Here to return to
AT THE MEETING OF THE WATERS
WHERE the great river from the east joins the great river from the north stands Cairo, though not exactly in the apex of late years; for the Mississippi has moved away somewhat and left the town a little up-stream on the Ohio. The place is probably not charming at any season, and in the spring of the year, when I was there, it was partially flooded and appeared decidedly dismal. Dinginess and dirt were universal, saloons abounded, parading their doubtful friendliness under such names as “My Brother’s Place” and “Uncle Joe’s Glad Hand,” and the railroads monopolized the water front, where their engines were constantly hissing and hooting and banging about, filling the air with gas, soot, and cinders day and night.
To offset all this the river itself with its traffic and its bankside workers and loiterers is unfailingly picturesque and interesting. There is no end of steamers and scows, rafts and tugs, houseboats and skiffs, draymen, roustabouts, and loafers. Here are life and variety and excitement, and the townsfolk of the humbler sort find genuine pleasure in lounging along shore to fish or to lose themselves in drowsy contemplation while they watch the changing scene. The waterside people are always ready to talk and to retail their opinions and reminiscences, and I had many an entertaining chat with them. One of my chance acquaintances was an old negro accompanied by a little boy, and both of them fishing.
Prospects of a Blackbird Pie
“Some men up and down de river make a livin’ fishin’,” said he; “but I cain’t. I have to work. I reckoned though I’d put in a little while hyar dis atter-noon. Fish are jes’ natchul good eatin’ dis time er year. My wife does most er de fishin’. She goes idle times when she ain’t washin’ or ironin’. Yisterday she done got a fish on her line with a haid bigger’n dis boy’s haid. De fish so big an’ strong she say it was like pullin’ on a log to git it up out er water, an’ when she see it she was dat skeered she didn’t dast to haul it to shore. She say she ain’ gwine fool wid no such fish, an’ she was mighty glad when it git off de hook.
“Dat make me think ‘bout de time when I fust come to Illinois. I was bred and born and raised up right in Richmond. We had all kinds er fish dar. But I settled in a town eighteen or twenty miles back in de country hyar, an’ one day de market man got some salt water fish sent him. I was on de street soon atter dey arrive, an’ I see a big crowd aroun’ de market, an’ I run to fin’ out what de matter. I reckoned somebody done got killed. But de people was jes’ a-lookin’ at one er dese hyar flounders. Dey ain’ never heard tell er nothin’ like dat befo’ — a fish wid both his eyes on one side. De man I worked for was dar, and when he see I know de fish he say, ‘Is he good to eat?’ I tol’ him dat he shore was, an’ he bought him, an’ he give my ole lady half a dollar to fry dat fish. When it was serve on de table, sub, seem like he crazy it taste so good. He didn’t lose no time sendin’ for mo’, an’ atter dat he had flounders as often as he could git ‘em.”
The fisherman paused while he pulled up his line and examined his bait. “De fish doan’ seem to be bitin’ to-day,” he commented; “and yit ole man Dawson nabbed some big catfish right hyar early in de week. I’m sati’fied dey are mo’ whar dose come from, an’ dat what put me in de notion er fishin’.”
Down at the lower end of the town near a great elevator that loomed up on the verge of the river, I made friends with some people on a houseboat. Their little vessel was hitched to the shore, and a plank served for passage from land to deck. The boat had two rooms, and was occupied by two families, including several children, the youngest a tot that could just walk, the oldest a boy of ten. The little folks all delighted in the river. It afforded them endless amusement. They threw in sticks and stones, sailed toy boats of their own manufacture, they fished and splashed and watched the coming and going of the river craft, and the older youngsters went out rowing in the skiffs. Their life looked adventurous, and it was a wonder they did not come to grief a dozen times a day. But I could learn of only one serious mishap. A week or two previous the boy of ten had fallen off the guards; “and I just screamed,” his mother explained to me. “I couldn’t think, and I didn’t do a thing to help; but my husband was near by and he jumped in and pulled the boy out, and that boy never even caught a cold because of his ducking.”
Among the rest of the inmates of this boat was a colored lad named Billy who did odd jobs for his board. I got him to row me down to the mouth of the river. He was delighted to go and chuckled as he rowed away, for he had gotten rid of washing the dishes. He was a boy with a history, though I imagine his relation of it was eked out with fiction. His left forefinger was missing, and he said he had a bullet in his shoulder that made his arm ache in dull weather. Both the suffering shoulder and the crippled hand were the result of a Fourth of July celebration. His finger was shot off with a toy cannon; but he got patched up and in an hour or so joined his comrades; “and I was soon monkeying around wid de boys,” said he, “same as befo’. One of ‘em had a little popgun. It wa’n’t loaded, and we was havin’ a jolly time pointing it at each other when all of a sudden it went off and hit me in de shoulder. I couldn’t use my arm for a month; and yit de gals treated me so well all dat month my arm was in a sling I had de best time of my life.
“Later I went on to a United States training-ship at New Orleans; but dey abuse me on dat ship and I runned away. I was green enough to keep my uniform on and wear all my pistols and knives. So dey got a hold er me in Memphis an’ took me back; but I run away again, an’ dey’ll never ketch me now.”
Between Cairo and the Mississippi is a half mile of lowland overgrown with willows and cottonwoods. The water was up and this low ground was flooded, yet not so deep but that one could see the tops of the withered last year’s grasses and tall weeds. On these bottoms bordering the Ohio lived several amphibious families, evidently prepared for all emergencies. Ordinarily they were land dwellers; but the foundation on which they erected their tents and shanties was a raft or scow; and though this rested on the ground most of the year, it was set afloat when the water encroached. One man, however, had sought a different means of escaping the flood. He had perched his hut well up among the branches of two great cottonwoods. It was safely above the reach of the freshets, and a dog was on the porch standing guard in his master’s absence. Near by were the rest of the home belongings heaped on rafts and platforms. The largest raft served also as a refuge for the hens, which were picking about or roosting apparently quite content. “They better be careful and not tumble in,” said my oarsman. “If a chicken’s feathers git wet he’s gone. He cain’t set up on de water like a goose.”
Not far away was a neighbor’s raft on which was a home and two cows and a calf. The creatures had little room to move about, yet there they would stay till the water receded.
As we rowed leisurely along several steamers went down or up the river, most of them railroad ferry-boats loaded with freight cars going to or coming from a station on the west bank of the Mississippi. In their wake the great waves rolled away and set our little craft to pitching and rocking in a manner that was very exhilarating.
Presently we came to “the coal fleet,” and had to make quite a detour to get around it. This fleet was an immense mass of loaded coal barges moored close together and attached to trees on the shore by great ropes. The coal was destined for towns up the Mississippi; but the steamers which towed the boats down the Ohio from the mining regions were unable to struggle up-stream with all they brought down, and a part of the tow had to be left here to be sent on later.
While we were passing the coal fleet my companion let our boat drift, and he watched attentively the blackbirds fluttering about the floodtrash that had lodged against the barges. “They are pickin’ up worms, toad frogs, and one thing another,” he said. He wished he had brought his rifle; for he was confident he could easily have shot enough for “ a pot pie.”
We went on until we were at the meeting of the rivers and saw the waters leaping and eddying in rough contention. Each river was distinct from the other in color as far as the eye could see down the broad channel. The Ohio was a light yellow and the Missouri a dark coffee color. Both were laden with sediment, but the latter carried by far the most.
On our way back we were overtaken by a shower. The sun glimmered through it, and my rower remarked, “Shine and rain together — the devil’s beatin’ his wife.”
“Why is he beating her?” I asked.
“Because she done burnt de biscuits las’ Sunday,” was the reply.
I wanted to see some of the farming country in the vicinity, and one day I made a trip across the Mississippi. The region on the west shore had all been under water, even the land behind the levee. The roads were not passable to a person on foot, and I kept to the embankment and followed its curves and angles for four or five miles. Sometimes I had the river in sight, but usually the levee was well back inland, with half-flooded cornfields and heavy growths of cottonwood between it and the stream. Occasionally I would see the tips of tall steamer smokestacks with their black smoke plumes moving along beyond the trees and never get the least glimpse of the vessel itself. The flood had receded somewhat, and where the current had flowed strongest across the fields, the land was much furrowed and was scattered with drift rubbish. This rubbish varied from cornstalks to vast tree trunks with roots and broken branches attached.
The levee and the rough, half-wooded land along the river serve the local cattle for pasturage, or “range,” as the people themselves say. The water had been so high and the season so backward that the creatures had been having hard fare, and they were as thin and gaunt as scarecrows, and their hair was tangled full of cockle burs. They licked up the grass and weeds on the levee and wandered over such of the last year’s cornfields as were not flooded. When there was bare ground beyond the backwater the cattle were sure to seek it out. They would go in slow, steady, single file, wading up and down over the submerged ridges, and now and then disappearing all but their heads. The calves followed the rest, even though they had to swim half the distance. Once out of the water the creatures would begin to crop the tufts of grass that had succeeded in thrusting through the mud, and sometimes would nibble the leaves from the trees.
The levee on which I was walking was quite impressive, it was so immense, so regular, so unending. Approached sidewise it made a considerable hill to climb over, while the top was a much-used highway deeply marked by cattle and pedestrians and occasional horse-back riders with a broad hard-trodden footpath. On the landward side the fields were large and smooth, and looked fertile and well-tilled. Here and there were pleasant homes, none of the dwellings fine, but as a rule cosey and clean, with vines and shrubbery and shade trees growing about them.
Of course there were the ruder and less orderly homes, too; and in particular I noted a negro cabin on the edge of the levee that was a real marvel in its way. One end had settled down off its blocking and had slewed the whole structure out of shape, opening cracks, twisting floor boards, and tilting the porch roof the wrong way. I tried to find out what had happened to the house, but could only learn that it had been just like that a long time, and that the owner was intending to tear it down, so there was no use attempting to better it.
In time of Flood
Not far away, on the other side of the levee, I stopped at a farmhouse to talk with a sunbonneted white woman who was making soft soap in the yard. She had a fire with a great black kettle over it and said she was “bilin’ the lye. It has to bile slow all the morning,” she continued, “till it’s very strong. Then I put in the fat I’ve saved — trimmin’s of meat sich as we don’t eat, pork rinds, and the cracklin’s that we have left when we are trying out lard. After the fat is in I have to stir it every little while with a paddle and be careful not to have too big a fire, or it will bile over. So it simmers along till four or five o’clock and is done; and when it’s stood to cool over night I dip it out into a flour barrel. If the soap is all right it’s thick like jelly, and I’d much rather have it than the soap you buy. What I make in this kittle will run me a year.”
I could see that the recent flood had been up in the yard; but it had not reached the house. “The floods are the worst thing there is about this country,” the woman declared. “Now this year the big slues in the fields won’t dry out all summer we’ve had sich an overflow, and we couldn’t git our garden broke up till two days ago. I think potatoes had ought to be planted in the dark o’ the moon to do real well, and a heap o’ people talk thataway; but with the water comin’ up hyar like it does you have to plant when you can. I was raised in Kentucky, and it always seems to me we got kind of a queer climate hyar. Sometimes it turns in pretty dry, and then ag’in thar’s too much rain. I never heared what ‘twas like till I come hyar, and I allow I’d ‘a’ stayed in Kentucky if I’d knowed.”
When I returned to Cairo it was evening, and the flooded bottoms were vocal with strange pipings, gutturals, croakings, and mutterings. All the swamp creatures were rejoicing in the abounding water and were singing their weird songs of contentment and love.
NOTE. — Cairo can hardly be called an ideal town for tourists, and yet a day or two can be spent there with profit and pleasure. One should see for oneself the meeting of the two giant rivers, and should get acquainted with the loiterers and workers of the waterside, and with the houseboat folk, and should go for a ramble on the levees.
The town did not especially interest me aside from the features I describe; yet I do not claim to have done the place full justice, for I dwell only on certain picturesque characteristics that impressed me in my casual wanderings. When this chapter appeared as one of a series of articles published in the Outing Magazine, the Cairo Bulletin commented on it in a long editorial headed “Cairo Maligned Again.” The Bulletin says that Charles Dickens, in his famous travels in America, “influenced by a severe attack of the influenza, proceeded to void his wrath “ on Cairo, and it has ever since “been fashionable by a certain nondescript class of writers” to copy his thoughts if not his words. “Young authors whose works do not command attention without the thin yellow line of sensationalism, and who fail to realize that the immortal novelist succeeded, not because of his abuse of this city, but in spite of it, are disposed to fall into the same error which caused Charles Dickens such keen regret during the late years of his life.”
The Bulletin thinks I ought to have devoted more time “to an examination of the religious, social, and commercial life of the city.” It adds that if the author “had embraced the opportunity to attend divine services in the city at any one of the dozens of churches, he might have felt in a much less libelous frame of mind. If Mr. Clifton Johnson will take the trouble to repeat his visit to this city, giving due notice of his expected advent, he will have quite as much reason as he did upon the occasion of his first introduction to the community for reporting that ‘the place is probably not charming at any season.’”
After all, doesn’t the editor’s closing hint of tar and feathers, or whatever the forms of personal violence may be that he had in mind, savor more of the dominance of saloon influence in his city than of the many churches he mentions? Cairo undoubtedly has a better side than that I particularly describe, but it has also a worse side if this bigoted editorial is a fair sample of the tenor of its citizens’ minds.
The pith of Charles Dickens’s reference to Cairo is as follows: “At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so low and marshy that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the housetops, lies a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death. A dismal swamp on which the half-built houses rot away; cleared here and there for the space of a few yards, and teeming then with rank, unwholesome vegetation; a place without one single quality in earth or air or water to commend it — such is Cairo.”