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Cover Story July 8, 2004


Diary of a Tramp on The River

Diary of a Tramp on The River...


It's a relaxing thing, he thought, cruising on the Mighty Mississippi River.


The shoreline, covered with thick Eden-like jungles of beautifully green trees, seems to beckon one to stop and spend some time.  But, of course, you don't.  You're on board a paddlewheel steamship, waited on hand and foot by a retinue of highly trained wait staff, equally high trained pursers, tour guides, entertainers  . .  . it's a happy ship and a happy time.


He didn't want to go at first.  It was Her idea.  He fought it . . . but then they made the first trip two years ago, out of New Orleans.  And he was persuaded.  These cruises are fun . . . many memories to be made.


She had made the reservations for this trip without seeking his approval.  His approval was quickly granted.  He's a quick learner.


A Mississippi Cruise is like no other, he thought.  'You travel up river at about 5-6 miles per hour, go down river at about 11 miles per hour.  It is a leisurely pace . . . plenty of time to slow down and begin to learn how to enjoy life.  It is difficult to totally relax, being a newspaperman.  There are still deadlines to be met . . . and communication by cell phone and the Internet is not always possible when on the river.  And you have to get the tasks done as readers and advertisers are counting on you.  These were the thoughts that stayed in his mind even while he tried to relax.


The itinerary called for a departure from St. Louis, going to visit Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, whom we all later learned to call 'Mark Twain,' and then Nauvoo, Illinois, one of the first enclaves of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, whom we have come to call Mormons.  But Ol' Man River, as we were to later learn, had plans of his own.


Upon boarding the paddlewheel steamer and being shown to their stateroom, they were in awe of its size.  Lawdy, you could play a game of tennis in that stateroom. 




It was at least three times the size of the stateroom they had on an earlier trip.


There had been a lot of rain in the Midwest.  He took note of this prior to departure, and a good friend and traveling companion, Dave Schmitt, of Escondido, had said that the forecast called for four days of rain.  "Great," he thought, "a five day cruise, four of which will be filled with rain."  As it happened, the weather turned out beautifully; but, the earlier rains had swollen the Mississippi to the point that the water was so high the steamship was unable to pass beneath several bridges en route to Hannibal and Nauvoo so a detour was made.  The boat diverted to Chester, Illinois.


Now, Chester, Illinois, is not a remarkable city.  It is very small.  It has a courthouse and a library and a main street.  Oh, yes.  It also has a statue of Popeye. 


The creator of Popeye is from Chester, Illinois.  It is the chief claim to fame of that city.  The guy, Elzie Crisler Segar, had been cartooning for awhile and built his cartoons around a family named Oyl, one of whom was a woman named Olive . . . Olive Oyl.  Later, a sailor appeared by the name of Popeye.  It was supposed to be a temporary character . . . but it caught the public's fancy and Popeye became the central character of the cartoon, which then grew to be internationally famous and made Segar a wealthy man.


All of his principal characters were modeled after residents of Chester.  Popeye was modeled after Frank "Rocky" Fiegel, Olive Oyl was modeled after Ms. Dora Paskel; J. Wellington Wimpy is based on Segar's old boss, J. William Schurchert, owner and operator of the Chester Opera House.  These people all physically resembled their characters.  Photos show a clear resemblance to his cartoon characters, particularly to Popeye.


He was not impressed with Chester.  It was not his choice of a place to visit on the river, even though he acknowledged a grudging admiration for Popeye.


He sailed next to Hannibal, Missouri.


They had sailed all night and arrived at the Hannibal port at 4am.  He was sound asleep.  So was she.  He was awakened by the blast of a passing train that ran parallel to the shore and only about 50 feet away from the dockside.  He got up, threw some clothes on, and went outside to watch the boat crew prepare the boat for landing, do the tie downs, tighten up the lines, and secure the boat.  He went back to bed.  For the next hour he marveled at how Hannibal, Missouri, had arranged for trains to come by every 15 minutes commencing at 4am and blow their horns loud enough to raise the dead. 

Eventually, he fell back asleep and awakened at 7am, bleary eyed and tired.  But it was time to grab a quick breakfast at the buffet line, then head into Hannibal to do some research.


He wondered what would have become of Hannibal, Missouri ,had it not produced a genius like Samuel Clemens.  Clemens, who was born in nearby Florida, Missouri, grew up in Hannibal and drew many of his characters from family members and friends; some photos remain of the principals from whom he drew his characters.  One of the most important, however, Tom Blankenship, upon whom Huck Finn is based, has no known photograph.  There is a photograph of the Blankenship house, and they are building a replica on the site of the house.


The mind of Samuel Clemens was absolutely brilliant.  His observations on the world, his pithy sayings; they survive to this day and are just as funny, just as cogent, just as piercing as they were when he first wrote them . . . or uttered them on the lecture circuit.


Clemens would adopt the name "Mark Twain" and go on to make a fortune, then lose it, declaring bankruptcy, then pulled out of bankruptcy . . . built himself a lovely home in Connecticut . . . and would eventually die there.


During all these years, the books of Mark Twain, most notably "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" put Hannibal, Missouri, on the map.  Today, somewhere between 50,000 and over 100,000 tourists each year visit the city for Twain-related events.

Had it not been for Twain . . . Hannibal would be just another river town .  . would have remained small, nondescript . . . perhaps drifting off to nothingness.


But, because of Twain, it is today a thriving community.  Still small, around 18,000, but vibrant.  Good people live there.  Kind people.  Helpful people.


He was pleased that a lovely gal, Ila Bunn, and her boss, Henry Sweets, of the Mark Twain Museum, took him under their wing, made a computer and the Internet available to him so he could make a deadline for his paper.  Ila, the always smiling Ila, gave He and She a private tour.  Being media does have its perks, he thought.  One of them is meeting folks like Ila and Henry.  Both are, as you would imagine, very knowledgeable about Samuel Langhorn Clemens.  Henry, in particular, is a storehouse of knowledge about him.  This you would expect from a former History Teacher and holder of several degrees, including Museum Science.

Going upriver they had Missouri on their side of the boat, going down river they had Illinois on their side of the boat.  They were amazed at the seeming tranquility of the river yet it was clear that this was a powerful, treacherous river.  In Hannibal the river was two feet above flood stage at 16 feet; in an earlier flood the river had risen to 32 feet.  Even so, today we saw many homes, on stilts, surrounded by water. 


One home they saw had been crushed by a falling tree.  The raging river had eroded the dirt surrounding a tree that was, perhaps, a hundred years old.  The earth gave up its hold on the tree and it toppled over, demolishing someone's riverfront summer home.  There were luxury summer homes, there were cheap and ugly mobile homes, their were shanties, there were little more than camper shells.  The River spared none.  They were all subjected to flooding and, to some, destruction.


These are big boats.  The Mississippi Queen is 382 feet long and generates 2000 horsepower of energy with her watertube type boilers.  It's an all steel boat with three main rudders, two rudders aft and one bow thruster.  She carries 107,800 gallons of fresh waer and carries 329,000 of Bunker C(#6) type diesel.  If we estimate the cost of diesel at $1 per gallon we're talking $329,000 each time this boat is fueled.  A tank of fuel should last about 16 days so we're talking a pretty expensive operating cost just for fuel alone.  Add in the fact that the ship carries 157 crew members to service up to 422 passengers (a ratio of about one staff member for every 2.7 passengers. These 422 passengers are accommodated in 208 staterooms.


To get some idea of the commerce of The River one need only recognize that it is quite common to see a towboat (for they are not called tugboats on The River) with two to three barges. 


Think about this for a moment. 


Each barge carries 1500 tons.  A large semi-trailer truck by comparison carries 26 tons.  Thus, when you see a three barge tow, which represents 4500 tons of material being moved, you would have to see a convoy of 174 semi-trailer trucks on the highway to carry an equivalent amount of material!  To take this one step further, if you have a 15 barge tow (which though not as common as a two the three barge tow is not uncommon) you would see some 22,500 tons of material being moved.  Now let's match that up to what it would take our nation's trucking fleet to move the same amount of material.  You would need . . . . a convoy of 870 semi trailer trucks to move an equivalent amount!  This, we suspect, would cause just a wee bit of a traffic jam on our nation's highways.


The River . . . the Old Man . . . Mississippi.  It's clear that Native Americans, whom we call Indians, were the first to use the Mississippi.  The Sauk and Kickapoo Indians called it Meche-Sepe.  The Menomonee called it Mecha-Sepua.  The Chippewa called Meze-Zebe, and the Ottawa called it Mississ-Sepi.  In all these slight variations, mecha, meche, meze, and mississ mean the same thing: large or big.  Sapa, sepua, sepe, zebe, and sepi all mean: river.  So the correct translation of any of these words is "large river."


This large river was at first negotiated by canoe.  That soon proved inadequate for settlers.  Being innovative, they created the flatboat and rafts.  They were often crudely built for a one-way trip, then loaded with cargo and floated downstream to New Orleans.  Cargo was sold and unloaded and the flatboats and rafts were broken up and sold for lumber.  Still later the keelboat entered the world of river commerce.  It soon became the queen of the river trade.  It was a two-way traveler, long and narrow with graceful lines and built to survive many trips.  A keelboat could carry as much as 80 tons of freight.  Floated downriver it was then cordelled up river.  Cordelling consisted simply of strong men walking along the river, pulling the boat with lines.  Despite treacherous river currents, snags, shifting sandbars, hostile Indians and river pirates, river navigation began to grow quickly.


Then in 1811 Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston built the first steamboat at a cost of $40,000.  She was a sidewheeler and she, the New Orleans, launched the golden era of paddlewheelers. 


During Mark Twain's day the Mississippi was a busy area of commerce.  In fact, if you can imagine this, it was probably even busier than today.  Why?  Because of what we're riding on today. 




In 1814 only 21 steamboats arrived in New Orleans, in 1819 the figure had jumped to 191 . . . and in 1836, a scant 22 years later, there would be 1200 steamboat cargoes unloaded in New Orleans . . . a huge growth.


But then what happened? 


The steamboats eventually gave way to the railway systems.  Inland, the rail lines could go where no steamship dared to go.


There is a passion among river folk and it's a passion that is easy to understand.  The river is constantly in motion, even in the driest of years.  The flow equates to power.  And raw, naked beauty.  Along its banks there is lush vegetation, the river bottomlands represent prime farming country, never mind the occasional inundation from flood conditions . . . it is still land so rich that almost anything you plant there will grow.


This same passion is what drove young Samuel Clemens to become a certified river pilot on April 9, 1895, in St. Louis, at the tender age of 24. 


Clemens loved the paddlewheel steamboat.  In fact, it was during his years on the river that he chose his pen name, "Mark Twain," a frequent call of the leadsman which would indicate the water was two fathoms, or 12 feet, deep and thus safe for passage.


Many people who follow Mark Twain know the story of his name.  But there is another, lesser known story.  There was once a Captain Isaiah Sellers who signed his letters full of river information and sent them to newspapers signed Mark Twain.


Sellers was an old man who tended to draw on his expeience  when he wrote his letters on river conditions.    The brash young Sam Clemens chose to parody him.  It was a witty parody and it stretched Captain Sellers' memories and mannerisms to absurdity.  Folks loved Clemens' parody but apparently Sellers did not find it amusing.  As Mark Twain later said, the old man did him the honor of despising him.  To later adopt the old man's nom de plume may well have been an act both of piety and penitence. 


Much of our common phrases used today comes from the language of the river.  Over one hundred and fifty years ago when steamboats were plying the river their boilers would build up excessive steam pressure from time to time; relieving that pressure was naturally known as "letting off steam,"  and it has come to describe the human emotion off getting rid of tension. 


Many young lads of that era carried the name of Willy, or Wilbur, or William, largely due to their German or English descent.  They would use the Ohio River to journey to the hills of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennesse.  They became known as "hill billys."


"I cotton to you," became a phrase that mean "I like you," because the raw cotton that was the chief cargo on riverboats stuck to your clothes.


Some people carried fiddles with them and would play along the riverbanks and wharves for pennies.  If you didn't work, you were accused of "fiddlin' around."


The "outland" was considered to be anything west of the Mississippi River, and early pioneers who traveled there were called "outlanders."  Their rowdy behavior and loud clothing were thought by many to be "outlandish."


There is so much about The River . . . so much tradition, so much history, so much adventure.  It is a force unto itself.  He was reminded of this by a song lyric composed and sung by one of the boat’s entertainers, Bob Sembiante:


“There’s a mystery in these waters,

Something simple, something strong.

There’s a power, there’s a peace,

A planet’s tale, an old man’s song.

And here we are together

Standing silent at the rail

Just listening to the mighty river’s tale.


--There’s a place I can return to

Like returning to a friend.

And I can hear the river calling me again.

Yes, I can hear the river calling me again.


          The Rivers Call

          Music and Lyrics by Bob Sembiante c 2003.



The part of He was played by lyle e davis

The part of Her was played by Evelyn Madison

The part of the Mississippi was played by its very own self.



Coming Soon:  A further look at the Mississippi . . . but from the great cities of St. Louis and of Hannibal, boyhood home of Samuel Clemens.








The Grand Staircase, on board the Mississippi Queen.






“The Arch,” world famous landmark, St. Louis, Missouri