“Wicked River: the Mississippi when it Last Ran Wild” by Lee Sandlin


This short book meanders all over the place (see what I did there?) but manages to transport the reader to the lower Mississippi valley in the first half the the 1800’s.  The river was heavily traveled, mainly from North to South on makeshift rafts carrying raw materials to sell in New Orleans.  Before the advent of the steamboat, it was just not too practical to go upriver, although it was done.

River life was dangerous.  First there was the river itself, which often flooded.  The valley is at a very low elevation, which allowed the river to meander and actually change course to some degree with every storm and flood or new “snag” (a tree caught in river bottom mud).  The currents were strong and unpredictable, and the water was extremely cold due to the ice melt from northern streams.  The climate and the heavy presence of travelers made for a slew of endemic diseases like yellow fever.

Besides the natural dangers, river life seemed to attract dangerous men as well.  Something about being able to easily make a clean getaway simply by floating down the river may have encouraged thieves and con-men.  (Sandlin said that the “code phrase” con-men used to identify each other was “Do you live on the river?” — implying that everyone who did was a cheat and a scoundrel.)  Gamblers were in every town (at least in the seedy part of town, down near the levee) and it seemed like everyone was drunk, pretty much all the time.

Some interesting specific vignettes were about the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War (the North tried to divert the river via digging a canal, but failed) and the nearly mile-long panoramas painted by John Banvard and others.

Interestingly, shortly after the end of the Civil War the old river life was all but gone.  The reason was bridges and railroads — it was a much easier, not to mention safer, mode of transportation than river travel.

Wicked River is available from Amazon.


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