When I was young, the family would often take a Sunday afternoon trip over to “see the river.” There was little need to specify which river, as everyone assumed you meant the Mississippi River. Our usual stop was along the river levee at Caruthersville, Missouri.
I can’t say this rather average section of North America’s largest river saw any momentous events. As a young boy who’d read about every history book in the public library, I lamented that our locality was perhaps the most boring spot in the nation. Nothing happened here.
Or did it?
On one of our Sunday trips, maybe I was thirteen or fourteen, I realized there was history out there on this average section of the old river. Native Americans certainly passed this way, trading between those pre-Columbian cities built along the river. Hernando de Soto may have gotten this far up the river, but we just don’t know for sure. But we know Marquette and Joliet, LaSalle, and other explorers after them passed by here.
Uncounted thousands (if not millions) of flatboat crews worked past this bend of the river, heading to Memphis, Natchez, and eventually New Orleans. One of those crews included a lanky young man who would later become President – Abraham Lincoln.
Steam power came to the river, with flat-bottomed paddle-wheelers plying along the muddy river. A fellow named Samuel Clemens piloted through these waters. When war came, iron covered warships joined the steamboats passing downriver to attack Confederate strong holds at Fort Pillow and Memphis.
But not all the river history is about explorers and boats. In January 1811, a great earthquake centered about twenty miles north of this river bend caused the Mississippi to flow backwards for a time. The shocks created Realfoot Lake on the opposite shore in Tennessee.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, men figured to “tame” the river. Toward that end the levees, massive berms, lined the river. Not content, drainage systems transformed the swampy bottom land into cotton fields. That engineering achievement, at the time the largest man-made drainage project in history, changed the flow tributaries but brought productivity to the area. The Caruthersville riverfront saw loads of timber harvested from the cleared swamps. Then Caruthersville became a cotton town.
When war clouds came again in the 1940s, air craft crews flying from nearby Dyersburg Army Airfield used the bend in the river as a navigation check-point while honing their skills in preparation for missions overseas.
And I could probably continue for thousands of more words relating events. In short, this “average” section of the river is not so boring as I once thought. The lesson I learned that day on the river has remained with me since. Everyplace has a history. You just have to know what you are looking at.