Last May I wrote a post about our cruising down the Mississippi River in New Orleans on the steamboat “Natchez” – see post here.I also explained a bit about riverboats and posted some vintage postcards. When we visited our daughter a week or so ago in Memphis we saw the Mississippi River again. We found out that there was, as in New Orleans, a sightseeing cruise on a riverboat on the Mississippi River in Memphis. So on that sunny Saturday we drove to the levee and to the Memphis Queen Riverboats.
Click on picture to enlargeFirst we parked on the cobblestone levee. We were surprised that this was the parking area – these cobblestones looked ancient.
Later I found out that most river cities had cobblestone landings. Paving with cobblestones allowed easier loading and unloading on riverboats. But now all these cobblestone landings have disappeared, except the landing in Memphis which is ancient, indeed. Between the late 1860s and 1890s (they had stopped work during the Civil War) immigrant workers built the Memphis landing with stones quarried in Illinois. The Memphis cobblestone landing has such a cultural significance that in 1979 is was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the late 1860s, this cobblestone landing helped Memphis become the largest cotton and hardwood market in the world. Numerous mules were used to unload the ships and take the products up the cobblestones to the warehouses. Below are some vintage postcards showing cotton on the levee.
Memphis was a major riverboat port where the ships would stop and tie up at the foot of the cobblestone landing, as shown in the old photos and postcard below.
These cobblestones have been in continued used for over 150 years with little maintenance, it would seem. However, I read in The Memphis Daily News that a $6 million restoration project has been approved. The cobblestones will be restored with walkable pathways, a plaza, a fountain, and a ramp for launching canoes and kayaks. Memphis history is tied to the river and its port as can be seen by the Memphis City Seal on the top of this post - it includes a riverboat. We entered the Island Queen, the riverboat for the 90 minutes sightseeing cruise – postcard below.
We walked upstairs as it was such a lovely day and sat on deck in the sun.
A guide, called a “riverlorian,” greeted the visitors and started giving information on the history of the Mississippi. The Mississippi River is the second longest river in the United States and the largest by volume. The guide told us that the Chippewa Indians called the Mississippi Meze-Zebe, the Ottawas called it the Missis-Sepi and the Kickapoo called it Mechas-Sepua - they all translate into “Great River” or “Large River.”
He also gave us the history of Memphis and explained the reason for the flags on a hill we passed by – the city had been under the control of the flags of Spain, France, North Carolina, the Confederate States and the United States. He told us about the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. About half of the 47,000 residents of Memphis (25,000) fled the city and more than 5,000 died. There were 120,000 cases of yellow fever in the Mississippi Valley with 20,000 deaths. The epidemic bankrupted Memphis. As our riverlorian talked we went under bridges and saw the monorail going to the Mud Island River Park.
There is much history associated with the Mississippi River – books have been written on it. It has helped commerce but it has been a grave for many. The guide told us about Tom Lee. Late on May 8, 1925, Tom Lee was on the river and witnessed the ship M.E.Norman capsize about 15 miles from Memphis. Tom could not swim but still rescued 32 people with five trips to shore. He worked until night saving these people (only 23 died.) To honor this hero money was raised to purchase a house for Lee and his wife. After he died a park was named after him along the river and a bronze sculpture was erected in the park.
Photo of Tom Lee and statue by artist David Alan Clark (courtesy The Memphis Flyer)
The guide told us about another tragedy – and added it had been the worst maritime disaster in American history. This terrible event was not well reported because it occurred on April 27, 1865. The media did not cover it much as it happened only 13 days after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The steamship was named the Sultana and had made many trips on the Mississippi River. The ship left New Orleans on April 21, 1865 with passengers and goods, and even though boiler leaks were discovered in Vicksburg (and hastily repaired) it proceeded to board 2,000 more. With close to 2,400 passengers the ship was grossly overloaded. These were Union soldiers going home after the Civil War. Below is a picture of the Sultana taken just before its sinking. (Courtesy Library of Congress.)
The Sultana stopped at 1:00 pm in Memphis for further repair then left, but about 7 miles downriver, three boilers burst creating a tremendous explosion, burning passengers and blasting them into the water. It is believed that as many as 1,800 passengers died – making it a worst tragedy than the Titanic sinking which happened 47 years later when 1,500 passengers were lost – but the story of the Sultana is still not well known. As our riverlorian was talking, the sky was getting darker.
My daughter said a storm was approaching but I replied that the weather forecast had given a 100% chance of sun all day. After hearing about all these deaths in the river I was not looking forward to a heavy storm. But, unfortunately, suddenly it started to rain, and it was a downpour. Passengers quickly left our deck and there was a melee to get down to the covered second deck. We went, too. The rain was pouring from the port side so all the passengers were huddled on the starboard side.
As the storm intensified more passengers kept coming and I have to admit, for a moment, I thought the boat could capsize as it was so overloaded on one side – it was not a pleasant idea. I tried to take pictures of the water then I placed my cameras back in my bag so they would not get wet.
My daughter took pictures with her cell phone. She later gave them to me. As you can see below the visibility was very poor. I certainly could understand how it must have felt to be thrown into the river….
Our riverlorian kept talking, but I could not hear him well. But then we came out of the storm and as we approached the riverfront, everything looked calm and pretty again.