In the 19th century – when the steamboat industry prospered – few men possessed more absolute power or were held in higher esteem than the steamboat pilot.
He knew the Mighty Mississippi like his own backyard and could navigate around or through snags, sawyers, horseshoe bends and sandbars.
A steamboat pilot's memory had to be perfect. The river in his mind had to be as familiar as the face of his wife or the voice of his child.
Samuel Longhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, was the author of many heralded novels, including "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer." Twain apprenticed as a riverboat pilot beginning in the late 1850s and earned his pilot license in 1859 when he was 23. One of his brothers worked on the river, too, and lost his life in a steamboat explosion.
In Twain's book, "Life on the Mississippi," published in 1882, he tells river stories and writes many words in praise of the steamboat pilot. It was the dream of every Missouri boy like him, Twain wrote, to be a steamboatman.
"I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it," he said. "The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived on the earth."
‘GOOD AND QUICK JUDGMENT’
A steamboat pilot, Twain wrote, "must have a good and quick judgment and decision, and a cool, calm courage that no peril can shake. Give a man the merest trifle of pluck to start with, and by the time he has become a pilot, he cannot be unmanned by any danger a steamboat can get into; but one cannot quite say the same for judgment. Judgment is a matter of brains, and a man must start with a good stock of that article or he will never succeed as a pilot.
"The moment that boat was under way in the river, she was in the sole and unquestioned control of the pilot. He could do exactly as he pleased, run her when and whither he chose, and tie her up to the bank whenever his judgment said that that course was best. His movements were entirely free; he consulted no one, he received commands from nobody, he promptly resented even the merest suggestions...
"It will easily be guessed, considering the pilot's boundless authority, that he was a great personage in the old steamboating days. He was treated with marked courtesy by the captain and with marked deference by the officers and servants; and this deferential spirit was quickly communicated to the passengers, too. I think the pilots were about the only people I ever knew who failed to show, in some degree, embarrassment in the presence of traveling foreign princes."
‘DODGING AND SHIRKING’
In the early years of steamboating, Twain recalled, a round-trip from St. Louis to New Orleans, marking time for loading and unloading cargo, took a little more than three weeks.
"Seven or eight of these days the boat spent at the wharves of St. Louis and New Orleans, and ever soul on board was hard at work, except the two pilots; they did nothing but play gentleman up town, and receive the same wages for it as if they had been on duty. The moment the boat touched the wharf at either city they were ashore; and they were not likely to be seen again till the last bell was ringing and every thing in readiness for another voyage."
But once at the helm, the pilot's mind was on his business and his business was to transport his passengers and cargo safely and as quickly as he could to their destination.
The minute-by-minute challenges for the steamboat pilot were constant, Twain wrote, especially on the Mississippi "whose alluvial banks cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sand-bars are never at rest, whose channels are forever dodging and shirking, and whose obstructions must be confronted in all nights and all weathers."
A SCOUNDREL’S WORK
From Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans the river was "wonderfully crooked," Twain wrote, but constantly changing. Horseshoe bends were more numerous then than today. In some places, "if you were to get ashore at one extremity of the horseshoe and walk across the neck, half or three-quarters of a mile, you could sit down and rest a couple of hours while your steamer was coming around the long elbow at a speed of ten miles an hour and take you on board again.
"When the river is rising fast, some scoundrel whose plantation is back in the country, and therefore of inferior value, has only to watch his chance, cut a little gutter across the narrow neck of land some dark night, and turn the water into it, and in a wonderfully short time a miracle has happened . . . the whole Mississippi has taken possession of that little ditch, and placed the country-man's plantation on the bank (quadrupling its value), and that other party's formerly valuable plantation finds itself away out yonder on a big island; the old watercourse around it will soon shoal up, boats cannot approach within ten miles of it, and down goes its value to a fourth of its former worth. Watches are kept on those narrow necks at needful times, and if a man happens to be caught cutting a ditch across them, the chances are all against his ever having another opportunity to cut a ditch."
The Raccourci cut-off was made in the mid-19th century, shortening the Mississippi by 28 miles, Twain wrote. He cited cut-offs farther north of Vidalia and at locations known as Island 92, Island 84 and Hale's Point. Fort Adams and Rodney were abandoned by the river's ever changing course.
In the 1930s the Corps of Engineers began work to straighten the Mississippi's long horseshoe curve along Giles Bend and Marengo Bend. Giles Plantation was located between both tips of the horseshoe and during the floods of 1907, 1922 and 1927 water flowed across the neck. Records show Corps engineers realized the river would soon abandon Marengo Bend and they began work to cut an artificial cutoff along the Giles Neck, which would better align the main channel.
Matilda Gresham, the wife of a Yankee general headquartered in Natchez during the Civil War, described what is now Old River -- then the main channel horseshoe bend -- in her view from the balcony of Rosalie Mansion in 1863: "Up the river a short distance" the river "disappears behind a bend to the west twenty miles around, only to appear again across a narrow neck, about two and one-half miles to the north."
Twain also described Natchez in his book on the Mississippi, which "like Vicksburg and New Orleans . . . has her ice-factory; she makes thirty tons of ice a day. In Vicksburg and Natchez, in my time, ice was jewelry; none but the rich could wear it. But anybody and every-body can have it now"
He wrote about the Rosalie Yarn Mill, which housed "6,000 spindles and 160 looms, and employs 100 hands," and the Natchez Cotton Mills Company, which employed 250, handled 5,000 bales of cotton annually and manufactured five million yards each year of quality shirting, sheetings and drills.
What impressed him most about Natchez in the late 19th century was that it had become a manufacturing and railroad center.