That Shifty Old River by Morgan Gates
I do appreciate all the interest that my last post (A Tale of Two Cannon) has generated. I would like to thank all those who want to help me “find” Whistling Dick. It has also occurred to me that many people do not appreciate the complex dynamics of the Mississippi River.
Most people in the world have a river somewhere in their lives. Perhaps it is a quiet little waterway suitable for swimming and fishing, or perhaps it is a busy industrial waterway. Man, has lived alongside and made use of rivers from the very beginning. In America’s earliest days’ cities grew up along the rivers, they powered the mills and acted as highways of commerce. We also know that even the most sedate water way can unleash destructive energy in the form of floods. We don’t really think much about them otherwise, they’ve always been there and if you’ve seen one you have pretty much seen them all, right!
WRONG! Unless you, like me have grown up practically on the banks of Old Man River, you don’t know my River! The Mississippi, or at least the lower Mississippi, should almost be in a class by itself, Mega River perhaps –Ok, Ok, it could share it with the Amazon and maybe the Nile—but no more! Even the upper Mississippi, which by all rights ought to be considered a separate river, can’t compare. All rivers, are dynamic, and ever changing creatures (that’s right creatures) that are in most senses of the word alive. They move, reproduce, eat, and they have very different personalities. The river you threw a fishing line into on Sunday will not be the same river you cross on your way to work Monday morning. We look at the mountains and the forest and know that, in at least the brief span of our individual lives they will change very little, and we sometimes make the mistake that rivers do likewise but that is wrong. The water you looked at yesterday is gone -- and the river of today is a new one. Now in your mind’s eye replace your placid little fishing river with the Mississippi!
On an average day at Vicksburg 4.5 million gallons of water per second flow past Vicksburg! To put that in perspective that is 53 Olympic sized swimming pools per second and that’s just its water! In its currents the Mississippi suspends, and ultimately discharges, 470, 000 cubic feet of soil per second (that’s at the mouth so just a little less here). That’s a lot of dirt, to put that into perspective, it took the Colorado River something on the order of 6 million years to cut the Grand Canyon. If we could make the Mississippi suddenly dump all its suspended sediment it would be enough soil to fill up the Grand Canyon in just over a year*! If on its most basic level a river is a ditch with water running through it, then the Mississippi is that but with its own fleet of backhoes and dump trucks! Bottom line the Mississippi River can move, if it decides it doesn’t like the neighborhood it can leave**! It has done so on many occasions to towns along its course, like Rodney and Grand Gulf and Vicksburg!-- Wait! Vicksburg! Yes Vicksburg.
Many people who visit Vicksburg go down to Levee Street to see our beautiful flood wall murals, and when they venture beyond the flood gates they are surprised that the Mississippi is so “small” directly in front of old Vicksburg. The reason of course is, the body of water beyond the flood wall IS NOT THE MISSISSIPPI, it is the Yazoo Diversion Canal. Now wait you say, I thought Vicksburg was a Mississippi River Town? I respond, it is! What, now I’m confused you say. Don’t worry let me explain.
When the Reverend Newitt Vick laid out Vicksburg it was indeed “on” the Mississippi River. The original city was only about eight blocks square, and it was located entirely on a large “meander bend” in the Mississippi that came down from the north turned and flowed almost due north again until it reached a line of bluffs the early settlers called The Walnut Hills, it then turned 180 degrees due south and continued to the sea, this left a point of land—a peninsula—known as DeSoto point directly across the River form the city . The River was still there during the siege but then in April 1876 the River took a walk. The trip was not an overnight decision, but once it made up its mind it completed the trip pretty much overnight. The current in the River had been eating away at the base of DeSoto point for years. During the War Grant, had attempted to deliberately cause the River to shift by digging a canal across the base of the peninsula but Old Man River would have none of that nonsense. When the River did shift, it did so almost a mile to the north of Grant’s Canal. The Mississippi’s backhoes had dug a new channel in one night, and the people of Vicksburg woke up the next morning to discover the River had abandoned them –it was not a surprise, they knew it was coming, but they couldn’t stop it. The old channel without the current immediately started silting in—the River’s dump trucks! A river city without a river is in real danger of extinction, the city fathers immediately purchased land two miles south of the city limits and established a new river port but the outside bend of the Mississippi is the worst place for a port facility because of the strong currents. What was really needed was a navigable body of water back in front of the old city. That was accomplished about 26 years later when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Yazoo, a navigable tributary of the Mississippi, from its natural course into a canal that diverted it into the old bed of the Mississippi, and thus saved Vicksburg. The city migrated south toward the Mississippi throughout the Nineteenth and into the Twentieth Century and now once again fronts on the Mississippi. Vicksburg is today a city of two rivers the Yazoo on the north and the Mississippi, once again, on the south. Today the Corps of Engineers does an admirable job of taming the Rivers wanderlust, at least so far—cross your finger that the river doesn’t get too restless in the future, because the River is getting really tired of New Orleans lately.
So back to the opening paragraph, and those brave individuals that want to help me go look for the lost cannon. It could be anywhere along a 4 mile stretch of River and/or land it could be over 100 feet down under a swamp or even parts of the modern city of Vicksburg. Or it could be buried 30 or 40 feet down in the river bed under the modern bend in the, River some of the most dangerous currents in the world! So, thank you for you offers my friends, but I think I’ll pass.
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Photo Google Earth Screen Shot of Vicksburg and its two rivers
*If you are a hydrological engineer, don’t start splitting hairs with me if my hasty math is a little off, I’m making a point.
** All rivers can do this but the Mississippi does it so much better!