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Life by the Mississippi.

On Mud Island at Memphis there is a model of the Mississippi River. Not a tabletop thing, but five city blocks of concrete that scale every curve and contour, width and depth of the lower thousand miles in bold relief. More than 1.5 million gallons of water fuel the model. Slate slabs with streets of steel ribbons represent towns and cities. More than 300 bits of information along the model describe how man, nature, or both conspired to create history.

The notes and the flowing waters help explain how pirates once used a treacherous narrows to prey on passing boats, or how pilots inched their boats and barges past sand bars and other dangers. The role of the levees is dramatized when the model undergoes its daily "flood stage." The visitor even hear the river, though the gurgles are but faint echoes of the real thing.

The Mississippi, even combined with its major tributary, the Missouri, is still only the world's third longest river, behind the Nile, lifegiver to desert and birthplace of civilization, and the Amazon, in the center of the rain forest, largest supplier of oxygen. Neither this model, nor the neighboring museum at Mud Island, nor any statistics, explains the true role of Old Man River in our lives and our imagination.

How important has the river been to our development? Our settlers had in the Mississippi and its tributaries an ideal blue highway, linking 31 states to the Gulf. The Ohio River would give important areas in several states an avenue large enough to accommodate big steamboats. The Missouri would be even more important, slashing a thousand miles through forbidding northwestern prarie to the mountains. Access to markets permitted Americans to develop as fast as their audacity and ingenuity would allow. That effect on the economy still exists here in the heartland. Farmers this past summer were affected (and still are) by low water levels on the river. As the drought worsened, many argued for tapping the Great Lakes to raise levels to the necessary 9 feet in parts of the upper channel and 12 feet below Cairo, Ilinois. So much tonnage passes along the river that the port of New Orleans surpasses new York's in shipping. A single tank barge can be more than 1,000 feet in length, and its 9 million-gallon capacity exceeds that of 1,000 railroad tank cars; a single coal barge can hold up to 60 railroad car loads, and ten barges can be joined together in one tow.

The Mississippi for travelers has one further distinction from the Nile or the Amazon. Few adventurers have ever seen the birthplace of those two rivers, but anyone can drive the entire length of the Mississippi on the Great River Road and see for himself the interplay of history, culture, and environment. He sees less of the river itself, less of Mark Twain's steamboat highway, and more of how the great river has shaped its environs. The traveler must press on, seeking to know more.

* * *

The journey begins in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. One finds the Mississippi leaking out of Lake Itasca. Then the Mississippi is off, meandering southeasterly and gathering volume through a rich watershed, until by St. Cloud it is a true river; and by Minneapolis-St. Paul it is broad enough, a nine-foot channel gouged into its bottom, to accommodate the millions of tons of ore, coal, and grain barged toward the ocean more than 2,000 miles away.

At the St. Croix there is a confluence of rivers, and then the Mississippi turns sharply southward to form Minnesota's eastern boundary. Here it takes on its classic upperriver characteristics. Wooded hills and bluffs gently press in, seeming to keep the channel true to south, while broad valleys let the river sprawl into shallow moving lakes half a mile acros with marshes and wetlands that make this still the world's premier migratory flyway.

The river roads here--in the states of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri--run near the actual river. At Pike's Peak south of Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, the confluence of the Winconsin River creates marshy wilderness so vast it has remained almost unchanged since explorers paused here- or even thousands of years earlier when mound builders stood on the sacred bluffs and entreated the gods to bring them success in hunting.

The history of the upper Mississippi is a blend of Indian lore, old

A Scandinavian photographer who had spent two months on the river said: " It is how the people relate to the river-that is what is important. You don't have to see the river to know it is there. It affects everything. "

Stacy Douglas of Vicksburg knows everything about everyone and loves to tell stories about the aristocracy. But he also exhibits Southern pride as he walks you through Cedar Grove, the town's most elegant mansion cum bed-and-breakfast. He points to the cannonball, imbedded in the inner wall, which tore through the front door when an ironclad fired on Vicksburg in the war. But the ball's unembellished presence amid the lavish furnishings says: We were wounded, sir, but we continue.

That too is the messsage from George Fines. He takes you through the streets of Natchez in his surrey and fires off outrageous bits of history, culture, and street philosophy in bursts measured to the gait of his horse, Man.

The South means living with and sometimes against history. What the river brought is not always welcome, and there are dangers when people forget the errors of the past. Perhaps that is why Leah Chase, a black woman who runs Dooky Chase, one of New Orleans' most popular dining places, keeps taking plantation tours. She does not think so much of what was done to blacks. She already knows that. She goes to hear the stories of how things were acquired, fortunes made and lost, of owners trying to outbuild all the others. Invariably tragedy struck: the owner dropped dead as the job was finished, the kids were wiped out, workers left to fight the war, the market collapsed. "All that vanity," she says sadly, her eyes sparkling triumphantly. Perhaps the supreme pilgrimage to chronicle our vanity would begin with the antebellum homes and plantations around Vicksburg, then down to Natchez, over to Louisiana's nearly forgotten town of St. Francisville, where in 1850, it is said, half the country's millionaires resided. From here the river takes an erratic zag to the east, creating a subtropic zone of sugar cane, swamps, bayou, and plantation rows. The land here is soft, the roads raised, but water is always close-by. You pass shanties, stands of cane, huge processing plants that glow at night like science-fiction cities. Mansions here are more sprawling than those at Natchez or Vicksburg, lush to the point of chaos as everything is weighted down with Spanish moss, surrounded by banana trees, overripe and often musty. It is a shock to the Northerner.

The major cities along the: river are somehow separate from the river, even as so many towns mentioned were intimately tied to it. But one city is intimately associated with the Mississippi. That is the Crescent City. New Orleans is an exclamation point to the river. It personifies all the Mississippi's extremes and contrasts.

New Orleans is a city whose very survival depends on a kind of 24-hour struggle with the river. The world's largest. drainage pumping system keeps water out, and the world's biggest shipping port depends on that water. Overflow lakes prevent flooding, and in cities of the dead, graves are still aboveground because of the wetness. The refinement and decadence Old Man River brings create New Orleans' distinctive flavor.

A walk in the Garden District is a stroll through one of the country's most elegant neighborhoods of Victorian homes. That stroll will end at Vieux Carre', the French Quarter, a 90-block universe that is the dot of the exclamation point. Creole cottages with gray mansard roofs; stuccoed Spanish buildings with filigreed arches; Italianate courtyards with sculpted fountains and lush tropical plants; carved gingerbread curlicues dripping from the eaves of Early American homes. The sleaze of peep shows is sandwiched between world-class restaurants; music ranges from mug-slamming Irish jigs to head-thumping electronic blues to the ultimate: true to all things in this town beside this river, a surprise. There's a smudged window, a little gate, a woman sitting with hat in hand where you drop your two dollars and go on into a narrow alley where a cat sits in a box of records for sale. Step up through the old doorway and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 200 other jazz fans in a small high-ceilinged room they call Preservation Hall. People listen quietly, to music that is soft and smooth and has to be, the crowd being just inches from the horn player. Some things do not change along the river.

For Mark Twain, the river was life and an education. Certainly the Mississippi is still fulfilling those roles for many people. It also remains the carotid artery of the heartland. Return to the river again and again for memories and remembrance.
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Title Annotation:includes sidebars
Author:Mueller, William; Burton, Marda
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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