Before Mark Twain: A Sampler of Old, Old Times on the Mississippi

By John Francis McDermott | Go to book overview

THE LITTLE STEAMBOATS
OF THE MISSISSIPPI

T. B. THORPE

[In this brief sketch Thomas Bangs Thorpe has preserved a glimpse of the little steamboats that served the backwaters of the Mississippi in the days "before the war," a glimpse that we do not get from other sources. It is from that rich mine of western materials, The New York Spirit of the Times, March 9, 1844, XIV, 19.]

The steamboats of the Mississippi are as remarkable for size and form as is the river itself. Gigantic specimens of art, that go bellowing over the swift and muddy current like restless monsters, breathing like the whisperings of the hurricane, clanking and groaning as if an earthquake was preparing to astonish the world, obscuring in clouds of smoke the sun in the day time, or rolling over the darkness of night a volume of flame, as if the volcano had burst from the bosom of the deep. Who sees them for the first time, without wondering, as they rush along, filled with the ever busy throng of travellers, and loaded with boundless wealth, that teems from the rich soil, as the reward of the slight labor of the American husbandman. The Mississippi is also remarkable for little steamboats, small specimens of water craft, that are famous for their ambitious puffings, noisy Captains, gigantic placards, boats that "run up" little streams that empty into bayous, that empty into rivers, that empty into the Mississippi— boats that go beyond places ever dreamed of in geography, ever visited by travellers, or even marked down in the scrutinizing book of the tax collector. The first time I found myself on one of these boats I looked about me as did Gulliver when he got in Lilliput. It seemed as if I had got larger, and more magnificent than an animated colossal. When I walked on board of the boat, I

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