by John Delach
American maritime paintings that depict scenes from the mid Nineteenth Century and the early Twentieth Century are popular because they are special. They interpret a black and white era in brilliant colors inviting our eyes to observe a newly industrialized America flexing its muscle, expanding its dominance over the land, the rivers and the oceans.
Artists like John Stoddard and Michael Blaser depict a multitude of steamboats of all sizes and description serving river cities and towns on the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers. They portray daily river life from sunrise to sunset and even at night time.
Famous steamboats fill their portfolios, Belle Memphis, Bayou Sara, J.M. White, Belle Amour, Dean Adams and The Island Queen. Their portraits present a world of commerce on these rivers, the commerce of an America propelled by determination, prosperity, and confidence.
Sailing upriver on board the modern steamboat, American Queen, passengers can re-live this era by examining its many paintings that line the boat’s passageways, lounges and public rooms. But the land and the towns that line the Mississippi tell a different story, a story of change and not for the better, of being bypassed, made redundant and abandoned to exist in nostalgia that once was their glory.
I first witnessed the state of Mississippi River towns in 2010 during a baseball trip that took my mates and me from St. Paul to St. Louis. Here is how I described our journey as we drove south in Iowa along the Mississippi River:
We drive back into Davenport to see the place during daylight and discover that this is the first of several “ghost towns” we will drive through. It seems that only the poor and disconnected live in these towns any longer while retail business has fled to suburban malls. Downtown: empty storefronts look back at us and many abandoned housing units dot the nearby, once-upon-a-time, residential neighborhoods within this once prosperous city. We witness this same phenomenon in Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk, Iowa.
Late in April, 2015, Mary Ann and I traveled on board the American Queen upriver from New Orleans to Memphis. The trip took seven days, the massive 40-ton paddle wheel behind the stern pushing the steamboat against the current at five miles an hour against the “Big Muddy” or the “Father of All Waters.” Along the way we stopped at by-passed towns, in Mississippi and Arkansas; Natchez, Helena-West Helena and Clarksdale.
What took us seven days could be covered by automobile in about six and a half hours on Interstate-55, but the point of making this trip was to experience this part of our country. The American Queen was the only passenger boat on the river in regular service.
But commerce remained strong on this great inland river though it has minimum contact with the land especially in the Delta between Vicksburg and Memphis. Great fleets of barges tied together into groups of 12 to 20 called “tows” are maneuvered up and down the river pushed along by powerful towboats. The barges carry cargo in bulk, coal, grain; soy, wheat, oats, corn or any other bulk commodity including sand and stone. Downriver for exports, upriver for imports- the tows never stop at the towns. They move from one fleeting area to another, where they tie off at landings away from human traffic. Full barges are brought along side floating cranes which lift their cargoes in huge buckets up into the holds of ocean-going ships. Likewise they load empty barges with imported bulk cargoes to be taken upriver to inland ports.
The river towns prospered during the time of king cotton when this industry dominated the land, the people and their life-style. Cultivating, harvesting, cleaning, inspecting, warehousing and shipping cotton ruled the land and those who lived there. Starting during the First World War, the put-upon lowly black field workers and sharecroppers began to quit the land taking their families north up the center of the country to cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, etc. seeking a new life. The Great Depression slowed this migration to a crawl, but the need for workers serve in the plants of our “Arsenal for Democracy, as World War II arrived turned this trickle into a flood as masses of black field workers left the land. Cotton doe forced to automate eliminating field jobs forever. After the war, interstates by-passed the river towns, railroad traffic gave way to the airlines while malls and big-box stores starved local mom and pop merchants. One by one downtown retail stores gave up the ghost as did the hotels and restaurants.
What remains today is nostalgia, heritage and the Delta Blues. Natchez has a black-tie Festival of Music each May, a Mississippi River Race in October and Christmas in Natchez, a festival of lights. Helena has the King Biscuit Blues Festival each October that attracts 100,000 fans or more and the Wild Hog Music Festival and Motor Cycle in April. (Damn, we must have just missed that one by a week.) We also missed the Juke Joint Festival held in April in Clarksdale.
Nostalgia, heritage and the Delta Blues, that’s what they hope to sell. Despite these towns’ being down and out, here’s the message I heard their folks screaming out, “We are not going to disappear.”
B.B. King just passed. A boy born on a Mississippi plantation who had his first paid gig in Clarksdale. Like Muddy Waters or Bessie Smith, he came into this world when cotton was king and now their memory and the music they invented help to keep these towns alive and I believe sustain their future; nostalgia, heritage and the Delta Blues.