DOWN THE MISSISSIPPI TO NEW ORLEANS.
THE Mississippi River — The “Great Republic” — Cairo — Columbus — Hickman — Memphis — Helena — Napoleon — Vicksburg — Natchez — Baton Rouge — River Scenery — New Orleans — Position — History — Streets and Squares — Public Buildings — Churches — Public School System — French Market — Cemeteries — Levee — Commerce.
Having decided to proceed to New Orleans by steamer down the Mississippi, I took my passage by the Great Republic, which was advertised to sail on the following day.
Before describing the trip, a few words about the river itself may not be out of place. The Mississippi, which means “the Great River” literally “the Father of Waters,” rises in the highlands of Minnesota, in a cluster of small lakes, near the sources of the Red River of the North and the rivers that flow into Lake Superior. Its sources are 1,680 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, into which it enters. Its general course is southerly with numerous windings and it has a length of 2,986 miles to its mouth, from which to the source of the Missouri is 4,506 miles. The Mississippi and its tributaries drain an area of 1,226,600 square miles. It is navigable to the Falls of the St. Anthony a distance of 2,200 miles, or, reckoning the Missouri with it, boats can proceed from its mouth a distance of 3,500 miles. It has 1,500 navig able tributaries, the principal of which are the Red River, 340 miles long from its mouth; the Yazoo 534 miles; the Arkansas 700 miles; the Ohio 1,053 miles; and the Missouri 1,253 miles. The Mississippi averages for its whole course a width of 3,000 feet, and is from 75 to 120 feet deep. There is no apparent increase from the largest branches, and it is estimated that 40 per cent, of the flood waters are lost in the great marshes. Thousands of acres of land on the banks, are annually carried away by the current. The Mississippi forms a portion of the boundaries often States, having the southern part of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and most of Louisiana on the west bank; and Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi on the east. The chief towns situated on its banks are New Orleans, Natchez, Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis, Quincy, Keokuk, Galena and St. Paul.
And now a few words about the Great Republic which is the largest of the immense three-decked Mississippi boats. The saloon of the Great Republic, which is 260 feet long, is painted white and gold picked out with blue and is remarkably pretty. It has a double row of pillars with fretted arches forming three aisles, of which the side ones abut on the state-rooms. Round the saloon are covered galleries; above is a tier of small apartments in which the officers and employes of the boat sleep, and above that, in the centre, the tower from which the vessel is steered. Over the paddle-boxes are a bar-room and a barber’s-shop. The lower part of the vessel resembles a series of immense barns : here are the enormous engines, furnaces, and stores of coal and wood, piles of cargo, horses, mules, and other animals. In one corner is a carpenter’s shop; in another a blacksmith’s forge. On deck towards the bows, is hung a fine deep-toned bell, which would put to shame many of the church bells one hears. Meals are served in the saloon at tables that accommodate about ten persons each.
Having noticed these various features of what is destined for some few days, to be my home, I proceed on deck to have a look at the country through which we are passing. The scenery is rather pretty; low wooded hills from time to time approach the river on either side, and there are frequent signs of cultivation and habitation. At times there are pretty limestone bluffs, hollowed out in places into caves and arches, evidently by the action of the water at some remote epoch, when its bed was at a far higher level than it is at present. For thirty miles below St. Louis, the Iron-Mountain Railway runs along the river bank. The ore at this place is very rich, and almost pure.
We soon approached the city of Cairo, which is situated on the Ohio, just above its junction with the Mississippi. Cairo is built on a bank of slimy mud. As the steamer approached the desolate embankment, which seemed the only barrier between the low land on which the town is built and the waters of the great river rising above it, it certainly was difficult to imagine that sane men, even though they be speculators, could have fixed upon such a spot, on which to place the site of a city an emporium of trade and commerce. The town itself is a collection of brick houses and wooden shanties, and the streets are rendered almost impassable by mud. A more desolate-looking place cannot be conceived. Surely Dickens must have had Cairo in mind, when he described the nourishing town of Eden.
An hour and a half’s journey from Cairo brought us to Columbus, which is situated on an elevated spur of land projecting into the water. The river here is very wide, in fact it did not appear to me to be wider at Vicksburg or Baton Rouge, which are not far from its mouth. On the hills behind Columbus may still be seen the dismantled ruins of strong earth-works, thrown up during the civil war to protect the town. A large island here impedes the stream, which runs swiftly under the bluffs, large portions of which become undermined and fall into the river. A couple of hours after leaving Columbus we stopped at the desolate looking village of Hickman, which is on the “Ole Kentucky shore,” at this point a very slimy one. The scenery of the river, if scenery it can be called, was now dreary in the extreme and continued so for the whole of the distance to New Orleans. Surely the Mississippi must be the most uninteresting river in the world, in spite of the boastings of oratorical patriots. Not a particle of romance can possibly attach to the immense forests of poor timber, or the dismal swamps which alternate with them.
The next day we reached Memphis, in the State of Tennessee, 420 miles below St. Louis. This flourishing new city stands on a yellow bluff, thirty feet above the highest floods, and is already a place of much importance. It extends for several miles along the high banks of the river, though it does not run far back. The streets are at right angles to the principal thoroughfares, which are parallel to the river. In the centre of the town is a green square planted with trees, which seems a place of great resort by the citizens. The lofty stores and ware houses, the rows of shops on the broad street along the river, and the number and size of the public and private edifices, attest the results of the development of commerce created in a great measure by the Mississippi. Memphis is the outlet of a large cotton district, and exports 400,000 bales annually. It has fine public buildings and hotels, a theatre, eighteen churches, two medical colleges, five daily and three weekly newspapers, besides numerous banks and insurance offices. It is connected by railway with New Orleans, Charleston, Louisville, and Little Rock; and possesses foundries and manufactories of boilers and machinery. Its population is estimated at something over 30,000. During the War of Secession it fell into the hands of the Federal forces after the fall of Island No. 10, in 1862, and was the base of military operations for the capture of Vicksburg. Memphis is a wonderful place, and impressed me with the idea of progress more than any other place in the States. I was perplexed and amused by the mixture of whites, negroes, and of the semi-savage, degraded by his contact with the white man; by the contrast between the gigantic steamer and the “dug-out” of the black man, which are to be seen in close proximity on the river; by the roll of heavily-laden drays and the rattle of cars in the streets, and at all the phenomena of active commercial life, being included in the same scope of vision that takes in, at the other side of the Mississippi, lands scarcely yet settled, and some that remain in the same state as they were centuries ago. Human life is still held cheap on the Mississippi, and “differences” still frequently occur, which end in blood shed.
The next place of any importance we arrived at was Helena, a small town in the State of Arkansas. Helena stands in the mud, at the foot of some low hills, and was the scene of a severe engagement during the war. For a long time we continued our dreary way, until we arrived at Napoleon, a wretched-looking place, consisting of a collection of wooden houses, situated on a spit of muddy land, near the mouth of the Arkansas river.
The next day we reached Vicksburg, which is about 400 miles distant from New Orleans and 120 from Natchez, and which stands on a high bluff of yellow clay on the left bank of the river. Seen from the river with the remains of its great earth-works, and with the Court House and the spire of the Roman Catholic Church on the highest points, Vicksburg has a somewhat imposing and even picturesque appearance. Vicksburg is the largest town, though not the capital of the State of Mississippi, and its exports of cotton before the war amounted to 100,000 bales per annum. It was strongly fortified in 1862 and provided with a numerous garrison. In January 1863 it was attacked by the Federal naval force from Memphis and New Orleans, but without success. In April 1863 a naval attack was combined with the land forces under General Grant, who defeated General Pemberton near Jackson, cut off supplies and reinforcements for the garrison, and with a close siege and continual assaults compelled a surrender on July 4th 1863, with 30,000 prisoners, 200 cannon, and 70,000 stand of arms. From the natural strength and importance of its position Vicksburg has often been called the “Quebec of the Mississippi,” but the town itself is miserable, the streets for the most part being unpaved, and the buildings irregular, and generally constructed of wood or brick. From the terrace of the Court House, the view of the river, and of the vast tracts of forest, extending as far as the eye can reach, is, however, very fine. A little above the town, situated on a hill that slopes gently down to the river, is a cemetery in which repose the bodies of more than 30,000 Federal soldiers, an awful memorial of that terrible fratricidal war, called by some Americans “a little family quarrel.” Vicksburg is a place of much commercial importance and contains about 10,000 inhabitants.
After leaving Vicksburg there was nothing to break the monotony of the next 100 miles, until we approached Natchez, when the banks became steeper, and the scenery a little more interesting. Natchez, distant from New Orleans 280 miles, is situated on a bluff 150 feet high, which here forms the river-bank. A portion of the town is called Natchez-under-the-Hill, and was formerly the resort of the river gamblers, pirates and other desperate characters. The city has ten churches, a Court House, Jail, the United States Marine Hospital, and possesses two daily papers. It is the shipping port of a large and fertile cotton district and has steam communication with the whole Mississippi valley. Natchez, which derives its name from a noted tribe of Indians, was settled by the French in 1716, and destroyed by Indians in 1729, but was subsequently re-built. Its population is estimated at 20,000. Shortly after leaving Natchez we passed the mouth of the Great Red River on the right, which came rolling out from amidst forests looking nearly as broad as the Mississippi itself; and yet the latter after its junction with it did not seem to gain at all in width. The settlements on the river banks now became more numerous, and we stopped at several small places, one of which, Port Hudson, was prettily situated on a bluff of loamy clay and was very refreshing to the eye after the low swampy forests and flat plantation lands which border the greater portion of the lower Mississippi.
The next stopping place was Baton Rouge, a small town, formerly the political capital of the State of Louisiana. Like Vicksburg and Natchez, it stands on rising ground, and is about eighty miles to the north west of New Orleans. It is a dull and sleepy place. In the centre of the town stands the Capitol, a big castellated building, which was gutted by fire during the war; since which time the Legislature of the State has held its sittings at New Orleans, and Baton Rouge has lost its pride of place, as capital of the State. As far back as 1838 it was the seat of a college. Besides the Louisiana Penitentiary, Baton Rouge contains an Asylum where all the deaf and dumb of the State from ten to thirty years of age, and all the blind between the ages of eight and twenty-five, are entitled to be educated and maintained at the public charge. Baton Rouge contains about 10,000 inhabitants and on the opposite side of the river another town of the same name contains nearly an equal population.
From Baton Rouge to New Orleans the banks are flat and uninteresting and the country seemed to consist, for the most part, of low swampy land. Take it altogether, the journey from St. Louis to the mouth of the Mississippi is one of singularly little interest. The desolation is oppressive. For hundreds of miles, dense forests of poor, weedy-looking trees alternate with undrained swamps. Towns are rare, and vast tracts of land intervene between them. The villages and detached shanties stand on unhealthy clearings, and the rotting timbers which support them are plastered with advertisements of specifics against chills, agues, and fevers. There are hundreds and hundreds of square miles of rich marsh and forest land waiting to be drained and so made to minister to the wants of a thriving population, and to the enrichment of the country at large. It seems almost incredible that instead of fostering this important object, the United States Government has recently thrown away millions in purchasing a wretched country like Alaska, from mere lust of possessing more territory.
New Orleans the political and commercial metropolis of the State of Louisiana, is situated on both sides of the Mississippi, but principally on the left, about 100 miles above its mouth. Though large, it is anything but a fine city, being built on the alluvial banks of the river, on ground lower than the high-water level, and only protected from inundations by a levee or embankment of earth, four feet high and fifteen feet wide, that extends for a great distance on both sides of the river, and forms a pleasant promenade in the winter months. The water that percolates through this embankment and the natural drainage is conducted by open gutters, which run through the streets, into a swamp that lies between the city and Lake Pontchartrain, three miles distant. There is always the danger of the Mississippi making a breach in the embankment and pouring its waters into the city; besides which, Lake Pontchartrain has a nasty habit of backing up and inundating it, after the prevalence of certain winds. Thus New Orleans is unpleasantly situated between two waters; and the soil is so full of moisture that no excavations can be made. The largest buildings have no cellars below the surface; and in the cemeteries there are no graves, the dead being placed in tombs above ground.
The older part of New Orleans is built within a great bend of the river, from which circumstance it derives its name of the “Crescent City.” It has however long ago overstepped its original limits, and now extends for a distance of about twelve miles along the river bank, presenting an outline somewhat like the letter S. New Orleans was settled by the French in 1718, but was abandoned in consequence of floods and sickness. Another, and more successful attempt at settlement was made in 1723, and the colony was held by the French until 1729; then by the Spaniards till 1801, and by the French again until 1803; when it was ceded with the Province of Louisiana to the United States. In 1860, Louisiana having seceded from the Union, New Orleans became an important centre of commercial and military operations, and was closely blockaded by a Federal fleet. An expedition of gunboats under Admiral Farragut forced the defences at the mouth of the river on April 24th, 1862; when the city was forced to surrender, and was occupied by General Butler as military Governor.
The streets of New Orleans are very wide and handsome in appearance, though only the principal of them are paved. Those parallel with the river extend in an unbroken line, for a distance of about twelve miles; those at right angles to them, that run from the river to the lake, are also very regular. The streets that are not paved, are simply quagmires: in winter they are not practicable at all, and even in summer the dust makes them almost impassable. The open gutters form a bad feature of the streets of New Orleans; these have very steep sides, and are crossed at street corners by small bridges, consisting of single stones, and allowing two persons only to cross at a time. Canal street is the main business thoroughfare, and promenade; and may be said to divide the city into two pretty equal parts. It is nearly 200 feet wide, and has a grass-plot twenty-five feet wide, and bordered with two rows of trees in the centre, extending its whole length. Claiborne, Rampart, St. Charles, and Esplanade streets, are embellished in the same manner. In Canal street is a colossal bronze statue of Henry Clay.
Jackson Square is the favourite place of resort; it contains beautiful trees and shubbery, and shell-strewn walks; in the centre stands an equestrian Statue of General Jackson. When the Federals occupied New Orleans, they, with execrably bad taste, cut twice upon the granite pedestal of this statue, the motto “The Union must, and shall be preserved,” making it appear as if General Jackson had enunciated that sentiment. Over looking this square, is the French Cathedral of St. Louis, built in the old French style, and two Court Houses in the Tusco-Doric; which have a very picturesque appearance. Lafayette Square is also a handsome enclosure, and contains a fine marble statue of Franklin by Hiram Powers. The City Hall, Oddfellows’ Hall and a fine Presbyterian Church, all front this square.
New Orleans is not remarkable for its architecture, but it possesses a few very fine buildings, the principal of which is the Custom House and Post Office. This fine edifice is built of a dark granite, and is after the Capitol at Washington, the largest building in the States; it has some fine columns with heavy Egyptian capitals, and the Long Room is a very handsome hall. The City Hall is certainly the finest edifice in the city; it is built of white marble in the Ionic style, with a wide and high flight of steps leading to an elegant portico, supported by eight columns. The State and City Libraries occupy rooms in this building. The churches of New Orleans are numerous and handsome. The most famous is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Louis, which has an imposing façade, surmounted by a lofty blue-slated steeple and flanked by two towers, each capped by a smaller blue-slated spire. The paintings on the ceiling of this building are by Canova and Rissi. The finest Episcopal Church is St. Peter’s, which is a handsome specimen of Gothic architecture, and has a very rich interior. The Presbyterian Church is a fine structure in Greco-Doric style, and is much admired for its fine steeple. The Temple Sinai, the principal Jewish place of worship, has a light and elegant appearance; it is built of parti-coloured bricks, and has a handsome portico flanked by two towers, surmounted by tinted cupolas. Its Gothic windows are filled with beautifully stained glass, and the interior is remarkably rich and beautiful.
There are in New Orleans eighty public schools, and numerous private ones, mostly Roman Catholic, which provide for the instruction and moral training of the rising generation. Many of these are high-class educational institutions, the principal being the University of Louisiana, which has only the two departments of law and medicine, but these are of a high order, and very well attended. The medical college, contains a fine anatomical museum and other collections. Straight University is exclusively for coloured students, and gives instruction of good grammar-school grade. The public school system of New Orleans is secular and free. The schools are divided into “High schools,” “Grammar schools” and “Primary schools” and are governed by a board of directors chosen by the City Council, who levy a special tax for educational purposes. Opposition to the system has only proceeded from the Roman Catholic body, who are, of course, very strong in New Orleans. They have not, however, as elsewhere, contented themselves with simply denouncing the schools as “Godless,” but they have erected magnificent schools themselves, in which children receive a good education for one dollar a month, or, gratis, if they cannot pay that sum. The principal charitable institutions of New Orleans are the Charity Hospital and the Hôtel Dieu. The former is one of the finest buildings in the city, and one of the noblest institutions in the country; it was founded in 1784, has stood on its present site since 1832, and has accommodation for 500 patients. The Hôtel Dieu is a fine hospital, established by the Sisters of Charity and supported entirely by receipts from patients, although many are admitted free of charge.
A visit to the French market, which comprises several buildings on the levee, is most interesting. The market people commence to assemble at daybreak, and it appears as if all nations and tongues have their representatives in the motley and ever-moving crowd. The noise, however, is far from being unpleasant to a visitor’s ear. The prevailing language is French, and is heard in every dialect and patois, from the fluent and musical accents of the polished Creole, to the childish jargon of the negroes. The articles exposed for sale are infinite in their variety, but the fruits and flowers are especially attractive. The former embrace all the products of both the temperate and torrid zones; and the rich colours of the flowers are wonderful to behold.
The cemeteries of New Orleans are noteworthy for the peculiar mode of interment in them. From the nature of the soil, which is semi-fluid at a depth of two or three feet below the surface, all the tombs are above ground. Some of these are very costly and beautiful structures of marble and stone, but the great majority only consist of cells, placed one above the other, generally to the height of seven or eight feet. Each cell is only large enough to receive the coffin, and is hermetically bricked up at its narrow entrance as soon as the funeral rites are over. In most instances a marble tablet, appropriately inscribed, is placed over the brickwork, by which the vault or oven, as it is locally termed, is closed.
The levee is one of the most characteristic sights of New Orleans, and for extent and activity it has no parallel on the continent. Here a thousand river steamers and flat boats may be seen at one time; whilst its wharves are lined with hundreds of sailing and steam ships from all parts of the world. New Orleans com mands 20,000 miles of steamboat navigation, and is the natural entrepot of one of the richest regions on the continent. In the value of its exports, it ranks after New York; it is the principal cotton mart of the world, and besides cotton, it ships sugar, tobacco, flour, pork, &c., to the total value of £20,000,000. Its imports, which consist principally of coffee, iron, salt, drapery, and spirits, amount to £3,000,000. Its manufactures are unimportant, and its population is estimated at 210,000 inhabitants.