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Producer, videographer: Ernie Lee Martin
Life on the Mississippi
Look at a map of the United States with no state lines drawn in, and Kentucky is one of the few interior states whose shape you’ll still see. That’s because it’s the only state bordered by rivers in three directions. This special edition of Kentucky Life is dedicated to the western edge: Kentucky’s stretch of the mighty Mississippi River.
The journey actually begins a little to the east, in Adair County, as we trace the Kentucky connections of the writer most associated with the river: Mark Twain. Though we can’t claim Twain himself as a Kentuckian, it was in Columbia that his parents met. The program follows them as they move to Possum Trot, TN and then—at the invitation of another former Kentuckian—to the tiny town of Florida, MO, where their son Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born.
As a young man, Sam would take a job with a printer in Cincinnati. There he conceived the notion of traveling by boat to New Orleans, a journey down the Ohio and then the Mississippi that would inspire his first book and give him the phrase he would later take as his pen name. “Mark twain” means a depth of two fathoms or 12 feet—in those days, the minimum safe depth for a riverboat. Guided by crew members taking soundings, 19th-century pilots steered to that depth to avoid being grounded on sandbars.
Our own journey down part of Twain’s route is in the company of two modern-day riverboat pilots: the Ingram Barge Company’s Tom Jones and Mike Carrigan. We also spend some time with onboard cook Birdie Simpson to find out what it’s like to live on a barge for a month at a time.
The Ohio and Mississippi meet in southern Ballard County, near Wickliffe, where the prehistoric Wickliffe Mounds overlook the waters. Five miles south of this point is the site of Fort Jefferson, built in the spring of 1780 under the supervision of Gen. George Rogers Clark and named for Thomas Jefferson—then famous chiefly as the author of the recently signed Declaration of Independence. Fort Jefferson represented the westernmost outpost of the United States during the Revolutionary War and was to be a supply link for troops in what is now Illinois. But after two attacks by Chickasaw Indians led by British commanders, the fort was abandoned in June 1781. The site is now marked by a 100-foot aluminum cross. (About 10 years later, a second Fort Jefferson was built in Ohio.)
From the memorial cross, the Mississippi flows past Carlisle and Hickman counties. The view across the river pictured at right is from Columbus-Belmont State Park in Hickman County, site of a Civil War engagement in which the Confederates attempted to block the river with a huge chain.
As its farewell to Kentucky, the river wanders around—and through—Fulton County. Our trip stops in the town of Hickman (which Mark Twain is said to have called “the prettiest town on the Mississippi”) for a little geological history lesson about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. Between December 16, 1811 and February 7, 1812, four major quakes and scores of smaller ones rattled the region where Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas come together (and were felt as far away as Connecticut and the Carolinas). Though loss of life was probably minimal because of the area’s sparse population at the time, the local landscape was considerably reshaped.
Near the epicenter of the New Madrid quakes, the Mississippi River takes a sharp turn north and then south again, creating a near loop known variously as the New Madrid Bend or Kentucky Bend. Early surveyors marking the Kentucky-Tennessee state line had not been able to push this far west and had only estimated where their line would meet the Mississippi. When later, more accurate surveys were done, it turned out that the parallel they had chosen cut right through the loop, crossing the river twice to create a small peninsula that’s bounded by the state line on one side and the river on the other three. After much wrangling in court, Kentucky and Tennessee finally agreed to leave it that way, giving Fulton County its cut-off tip.
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