Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Mud Island

Just along the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River at Memphis is Mud Island, one of the many small islands that have traditionally formed and then disappeared as the Mississippi River erodes its banks and changes its shape over the decades. Mud Island has become somewhat more permanent in the last half of the 20th century through efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers in their attempts to control the river for commerce,  providing a more or less stable platform for a community park and civic area. A monorail system takes you from the west end of Beale Street across a small channel to the island upon which is located the Mississippi River Museum.

This is a rather large Museum covering two floors telling the story of the river from pre-Columbian times up until the modern era. The first Europeans to see the Mississippi River were in the expedition of Hernandez De Soto in 1541. He was so excited at the prospect that he died right on the spot. Well, actually he died of a tropical fever. In order to make it easier to deal with the locals, Hernandez had kind of let on that he was a god and the remaining members of his party had some difficulty figuring out how to explain his inconvenient demise to the natives. Remembering what happened to Sean Connery in "The Man Who Would Be King", they decided the best course was to wrap his body up in a blanket with a bunch of rocks and sink it in the Mississippi in the middle of the night when nobody was looking. Then they made up some excuse and hot footed it back to Mexico, but not before claiming the river and all of its tributaries in the name of Spain.

As Mark Twain pointed out in "Life on the Mississippi", the significance of a major waterway in the middle of the North American continent so impressed the Europeans that nobody bothered to go peek at it again for well over 100 years. Finally Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette led an expedition from the western Great Lakes region which stumbled onto the Mississippi River again in 1673 . They explored the river  in canoes nearly to the Gulf of Mexico, desperately hoping that it would lead them to the Pacific Ocean but, alas, such was not to be the case. While the French explorers were disappointed that they had not found the elusive Northwest passage, free land is free land and, figuring the Spanish claim had long since exceded the statute of limitations, they turned around and claimed the whole area for France. The French and the Spanish wrangled over the river for 100 years without either side ever actually doing much with it. The only people that actually settled along the river were Americans. By the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon was gearing up to take over Europe and needed funds way more urgently than some backwater bayou in the Americas, so after once again winning the Louisiana territory back from Spain in 1800, he turned around in 1803 and offered the whole kebab to Thomas Jefferson for the bargain sale price of three cents per acre. Jefferson accepted, although the only part he was really interested in was New Orleans.  The rest was just gravey, though it ended up being the smartest real estate deal since the Dutch bought Manhatten.

Raft, flat bottom and keel boat
If you'll recall, the Americans had finally started moving west of the Appalachian Mountains at about this time and were busy growing crops and wiping out the Buffalo and inventing Bourbon and whatnot and wanted to get their goods out to exchange them for hard cash along the Eastern seaboard. Carting everything by pack mule back over the Appalachians wasn't that appealing but the Mississippi River allowed them to transport their goods downstream to New Orleans and then back up to the eastern cities by boat. Initially this was done on rafts and barges. They would build these along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, load them up with goods and float them down to the Gulf where they would sell the goods, break up the rafts and sell the lumbar and then walk back north along the Natchez trace. Finally, the cost of throwing away the boats got to be prohibitive and they begin using keelboats which could be turned around and hauled back upriver to be reused. Pushing or pulling a keelboat upstream for 1000 miles was no piece of cake, so the boatmen were happy when Robert Fulton solved the problem by inventing the steamboat and creating work for Mark Twain.

The museum devotes a fair amount of space to paddlewheel steamboats as the iconic representation of Mississippi history. There are a lot of small models and a full-size mockup of the front half of a steamer along with a full-size mockup of Mark Twain himself, mostly for atmosphere. This brings
Ironclad gunboat
you to the Civil War era when the union managed to control the River using ironclad steam powered gunboats which they also had a full-size replica of. This being Memphis, they moved directly from the Civil War to the birth of the Mississippi blues in the early 1900s. No one really cares what happened in Mississippi between 1865 and 1910 anyway. The museum tour ends with a tiny segment covering modern-day river traffic just for completeness sake. Overall we found the museum interesting and reasonably priced and if you're going to spend a few days in Memphis, one of them should probably be spent here.

The River Walk from the second floor of the museum
Outside the museum running up and down the rest of Mud Island is the Mississippi River Walk. This is essentially a relief map, a 2112:1 scale model of  the Lower Mississippi River, covering 1,000 miles from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans. It's hard to make out much detail about the River but it's a great place for kids to jump back and forth across the Mississippi for an afternoon. Strolling the River Walk park we also enjoyed the view of one of the few remaining paddlewheel boats taking tourists up the river. Not a steam vessel, they've all been converted to diesel engines which have significantly less tendency to blow up unexpectedly. We took a dinner cruise on one of these boats but didn't think it through very well. It's gotten so late in the year that the whole cruise was in the dark. But the dinner was pretty good and, what the heck, here's a picture of Memphis in the dark.
Memphis in the dark
Balcony of the Lorraine Motel
While we were in Memphis, we also went through the National Civil Rights Museum which is spread out in several buildings around the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. We have been through a lot of museums in the last few months but there is usually a comfortable buffer of one or two centuries shielding us from the implications of our history. It's an odd feeling going through a Museum dedicated to events that took place during your own lifetime. I realize there are still racial issues in this country but it's astonishing to realize how things have changed since I was in high school.  I wonder if Dr. King would be more impressed with how far we have come or with how far we have yet to go?

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.