Published Stories

Unpublished Stories

Other Resources

Contact Us

Approximately 3800 words
5 pixs with negatives
Submitted at usual rates. If
Not accepted please return
With the enclosed envelope and
Return postage to
Rob F. Sanderson
724 Edgewater,
Portage, WIS

Down Steamboat Trail
Rob F. Sanderson

Editors note: This is the personal experience story of a boat trip made by the writer and described in the following pages.

It has a certain amount of romantic adventure and travel appeal. I hope you find it suitable for publication.

Down Steamboat Trail

Enter Mississippi!

           The “Voyageur” nosed around the last long bend. I looked straight down the flat, sun-plated water of the tributary across the vast waters of the mighty stream our river was soon to be wedded with, and beyond that mighty stream to a high limestone bluff that formed the far bank. High trees green in the summer grew back from the river and over the bluff.

           “There she is!” I shouted above the droning motor. “The Mississippi!” But the back door of the cabin slammed as I spoke and John was out on deck with the camera.

           Minutes later our bow furrowed out into the turbulent brown water and felt the tug of powerful cross-currents and eddies. I gave the wheel a gradual turn and we headed southward toward the Mexican Gulf. John produced the already well-thumbed government charts from a locker, and on them we watched our mile-by-mile progress down America's great water highway.

           Somewhat saddened by the thought that our entre’, which I had elaborately imagined during several weeks of boatbuilding and a week of travel down a tributary, should be over in such a short time, I looked back somewhat forlornly at the ribbon of a tributary that had just disgorged us. I had really hoped to feel like an early French explorer discovering the river, or something. It almost seemed that I had missed the whole thing and should retrace and do it over.

           The vastness of the swiftly sliding, turbulent water soon captured my attention. Just ahead was a yellow and white bouy, one of thousands set out by the government river crews to mark the channel for steamboat pilots. Next to the shore a jettie jutted boldly into the current to force the current away from shore. Before the trip was done we were to see jetties over half a mile long, and revetment works flanking the shore for miles to keep the greedy current from gobbling the land up like so much sugar to send it down a thousand mile esophagus into the stomach of the sea where each year 700,000,000 tons of America’s richest top soil, pirated away by the river, are digested and thrown to the floor of the Mexican Gulf.

           I sat back easily in my canvas chair with one hand lazily on the pilot wheel. This was just the sort of trip two fellows dream about for years but never get around to take, and here John and I were actually sitting in our personally constructed boat, on an endless escalator of water that would carry us down past St. Louis and Memphis to the deep south. We were on nature’s eternal road, the pathway of the Indian bark canoes, of the bateaux of the fur traders, of the huge pine rafts from the northern lumber camps, and for over a century now, the track of the huge, stern-wheeled river boats.

           It certainly looked like a grand trip. There would be no flat tires, no thick traffic, no confining rules of the road. We could eat, sleep, fish or swim, by stirring only a few feet. Everything essential to life lay almost within reach. The screens on the cabin sides kept out the bugs, and the roof kept away the sun and rain. We were all set to loaf and love it, and that is just what we did.

A Domicile Adrift

           According to the first plans, the “Voyageur” would be built in a week, but as her hull expanded, our imaginations kept pace. At night we hatched creative ideas, and daytimes we divided between working on the boat and running back and forth from the hardware or lumberyard for materials we kept finding our new ideas needed.

           At last the final coat of paint dried and the false bottom was fitted. It was about five in the afternoon and the first of the usual neighborhood evening board of directors began to arrive so as to pass judgment on the day’s accomplishments and ask or suggest anything they hadn’t happened to think of before.

           “She’s ready at last,” I announced, cleaning the caulking compound off my hands with a rag soaked in turpentine

           A couple of small boys scrambled up the steps to the street and a half hour later a dozen or more men were gathered, either to help us launch the boat or tell us how. We slipped planks under the hull to lift her by, and sent her rolling down the bank on a couple of barrels. She hit the water with a splash and shot out into the river until the snubbing line jerked her short. I noticed with elation that the waterline floated perfectly parallel to the water, just before the line was submerged by the launching crew and advisers who all clambered aboard for the maiden voyage up the river.

           I steered the small motor while the passengers dashed from side to side and in and out of the cabin from the front deck to the rear and back again. Everybody looked all over but nobody could find where a drop of water had oozed in. John and I slapped each other on the back and went home to bed but not to sleep.

           Our floating domicile was about eighteen feet long and five feet across the beam-a compromise between a cottage and something that could be moved through the water. A roomy locker ran the length of the cabin on each side, one holding food, a gasoline stove and other supplies; and other containing blankets, clothes and personal effects. A table let down from the ceiling, and at night a false floor rose to the level of the locker tops across which we spread air mattresses and slept comfortably.

           The rear of the boat, an open cockpit, carried gas tanks, water bags and jugs, fishing equipment, a two and an eight horse power motors (one of which somehow always worked), a little round pot that received daily use, and a mechanic’s tool kit. Miscellany on board included a rifle and a pistol, a gasoline mantle lamp, and two old dress suits stowed carefully under the front deck, to tide us over our social debutes on shore.

           At each town along the river we acquired a few extra items that were handy to have around even though we didn’t use them. By the time we reached southern Illinois our craft resembled an itinerant peddler’s wagon, our wares crashing and clacking together on their nails or strings when the sea became choppy. The salt shaker, democratically suspended by a string from the center of the cabin roof, constituted the chief culprit and was always swinging loose to crack some unsuspecting member of the crew on the back of his head.

           Such was our little home that was to be our shelter from the mosquitoes and the elements (note the priority) for many weeks of watery wanderings. She was just large enough to require the right amount of time from a crew of two. The force of the current washed our dishes; the sun dried them on deck. The water snatched away our garbage and the wake of the propeller did the laundry. We had everything; I am sure that no subsequent abode will so thoroughly capture my fancy. It was simply perfect, except perhaps for a better salt shaker arrangement and the lack of a floating hencoop which I now realize could have been easily installed on the roof, as one of our down river acquaintances solved the fresh egg problem.

Navigators and Natives

           I did not actually feel that I was really on the Mississippi until I actually stared at one of the romantic river steamers. The first day I constantly scanned the horizon up and down for the sight of two high plumes of smoke spouting from the twin stacks of some gigantic river belle.

           My modified ambition became reality at the end of the second day when the little “Iowa” with one low deck capped by a pilot house came wheezing along as if almost exhausted by some monstrous pursuer, I peered behind her to see if a larger boat was about to run her down, but when I saw there was none I was not so disappointed that I did not snap a picture of the “Iowa” herself

           Every day we met a motley assortment of craft, but on the average the big steamers passed by only about twice a week. Their huge paddle blades gouged great bites out of the water and left row after row of high curling waves crawling against the current at right angles across the river. Some of these puffing orges tooting their booming bass-voiced whistles at every bend, we butted eight or ten barrels of coal, grain, or automobiles crushing forward against the water to leave the river churning for two miles a stern. Neglect to pull the whistle on a bend might send two of these long barge trains to the bottom, for they become unmanageable as soon as the perfect balance that the pilot has established with the current is destroyed, a half mile or more is required to divert their course.

           If we passed close enough, we could hear the occasional gong of the pilot’s signal bell in the engine room, and hear the darkies singing queer toned work songs while their brawny black bodies, naked to the waist and shiny with sweat, trundled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of coal from the fuel barge back to the engine room where the boilers consumed it as burnt offerings to the river gods. After a few sound threshings from the wakes of the stern wheelers, which invariably left the salt shaker swinging from side to side (reminding me on Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”), I began to speculate about meeting the ocean going boats which ascend the river as far as Baton Rouge. Further on where the river broadened to a mile and a half we found plenty of room to avoid these great galleons of commerce with their barge armadas.

           The larger craft were boorishly similar, but we met no small bark that was not individualistic and unusually friendly. The scow-like Johnboats, powered by old automobile engines, were the universal equipment of the rivermen who were constantly chugging back or forth or up or down the river; tending their night lines, hunting pearls or mussels, or emptying their hoop and fyke nets. Their pilots varied from a bearded old man attired only in a shirt, to a fat amazon woman wearing a battered straw hat and smoking a clay pipe.

           These plain fisherfolk live along the shore in houseboats or makeshift dwellings. By a series of complications they have been made more stable and more dependent on the government in recent years. Until a few years ago, they were substantial, self-supporting citizens of the United States; not because of any inherent ambition, but because their migrant nature kept them roving along the river up and down in their floating homes. As the Mississippi is federal water, river residents could not become residents of any state through which the river passed, and no pensions, project work or relief could be given to these people since such benefits are disbursed only by states upon their own residents.

           In the last few years the federal government has built over a score of huge dams and locks on the upper river. These raise the water level to improve navigation and aid flood control, and impound long stretches of still water. The current stilled, the shantyboaters can no longer float down from slough to slough. As a result they tie up to the bank at one spot, and after hauling their boats on shore to escape the winter freeze, they have no reason to put the boat in the water when spring arrives, if they can’t move anyway. So they have erected rude foundations around the hulls of their old craft, and become shore dwelling, bona fide residents of the state, and eligibles for all the bountiful benefits bestowed by our great government upon its people

           Almost every town along the river has its dry land shantyboat town, somewhere on the outskirts near to the water, where the residents cling to their old river customs and avoid all land modification except for perhaps an outhouse or chicken run. They still make their living fishing, as evidenced by the many huge hoop nets twenty or more feet long that have been recently tarred and hung up to dry. Intermingling among the land folk is frowned upon and new residents are accepted with intense suspicion.

           Now and then we came upon these people tending their night lines or lifting their nets. The lines were made of specially made strong cord or small rope, the ends, often hundreds of feet apart, anchored by a sack filled with rocks or sand. By means of a floating can or jug tied to a branch of the main line, it was easily located and pulled to the surface. At three or four foot intervals, staging or small side lines a foot or more long were tied to the main line. Early in the morning long before the sun or any of our crew had risen, we often heard the gas boats chugging away toward the fishing grounds where the lines had been set out the evening before.

           John and I carried a couple of short lines, which we set out just before dusk. Late in the afternoon we would stop at a likely bar along the way, seine a supply of minnows, and be ready to drop the lines in any likely hole we ran across. As both the fish and the “Voyageur” preferred comparatively still water for the night, we did not have to go far. Next morning the line would tug vociferously when it felt the fisherman’s hand pull. One man pulled the boat along the line while the other netted or gaffed the catch and unhooked them from the line.

           Most of our catch would be channel catfish, a fish with firm, sweet meat. They command a good market at all the floating fish buyer’s establishments, which are found at the waterfront of every river hamlet. Pike, crappies, white bass, buffalo, and gars furnished daily variations. These Mississippi catfish frequently attain weights over half a hundred pounds. The largest fish ever taken out of the river, I am told, was a huge alligator garfish about seventeen feet long. These gars prey on other fish, and due to their very hard, swordfish like bills, are seldom caught on hooks used for ordinary fish. Our lines happened to hook three or four about a yard long.

           One calm day just above Cape Girardeau, Missouri, I spied a strange sight on the river ahead of me. Hordes of black specks spotted the surface from one side of the channel to the other. Over near one side sat two men in a motorboat, carefully watching the specks, which proved to be half gallon jugs and cans. On the end of each was tied an eight foot length of strong line carrying an 8/0 hook baited with beef melt dyed red.

           The larger catfish, called “floaters” by the natives, lie in the channel just a few feet under the surface and fan the current. Here they pick up the bulk of the food, which floats along at or near the water level. Beef melt is their favorite flavor and red their favorite color. When the combination floats by, they grab it and are hooked. As soon as the fish feels the jug, he sounds for the bottom, but the current against the jug throws the fish off balance and the jug itself is a weight of over thirty pounds pulling the fish upward, When a jug bobs or goes under, the herders in the motorboat run over as they know that even the largest fish cannot hold a float under for more than a few minutes. The larger fish are given a chance to sound several times so as to be thoroughly exhausted before being gaffed and dragged into the boat. Further down the river along Tennessee and Mississippi we saw men bringing in a hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds of fish from a day’s “jugging”. John and I got a couple of dozen jugs ourselves and gave the sport a thorough try. It proved to be a sport on a par with shooting floating snapping turtles on the water, from the front deck as we traveled along.

Levees and Jetties

           At Cairo, Illinois, the cocoa colored waters of the Mississippi Missouri combination join the slate blue Ohio to form the broad “lower river”, as it is known to steamboat men. From here to the delta the ordinary rock jetties used on the upper river will not stand the tremendous force of the current. The jetties here are rows of thick wooden piles cut from the swamp forests and driven deep into the mud by enormous steam sledges. At one place I saw concrete blocks three feet in diameter that had been rolled half a mile from their former location by high water and left stranded on a sandbar.

           The country around Cairo is made a peninsula by the Wabash on the east, the Ohio on the south, and the Mississippi on the west. It is separated by the Shawnee hills from the rest of Illinois, whose residents call the Cairo area “Egypt”. From there on the trip wound through wilderness areas that reminded me of the wilderness the children of Israel wandered through on their way to the promised land after their release from Egypt. The river banks were flat as a glass of water without the glass, and constituted a primitive wilderness inhabited for miles only by wild razor back hogs, cane break bears, raccoons, and water snakes

           Along the edge of the bank, willows the size of a man’s leg grew as thick as the hair on his head. At intervals of many miles I saw a weathered old skiff tied along the muddy shore near a pathway of boards that bridged the muck back into the willows where some river hermit had built a shack of driftwood. If we came close to shore a mongrel hound dog or two would come as near to the end of the board path as possible without getting stuck in the soft mud, and bark insults at us.

           The river itself looped and wandered incessantly like a blind serpent looking for a corkscrew. The current, swiftest along the bends, gnawed huge chunks of earth from the banks. I once saw several acres of willows fallen into the river in one block as a result of undercutting. The tops were just waving farewell above the current when we passed. We actually saw one landslide from the Arkansas shore, which sent waves over two feet high rolling toward us.

           The undercutting on the outside of the bends continually enlarges the loops and meanders. The “Voyageur” traveled the eighteen miles to reach a location that would have been ours by half an hour of overland travel. Soon, high water would cut a channel across this narrow neck to form a new river bed. Two boys traveling a few days ahead of us in a canoe tried to run one of these cut offs but the current in this newly formed chute was so treacherous that the small craft was upset and one of the boys drowned

           After the new channel forms, the ends of the old horseshoe shaped bed are silted in, and willows grow again along the river shore as though nothing had occurred. There are hundreds of these isolated oxbow lakes, invisible from the river, in which the water turns clear as soon as the sediment has a chance to settle. They furnish splendid fishing for bass, crappies, white bass and other fish. Formerly thriving river towns woke up to find themselves transferred overnight from a channel port to a sleepy village in a quiet oxbow, miles from the main channel. As a result the “Voyageur” sometimes traveled sixty or more miles between river towns, with the only sign of civilization the occasional levee embankment on the outside of the wider turns.

           As huge crib rafts of white pine logs from the northwoods camps filled the upper river years ago, today the lower river carries raft after raft of swamp oak and cypress logs down to the lumber mills where they are snaked out of the river by cranes and cables, to be sliced by whirling buzz saws. Now and then a cluster of white canvas tents appeared among the thick undergrowth of the shore-the lumber camps of the Southland where the “swamp angels” (lumberjacks) fell the monarchs from some of the few remaining stands of virgin timer in the United States.

           From Greenville, Mississippi, southward is the famous long staple cotton country, where each picking brings thousands of colored laborers, tent shows, and traveling gamblers to live off the crop, directly or indirectly. Money rolls loosely around until the crop is all ginned and the workers are broke again. Then the docks are piled high with cotton bales, waiting for the river barges to carry them to Memphis or New Orleans.

           Our time grew short. We stopped loitering to fish in the oxbows and spend hours watching our floating jugs. The “Voyageur” ran sixteen or more hours some days, following the guiding pilot lights along the shore after dark. The shore lights could be easily correlated with the locations marked on the map, and night navigation was a comparatively simple matter. The night water was calm, and many an hour the river was the same color as the full round southern moon.

           Periodically the motor tank would run dry and require a re-fill from the storage tanks. The propeller offered the most resistance to the current at these times, and turned the boat bow upstream, as I had noticed several times in daylight.

           One night when we were still green about after dark navigation, I turned the wheel over to John about midnight. The next morning when I woke to take over the wheel I noticed that our progress during the early morning had been very slight. I mentioned this to John, who explained that he had pulled over to the bank for a snooze.

           Months after the trip was over he confessed that he had gone back, filled the gas tank, and started out again for the same light. The light stayed in the distance for hours, almost seeming to move on along the river, until finally an investigation showed that he was headed upstream-the current had turned the boat around in the dark while he was refueling without his knowing it!

           The day we unloaded the “Voyageur” I had a sort of sinking feeling as we crafted up the outfit and sent it over the levee to the freight depot for the long journey home. Someday John and I would like to make the trip again, as Mark Twain did after years away from the river.

           Maybe we’ll meet you someday, floating down steamboat trail!

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob