Steamboat On The Upper Mississippi


For the white man the river’s story begins in 1541, when the Spaniard Hernando de Soto first glimpsed it in what is now the state of Mississippi. But it wasn’t until 1673 that the French priest Jacques Marquette and the trader Louis Jolliet entered the Mississippi from the Wisconsin River, traveling as far south as the Arkansas. Nine years later René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, explored its entire course south of the Illinois River and claimed the Mississippi Valley for France. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the years that followed brought extensive settlement to the northern region. Once the first steamboat had reached St. Paul, in 1823, the river was finally open to all. Our scheduled ports of call along this route testified both to the Mississippi’s boom years and to its subsequent decline in the face of competition, first from the railroads and then from long-haul trucking.

We spent a few hours each in Hannibal, Missouri; Dubuque, Iowa; Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin; and Wabasha, Minnesota. All had prospered in the nineteenth century, their economic base a rich brew of fur trading, farming, lead mining, and manufacture. Button factories found a wealth of raw material in clamshells gathered from the river, and grain elevators rose with monumental grace at the water’s edge. A century ago Mark Twain paid tribute to his region: “From St. Louis northward there are all the enlivening signs of the presence of active, energetic, intelligent, prosperous, practical nineteenth-century populations. The people don’t dream, they work.”

In truth, the present-day visitor, in town for a short while, finds little to dream about. The overall effect is less picturesque than it is worn by time. Yet everywhere a few emblems of better days stand out. In Dubuque and Prairie du Chien, for example, the large, stone, Italianate mansions favored by the richest men in town have been taken in hand by historical societies. The one in Prairie du Chien, Villa Louis, is counted among the best Victorian restorations in the country. And in Dubuque, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church is lit by 108 Tiffany stained-glass windows, more than in any church west of the Mississippi. Wabasha is home to the rambling, brick Anderson House; carefully maintained and at 131 years, it is Minnesota’s oldest hotel. Hannibal, of course, has established itself as a shrine to Mark Twain. There, on a tiny cobbled street, the expected clutter of souvenir shops bumps up against the real thing: Twain’s white clapboard boyhood home and a good museum next door. (As for that fabled whitewashed fence, it is simply too pristine.)

On guided tours, which can be booked in advance through the purser’s office on board, one is efficiently swept through each town in the prescribed time. For variety it might be best to try out one or two of the organized tours and strike out alone the rest of the time.

The boat’s arrival at a town dock is as spirited an event now as it was in the golden age of steamboating.

Lately there have been some signs that many of these river towns are starting to shake themselves awake and spruce up a bit in anticipation of the benefits of tourism. But in the end it’s not the settlements along the shore that will resonate in memory; it is the river itself. This was my first look at the Mississippi, and 1 beheld it with astonishment and delight. Nothing had prepared me for its wildness, its width, its colors, and the play of light over its waters.

The journey south from St. Louis, I had been told, is marked by signs of industry for much of its length. But here, along the Northern route, for great stretches there was nothing to be seen but thickets of cottonwood, sugar maple, and willow reflected in the water. On high bluffs, sculpted by the last ice age, bald eagles posed before making tantalizing glides across the steamboat’s bow. Early morning curls of fog rose to meet the pale sun, and in the distance farmland rolled, thickly planted with corn. Most signs of life were pleasing, not intrusive. I saw picnickers set up a Volleyball court on a deserted sandbar and watched a tiny stern-wheel ferry cross a far cove, tracing a watery course that could have been set 150 years ago.

In his middle years Mark Twain looked back in valediction at “the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its milewide tide along, shining in the sun … very still and brilliant and lonely. …” Fortunately much of this Eden survives. And you can claim it for the price of a berth on the Mississippi Queen .

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP