Navigating the curves and cutoffs of America’s big river
By Boyce Upholt
There is a college calculus book that makes good use of a hard-to-measure fact: just how big is the Mississippi River?
When you envision a map of North America, you may think of the river as a vertical line, dividing our continent into neat east-west halves. But those who have spent time on the river know its line is imprecise. A river is at best a muddy band, swelling and contracting with the seasons. Once, during March high waters, I launched a canoe trip from a farm-road drainage ditch. Floods had pushed the backwater so far up a tributary that a cow pasture had been swallowed and was now a part of the big river.
It’s a band, too, that rarely travels north or south. Instead it coils through tortuous curves, looping for many horizontal miles for minimal vertical gain. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain describes horseshoe bends where you could step ashore, walk half a mile across a neck, and then “sit down and rest a couple of hours while your steamer was coming around the long elbow, at a speed of ten miles an hour, to take you aboard again.”
If a river has any desire, it is to empty itself out into its ocean; in which case the river is happy for these shortcuts. As the ends of a horseshoe pinch ever closer, the water eventually jumps its banks, slicing miles off the river’s length. By such a process, Twain notes, over several centuries the river has shortened itself by about a mile and a third each year.
The textbook, Calculus in Context, asks students to consider the next bit of logic Twain employs: at such a rate, he calculates, a million years ago “the Lower Mississippi was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-pole;” in another seven centuries, he goes on, the river “will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo [Illinois] and New Orleans will have joined their streets together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen.”
Even as a math problem we can only capture the size of this river in a joke.
Current estimates of the length of the Mississippi vary, but 2,350 miles is a comfortable median. It’s not even the longest river on the continent; its gangly tributary, the Missouri, earns that title. But really we should consider the Missouri a part of the big river, since a river is best understood not as a single waterway but as an entire drainage basin. Much of the groundwater in Montana, just like groundwater in Minnesota, trickles off our continent at the same point: the Head of Passes, where Louisiana meets the Gulf of Mexico. There are only three world rivers that trace a longer path to the ocean than that route down the Missouri and the Mississippi.
This river basin is epic. Parts were created before the Atlantic Ocean, as tectonic plates collided, pushing up to form the Appalachians and crumpling down into the river valley. It covers 31 states (plus two Canadian provinces), over 40% of the continental United States. Dirt comes from Pennsylvania, Montana, Colorado, and Ohio to be dumped in Louisiana, building up new bits of Gulf coast. At New Orleans the river pumps 4.5 million gallons each second—which constitutes nearly two-thirds of the freshwater that enters the Gulf of Mexico.
For six years, I’ve lived in central Mississippi, 30 miles from the river. I am an occasional paddler, which has granted me a vision of a rare landscape: here the river is separated from our cities by levees, and is accessible only down cracked pavement or gravel roads. That’s how many want it; its waters mean floods and danger. In his memoir Lanterns on the Levee, William Percy, a planter and poet who grew up here in the late 19th century, called the river “the shifting unappeasable god of the country, feared and loved.”
It is also a business concern. The first white Americans to settle this region harnessed its water to build plantations; later families made fortunes by creating shipping empires. For them, the river was the original American highway, the open road before America had cars. It linked Pittsburgh and Omaha to Baton Rouge and New Orleans, facilitating the passage of culture and commerce.
It all moved by riverboat. Percy wrote elegiacally of such boats, whose sound, he said, “hangs inside your heart like a star.” Boats seem to inspire such nostalgia; Twain wrote in a similar tone 70 years before. And today riverboats tow on. This new breed of industrial brutes still possesses grandeur and magnificence; they are, after all, massive things. A single barge carries product enough to bake 2.5 million loaves of bread, the same as 16 rail cars or 70 tractor-trailers. And a tow on the Mississippi will push as many as 40 barges, a sealed, autonomous world inaccessible to the consumer on land. Almost every product we own is shaped, somehow, by chemicals and products shipped up and down this river.
Which offer another way to understand the scale of the Mississippi, as revealing as any geographical fact. The Port of South Louisiana, which stretches for 54 miles along the riverside, calls itself “the largest tonnage port district in the Western hemisphere.” The separate ports in New Orleans and Baton Rouge are also top-ten U.S. ports by tonnnage. Sixty percent of the country’s exported grain comes down the river, a load that, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, includes 90% of Japanese livestock feed. Together, the three Louisiana ports shipped nearly 400 million tons in 2012—more than twice New York and Los Angeles combined—a key element of an inland waterways system that carries an estimated $180 billion of goods each year.
Take one of these towboats and place it on our muddy band of river, and it adds to the calculus problem new questions of geometry: a tow is so long that that it is difficult to swivel through the river’s narrow pinches. As an amateur paddler, I can’t help but marvel at their pilots’ expertise. Near Vicksburg the river bends so sharply that a pilot must drift until he’s nearly sideways and then, just before they hit the casinos on shore, jam his engines to life.
Pilots call this “going deep” —making a turn as close to the outside of a bend as possible. As he flirts with the river’s edge, the pilot is pushing his wealth of goods into water he has not yet met: his 30 or 40 barges can stretch before him for more than a quarter mile.
Towboats, that is, do not actually tow their cargo. They push. L.D. Williams, a three-decade veteran of towboats, told me that this is an easy nuance to overlook. He has an uncle, a smart guy, who simply cannot understand that the towboat pushes the barges from the back. Williams also made it clear to me that he did not work on a barge. A barge is just the platform for the cargo. Williams worked on a boat.
He is retired now, in part because new restrictions forbid him from smoking on board—though, three years out, he is trying to give that habit up. He lives in a second-floor apartment within sight of the levee in Greenville, Mississippi, a city that sits on the final downstream kink of particularly vexing set of curves. The Greenville Bends, as those curves are known, once looped through 50 miles of river to cover a point-to-point distance of only 15.
Lives spent alongside the river sometimes trace curves just as dramatic: Twain’s books conjure a wilderness of pirates, gamblers, and thieves. Williams tells me that his apartment was once a brothel. I’ve forgotten the details, but he told a story in which, if I remember right, the brothel owner was killed. The story may be true, but it may, like so much river lore, be just artful legend.
Williams once worked for a mortgage firm downstate in Jackson, but grew increasingly sick of his boss. One day he left. He called a friend, a bargeman, who said he could rustle up a job. After waiting two weeks, Williams called again. His friend was surprised to find that he’d been serious.
“He said, ‘Let me tell you something, this is hard work.’ And I said, ‘I can do it.’”
Williams is short and bald, but at 61 is still a powerful-looking man. He speaks in a loud voice, and as I ask him questions, I must use one, too—nearly 30 years on towboats has damaged his hearing.
The friend provided a packing list—five shirts, five pairs of jeans, steel-toed boots, underwear, socks—and Williams got on the boat.
After that precipitous turn, his career ran relatively straight. From deckhand he became mate, then engineer, then first engineer. Williams reported to the captain—“the wheelman,” he called him—but in most circumstances his own authority was absolute. Such is the path of a successful towboat career; even a captain must “come up through the deck,” as the saying goes.
They made good money—a wheelman especially. “A hundred and twenty, a hundred and thirty a year,” Williams said. “Most of ‘em are uneducated, dumb as a rock, and think they’re the smartest thing alive.”
“My favorite captain quit school in the sixth grade,” he added. “Guys would come to me to help with their letters home—to spell words and things like that.” One crewmate addressed a letter to the wrong place. When it was returned, the man was distraught, sure that his girlfriend, despite Williams’s explanations, had refused to accept his mail.
When I arrived at Williams’s apartment and explained that I was trying to understand the size of the river, he began to rattle off numbers and statistics and technical terms faster than I could write: the size of boats, the types of engines, the subgroups of cargo they shipped.
I should not have been surprised. Twain praised a steamboat pilot’s memory as “the most wonderful thing in the world.” A pilot must know every turn, every riffle. And not in just one iteration, since a river confounds our static notion of place. The water levels rise and fall—these days, as much as 40 feet in a year—making islands appear where there once was only water, creating backchannels where there once was dry land.
Twain, like Percy—like Williams, like me—traveled mostly along the Lower Mississippi, or the Lower, as it is sometimes known. The Lower begins at the southernmost tip of Illinois, in Cairo, where the Ohio River, the Mississippi’s largest tributary by volume, adds its water to the flow. Upstream from the confluence, in fact, the Ohio is the larger river.
Over millennia, the Lower flailed across the landscape, continuously shifting its bed over a “meander belt” up to 90 miles wide. Roughly once every thousand years, the river jumped to a new path; it once emptied into the Gulf past Morgan City, 80 miles west of New Orleans. Engineers and geologists now worry that it may eventually do so again.
The entire valley was a swampy morass, part water, part mud, a landscape that confounded notions of dry land. There is evidence that French explorer Robert de La Salle accurately calculated the location of the mouth of the Mississippi when he ventured there in 1684. But if that was the case, he must have been so confused by the landscape that he refused to believe there was a river amid the muck. (He sailed on, eventually landing in Texas, where he died.) When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mapped the Lower’s many historical paths in 1944, the resulting swath of colors looked like a work of abstract expressionism.
Now such wandering is over. The Corps is determined to hold the river to a single path, and maintains north of Baton Rouge a shipping channel at least 9 feet deep (from Baton Rouge south the channel is 45 feet deep, to allow for ocean-going vessels). Given the volume of commerce on the river, keeping the channel open is an economic imperative: record floods in 2011 slowed traffic and cost each boat as much as $10,000 a day; a drought the next year was worse, as stalled traffic may have cost as much as $75 billion.
The Lower has no locks or dams. There are levees and there are cutoffs, manmade hastenings of the shortcuts the river naturally makes. Such a measures are often thought of as flood control, but when debates raged over how to fund their construction, navigation was the argument that won the day. Inland taxpayers cared little about insuring riverside landowners, who, despite the dangers, were getting rich on such productive land. But unimpeded navigation of the great American river was an essential component of our national quest for profit and empire. The river and its tributaries connected the old frontier of the Alleghenies with the new west of the Rockies, and these rivers, winding and clogged with driftwood, had to be straightened and cleared. So in 1831, at Turnbull’s Bend, 200 miles downriver from Greenville and near a nexus of other rivers, the Corps made one of the first cutoffs
Spanish engineers had suggested such cuts thirty years earlier, when this was Spanish territory. Unsure of the consequences, the Spanish governor declined. His reluctance may have been wise: the cutoff is now the site of an ongoing battle between man and nature. Metal towers wall in the river, beeping every few seconds to warn away ships. Without such protection, the river would almost certainly return to its old path down to the Gulf, abandoning New Orleans to create a strange, walled city amid dry land.
Yet the program of straightening continued. A hundred years later, in the wake of the famous and famously destructive 1927 flood, another dozen cutoffs were completed along the Lower—including on the bends just outside L.D. Williams’s apartment. A 330-mile stretch of river was shortened by 116 miles. The travel time from Baton Rouge to Helena, Arkansas, was cut from 67 hours down to 57. (The cutoffs were also credited with preventing future floods.) Greenville now sat on a placid oxbow lake—which, once a canal was dug, reconnected the city to the river and offered a nice, sheltered port. By the 1960s and ‘70s, the city was a famous towboat capital. Its harbor bustled with ships being built, filled, and cleaned. Granaries towered on the far side of the levee.
Part of the allure of a trip down the Mississippi is a clean sense of accomplishment: you begin at the headwaters and end at mouth, having followed a straightforward path to completion. But for the men on towboats, voyages are often formless. Once cargo is dropped in port, the next shipment may lead the boat back downriver or further upstream; you never know until new orders arrive. The boat that Williams worked his first year simply plied the same waters again and again and again. That year he never traveled past Rosedale, he told me—just 60 river miles upstream. It’s another way that the boat confounds our attempts at measurement: on a towboat, one measures a journey not in distance traveled but in days.
Once on board, Williams would work for 30 straight days. Then he took 15 days off. “That’s your life right there,” he said. “You live out there more than you do at home.” Which meant no pets and few landside relationships. Such was his life for close to 30 years.
Eventually, he made it up and down the nation’s navigable waterways. “I’ve seen some things, some real nice things,” he told me. But he wasn’t talking about the landscape, especially not on the Lower. There are few cities visible from a boat along the Lower Mississippi: Natchez, Vicksburg, Memphis, Caruthersville. Like a trucker on an interstate, towboat crews experience most towns as simply distant, unseen nodes on a map—a glimpse of the port, maybe, then river again. And unlike a trucker, a towboat never stops for the night. Almost everything is delivered by service boat, rendering the tow its own sealed world. So for miles and miles on the Lower, it’s just trees and water and the occasional fishing camp.
Williams was unmoved by such wildness. He told me he preferred the Tennessee River, which he remembers as lined with mansions and dramatic rocky bluffs. Oh, and girls in bikinis. Scantily clad women was even more common on the Illinois (“Shit,” Williams said, “Girls there didn’t even bother with tops.”). Crews, he said, were impatient for weekends, when there were more pleasure boats and more girls. On the Lower, though, there are too many nearby lakes. “They don’t come out where you can see ‘em,” he said.
In Greenville, one might be tempted to write a eulogy for riverboats. By the time Williams got aboard his first boat, the city’s stature as an inland port was already in decline. He, like many, blames the Carter administration’s 1980 grain embargo, which forbid export to the Soviet Union, the largest buyer at the time. By the end of the decade, the local towing company that had helped build Greenville’s towboat identity had been sold to Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine. Now Paducah, Kentucky, situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers and offering easy access to both the Mississippi and the Illinois, is the corporate headquarters for most towing firms.
Now farmed goods, the big product around Greenville, make up only a narrow sliver of the cargo shipped on American rivers. Of the 54 million short tons of cargo shipped on inland waterways each month in 2014, only 6.7 million were farm products or food; both coal and petroleum were shipped at twice that volume. But as the farmland surrounding Greenville has shifted from cotton acreage to grain, transportation by barge has ticked back up. In 2012, after three years of steady increases, Greenville did 3 million pounds in traffic. Still, the drydocks and granaries along the harbor mostly sit still.
Williams remembers his career fondly. “It’s just as hard working in an office as it is on a boat,” he said. I asked if he felt like his infrequent time on dry land affected his life. “I didn’t miss none of that,” he replied.
He ate well—fish on Fridays, steak on Saturday, chicken on Sunday. He had complete roam of the boat. “If I liked the wheelman, I’d go up there and talk to him,” he said. “I could go up and watch the second deck, the third deck. I did all my work first thing in the morning. I did it and I did it hard.” Every fifteen minutes he had to do a walkthrough, but for the rest of the day he could sit in his air-conditioned office and read. He read up to 15 books each month; he told me he always packed a second suitcase for his books.
Still, some were not fit for this life. One man, Williams told me, objected to what he called “woman’s work”: the toilet scrubbing and bed-making that takes much of a deckhand’s day. The man came on board in Greenville; he was off by Lake Providence, the next port, hardly 40 miles downstream.
“I’ve met some of the best people on a boat,” he told me. “And I’ve met some of the worst people. Most of the time they’re on the same boat together.” Now that he’s on land, he sees few of associates from the towboat world. “There are some [in Greenville]. I don’t know ‘em. I don’t want to know ‘em. Most of ‘em are rednecks, the ones from Greenville.”
One tradition, though, is carried on from thirty years on the rivers: every day, his bed is neatly made, its corners crisply tucked.
A few weeks after talking with Williams, I went out on the river myself. A hundred miles upriver from Greenville, I was sitting in a canoe, alongside a half-dozen river tourists. I was perhaps the only one eager to see the towboats, which are a paddler’s greatest threat. There were two in the channel, one upstream, one downstream, both headed directly toward us.
For a moment my heart raced. But we paddled hard, crossing to the far bank before the monsters arrived. Even after they passed, the river churned; our canoe, slicing through massive waves, spent dizzying half-seconds in the air before crashing to the water again. Those damn tows certainly earned my respect.
I learned later, though, that the turbulence was not the work of the towboats alone. This was the fury of the river, surging through its curves. We had just navigated one of the Lower’s few remaining horseshoe bends, and it had proved, once again, how little about this river I understood.
Perhaps I should have known. The sunset, once in front of us, was now at our backs. But from our little canoe, tiny against the big river, my untrained eyes only saw the endless scrim of trees alongside us, and before us the muddy flow. It, in the end, was the river’s one incontrovertible fact: it was pressing, as always, to its Gulf.