In his memoir, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain personified the river as “Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing!” Twain’s time as a steamboat pilot showed him the true character of The Great River, with its unpredictable moods and hidden secrets.
Still a vital route for U.S. shipping, the Mississippi River has given life to riverside communities, manufacturing industries, fishing, tourism, and other livelihoods. But the Mighty Mississippi has also claimed countless lives as tribute to its muddy waters. Climate and environmental conditions made the Mississippi the perfect incubator for diseases like malaria. Natural disasters like tornadoes, floods, and even an earthquake have changed and reshaped the river’s banks over thousands of years. Shipwrecks and steamboat explosions were once common in the difficult-to-navigate waters. But when there was money to be made, there were some willing to risk it all—from the brave steamboat captains who went down with their ships, to the illegal moonshiners and pirates who pillaged the river’s bounty.
In this book, author and Mississippi River historian Dean Klinkenberg explores the many disastrous events to have occurred on and along the river in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—from steamboat explosions, to Yellow Fever epidemics, floods, and Prohibition piracy. Enjoy this journey into the darkest deeds of the Mississippi River.
Dean Klinkenberg is a St. Louis-based freelance writer and former academic researcher. In 2008, he gave up the life of an academic psychologist to write about the Mississippi River. Since that time, he has traveled extensively along the entire river, mostly by car but also in canoes and on river cruises. For over a decade, he has been learning about the whole river from a variety of perspectives: historical, cultural, economic, and environmental.
For many of us, the Mississippi River conjures up images of Tom Sawyer floating on a raft, beautiful sunsets, and barges full of corn. The Mississippi has, after all, occupies a big space in our cultural imaginations. The Mississippi has also, unfortunately, been the scene of multiple disasters and tragedies, including some of the most tragic in American history.
The middle of North America shook violently for several months in 1811-1812 as the largest earthquakes in US history rolled across the heart of North America, sending shockwaves as far away as New England. The quakes changed the course of the Mississippi River, swallowed up islands, and nearly sank the first steamboat on the Mississippi.
Much of the Mississippi Valley is in the middle of tornado country. In May 1840, witnesses reported that a tornado followed a path directly over the Mississippi for several miles before wreaking havoc on the city of Natchez, Mississippi. Tornadoes also left a wake of carnage at St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids, Minnesota in 1886 and at Camanche, Iowa and Albany, Illinois in 1860.
The first major flood along the Mississippi in the modern era devastated communities around St. Louis. Steamboats floated over corn fields and thousands of people needed rescue, including the Sisters of Charity who had been trapped in their submerged convent in Kaskaskia, Illinois.
One of the worst natural disasters in American history, the flood of 1927 killed hundreds of people along the lower Mississippi River, washed away farms, and reshaped our relationship with the federal government.
November 11, 1940, started out unusually warm along the upper Mississippi, which is one reason hunters and other river folks were caught unprepared when a blizzard roared through later in the day. Dozens of people would froze to death on islands and in remote areas along the river.
Heavy snows and ice jams caused the biggest flood along the Upper Mississippi, forcing volunteers to stack sandbags in freezing weather. Nineteen people died in the flooding, and forty thousand people suffered flood damage to their homes.
The Great Flood of 1993 smashed records not just for the height of the river but also for the extraordinary amount of time that the river stayed high—144 days at St. Louis. One hundred thousand people were displaced and most of the levees breached along the middle portion of the Mississippi. The flooding ultimately convinced an entire town to move to higher ground.
In the nineteenth century, a uniquely American form of river transportation developed that revolutionized travel and knit together far-flung communities. Romantic images of steamboat travel persist to this day (and are even replicated by modern cruise companies), but steamboat travel for most people, while a cheap way to get around, was grueling and often dangerous. Steamboats faced many dangers as they traveled America’s rivers.
The Mississippi was full of debris—limbs and even entire trees—that posed a deadly risk to steamboats. A wayward log—known as a snag—could quickly puncture a hole in the hull of a steamboat and send it to the bottom of the river. Snags accounted for the majority of steamboat accidents, including the one that claimed the first steamboat on the Mississippi.
Steamboats were essentially tall wooden boxes powered by exceptionally hot furnaces. It didn’t take much to spark a fire that could quickly burn a boat to the water’s edge.
Steam-producing boilers made travel possible on the inland rivers, but they also had an unfortunate tendency for catastrophic failure. During the heyday of steamboat travel, thousands of people died gruesome deaths after a boiler exploded.
The worst maritime disaster in American history occurred on the Mississippi River. Sixteen hundred Union soldiers returning home after being released from POW camps at Cahaba and Andersonville died when the boat they were on, the Sultana, sank near Memphis, Tennessee.
In October 1837, seven hundred Creek Indians were crowded onto an old steamboat, the Monmouth, as part of their forced relocation from Alabama to Oklahoma. Not long after leaving New Orleans, the Monmouth collided with another steamboat. In the ensuing chaos, three hundred of the Creek Indians died.
On July 13, 1890, the Sea Wing transported 215 people on a day trip from Red Wing to Lake City, Minnesota. Only half would make it home. On the return trip, a storm blew in over Lake Pepin that overturned the boat, killing ninety-eight people. Among those who died were the wife and eight-year-old child of the captain.
Sure, Jean Lafitte called New Orleans home (and helped American forces defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans), but the Mississippi River isn’t generally famous for pirates. Still, there was a time in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when pirates posed a serious threat to boat traffic, especially around Illinois’ Cave-in-Rock and the island known as the Crow’s Nest.
In the nineteenth century, nearly every river town had a brothel or two. One city, St. Louis, even experimented with outright legalization in the nineteenth century. Most communities just looked the other way, which made it easy for brothels to operate with little interference well into the twentieth century.
The thickly forested islands and swamps of the Mississippi River made perfect hiding places for stills and moonshiners. Rumors of river hideaways for gangsters like Al Capone persist to this day. Many river towns lacked the enthusiasm to enforce Prohibition, so speakeasies and homemade hooch were abundant. One version of moonshine, a whiskey from St. Cloud known as Minnesota 13, gained a nationwide fanbase.
On July 12, 1964, a fisherman found a partially decomposed body along the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The next day, another body was found five miles from the first one. The two African American men, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, had been murdered nearby and their bodies dumped into the Mississippi River. Even though authorities were relatively sure they knew who the killers were, it would take a generation to hold them accountable.
On May 17, 1849, the White Cloud caught fire while docked at St. Louis. Strong winds pushed the boat toward shore and spread the fire to adjacent boats and into the city, eventually destroying twenty-three boats and four hundred buildings.
Mining in Minnesota’s Iron Ranges was always a dangerous occupation. In 1924, workers in the Cuyuna Iron Range got a grim reminder of that fact when a wall collapsed in an underground mine, sending the contents of Foley Lake flooding through adjacent tunnels. After the water had been drained into the Mississippi River, rescue teams recovered the bodies of the forty-one men who died in the disaster.
The Rhythm Club was a popular joint to enjoy live music in Natchez, Mississippi, attracting some of the best bands in the area. On the evening of April 23, 1940, though, the club became infamous for the wrong reason when a fire erupted on a busy night, killing 209 people.
The first bridge to span the Mississippi River was completed in 1855 in Minneapolis, which is also the location for the most tragic Mississippi River bridge collapse. On August 1, 2007, the Interstate 90 bridge over the river collapsed during rush hour, killing thirteen people. Dozens of others were saved, pulled from the wreckage by heroic first responders.
Eleven people died when the Deepwater Horizon off-shore drilling platform exploded in 2010, but another part of the tragedy is the long-term impact of the worst environmental disaster in US history. The Mississippi River Delta and the people who rely on it for their livelihoods will be living with the consequences for a generation or longer.
Europeans brought malaria to North America, a disease that found an accommodating environment along the Mississippi River. Malaria threatened the health of people living along the Mississippi well into the twentieth century.
In 1811, hundreds of enslaved Africans near New Orleans revolted. For two days, they marched from the river parishes of the German Coast toward New Orleans, burning down plantation houses along the way. White militias eventually caught up to them, killing dozens immediately; dozens more were summarily executed in subsequent days.
Yellow fever wasn’t native to North America, either. It came with sailors on ships from the Caribbean and found a hospitable home in big cities. While the initial epidemics hit cities along the East Coast, yellow fever would later exact its heaviest toll in Mississippi River communities, devastating New Orleans in 1853 and Memphis in 1878.
The Golden Gate Bridge may be infamous for its jumpers, but collectively, the bridges over the Mississippi may be deadlier. Every year, dozens of people end their lives by diving into the Mississippi, like acclaimed poet John Berryman did in 1972.
In La Crosse, Wisconsin, nine college-aged men drowned in the Mississippi River between 1997 and 2010. Were those deaths the work of a serial killer or just tragic accidents?