Shape of the River

“What is the shape of Walnut Bend?” (Mr. Bixby, renowned steamboat pilot, to his “cub” pilot) He might as well have asked me my grandmother’s opinion of protoplasm. I reflected respectfully, and then said I didn’t know it had any particular shape. My gun-powdery chief went off with a bang, of course, and then went on loading and firing until he was out of adjectives…By and by he said: “My boy, you’ve got to know the shape of a river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything else is blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn’t the same shape in the night that it has in the daytime.”

“How on earth am I ever going to learn it, then?”

“How do you follow a hall at home in the dark? Because you know the shape of it. You can’t see it.” ( Life on the Mississippi, by Samuel L. Clemens, 1874)

Riverman Horace Bixby

Mr. Bixby, from Twain’s, Life on the Mississippi, ought to know. He was the real thing. Horace Bixby met Clemens on board the steamer, Paul Jones, in 1857. Later, he agreed to take on Clemens as his apprentice. Here’s some of what he recalled in an interview published by the St. Louis Times and later included in Waterways Journal, April 30th, 1910.

But when Mark Twain hung on the brink of the beyond, a flood of recollections came to the captain, and looking out over the green lawns he saw the little dingy pilot house of the Paul Jones, with a lank young fellow standing in the doorway saying in that enduring drawl: “Say, will–you–teach–me–the river?” (Horace Bixby)

“Say, will–you–teach–me–the river?”

I’m counting on the DNR River Trails Guide to be my Horace Bixby and teach me the first stretch of river from Pike Island/Mendota to Hastings, about 32 river miles. It details the Mississippi nearly mile by mile with relevant navigational and some historical and geographic information. When you study the map below you see that “river miles” bear little resemblance to the road miles it might take travel between those two points. The Mississippi flowing through St. Paul and below is pretty snaky heading almost due north for a bit before south/southeast  towards Hastings. For the full guide with zoom-in capability try MN DNR Mississippi Map – Ft. Snelling to Hastings

Water trail guide Ft. Snelling to Hastings

We (Lois and I for this first stretch) put in on May 1st at the Fort Snelling State Park boat landing. Fort Snelling will be looming over my shoulder up on the bluff and lording over the confluence of the two great rivers. Across from us and a little downstream, the historic Sibley and Faribault homes still stand in what many considered Minnesota’s oldest town, Mendota, formerly St. Peters ( don’t argue this with anyone from Stillwater). After shoving off on the Minnesota River, we’ll have the opportunity to circumnavigate Pike Island before heading out into the main current and downstream on the Mississippi towards St. Paul. In the first few river miles we’ll pass the Hidden Falls/Crosby Farm Regional park, paddle under the 35E bridge and perhaps stop at the old St. Paul townsite on the right bank located in what’s now known as Lilydale Regional Park. Here, Pierre Parrant, who’s defective eye earned him the name Pig’s Eye, established a saloon in 1838.  Parrant, originally a French Canadian, settled in Mendota sometime in the early 1830s . Shortly thereafter he laid claim to a parcel of land that included Fountain Cave where he set up shop. By living there and setting up business he became what many consider to be the first Euro-American to live within the current boundaries of St. Paul. Fur trader, bootlegger, squatter, Pierre was considered by many to be a poor example of  St. Paul citizenry. Fletcher J. Williams echoed those sentiments in his book, A history of the city of Saint Paul, and the county of Ramsey, Minnesota. St. Paul: The Society, 1876. Wiki-link Pierre Parrant

Pig's Eye (Minnesota Territorial Pioneers, Inc)

Such was the man on whom Fortune, with that blind fatuity that seems to characterize the jade, thrust the honor of being the founder of our good city! Our pride almost revolts at the chronicling of such a humiliation, and leads us to wish that it were on one worthier and nobler that such a distinction had fallen. But history is inexorable, and we must record facts as they are.

Imagine plowing through an entire book written in that prose style. Well, enough plowing through mine today. I’ll leave Pierre for the time being. On Day I of the paddle, I’ll pass by our metro-sewage treatment plant that shares Pierre’s nick-name on route to Baldwin Lake and the first evening’s camp site. But tomorrow, three of us are touring Pig’s Eye. We’ll be joining a good friend and engineer for an interview at the treatment plant and stroll about the facility to find out all we can about it – and then, I’ll tell you. If you think a sewage treatment plant an unsavory destination, imagine any city the size of St. Paul without one. That would be a place to avoid. On the subject of turning foul water clean again, consider this pearl:

“If it’s yellow let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”

I’ll be sure to ask our engineer buddy if that sign that used to hang over the toilet at Moosejaw Lodge near Fifield, Wisconsin is still considered “best practice” today. I’ll leave you with this Mark Twain quote about the value of travel. See you on Mystery Photo Friday with the results of last week’s contest and a new mystery photo to ponder. Corey

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

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5 Responses to Shape of the River

  1. J. Geezer says:

    Nicely done Corey…

  2. Carol Baierl says:

    As for the mystery photo, I can identify the structure across the river in the background of the photo as the Harriet Island Pavilion. Is this the answer you for which you are looking? I cannot identify the red brick building next to which you are standing. (I am avoiding misplaced prepositional phrases, and they are sounding very awkward–I suppose I should rewrite this.) I don’t think it’s the Science Museum . . .

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