Milieu:
Reflections on the Mississippi

Present circumstances are blended with historical fact and fiction in this 1975 essay by David M. Spicuzza, AIA, about the Mississippi River and old New Orleans.

Reflections

Along the Moon Walk, Beside the River

I'm sure by now almost every native of the French Quarter, as well as many other New Orleanians and tourists, has visited the small strip of real estate paralleling the river's edge along the front of Jackson Square which bears the unlikely moniker of “Moon Walk.” Any of the local citizenry will tell you, of course, that it is named for our mayor, Moon Landrieu, and in these space-oriented times is not to be confused with “lunar excursions.” “Moon Walk” consists simply of several hundred feet of paved walkway, a few lamps, and some plain concrete benches — a humble monument, not only to our major, but to the legendary river which flows beside it.

Here one can look out upon the Mississippi from the very spot where the founders of our city stood when they first determined that this was to be the settlement of New Orleans. They could not have known how successful their choice would be, or how many people after them would stand on the river's edge and enjoy the sight of that grand, sweeping bend. Neither could they have known that someday I would be standing here, a descendant of sorts, also silently appreciating their choice.

Even now it is a fascinating and picturesque point on the river and I come to visit it often. Today's sights and sounds are a far cry from those of the past and what we often call the simpler or more leisurely times. Still, I can't help but enjoy sitting at the river's edge, even though flanked by concrete docks and steel warehouses, the twentieth century buzzing all around, and huge, rusty, paint-flaked ships with diesel engines churning the muddy waters where proud paddle wheelers once steamed. If you look across the river at the opposite bank you can still see some spots where the trees and brush still grow down to the water's edge. That's how I like to see it and that's how it must have been all along here at one time. The adornments along its banks have changed somewhat, but the river itself is timeless.

“Old Man River”; “The Muddy Mississippi” — songs, books, and poems have been written about its grand and romantic history, as well as the terror and hardships that surrounded these shores. No wonder it holds such fascination! Just think about what it must have been like!

Observe the Steamboats

Reflections

If you close your eyes for a moment you can almost hear the bustle of a century ago, when river commerce and travel was in its golden era. A person strolling along here would be greeted by the sight of steamboats tied up at the dock with cargo stacked on board and on shore as high as two full-grown men could reach. The activity and movement is never-ending. Down there a ways is the “Edward J. Gay,” the largest steamboat on the river since the “Ohio,” and she's wasting no time. While her cargo's being moved, painters are putting a fresh coat of white paint on her upper deck trimmings and wheel housings. Over there is the “Diana” and, next to her, the “Natchez” and the “Baltic.” Out in mid-river the “Chalmette” is churning up quite a wake, fighting the current and turning in to make a landing, with black smoke and sparks blowing from her twin stacks. The pulsating huffs of each engine stroke resound from the opposite shore as she strains against the river's flow, and the silhouettes of stokers can be seen against the glow of her boiler fires flickering eeriely through the light foggy mist hovering over the dark brown waters. Captain Thomas P. Leather is up on the hurricane deck of the “Natchez” with a wary eye on the “Chalmette” as she makes her final approach to a berth alongside the “Natchez.”

It is not an uncommon sight to see a sluggish boat in its final approach get caught off guard by the tricky river current and at the last moment slam into another boat, sending both crew and cargo rolling across the decks. Fortunately, more damage is done to the erring captain's ego than to the vessels involved, and more injuries develop from opposing crewmen exchanging insults and fisticuffs than from the collision. It's quite a spectacle but, for the most part, the captains are all excellent pilots and handle their vessels with great skill and sense of responsibility.

The “Chalmette” slides smoothly and smartly into her berth with the ease and grace of a well-trained side-stepping show filly. A bell clangs and blasts of her horn signal her contact with land, while the crew makes her fast and swings out her starboard gangplank and beam. While smoke pours out of her funnels as her boiler fires are quieted. The “Chalmette” has arrived. Captain Leathers, on the “Natchez” waves a greeting toward the wheelhouse of the newly docked vessel and then disappears below deck.

The Natchez Unfairly Beaten?

There are those of us who still believe that Captain Leathers and the “Natchez” were unfairly beaten in the great race this past June between him and Captain John W. Cannon aboard the “Robert E. Lee.” Without doubt it was the most talked-about and wagered-upon river race of the century. Cheering spectators lined the banks of the river by day and by night from this very starting point in New Orleans to the finish line in St. Louis. The “Lee” officially won the race, arriving in St. Louis thirty-three minutes ahead of the “Natchez,” but two factors have left many of us with no doubt that the “Natchez” and Captain Leathers were the true victors. The run of 1,278 miles was traveled in three days, twenty one hours, and fifty-eight minutes by Captain Cannon and the “Lee” with no passengers and no freight aboard and refueling en route from boats, without stopping. Captain Leathers' “Natchez,” on the other hand, made the run in the normal fashion, with passengers and freight and refueling stops. The “Natchez” was also grounded, lost six hours, and still managed to finish only thirty-three minutes behind the “Lee.” The results, I'm sure, will be debated for some time to come, especially by those who lost tidy sums of money on the outcome. I hope someday to write about my experiences as a crewman on board the “Natchez” during that interesting event, but for the present it will have to wait.

Large Stick, Ready Vocabulary

Reflections

“Chalmette” is already unloading leather goods by the crate. I can also see a goodly supply of cotton bales and molasses barrels on deck awaiting transport. Wagons and carts are clattering across the wooden boards and dock planks, picking up and unloading goods in what must appear to a stranger to be a totally confused method of madness, which it sometimes can be— For instance, when an insufficient number of “freight toters” could not be found to load a boat with a critical time schedule, the boat would be forced to leave portions of its intended cargo on land, back into the river half empty, and with a regretful blast of its horn signal its departure to the irate merchants whose goods were being left behind. This would increase the efforts of the dock foremen, whose primary methods of motivating lazy or slow “toters” was by means of a large stick and a ready vocabulary of choice curse words that would have turned the heads of the most seasoned sailors. It would begin with a colorful degrading description of the victim's morals, his mother's morals, the morals of the saints, and it would rapidly degenerate from that point until the intended target of abuse was either out of earshot or proceeding with satisfactory speed. It was an art for which one, I'm sure, had to cultivate a knack.

The waterfront was a colorful, continuously active place both by day and by night for both legitimate and illegitimate business dealings. Gamblers and thieves, prince, pirate, and pauper alike have tread these grounds. Unsuspecting souls have disappeared into neighboring saloons, never to be heard from again. There were places where even the police would not go for fear of life and limb. More than one finger or ear, bitten off in a fight, has fallen through the cracks between the dock boards, and many a body has been slipped to rest under a lifted plank.

Yes, those were the simpler times— none of the fears and complications of twentieth-century living. Sometimes when you can spare a few moments I'll take you on a tour of Gallatin Street and show you what it was really like in the “simpler times.”

In the Presence of a Legend

Meanwhile, if you find yourself near the intersection of Decatur and St. Peter Streets, take a few moments from your busy day and spend them here at the river's edge, perhaps with a friend. If the benches happen to be occupied you can always find a large, smooth piece of stone rubble to sit on. Rest yourself a moment and you will be rewarded in your own way and for your own reasons. Its even likely you may see me there and we can both enjoy the moment together by forgetting what important persons we are and humbling ourselves. Just for the moment, mind you. We might even share a thought or two or just lose ourselves in our own reflections, while we sit in the presence of a legend.


Notes