"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Journey From The Connecticut To The Tombigbee–A Story Of Rivers

I grew up near the Connecticut River.  The word "Connecticut" is a French corruption of the Mohegan word quinetucket, which means "beside the long, tidal river"; and came into existence during the early 1600s, describing the river, which was also called simply "The Great River". 

The Connecticut was not a great river in the days of my youth. It was a waterway to cross on trips to Manchester or East Hartford glimpsed under the overpasses of two Interstates, a landmark on the way to Springfield and Northampton from New York and New Haven.

Like all American rivers in the 18th and 19th centuries the Connecticut was an important link to the sea, and to major American and European cities.   Barges carried ice, pelts, and timber from Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut - products of the early colonial settlers in New England and the Indian tribes who lived alongside them.  Later, ships carried goods produced in the region’s textile mills and hardware factories and then the armaments and materiel that supplied the Union armies during the Civil War.  In the early 20th century, the River was still an important route for New England commerce but was fast losing out to the railroad and the more flexible and universal trucking system.

By the the Fifties, the river had become commercially insignificant, and it flowed unnoticed by most. Middletown had an active recreational port, and sailboats and small craft headed downriver to Old Lyme and the Sound.  Sailors vacationing in Old Saybrook and Groton sailed upriver if the winds were right, but were still sea sailors, and navigated by the breezes from the Atlantic. The Yale-Harvard regatta was held on the Thames River, a small tributary of the Connecticut; but was only an occasion for tailgating and weekend drinking.

The Farmington River, a tributary of the Connecticut had more personal meaning for me.  It was the major water hazard of the 10th hole at the Farmington Country Club, and as a caddy I watched hundreds of golfers slice their drives high over the maples and pines into the river.  It appeared again on the 14th, but only the worst golfers hacked their way into the rough, the mudflats, and the channel of the river.

The Farmington also flowed by the Lefferts School in Windsor, and for most of the year it was only a distant stream.  When we arrived in the Fall, the water level was so far down that even the near shore was too far away to see clearly; but in the Spring when the River was in flood, it spread out over the cow pastures and the most low-lying ball fields of the school. The school’s nickname was ‘The Island’ because by April it was entirely surrounded by the flood waters of the Farmington, and was connected to the mainland by one rickety bridge.  The math teacher, Howard Jeffers, had a hydroplane which he launched as soon as the river overflowed its banks in Glastonbury, and every evening after class, he ratcheted his boat up to full throttle and banged and jumped over the baseball diamond, the football field, and the lacrosse pitch.

Other than golf, Mr. Jeffries, and the occasional trip to Middletown, the rivers of Connecticut meant nothing.  They were incidental. Our history was linked to Thomas Hooker, the Mohicans, Colt and Winchester Arms, and the Charter Oak; and my life revolved around Country Day School, Lefferts, and Yale; and had nothing to do with the Connecticut, the Farmington, or the Thames.

Our family vacations were on the Sound or farther east on the ocean at Misquamicut. Camp Wanaweta was on Lake Mashpee; and in the winter we took the Orange Blossom Special to Miami and the warm waters of the Atlantic in South Florida.

The Hudson River was a boundary separating New York from the rest of America.  One rarely crossed it, if ever. There was no point in going any farther west than the eastern edge of Manhattan.

The Hudson’s transatlantic piers always had a certain allure – the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and the Cunard Lines were all icons of wealth, leisure and elegant, sophisticated travel; and T.C. Boyle’s World’s End captured the river edge life of Dutch and English settlers, new Americans, and Indians - but the Hudson was simply a place to be crossed, ad far less important than the George Washington Bridge or the Hoboken Ferry that crossed it. 

The East River was far less iconic or impressive.  It smelled stagnant and oily, and like the Hudson was more memorable for the bridges that crossed it than the river itself. I lived in New York City for four years, but the rivers were unnoticeable and unimportant.

The rivers were just there.  They meant toll bridges, draw bridges, and at best reference points on the way south and west.  Until I saw the Mighty Mississippi. 

On my first trip South I travelled along the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans,crossed it from Hernando to Helena and back over to Mississippi in Vicksburg.  It was the river of Huckleberry Finn, the Siege of Vicksburg, and the road of steamboats running from Minnesota to the Gulf. It was more than a river, a waterway, a route of commerce, or a strategic military prize.  Indian and American traders who had started their journey on the upper Ohio floated downriver on the Mississippi, offloaded their cargo in Natchez and risked bandits, Indians, malaria, and snakebite on the way back to Tennessee up the Natchez Trace.

The most elegant of all antebellum homes were built along the Mississippi River in Louisiana, and New Orleans was the most important port of the Gulf Coast, serving the cotton plantations to the north. The Battle of New Orleans when Jackson defeated the British in the War of 1812 was considered the decisive and final engagement of the British which concluded America’s independence.

The Mississippi River is not just any river or America’s biggest river.  It is America, Old Man River, The Big Muddy, the artery that cuts the Union in two, divides its watersheds, and symbolizes all that is big, natural, expansive, and powerful.

The Tombigbee River flows from its source in northern Mississippi through Alabama, joining the Black Warrior and the Alabama to Mobile and the Gulf.  The name "Tombigbee" comes from Choctaw /itumbi ikbi/, meaning "box maker, coffin maker", from /itumbi/, "box, coffin", and /ikbi/, "maker". The river formed the eastern boundary of the historical Choctaw lands, from the 17th century when they coalesced as a people (Wikipedia).  The old headwaters of the Tombigbee were the homelands of the Chickasaws.

The first known recommendation to build a water transportation route connecting the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers was made by a French explorer, the Marquis de Montcalm, to Louis XV of France in about 1760 or 1770. (Wikipedia); and for two centuries Americans tried to realize the vision.  Only in 1971 was work started and finally completed in 1984.  The Ten-Tom Waterway opened traffic from the Eastern United States to the Gulf of Mexico without having to travel to the Mississippi. The Tombigbee was widened, dredged, and deepened and thanks to a series of locks barge traffic now moves efficiently from Knoxville east, and Paducah west to the Gulf.

Barge Using a Lock on the Tenn-Tom

There is no way to understand American history without understanding its rivers.  In the 18th and early 19th centuries rivers were the principal means of travel. They enabled the opening of the interior and the exploitation of the country’s natural resources.  They were the transport route for military supplies and were the venues for battle.  They provided the fresh water for oyster beds in the Gulf.  They provided refuge for Caribbean pirates and illicit trading with Americans. The supplied water for irrigation and in flood covered low-lying lands with rich silt. The cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta would never have been possible without the yearly flooding of the Mississippi. Mississippi River flooding extended miles to the east, dropping rich alluvial soil; and in the Great Flood of 1927 water covered land from the river to the hills below Oxford.

I have spent many months each year living in Columbus, Mississippi on the banks of the Tombigbee – or more accurately an offshoot of the new Ten-Tom Waterway.  Recently I went to a Fourth of July picnic organized by a local group of water-skiers who had skied the river for over 50 years.  The Tombigbee was a part of their summer life – swimming, water-skiing, and boating; picnics, outings, and celebrations, and had been for decades.

Most people from Columbus remember the story of the burning of  the Eliza Battle on the Tombigbee in 1858 in which 33 people died, shipwrecks, storms, and family tragedy.

There is nothing particularly special about the Tombigbee.  My father-in-law told me stories of growing up on the Columbia River in eastern Washington where the Lummi Indians fished for wild salmon and the farmers pulled water to irrigate peach and apple orchards.

My sister-in-law lived for years on the Yellowstone River, a shallow, fast-flowing river typical of many in the West, important as a tributary to major navigable rivers, but a source of fish and game.  Some cities like Pittsburgh and Providence have finally realized the cultural potential of rivers, and have changed them from dumping grounds for industrial waste and pollution into civic attractions.  All rivers have history.

I have lived on the Potomac for many years now, and the river has become more used than ever.  For years the City was indifferent to the development of the Georgetown waterfront, but has finally invested in a boardwalk and park. On weekends in the summer yachts and small craft tie up three-deep, and tourists and residents picnic in the park. Alexandria is in the process of waterfront redevelopment as well.For decades after commercial water traffic ended, the Potomac, like the Connecticut, became just a river – disused, polluted and ignored; but thanks to a renewed interest in civic space, it is changing.  Yet it is still just a river, the boundary between Virginia and Maryland, monochrome and slow-moving.  It has its moments.  The upriver falls generate enough white water to provide a training circuit for Olympic kayakers, and 100 miles upriver it still looks a lot like the Frederic Church paintings of the Cumberland Gap.

The Rappahannock is an impressive river, with perhaps less tradition, and iconic symbolism than the Mississippi, but important to American history nonetheless. The Chesapeake Bay and the varied river system are like a complex fractal.  The rivers divide and subdivide until there is water everywhere – in creeks and streams, shoals and backwater eddies, swamps, and tidal basins.  The river itself a few miles from is mouth is four miles wide and is as impressive as the Mississippi above Natchez.

I have come to know the other rivers of the Chesapeake – the James, and the York; and spend time on the Northern Neck of Virginia, the site of the tobacco plantations of King Carter and his family. The Chesapeake and the rivers that flow into it are part of early American history – Jamestown and Yorktown were among the earliest settlements and by travelling up and down the rivers the colonists could trade with the Indians and bring out valued goods to ship back to England. 

Yet there is nothing like Southern rivers to combine and symbolize American enterprise, mobility and rural spirit.  The Tombigbee isn’t just any river, but a river along the banks of which Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek artifacts are found; where barges ply between Tennessee and the Gulf; and where the Stump Jumpers still water-ski. 

The steamboats and paddlewheels of the Mississippi have long gone, along with the the Duke and the Dauphin, Tom Sawyer, Jim, and Huckleberry Finn.  It is now simply the country’s biggest and most important waterway, carrying hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo and natural resources two thousand miles or more from north to south.  The romance is gone. The flooding of the Delta is a thing of the past, and irrigation has taken its place. The Mississippi is a waterway, a river, an major transport route; but there is no River that still evokes an iconic memory of America as the Mississippi. For me the River will always be Old America; and the Tombigbee Old South.

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