Wicked River, the Mississippi, When It Last Ran Wild is a history of this river before the twentieth century, by Lee Sandlin. Sandlin’s book covers the length and breath of the Mississippi, but in this post we’ll only dwell upon its good parts, the parts about Saint Louis. The book covers episodes of Saint Louis’ history, such as, Bloody Island a towhead used for dueling, the disastrous year of 1849 and James Eads and his bridge.
The term “towhead” implies a small island or sandbar, having a thicket of trees, the so-called Bloody Island was just such a place. Situated halfway in-between Missouri and Illinois, leaving its jurisdiction somewhat in limbo, it was the perfect place for gentlemen to settle affairs of honor. As early as 1800, Bloody Island became the dueling grounds for Missouri’s governors, senators and leading citizens. One of the most infamous of the duels fought there was the Biddle-Pettis duel. Fought between U.S. congressmen Spencer Pettis and Major Thomas Biddle, the duel was precipitated by Pettis’ remarks about Biddle’s brother. His brother was president of U.S. Bank. U.S. Bank holds the note on our house, but it strains incredulity that they are both one in the same. On August 27th, Major Biddle, as the challenged person, fixed the duel at five paces, because of his short-sightedness. He was short-sighted in more than one way, because at that range neither opponent could miss and both duelist were shot dead. In 1837, Robert E. Lee, a young army engineer, built dikes that changed the river’s course. Bloody Island became part of the Illinois riverbank.
In 1849 gold was discovered in California. Saint Louis became the stepping off point for the journey to California, the gateway to the west. The sudden increase in traffic created great opportunity, but it also created great problems. To quote Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Following the theme of Wicked River, let’s confine ourselves to just the worst of times.
First, there was Cholera. In 1849, Cholera was a relatively new import to the Americas. So new, that even the European population had little experience with it. In the preceding year, deserters from the Blackhawk War carried it from the East Coast. In 1849 it spread to Saint Louis and caused panic there. Thousands bolted from town, carrying the disease down the river to New Orleans, across the plains and eventually to the West Coast, but the worst was yet to come.
In May a fire alarm sounded. The paddle wheeled steamboat White Cloud was on fire. The volunteer fire department promptly responded, but the fire quickly spread out of control. Dozens of riverboats caught fire and burned and then the fire spread inland. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed. As a result of these fires, a new building code required new structures to be built of stone or brick. This was also the first fire in the U.S. where a firefighter was killed on duty. Captain Thomas Targee was killed, trying to blast a fire break. The keg of gunpowder that he was trying to throw prematurely exploded, “atomizing” him.
James Eads, then a young engineer, was also in Saint Louis, in 1849. Using diving bells, he salvaged the remains of the burnt riverboats there. During the Civil War, he built gunboats for the Union. After the war he built his bridge, Eads Bridge, the first bridge across the lower Mississippi.
In 1885 Mark Twain came west to revisit his childhood river. He planned to reacquaint himself with his river beginning in Saint Louis. Walking down to the riverfront he found the once busy and bustling waterfront of his youth now quiet and derelict. He asked one of the few remaining and idle riverboat men what had happened. In silent explanation, the man just pointed to the bridge.
The Mississippi may no longer be wicked, after all river pirates no longer routinely ply its ways, but it is still dangerous. Too many Americans find this out every year. Just as Robert E. Lee shaped the river, modern Army engineers do the same now. Riverboats now routinely haul coal, grain, and other goods. Now they do so relatively safely, where once the wicked river ruled.