I grew up along the Mississippi and am now growing wiser along its banks. As a citizen of Saint Paul, the river has always loomed large, but largely ignored unless it asserts its independence. Mississippi may even have been the first word I learned to spell. But until the last several years, I was never aware of the rich story lore laying around like a waiting room magazine rack.
During family outings to visit the cousins in Minneapolis, we’d cross the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue bridge which in itself was a somewhat adventurous trip. Built in 1889 the massive maze of steel rattled and seemed to sway with the breeze as we made the crossing. Dangling above the gorge of brown water, my grandmother taught us the rhythmic chant spelling M-Iss-Iss-IPP-I. If you can sing it you can spell it was her theory and because I remember it today is testament.
Being the adventurous one, I announced I wanted to swim in the river and float down it on a raft. My grandmother’s eyes grew wide and seriously explained what fate awaited you if you dared. There is this thing called the current she explained, which will wrap around your legs and pull you under, perhaps releasing you miles downstream. In my visualization of her words I saw an Anaconda like beast that rose from the depths of the river to sweep you away, never to be heard from again. If that wasn’t enough there were also whirlpools which were like tornadoes in the water that could suck you down to the bottom.
With pictures like that
playing in my mind
it’s no wonder I grew up fearing the river.
There were also tales of people swimming and getting rashes and peeling skin from the chemicals dumped in upstream. The river had been industrialized, an extension of the factories, mountains of coal, rusted salvage yards and railroad tracks that occupied the banks. It was a giant trash bin. People dumped their worn out wash machines, tires, refrigerators, anything that needed to be disposed of. A place of beauty and recreation was the furthest thing from people’s’ minds.
What grabbed the headlines wasn’t
what went in the river
but rather what came out of the river.
Bodies were the number one news item, especially those of people who succumbed from their leaps from the High Bridge. There were others who fell off the Ford Dam or those who thought they could outswim the beasts in the current. More gruesome stories were of Minneapolis people murdered and tossed in the water washing up downstream on our shores.
My great grandfather, tales have it, swam across and back the river in the gorge near Riverside Park in Minneapolis. It was in August I suppose, when the water level drops and current slows to a lazy meander that a crossing is more practical. The story was told with a cautionary message: Do not try this yourself !
What galvanized my fear of Big Muddy, was the floods of 1965. My father took me down to see what the river was doing in downtown St. Paul. From our perch near the post office, we watched and listened as the snow melt and spring rains rushed downstream. Harriet and Raspberry Islands where underwater as was the airport. The chocolate froth writhed so violently it sounded like a hissing dragon. The day before our outing, I’d read stories of sandbagging volunteers who slipped into the current, never to be seen again. Gigantic eddies whirled on the downstream side of the bridge supports with bystanders wondering if they would endure such force. Entire wood buildings, huge uprooted trees, animal corpses and miscellaneous junk surfed the current. Shepherd Road had become one with the river and parts of Lowertown were submerged.
The mounds on the white bluffs overlooking the river stood silent, well out of the way of the mayhem.
Eventually the waters subsided; the wind whispered “I told you so. Can’t tame the river !”. I don’t think many people listened.
Two months later it was Ashkibagi-ziibiing, ( Anishinaabe – the place of many fresh green leaves). Only the knee deep layers of mud were left to tell the story. Since then my fear has evolved into a healthy respect; the dragons of the river remain quiet – for the time being..