Read CHAPTER II - THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI of Minnesota Its Character and Climate, free online book, by Ledyard Bill, on

The great central watershed of the continent is found within the boundaries of the State of Minnesota, and the rains precipitated on this elevated plateau move off in opposite directions, becoming the sources of some of the principal rivers of this vast interior basin, with their waters flowing both to the Arctic and Equatorial Seas.

The chief of these is that of the “Father of Waters,” rising in Lake Itaska, and emptying in the Mexican Gulf, separated by a distance of more than two thousand miles, washing in its course the shores of nine States, all embraced by this, the most fertile and important valley known to mankind. As an aid to civilization and to commerce, its value can never be fully estimated or completely comprehended.

Rivers are frequently important, in connection with mountain ranges, as supplying natural boundaries for governments and peoples who dwell on either side; but, they likewise perform the more important office of binding with indissoluble bonds communities living along their banks and tributaries, from origin to outlet, making their interests common and population kin.

The European Carlyles and believers in the divine rights of kings have, in view of the influx of discordant races and the jarring elements within, together with the cumbrous machinery of our government, prophesied that disintegration and ruin would ere long be ours. But they took no note of the harmony and fraternal feeling that must come between peoples so differing, when all have equal share in a government founded in justice, and on the broad principles of human right; and, last but not least, the important influence of those commercial relations which we sustain to each other, growing out of the general configuration and accessibility of the country occupied and governed.

The Mississippi River is the natural outlet and grand highway to the Northwest, and contributed everything toward its early settlement; so that a sketch of it seems indispensable in connection with that of the State in which it has its rise, and with which its chief interest and history are intertwined.

It is practically divided into two sections, that below Keokuk being known as the Lower, and that above (the part of which we now propose to consider) as the


This designation comes from having well-defined boundaries, in consequence of a ledge of rocks lying across the river immediately above the city of Keokuk, which, during the lower stages of water, wholly prevents the passage of the larger class of steamers plying on the river below.

From this point, there are about six hundred miles in one continuous stretch of navigation, up to the city of St. Paul. On this upper river a smaller class of steamers are usually employed; though, at good stages of water, the larger boats are abundant; and, indeed, one of the most important lines in the upper river, the Northwestern Union Packet Company, employs five large steamers, which run between St. Louis and St. Paul, except in the very dry seasons. The small steamers, so called, are really large and commodious; but so constructed as are in fact all of the steamers plying on our western rivers that they draw but little water, being large and nearly flat-bottomed, sitting on the surface like a duck, and moving along, when lightly loaded, with apparent ease and at a comparatively high rate of speed.

It is always a pleasing reflection to the tourist, and a comforting one to the invalid, to know that at least a portion of their journey may be performed on board of a well-kept and convenient steamship. They contrast so favorably with the dusty train, that we wonder the latter are half as well patronized as they are, when the two means of conveyance are running on parallel lines. But then we know very well that the man of business and people in haste do that which saves most time, regardless entirely of themselves, and more frequently of their neighbors, who have, in consequence of open windows, taken a thousand colds, and suffered pains, neuralgic and rheumatic, sufficient to have atoned for the sins of a world of such as these their inconsiderate fellow-travellers. Then the quantity of dust and smoke and cinders to be swallowed and endured, the damage to eyes of those who would beguile the mind into that forgetfulness of self; so painfully reminded of both the strait-jacket and the old-time, cruel stocks. Then the utter obliviousness to all hygienic law in the packing of a score or more of people, like so many herrings in a box, into sleeping cars, over-heated and worse ventilated, and not if measured by the rules of any common sense more than sufficient for a fourth of the number occupying. How often have we risen in the morning, after spending the night in this manner, with a feeling akin to that which we fancy would come from being knocked in the head with a sack of meal, then gently stewed, and all out of pure fraternal regard to supply any deficiencies in our original bakings. The operation is certainly quite neat, and entirely successful, since all who have tried it are left in no sort of doubt as to their having been, at least once, thoroughly cooked. Perhaps a philosophical view is best, and all feel grateful for the double service rendered, while the charge for transportation only is incurred.

This is, however, too serious a business for much of jesting, as thousands are made to feel who have had occasion to travel much; and who is there of this restless, moving population of ours that does not, either on business or pleasure, make, sooner or later, extensive journeys? We are not unmindful of the many and important improvements made in the construction of railway carriages within the last decade, greatly tending to the conservation of both the health and comfort of the passenger; but there is still a good chance for inventors to attain both fame and fortune, if only the dust and cinders be kept out and fresh air kept in, without hazarding the health of any one by exposure to its draughts.

These drawbacks to health and comfort in travelling are measurably avoided when journeying in or to the Northwest during the season of navigation. The Ohio River furnishes such an escape to the invalid seeking this region from the central belt of States; and the great lakes supply a more northern range of country; while less than a half day’s ride from Chicago places one at either Dubuque, Prairie du Chien, or La Crosse, where daily boats may be had for St. Paul or any of the towns intermediate.

These steamers differ widely from those in use on any of the rivers in the Eastern States, and while not as substantial, seem better adapted to the trade and travel on these interior rivers. Beyond occasional violent winds there is nothing in the elements for them to encounter, and hence they are built low to the water, of shallow draft, and an entire absence of all closed bulwarks used to keep out the sea by those plying in stormy waters. These western river boats would scarce survive a single passage on any large body of water, yet, for all the purposes for which they are required here, they seem admirably fitted.

In making the journey from Dubuque to St. Paul and return, one of these steamers and yet not of the largest class requires a supply of five hundred bushels of coal, and full one hundred and twenty-five cords of wood, to keep its devouring furnaces ablaze and its wheels in motion. The round trip between these two points is made, including the landings, in about three days. The up-trip is performed with as great speed as that is down, owing to the greater economy of time in making the landings. In going up these are easily made, with bows on shore (they have no wharves); in coming down stream the ship is compelled, for her own safety, to turn in the river before reaching the landing, and then run “bows on,” the same as when going up, else, if this was not done, the current of the river, which is often quite powerful, might drive the vessel too high on the shore, or wheel it around to its damage. This evolution requires a few minutes for its performance at each landing, and thus the whole time is about equally divided in the going and returning.

The average dimensions of the class of steamers employed in this trade may be said to be about two hundred and forty feet in length and thirty-five in breadth, drawing from two to four feet of water, with accommodations for about one hundred and fifty cabin and as many more second-class passengers.

The first deck is wholly devoted to the machinery and freight; and all is exposed to view from every side. The great furnaces occupy the centre of this deck, and their lungs of fire roar and breathe flames eagerly and dangerously out, like a serpent’s forked, flashing tongue. The sides glow and swell from the increasing heat, and the iron arms of the machinery tremble and quake with the pent-up and rapidly accumulating forces, running unseen to and fro, only too ready to lend a helping hand at anything. The seat of power in all this is, like the seat of power everywhere, hot and revolutionary, and those who occupy it must be vigilant, as only one head can control, though that is not unfrequently, on these western waters, the Cylinder head.

The fuel is in front and along, next the furnaces; while the freight is stacked on the bows and along the sides and aft, which is likewise the place where the ship’s crew sleep, in bunks ranged on either hand above each other, like shelves, sheltering the sleeper only from the rains. The live stock is usually crowded into close quarters on the after and outlying guards, having a high railing and strong supports. By a staircase from the main deck in front the grand saloon is reached. This is the interesting feature of all these large river steamers. Fancy a saloon one hundred and fifty feet in length, richly carpeted and upholstered, having large pendant chandeliers, glittering with all the known prismatic colors, the whole overarched by fancy scroll-work in pleasing combination with the supports to the ceiling and floor above; and, as is frequently the case, all being highly ornate, makes a fancy scene not unworthy of association with the famous palace of Aladdin, as given us in the charming stories of the Arabian Nights.

This, with some slight exaggerations in style, perhaps, is the home of the traveller while journeying on this upper and most interesting portion of the entire river.

At night, with the saloon and ship all lighted, the scene is both inspiriting and brilliant. Above the roll of the machinery and noise of the dashing waters comes the grateful melody of happy voices, lulling the tired traveller to repose and chasing away from other faces all recollection of painful responsibilities and cares.

A sail on this upper river is a beautiful one, and all who can should make it. The scenery is not as varied or striking as is that of the Hudson, of which one is constantly reminded; but it is nevertheless attractive and quite peculiar. The banks of the Lower Mississippi have risen here to high towering bluffs, giving a highly picturesque character to the landscape. This is the region of the lower magnesian limestone; and as it builds up these bluffs and crops out along their sides and at the tops, worn by the winds and rains of centuries these rock exposures, gray and moss covered, have rounded into striking resemblances of old ruins, as if buried by convulsions in some unknown age, the homes of some possible race of Montezumas, of which these are the only monuments and records.

They often rise to the height of four and sometimes five hundred feet above the river, standing singly or in groups, and again stretch for long distances like the Palisades of the Hudson, differing from them in that they are not as abrupt and have their sides covered with the most luxuriant sward.

Those who can should climb to the summit of one of these cliffs and get a glimpse of as lovely a picture as it is possible to find in a journey round the world. The winding river, dotted all over with islands and fringed along its shores with forest-trees, expanding now into some miniature lake, then lost and broken by some intervening bluff, to the right or left of which stretches the distant prairie; the whole forming a panoramic view unrivalled in interest and beauty by any we have ever seen elsewhere.

It is impossible for us adequately to describe to the reader these varying scenes of beauty in the landscapes which present themselves as we sail. They should come and see for themselves, and bask in the pure, bracing atmosphere, and the genial sunshine of these bluest of blue skies.