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The Mighty Mississippi

The sun sets over the river at Natchez - where the paddle steamers used to dock.

The sun sets over the river at Natchez – where the paddle steamers used to dock.

 

Continuing my blogs about my US road trip – I thought I should talk about the cause of the whole venture – the Mississippi River.

At school we were taught that the Mississippi is one of the largest rivers in the world (4th longest I believe). We learned about its role in opening America – in trade and transport and about the plantations worked by slaves along its banks.

But they were just facts and figures.

I fell in love with Ol’ Man River through music and books… and having finally met my love after all these years – I was not disappointed…

My love affair with the Mississippi has to start with the 1936 version of Showboat – and the amazing voice of the incomparable Paul Robeson. (And no – I am not that old. My parents loved the old film and introduced me to it.)

Looking at it now - the river looks so fake - but the movie set my imagination alight.

Looking at it now – the river looks so fake – but the movie set my imagination alight.

Take a listen to this…

Paul Robeson sings Ol’ Man River.

It’s enough to send shivers up my spine.

I was never introduced to Mark Twain at school – so my first literary encounter with the riverboats was through Disney comics – and Uncle Scrooge McDuck’s adventures on the river.

A young Scrooge raced paddle steamers on the mighty Mississippi

A young Scrooge raced paddle steamers on the mighty Mississippi

After that came George R R Martin (yes – the guy who wrote Game of Thrones). He wrote a book called Fevre Dream about vampires on a Mississippi Riverboat – and that led to a whole southern vampires thing… Anne Rice, True Blood and so forth.

You can still travel down the river by boat - although I suspect the funnels are for show and steam no longer drives her engines.

You can still travel down the river by boat – although I suspect the funnels are for show and steam no longer drives her engines.

There was a lot of gambling on the old paddle steamers – and it some of the modern day river boats are huge floating casinos. There are also casinos in riverboat-shaped buildings on the river. This was due to a law that allowed gambling on the river – but not on land. The casinos HAD to float – so were built on barges, permanently joined to the land. The river boat designs are a salute to times past (or a tourist trap) and, I have to say, do get a bit tacky…

I know they are trying to rebuild the romance - but they didn't succeed.

I know they are trying to rebuild the romance – but they didn’t succeed.

The river is still used for industry – I looked at the river on google maps before we went and saw these huge things on the river….

Seen from space - the river is still wide - and very very busy

Seen from space – the river is still wide – and very very busy

Intellectually I knew they were barges – but it wasn’t until I saw them in real life – filling the vast expanse of the river that I really understood how much commerce still goes up and down the river.

In places the river seemed almost chocked by the huge barges.

In places the river seemed almost chocked by the huge barges.

 

I also gained a new understanding of the levees – that failed so tragically after Hurricane Katrina. It started with a walk along the river in New Orleans – where it took me quite a few minutes to realise that the river walk I was following was actually a levee – and the buildings to my right were several feet lower than the water to my left.

The levee in New Orleans - newly repaired after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

The levee in New Orleans – newly repaired after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

The levee system goes for more than 3,000 miles. In places we were driving along the top of the levee. They can be more than 50 feet high. That’s a staggering feat of engineering – all to protect the cotton and sugar cane fields, towns and industry along the river.

Maintaining the levees must be an overwhelming task. Here the military is doing the hard wok.

Maintaining the levees must be an overwhelming task. Here the military is doing the hard wok.

I suspect all this engineering is fighting a losing battle against Mother Nature. The river is continually changing its course – after every rainy season, the banks have moved. Engineers have apparently found a weak spot in the river bed. They believe the river will eventually cut through this narrow neck of land and turn onto a radical new course  towards the Gulf of Mexico – leaving New Orleans and Baton Rouge and all the ports of the lower Mississippi without their commercial lifeline.

If that day comes – it will, to my mind, simply prove just how mighty this river really is.

But in the meantime – when darkness hides the oil terminals and the casino parking lots – there’s still plenty of romance to be found.

And Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin' along

And Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along

 

 

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12 Responses to The Mighty Mississippi

  • Janet, if only I could master astral projection and join you on some of your travels. I consider Sainsbury’s a day out.

    Great blog. You should be on TV – ‘Gover’s Travels’.

    Liv x

    • Liv, I have a great collection of photos of ladies restrooms in strange places – the Tah Mahal, Petra, The Great Wall of China, the New Mexico desert. Some of them are a bit out scary… always wanted to turn that into a book… But the title would be hard. 🙂

  • I loved Showboat too and Robeson’s voice. Even as a child the emotion in it brought a lump to my throat. It is a stunning area and those barges are humongous! I will have to visit one day, thanks for a great post x

    • I once got to meet Kathryn Grayson – who played Magnolia in the 1951 version of Showboat. I had a bit of a fan-girl moment with her. She was just lovely. I liked that film – but nothing ever topped the Paul Robeson version of the song.

  • Thanks for a fascinating trip down the river, Janet. Great photos, history and romance – brilliant. I agree with Liv, and maybe you should write a travel guide to go with the TV slot 🙂

  • Enjoyed this post very much, Janet. I had no idea how much traveled still by sea until seeing it for myself. The idea of your ladies restroom book is too intriguing!

  • I’d heard the term ‘levee’ from the old Don McLean song, ‘American Pie,’ but had no idea what it was for years! Brilliant pics and really interesting post, Janet. xx

  • As always, a fabulous post, Janet. Thank you.

    I had a brilliant American history professor in Junior College in California. He used to say he’d lived through all of US history and so naturally he knew it. He once showed us an ad he’d put in his local newspaper some years before.
    Lost, one garden shed, last seen floating down the Mississippi. Reward offered etc
    I bet everyone who took his classes remembers him.

    Thanks,
    Eileen

  • My first introduction to Mississippi was through Mark Twain, first with “Tom Sawyer” and then of course “Huckleberry Finn”. I still sigh with nostalgia when I pick up the book, and hope that my children might one day read them (although they’d probably find them old-fashioned).

    Fabulous pictures, btw. Was shocked at how insecure the levee in New Orleans actually is.

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