DG MARTIN COLUMN: A humble end on a mighty river

Published 11:04 am Friday, November 25, 2022

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We had the Mississippi River to ourselves.

At least for a little while a few weeks ago.

D.G. Martin

We were on a dream vacation on a cruise ship we boarded in New Orleans headed to Memphis.

But there was a problem on the Mississippi. You probably know about that, but I will get into the details in a minute.

At first there were no problems on a beautiful new ship named Viking Mississippi, much like the Viking Lines’ other ships, but specially designed for travel on the Mississippi River.

In Viking luxury, we traveled up the river, stopping at places like the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana which was described “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” the award-winning best-seller by Davidson College alumnus Clint Smith.

Contrasting with many other plantations where the story seems to come from “Gone with the Wind’s” majestic rendering, Whitney’s guides and exhibits described the ill treatment of slaves whose labor in sugarcane and cotton fields created exorbitant profits for plantation owners and businesses in New York and London.

Later, we stopped in Baton Rouge, where the presence of Gov. Huey Long who transformed the state is still overwhelming. Once, while campaigning in the early 1930s in heavily Catholic southern Louisiana, where most voters were Catholic, Long would say, “I would get up at six o’clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass. I would bring them home, and at ten o’clock I would hitch the old horse up again, and I would take my Baptist parents to church.” When somebody said to him, “I didn’t know you had any Catholic grandparents.”

He replied, “Don’t be a damned fool. We didn’t even have a horse.”

Further up the river we stopped in Natchez where we learned it once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country — all the wealth built on cotton and slavery — and today has the largest concentration of antebellum mansions in the South.

As I described in a recent column, locals gave a North Carolina-connected couple credit for the modern preservation of magnificent homes in and around the town.

Further up the river we stopped in Vicksburg where the fate of the Confederacy was sealed on July 4, 1863, when Confederate forces surrendered to federal forces led by Gen. U.S. Grant. The result left the Confederacy divided into two parts and destined to lose the war.

But the most remarkable thing we saw was the mighty Mississippi itself.

Our problem was the river was in trouble.

While we were cruising up the river, The New York Times published an article headlined “As Drought Drops Water Level in the Mississippi, Shipwrecks Surface and Worries Rise.” It opened with this disturbing report: “The river known for its vast reach and powerful currents has withered to levels not seen in decades, choking shipping lanes and endangering drinking water supplies.”

Times correspondent Rick Rojas wrote, “Along the drought-stricken Mississippi River, a world usually hidden beneath the waves has been basking under the sun. In recent weeks, new islands have breached the surface, as have the hulls of sunken ships and a vast array of lost marine equipment. The diminished waterway that remains has been clogged with barges, stuck in the mud or waiting their turn to press ahead down a narrowed channel.”

As our ship moved up the river carefully, barge traffic dropped. Then suddenly, our Viking ship was the only boat on the water. For a few hours, we had the river to ourselves. It was quiet and serene, giving us the best cruising experience of the trip.

But it was not to last. By the time we reached Rosedale, Mississippi, the river was too low for our ship to navigate. We were forced off the boat and on to an ordinary bus that carried us to our destination in Memphis.

It was a very humble ending to our encounter with America’s most important river.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”