on the river and was a steamboat pilot until the Civil War broke out in 1861, when traffic was curtailed along the Mississippi River. At the start of hostilities, he enlisted briefly in a local Confederate unit. He later wrote the sketch “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed,” describing how he and his friends had been Confederate volunteers for two weeks before their unit disbanded.

He then left for Nevada to work for his brother Orion, who had been hired as Secretary of the Nevada Territory. To get there, the brothers traveled more than two weeks on a stagecoach across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.  Twain describes the trip west in his book “Roughing It,” another great read. 

Twain’s journey ended in the silver-mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, where he became a miner on the Comstock Lode.  Failing as a miner, he went to work at the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise.

Twain moved to San Francisco in 1864, still as a journalist, and met writers such as Bret Harte and Artemus Ward.

 A year after he gained national attention for “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” he traveled to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii) as a reporter for the Sacramento Union.  His letters were popular and became the basis for his first lectures.  In 1867, a local newspaper funded his trip to the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City, including a tour of Europe and the Middle East. He wrote a collection of travel letters which were later compiled as “The Innocents Abroad” (1869).

In the 1880’s, he returned to the Mississippi and noted the changes he encountered in his book, “Life on the Mississippi.”

With this knowledge in hand, I felt ready to begin my cruise.

“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die,

    even the undertaker will be sorry.”  – Mark Twain

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Sources – Day Zero – Minneapolis:

Wikipedia; “Life on the Mississippi”; “River Days – Stories from the Mississippi”; “Old Man River – the Mississippi River in North American History”; “Minn of the Mississippi”; St. Louis Dispatch; https://www.americanrivers.org/river/mississippi-river/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_River; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain; https://www.aqvoyages.com/river-cruises/upper-mississippi-illinois-river/minneapolis-to-st-louis/?v=aq&d=2023-07-23

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The American Queen

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“There are crowds of odd islands . . .”

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“We ignore the finest part of the Mississippi.”

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Much of the river’s flow is now managed by locks and dams.

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The Mississippi supports a $12.6 billion shipping industry.

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The American Rivers Organization secured $31 million for the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program.

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The permanent ambition among young Twain and his boyhood comrades was to be a steamboatman.

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“The pilot . . . had a princely salary — from $150 to $250 a month, and no board to pay.”

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Twain learned to read the river, including submerged snags.

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The pilot had to “get a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood . . . that ornaments the banks of this river . . . and . . . know where these things are in the dark.”

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