A Cruise into History


-----Mississippi River towns are a microcosm of history. Their past is obvious - on display for all to see - in their Main Streets, the houses, the waterfront. Their individual stories are behind the brick and mortar. A trip down the Mississippi, today as in the time of Mark Twain, is a fascinating journey into life and lives.


-----To each there is a season, and so it is with towns. Birthing is an exciting time. Streets are platted, lots sold, industries begun - hopes are high, and dreams even more so. There is activity, bustle, optimism. Each new town had a reason for its inception. Usually there is an economic justification. For many towns it is a resource - there are trees to be cut and processed, minerals are being discovered, farmland is rich and needs a locus for transportation and goods. Sometimes it is location - the junction of rivers, a rapid that must be portaged, a perfect harbor, a pass through the mountains, a railroad depot. Occasionally, it is speculation. One fellow owns the land, he plats lots, and tries to sell the virtues of 'his' town to settlers - for his ultimate profit. Connersville, Indiana, remembers my relative, who began the town, as "Founder John."

A Step into the Past

-----If the reasons for founding the town were valid, the town grows, prospers, and matures. Economically successful folks build mansions on the hills to celebrate and commemorate their status. Tall brick buildings grow, with oversized facades to demonstrate their permanence. Schools, churches, railroads, roads, banks, and all manner of support services develop for the community. There is a plump fatness - even a smugness - about successful towns in their prime.


-----But, the season progresses, and for many towns, there is the crumble into decay. Our 'home' is a Nevada ghost town - the mines played out, schools closed, stores shuttered, post office moved on, and people left. Now the hustle and bustle is replaced by wild burros wandering through town and the howls of coyotes from the empty buildings. Owls roost in the attics of abandoned homes that once knew the cries of babies, the shouts of children and the tears of the bereft. There are as many reasons for the demise of a town as there were reasons for the birthing, and the two are intimately linked.

Gap-toothed Old Age

-----Here, on the Mississippi, towns were birthed in the excitement of the westward expansion of the new nation. The great river was a highway to the world. Farms could ship their produce down the great river and to the world. Furs, lumber, ore, and cotton all had a market down the river. In 1817, the Zebulon Pike arrived in St. Louis - the first steamboat and the beginning of an era when travel could go both down and up the river - the Mississippi was now a two-way water highway. The economic floodgates were open. Vessels could make money carrying people and produce both directions. In 1823, the Virginia steamed to St. Paul. Sails, paddles, and oars, on the Mississippi, were transformed from economic necessity to recreational hobby overnight. River towns flourished.

-----The river was also a barrier to be crossed by those heading west to Oregon, Utah, and California. People and goods needed to be ferried across the wide river and re-supplied for the long trek west. Notice that most of the towns along the Upper Mississippi are on the west bank. This is a reflection of human nature - one didn't want to pause to rest until the barrier had been crossed.

-----Towns grew, fortunes were made, and mansions built. Then the cycle spun on. In the Nineteenth Century, railroads arrived and dependence on steamboats and the river declined. In the Twentieth, highways carried much of the produce of the nation and river commerce became even less significant. River towns now 'turned their backs' to the rivers - commerce no longer flourished on the river banks, but at shopping malls and industrial parks. The economic cycle of many river towns deteriorated and, in some cases, failed completely.


-----As we came down the Upper Mississippi, we stopped at many towns. Most were 'charming,' with old historic districts and great brick or stone mansions on the bluffs - but most were also fading dowagers. Some towns, with inspired citizens, were polishing up the old girl - new waterfront parks, freshly painted or rejuvenated facades to the old brick buildings of downtown, mansions converted to charming bed and breakfasts. Decay was being attacked and in some cases arrested. But, a town needs more than dedicated citizens to survive - there must also be economic reasons. There has been a general decline of manufacturing in the last twenty years in our country, but here, along the river, some industries continue to flourish. Some towns, like Muscatine, Iowa, remain bustling communities with downtowns maintained and thriving.


-----A trip down this great river, forces one to confront the history and the future of our country. It is here to be seen - warts and all.


-----We wear our history on our faces. So do towns. Some of that history has been erased, intentionally or through ignorance. Indian communities flourished along the Mississippi for tens of thousands of years. Monuments were built along the river flats that required more construction material and construction time than all the pyramids of Egypt - than all the temples of Rome. Most of these great American monuments are gone. Destroyed by the European settlers who little appreciated the cultural achievements of the Native Americans. Today, there are only a few of the effigy mounds that were built by the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, in the valley of the Mississippi. These incredible constructions were in the shape of animals, the stuff of legends, the designs of their imagination and their gods. Some were tumuli, others perhaps religious sites - all were incredible manifestations of human ingenuity and industry. Some were large - bigger than a football field; others small and individual. Many had a scale and symmetry that can only be really appreciated from space photographs. They were glorious works of religion and art - destroyed by the ignorance of a differennt culture. Most were plowed into oblivion to grow corn.

A small mound

-----The arrival of Europeans along the eastern seaboard had great repercussions on the Native Americans of the Upper Mississippi River region. The coastal Natives were displaced westward by the rising tide of European settlement. Warfare among the displaced tribes ensued, and the Winnebago, Potawatomie, Menominee, Chippewa and Ottawa were forced out of their Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa homelands by the encroaching Fox (Mesquakie) and Sac tribes. By the early 1700's, they had settled along the Rock and Mississippi Rivers. Saukenuk was the largest Native settlement in the Upper Mississippi, and had a population of six to eight thousand Fox and Sac. The tribal leaders, Black Hawk and Keokuk, both lived in Saukenuk. The town was burned and destroyed by American forces during the Revolution in retaliation for Native cooperation with the British. Warfare and raids continued between Natives and European-Americans.

-----By the 1830's, Keokuk and Black Hawk had chosen different paths to face American aggression. Black Hawk argued for war, and gathered three thousand warriors to support his cause. Keokuk stated he would fight the Americans with Black Hawk, but only on the condition that all the Native women and children were first put to death, since the ensuing battles would be to the finish. Unable to murder their own women and children, most of the Natives remained with Keokuk and attempted diplomacy. Four hundred warriors, with 1,200 dependents, followed Black Hawk into war. Over ten thousand American soldiers, aided by Sioux, trapped the starving remnants of this army in August, 1832 at Bad Axe, along the banks of the Mississippi. Defeated, Black Hawk and his men, under the white flag of truce approached the Army steamship, Warrior. When asked by the soldiers if they were Winnebago or Sac, Black Hawk responded "Sac." A cannon, loaded with canister, was immediately fired, killing twenty-two Natives. The Black Hawk War ended with this massacre - only one hundred fifty of Black Hawks peeople survived.

----- Vestiges of frontier violence can be seen in some of the river towns. There were the bloody clashes between encroaching Europeans and the Natives. The colonizers, themselves, fought each other over possession of the land. French and English fought over the spoils left behind from Spanish claims. Later, the American Revolution tore the fabric of what little civilization existed along the frontier, as Americans ripped themselves from their British past. My ancestors were captured by Natives who sympathized with the British. One of my ancestors, a young boy with yellow hair, had soot rubbed in his hair by his brother to dampen the taunts of their captors. He and his brothers were separated from their parents and held captive for years. His mother's father had been scalped before her eyes when she was eight years old, and she was a captive until adulthood.

Fort Madison - Evacuated under Indian Siege in 1813

-----Less than fifty years after the final battles with Britain, America itself divided into Civil War. Nowhere were those divisions more incised than along the Mississippi. Neighbors fought neighbors, brothers against brothers. A major battle was fought at Pea Ridge, north of Bentonville, Arkansas. Federal Brig. General Samuel R. Curtis defeated a larger force of Confederates under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn in a bitter cold three-day struggle in early March, 1862. The Federal victory forced the Confederates to retreat easterly across the Mississippi and abandon Arkansas to the Union.

McGregor, Iowa

-----The Mississippi River became a major highway for the movement ofsupplies and troops. Confederate prisoners, and wounded from both sides, were also brought upriver to Iowa prisons, hospitals, and cemeteries. Memories of the Civl War are chiseled deep into the Mid West. Nine Civil War generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, came from one Illinois town -- Galena.

Old Shot Tower in Dubuque - Built in 1856 - Produced Lead Shot for the Civil War

-----There were many individual acts of violence during the wars and after, along the frontier. Most are unchronicled, with vestigial traces left for your imagination to fill in the details.

Bullet Hole in the roof of Sneaky Pete's Saloon, Le Clair

-----Out of the chaos rose modern America. These rowdy towns were home to many interesting characters in America's past. There is an interesting museum in Le Clair chronicling Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West road show. A steamboat is preserved at the museum as well.


-Buffalo Bill was a native of Le Clair, Iowa - -------The Steamer Lone Star

------Julien Dubuque, a French fur trader, acquired a Spanish land grant for the lead-rich area surrounding the town of Dubuque in 1790. He and his Indian wife worked the claims until he died, but, before the era of steamboats, the cost of shipping the ore retarded development. This tower is said to be where Julien is buried. Dubuque is now an active and thriving city.



Pavement of hand-cut stones at Hannibal Waterfront

Abutment of one of the earliest road bridges across the Mississippi, Muscatine

Summer housing, on stilts levee high, to safeguard from the regular spring floods

Modern home, on the ridge tops high over the River

The Clark's got around - Including Ellen Clark, the Admiral of Halcyon



-----Muscatine was located on the site of an Indian Village, Mascoutin, but the Post Office decided that word was too difficult to spell. It is one of Iowa's original Five Charter Cities. It was founded as a trading post by Col. George Davenport, who was later tortured and murdered by river bandits seeking his gold. It grew as German immigrants came to farm or work in the lumber industry. Steamboats were also outfitted here, from James Casey's woodpile. Warehouses developed along the waterfront.


-----But its fame was spread after the founding of the pearl button industry. J. F. Boeppel was a German button maker who applied his trade to the abundant Mississippi River mussels. Muscatine became the Pearl Button Capital of the World, and by 1890 employed 2,500 workers in forty three button-related industries.

-----Mussels were snagged from the river bottom with grappeling hooks. When the mussel felt the hook, it would snap its shell tightly and was then pulled to the surface, bagged and sent to the button factories. Men were snagging mussels in many Midwest Rivers and sending the bags of mussels to Muscatine.


-----IIn the factories, the shells were cut or punched and rounded blanks extracted. The blanks were polished and holes punched to make the buttons, simple or elaborate. The equipment was designed in Muscatine shops.

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-----Mother-of-pearl shell lining was exported to Europe for the manufacture of inlays into handles of silverware, opera glassesk, gunstocks, knives, boxes and furniture. Occasionally, a pearl would be found in a mussel that could fetch the finder $1,000 or so and be sold in London for as much as $50,000.

-----Today, the mother-of-pearl is sold to Japan as 'seeds' to be planted in oysters for the cultured pearl industry.

-----The button factories in town make plastic buttons today. But, industry diversified and today, grain and food processing plants and an office equipment company form the basis for most of the town's economy. An attractive downtown, of stores and shops, developed in the nineteenth century that is maintained with pride today. Muscatine is a river town with a viable economy and a bright future.


-----We arrived at the lock just above Muscatine in the late afternoon. A large tow was locking through and needed to 'break' its barges to fit through. This is an hour and a half job, so we drifted above the lock and were treated to one of the most beautiful sunsets we were to witness on our cruise of the Upper Mississippi River. Later, we learned that Mark Twain described the sunsets of Muscatine thusly: "I have never seen any on either side of the ocean that equaled them."



-----Serendipity. It's marvelous how it strikes while on a cruise. It was near evening and we needed fuel so El began the perusal of our trip guides for suggestions. "Quimby's has the Keokuk Yacht Club at mile 366.9," she said. "It's that or the Purple Cow Tavern at mile 359.1. Seems like an interesting choice - we either join the yacht club set or hang out at the booze hall. Which do you prefer?"

-----There was a long moment of silence. "Well?" El asked as the moment stretched on and on.

-----"In the classic words of Bob Hope, when asked by a bandit for his wallet or his life, I answered ...'I'm thinking…I'm thinking...'" Finally, I ventured an idea that might decide for us -- "Hard choice - do both have fuel?"

-----"Looks like it - but they don't mention any transient docking at the Purple Cow. So, lets put on the jacket and tie and settle in at the Yacht Club." So, we rounded the lighthouse at the end of the breakwater and slid up to the fuel dock.

-----"Any space for a transient boat for the night?" El asked the friendly young man tending the bar.

-----"Sure. Stay right where you are. No one else will need fuel tonight." We paid up, settled the boat, and headed back to the attractive club house, where no one wore a jacket or a tie. I used their office computer to connect to the C-Dory site and upload some tales onto our cruising website. When I returned to the pub, El was at a table surrounded by friendly folks. What a pleasant evening spent with good boating folks. We felt like one of the family. In the morning, they stopped by to take us up to town for a look around and to share a breakfast at their local café. We were sad to leave Keokuk Yacht Club and our new friends.



-----The only town along the Upper Mississippi that can truly claim to be a national tourist attraction is Hannibal, MO - boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, better know as Mark Twain. It is one of the 10 most popular 4th of July destinations in the country. The town is saturated with memorabilia and 'stuff' for tourists, but it is an interesting town to visit - especially from the river. There is a small boat harbor right behind the tourist 'steamboat' Mark Twain.

-----Hannibal had a long and interesting history before Mark Twain's fame. It was settled and named after the famous general who led Carthaginians against the Romans in Spain using 37 war elephants. The original economy was based on agriculture, lumber, steamboats, shoe manufacture, cement plants and the railroads. At one time Hannibal was the 4th largest lumbering town in the U.S. Lumber yards filled the entire valley and lumber was stack 25 feet high along the waterfront. In the late 1800's, Hannibal was the largest railroad town to the west of the Mississippi. Today, however, tourism is king, and Mark Twain is the attraction.

------The Pilaster House - One of the oldest buildings still standing in Hannibal. The Clemens family lived here in 1846.

-----Tom Sawyer's fence, to the right of the Mark Twain's boyhood home.

The Becky Thatcher House (See the golden curls in the window?)

The Haunted House -- note the upstairs window. We're believers.

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Scenes from Judge Clemen's (Mark Twain's father) Law Office, the museum, and the old drug store

Try it - we heard the BBQ Pulled Pork is a winner




Steamboating, then and now. Do you hear the cry, "Mark Twain?"


The sign says, "Private Beach." Anyone for a swim?

In the Mississippi? Maybe too many Fosters.

How do you get in this door?

Oh, oh -- Curiosity killed him!


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