Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854-1863

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Prelude

The majesty and glory of the Great River have departed; its glamour remains, fresh and undying, in the memories of those who, with mind’s eye, still can see it as it was a half-century ago. Its majesty was apparent in the mighty flood which then flowed throughout the season, scarcely diminished by the summer heat; its glory, in the great commerce which floated upon its bosom, the beginnings of mighty commonwealths yet to be. Its glamour is that indefinable witchery with which memory clothes the commonplace of long ago, transfiguring the labors, cares, responsibilities, and dangers of steamboat life as it really was, into a Midsummer Night’s Dream of care-free, exhilarating experiences, and glorified achievement.

Of the river itself it may be said, that like the wild tribes which peopled its banks sixty years ago, civilization has been its undoing. The primeval forests which spread for hundreds of miles on either side, then caught and held the melting snows and falling rains of spring within spongy mosses which carpeted the earth; slowly, throughout the summer, were distilled the waters from myriad springs, and these, filling brooks and smaller rivers, feeders of the Great River, maintained a mighty volume of water the season through. Upon the disappearance of the forests, the melting snows and early rains having no holding grounds, are carried quickly to the river, which as quickly rises to an abnormal stage in the early part of the season, to be followed by a dearth which later reduces the Mississippi to the dimensions of a secondrate stream, whereon navigation is impossible for great steamers, and arduous, disheartening and unprofitable for boats of any class.

To most men of our day, the life of those who manned the steamers of that once mighty fleet is legendary, almost mythical.

-13-

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