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Life on the Mississippi, Part 5 online

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Part 5.

Chapter 21 A Section in My Biography

IN due course I got my license. I was a pilot now, full fledged. I
dropped into casual employments; no misfortunes resulting, intermittent
work gave place to steady and protracted engagements. Time drifted
smoothly and prosperously on, and I supposed - and hoped - that I was
going to follow the river the rest of my days, and die at the wheel when
my mission was ended. But by and by the war came, commerce was
suspended, my occupation was gone.

I had to seek another livelihood. So I became a silver miner in Nevada;
next, a newspaper reporter; next, a gold miner, in California; next, a
reporter in San Francisco; next, a special correspondent in the Sandwich
Islands; next, a roving correspondent in Europe and the East; next, an
instructional torch-bearer on the lecture platform; and, finally, I
became a scribbler of books, and an immovable fixture among the other
rocks of New England.

In so few words have I disposed of the twenty-one slow-drifting years
that have come and gone since I last looked from the windows of a pilot-

Let us resume, now.

Chapter 22 I Return to My Muttons

AFTER twenty-one years' absence, I felt a very strong desire to see the
river again, and the steamboats, and such of the boys as might be left;
so I resolved to go out there. I enlisted a poet for company, and a
stenographer to 'take him down,' and started westward about the middle
of April.

As I proposed to make notes, with a view to printing, I took some
thought as to methods of procedure. I reflected that if I were
recognized, on the river, I should not be as free to go and come, talk,
inquire, and spy around, as I should be if unknown; I remembered that it
was the custom of steamboatmen in the old times to load up the confiding
stranger with the most picturesque and admirable lies, and put the
sophisticated friend off with dull and ineffectual facts: so I
concluded, that, from a business point of view, it would be an advantage
to disguise our party with fictitious names. The idea was certainly
good, but it bred infinite bother; for although Smith, Jones, and
Johnson are easy names to remember when there is no occasion to remember
them, it is next to impossible to recollect them when they are wanted.
How do criminals manage to keep a brand-new ALIAS in mind? This is a
great mystery. I was innocent; and yet was seldom able to lay my hand
on my new name when it was needed; and it seemed to me that if I had had
a crime on my conscience to further confuse me, I could never have kept
the name by me at all.

We left per Pennsylvania Railroad, at 8 A.M. April 18.

'EVENING. Speaking of dress. Grace and picturesqueness drop gradually
out of it as one travels away from New York.'

I find that among my notes. It makes no difference which direction you
take, the fact remains the same. Whether you move north, south, east, or
west, no matter: you can get up in the morning and guess how far you
have come, by noting what degree of grace and picturesqueness is by that
time lacking in the costumes of the new passengers, - I do not mean of
the women alone, but of both sexes. It may be that CARRIAGE is at the
bottom of this thing; and I think it is; for there are plenty of ladies
and gentlemen in the provincial cities whose garments are all made by
the best tailors and dressmakers of New York; yet this has no
perceptible effect upon the grand fact: the educated eye never mistakes
those people for New-Yorkers. No, there is a godless grace, and snap,
and style about a born and bred New-Yorker which mere clothing cannot

'APRIL 19. This morning, struck into the region of full goatees -
sometimes accompanied by a mustache, but only occasionally.'

It was odd to come upon this thick crop of an obsolete and uncomely
fashion; it was like running suddenly across a forgotten acquaintance
whom you had supposed dead for a generation. The goatee extends over a
wide extent of country; and is accompanied by an iron-clad belief in
Adam and the biblical history of creation, which has not suffered from
the assaults of the scientists.

'AFTERNOON. At the railway stations the loafers carry BOTH hands in
their breeches pockets; it was observable, heretofore, that one hand was
sometimes out of doors, - here, never. This is an important fact in

If the loafers determined the character of a country, it would be still
more important, of course.

'Heretofore, all along, the station-loafer has been often observed to
scratch one shin with the other foot; here, these remains of activity
are wanting. This has an ominous look.'

By and by, we entered the tobacco-chewing region. Fifty years ago, the
tobacco-chewing region covered the Union. It is greatly restricted now.

Next, boots began to appear. Not in strong force, however. Later - away
down the Mississippi - they became the rule. They disappeared from other
sections of the Union with the mud; no doubt they will disappear from
the river villages, also, when proper pavements come in.

We reached St. Louis at ten o'clock at night. At the counter of the
hotel I tendered a hurriedly-invented fictitious name, with a miserable
attempt at careless ease. The clerk paused, and inspected me in the
compassionate way in which one inspects a respectable person who is
found in doubtful circumstances; then he said -

'It's all right; I know what sort of a room you want. Used to clerk at
the St. James, in New York.'

An unpromising beginning for a fraudulent career. We started to the
supper room, and met two other men whom I had known elsewhere. How odd
and unfair it is: wicked impostors go around lecturing under my NOM DE
GUERRE and nobody suspects them; but when an honest man attempts an
imposture, he is exposed at once.

One thing seemed plain: we must start down the river the next day, if
people who could not be deceived were going to crop up at this rate: an
unpalatable disappointment, for we had hoped to have a week in St.
Louis. The Southern was a good hotel, and we could have had a
comfortable time there. It is large, and well conducted, and its
decorations do not make one cry, as do those of the vast Palmer House,
in Chicago. True, the billiard-tables were of the Old Silurian Period,
and the cues and balls of the Post-Pliocene; but there was refreshment
in this, not discomfort; for there is rest and healing in the
contemplation of antiquities.

The most notable absence observable in the billiard-room, was the
absence of the river man. If he was there he had taken in his sign, he
was in disguise. I saw there none of the swell airs and graces, and
ostentatious displays of money, and pompous squanderings of it, which
used to distinguish the steamboat crowd from the dry-land crowd in the
bygone days, in the thronged billiard-rooms of St. Louis. In those
times, the principal saloons were always populous with river men; given
fifty players present, thirty or thirty-five were likely to be from the
river. But I suspected that the ranks were thin now, and the
steamboatmen no longer an aristocracy. Why, in my time they used to
call the 'barkeep' Bill, or Joe, or Tom, and slap him on the shoulder; I
watched for that. But none of these people did it. Manifestly a glory
that once was had dissolved and vanished away in these twenty-one years.

When I went up to my room, I found there the young man called Rogers,
crying. Rogers was not his name; neither was Jones, Brown, Dexter,
Ferguson, Bascom, nor Thompson; but he answered to either of these that
a body found handy in an emergency; or to any other name, in fact, if he
perceived that you meant him. He said -

'What is a person to do here when he wants a drink of water? - drink this

'Can't you drink it?'

'I could if I had some other water to wash it with.'

Here was a thing which had not changed; a score of years had not
affected this water's mulatto complexion in the least; a score of
centuries would succeed no better, perhaps. It comes out of the
turbulent, bank-caving Missouri, and every tumblerful of it holds nearly
an acre of land in solution. I got this fact from the bishop of the
diocese. If you will let your glass stand half an hour, you can separate
the land from the water as easy as Genesis; and then you will find them
both good: the one good to eat, the other good to drink. The land is
very nourishing, the water is thoroughly wholesome. The one appeases
hunger; the other, thirst. But the natives do not take them separately,
but together, as nature mixed them. When they find an inch of mud in the
bottom of a glass, they stir it up, and then take the draught as they
would gruel. It is difficult for a stranger to get used to this batter,
but once used to it he will prefer it to water. This is really the
case. It is good for steamboating, and good to drink; but it is
worthless for all other purposes, except baptizing.

Next morning, we drove around town in the rain. The city seemed but
little changed. It WAS greatly changed, but it did not seem so; because
in St. Louis, as in London and Pittsburgh, you can't persuade a new
thing to look new; the coal smoke turns it into an antiquity the moment
you take your hand off it. The place had just about doubled its size,
since I was a resident of it, and was now become a city of 400,000
inhabitants; still, in the solid business parts, it looked about as it
had looked formerly. Yet I am sure there is not as much smoke in St.
Louis now as there used to be. The smoke used to bank itself in a dense
billowy black canopy over the town, and hide the sky from view. This
shelter is very much thinner now; still, there is a sufficiency of smoke
there, I think. I heard no complaint.

However, on the outskirts changes were apparent enough; notably in
dwelling-house architecture. The fine new homes are noble and beautiful
and modern. They stand by themselves, too, with green lawns around
them; whereas the dwellings of a former day are packed together in
blocks, and are all of one pattern, with windows all alike, set in an
arched frame-work of twisted stone; a sort of house which was handsome
enough when it was rarer.

There was another change - the Forest Park. This was new to me. It is
beautiful and very extensive, and has the excellent merit of having been
made mainly by nature. There are other parks, and fine ones, notably
Tower Grove and the Botanical Gardens; for St. Louis interested herself
in such improvements at an earlier day than did the most of our cities.

The first time I ever saw St. Louis, I could have bought it for six
million dollars, and it was the mistake of my life that I did not do it.
It was bitter now to look abroad over this domed and steepled
metropolis, this solid expanse of bricks and mortar stretching away on
every hand into dim, measure-defying distances, and remember that I had
allowed that opportunity to go by. Why I should have allowed it to go
by seems, of course, foolish and inexplicable to-day, at a first glance;
yet there were reasons at the time to justify this course.

A Scotchman, Hon. Charles Augustus Murray, writing some forty-five or
fifty years ago, said - 'The streets are narrow, ill paved and ill
lighted.' Those streets are narrow still, of course; many of them are
ill paved yet; but the reproach of ill lighting cannot be repeated, now.
The 'Catholic New Church' was the only notable building then, and Mr.
Murray was confidently called upon to admire it, with its 'species of
Grecian portico, surmounted by a kind of steeple, much too diminutive in
its proportions, and surmounted by sundry ornaments' which the
unimaginative Scotchman found himself 'quite unable to describe;' and
therefore was grateful when a German tourist helped him out with the
exclamation - 'By - -, they look exactly like bed-posts!' St. Louis is
well equipped with stately and noble public buildings now, and the
little church, which the people used to be so proud of, lost its
importance a long time ago. Still, this would not surprise Mr. Murray,
if he could come back; for he prophesied the coming greatness of St.
Louis with strong confidence.

The further we drove in our inspection-tour, the more sensibly I
realized how the city had grown since I had seen it last; changes in
detail became steadily more apparent and frequent than at first, too:
changes uniformly evidencing progress, energy, prosperity.

But the change of changes was on the 'levee.' This time, a departure
from the rule. Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see
a solid mile of wide-awake ones! This was melancholy, this was woeful.
The absence of the pervading and jocund steamboatman from the billiard-
saloon was explained. He was absent because he is no more. His
occupation is gone, his power has passed away, he is absorbed into the
common herd, he grinds at the mill, a shorn Samson and inconspicuous.
Half a dozen lifeless steamboats, a mile of empty wharves, a negro
fatigued with whiskey stretched asleep, in a wide and soundless vacancy,
where the serried hosts of commerce used to contend!{footnote [Capt.
Marryat, writing forty-five years ago says: 'St. Louis has 20,000
LYING IN TWO OR THREE TIERS.']} Here was desolation, indeed.

'The old, old sea, as one in tears, Comes murmuring, with foamy lips,
And knocking at the vacant piers, Calls for his long-lost multitude of

The towboat and the railroad had done their work, and done it well and
completely. The mighty bridge, stretching along over our heads, had
done its share in the slaughter and spoliation. Remains of former
steamboatmen told me, with wan satisfaction, that the bridge doesn't
pay. Still, it can be no sufficient compensation to a corpse, to know
that the dynamite that laid him out was not of as good quality as it had
been supposed to be.

The pavements along the river front were bad: the sidewalks were rather
out of repair; there was a rich abundance of mud. All this was familiar
and satisfying; but the ancient armies of drays, and struggling throngs
of men, and mountains of freight, were gone; and Sabbath reigned in
their stead. The immemorial mile of cheap foul doggeries remained, but
business was dull with them; the multitudes of poison-swilling Irishmen
had departed, and in their places were a few scattering handfuls of
ragged negroes, some drinking, some drunk, some nodding, others asleep.
St. Louis is a great and prosperous and advancing city; but the river-
edge of it seems dead past resurrection.

Mississippi steamboating was born about 1812; at the end of thirty
years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more,
it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature. Of
course it is not absolutely dead, neither is a crippled octogenarian who
could once jump twenty-two feet on level ground; but as contrasted with
what it was in its prime vigor, Mississippi steamboating may be called

It killed the old-fashioned keel-boating, by reducing the freight-trip
to New Orleans to less than a week. The railroads have killed the
steamboat passenger traffic by doing in two or three days what the
steamboats consumed a week in doing; and the towing-fleets have killed
the through-freight traffic by dragging six or seven steamer-loads of
stuff down the river at a time, at an expense so trivial that steamboat
competition was out of the question.

Freight and passenger way-traffic remains to the steamers. This is in
the hands - along the two thousand miles of river between St. Paul and
New Orleans - -of two or three close corporations well fortified with
capital; and by able and thoroughly business-like management and system,
these make a sufficiency of money out of what is left of the once
prodigious steamboating industry. I suppose that St. Louis and New
Orleans have not suffered materially by the change, but alas for the
wood-yard man!

He used to fringe the river all the way; his close-ranked merchandise
stretched from the one city to the other, along the banks, and he sold
uncountable cords of it every year for cash on the nail; but all the
scattering boats that are left burn coal now, and the seldomest
spectacle on the Mississippi to-day is a wood-pile. Where now is the
once wood-yard man?

Chapter 23 Traveling Incognito

MY idea was, to tarry a while in every town between St. Louis and New
Orleans. To do this, it would be necessary to go from place to place by
the short packet lines. It was an easy plan to make, and would have
been an easy one to follow, twenty years ago - but not now. There are
wide intervals between boats, these days.

I wanted to begin with the interesting old French settlements of St.
Genevieve and Kaskaskia, sixty miles below St. Louis. There was only one
boat advertised for that section - a Grand Tower packet. Still, one boat
was enough; so we went down to look at her. She was a venerable rack-
heap, and a fraud to boot; for she was playing herself for personal
property, whereas the good honest dirt was so thickly caked all over her
that she was righteously taxable as real estate. There are places in New
England where her hurricane deck would be worth a hundred and fifty
dollars an acre. The soil on her forecastle was quite good - the new crop
of wheat was already springing from the cracks in protected places. The
companionway was of a dry sandy character, and would have been well
suited for grapes, with a southern exposure and a little subsoiling.
The soil of the boiler deck was thin and rocky, but good enough for
grazing purposes. A colored boy was on watch here - nobody else visible.
We gathered from him that this calm craft would go, as advertised, 'if
she got her trip;' if she didn't get it, she would wait for it.

'Has she got any of her trip?'

'Bless you, no, boss. She ain't unloadened, yit. She only come in dis

He was uncertain as to when she might get her trip, but thought it might
be to-morrow or maybe next day. This would not answer at all; so we had
to give up the novelty of sailing down the river on a farm. We had one
more arrow in our quiver: a Vicksburg packet, the 'Gold Dust,' was to
leave at 5 P.M. We took passage in her for Memphis, and gave up the idea
of stopping off here and there, as being impracticable. She was neat,
clean, and comfortable. We camped on the boiler deck, and bought some
cheap literature to kill time with. The vender was a venerable Irishman
with a benevolent face and a tongue that worked easily in the socket,
and from him we learned that he had lived in St. Louis thirty-four years
and had never been across the river during that period. Then he wandered
into a very flowing lecture, filled with classic names and allusions,
which was quite wonderful for fluency until the fact became rather
apparent that this was not the first time, nor perhaps the fiftieth,
that the speech had been delivered. He was a good deal of a character,
and much better company than the sappy literature he was selling. A
random remark, connecting Irishmen and beer, brought this nugget of
information out of him -

They don't drink it, sir. They can't drink it, sir. Give an Irishman
lager for a month, and he's a dead man. An Irishman is lined with
copper, and the beer corrodes it. But whiskey polishes the copper and is
the saving of him, sir.'

At eight o'clock, promptly, we backed out and crossed the river. As we
crept toward the shore, in the thick darkness, a blinding glory of white
electric light burst suddenly from our forecastle, and lit up the water
and the warehouses as with a noon-day glare. Another big change, this -
no more flickering, smoky, pitch-dripping, ineffectual torch-baskets,
now: their day is past. Next, instead of calling out a score of hands
to man the stage, a couple of men and a hatful of steam lowered it from
the derrick where it was suspended, launched it, deposited it in just
the right spot, and the whole thing was over and done with before a mate
in the olden time could have got his profanity-mill adjusted to begin
the preparatory services. Why this new and simple method of handling the
stages was not thought of when the first steamboat was built, is a
mystery which helps one to realize what a dull-witted slug the average
human being is.

We finally got away at two in the morning, and when I turned out at six,
we were rounding to at a rocky point where there was an old stone
warehouse - at any rate, the ruins of it; two or three decayed dwelling-
houses were near by, in the shelter of the leafy hills; but there were
no evidences of human or other animal life to be seen. I wondered if I
had forgotten the river; for I had no recollection whatever of this
place; the shape of the river, too, was unfamiliar; there was nothing in
sight, anywhere, that I could remember ever having seen before. I was
surprised, disappointed, and annoyed.

We put ashore a well-dressed lady and gentleman, and two well-dressed,
lady-like young girls, together with sundry Russia-leather bags. A
strange place for such folk! No carriage was waiting. The party moved
off as if they had not expected any, and struck down a winding country
road afoot.

But the mystery was explained when we got under way again; for these
people were evidently bound for a large town which lay shut in behind a
tow-head (i.e., new island) a couple of miles below this landing. I
couldn't remember that town; I couldn't place it, couldn't call its
name. So I lost part of my temper. I suspected that it might be St.
Genevieve - and so it proved to be. Observe what this eccentric river
had been about: it had built up this huge useless tow-head directly in
front of this town, cut off its river communications, fenced it away
completely, and made a 'country' town of it. It is a fine old place,
too, and deserved a better fate. It was settled by the French, and is a
relic of a time when one could travel from the mouths of the Mississippi
to Quebec and be on French territory and under French rule all the way.

Presently I ascended to the hurricane deck and cast a longing glance
toward the pilot-house.

Chapter 24 My Incognito is Exploded

AFTER a close study of the face of the pilot on watch, I was satisfied
that I had never seen him before; so I went up there. The pilot
inspected me; I re-inspected the pilot. These customary preliminaries
over, I sat down on the high bench, and he faced about and went on with
his work. Every detail of the pilot-house was familiar to me, with one
exception, - a large-mouthed tube under the breast-board. I puzzled over
that thing a considerable time; then gave up and asked what it was for.

'To hear the engine-bells through.'

It was another good contrivance which ought to have been invented half a
century sooner. So I was thinking, when the pilot asked -

'Do you know what this rope is for?'

I managed to get around this question, without committing myself.

'Is this the first time you were ever in a pilot-house?'

I crept under that one.

'Where are you from?'

'New England.'

'First time you have ever been West?'

I climbed over this one.

'If you take an interest in such things, I can tell you what all these
things are for.'

I said I should like it.

'This,' putting his hand on a backing-bell rope, 'is to sound the fire-
alarm; this,' putting his hand on a go-ahead bell, 'is to call the
texas-tender; this one,' indicating the whistle-lever, 'is to call the
captain' - and so he went on, touching one object after another, and
reeling off his tranquil spool of lies.

I had never felt so like a passenger before. I thanked him, with
emotion, for each new fact, and wrote it down in my note-book. The pilot
warmed to his opportunity, and proceeded to load me up in the good old-
fashioned way. At times I was afraid he was going to rupture his
invention; but it always stood the strain, and he pulled through all
right. He drifted, by easy stages, into revealments of the river's
marvelous eccentricities of one sort and another, and backed them up
with some pretty gigantic illustrations. For instance -

'Do you see that little boulder sticking out of the water yonder? well,
when I first came on the river, that was a solid ridge of rock, over
sixty feet high and two miles long. All washed away but that.' [This
with a sigh.]

I had a mighty impulse to destroy him, but it seemed to me that killing,


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