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“Mother Nature is not sweet” – John Shelby Spong

steamboat_willies

I’m sure the exit was this way.

Pride cometh before getting eternally screwed in the afterlife, particularly when one goes about mucking with Mother Nature’s preferred geography.  The Mighty Mississippi River flows about 2320 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico and for much of the written historical record has pretty much done whatever it wanted.  Of course, when we realized its value as a major commercial artery, us greedy little, tool-making monkeys started looking for the means to make a better mousetrap, deliberately engineering alterations to the course of the river so we could make our money a little faster.  Geo-engineering is all fun and games until someone loses an eye.  Undaunted, we nonetheless recklessly go about blowing holes in mountains, digging canals, and changing watercourses, because after all, nature has no notion of civil engineering or convenience, and its concept of urban planning is at best rather slapdash, thus we feel obligated to get our hands dirty and make some adjustments to the landscape, despite the obvious existential risk in pissing off fickle nature spirits and river gods.

In the 19th Century, some savvy, but reckless fellow in the nascent equivalent of the Army Corp of Engineers, came to the conclusion that the bend in the Mississippi between Angola Landing and Tunica Landing in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana was just too darn long by about 20 miles.  I mean, having to navigate a somewhat treacherous, and lengthy bend in the river cuts into the captain’s happy-hour.  Gregarious little critters that we are, the luminaries of the State of Louisiana decided to straighten things out a bit, literally.  Now, cut-offs were not a new thing, as the same thing had been tried unsuccessfully a little further north at the Shreve Cutoff.  This, and the warnings of savvy hydraulic engineers went unheeded and excavation of a newer, straighter channel proceeded apace.

Cut-offs, as proposed by hydraulic writers, are not applicable to large rivers like the Mississippi. Their effects, when applied to a single bend of that river, have been accurately measured upon the Red River cutoff and the Raccourci cutoff, and also twice calculated analytically. The final result proves indisputably that they are absolutely pernicious, because they reduce the height above the cut-off only by increasing it below; and thus save one part of the valley at the expense of another part (Humphreys & Abbot, 1862, p508).

Well, let people downriver worry about their own problems.  Unfortunately, the engineers didn’t do their homework.  The Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell happened to be gallivanting about the United States at the time picking up rocks, and had a skeptical view of the Raccourci cut-off.

Proceeding up the river, we soon passed Bayou Sara on our right hand, and came to the isthmus called the Raccourci cut-off, across which a trench nine feet deep has been dug, in the hope that the Mississippi would sweep out a deep channel. This “cut-off,” should it ever become the main channel, would enable a steamer to reach, in one mile, a point, to gain which costs now a circuit of twenty-six miles, and two and a half hours. Unfortunately, when they cleared the forest in this spot, the soil of the new canal was found to consist of a stiff blue clay, strengthened by innumerable roots of trees, and in the flood of 1845 the surplus waters of the Mississippi poured through the cut with great velocity, yet failed to deepen it materially (Lyell, 1868, p148-149).

Of course, if you want to accumulate bad karma related to your construction project, it doesn’t hurt to have a murder of two associated with it.  The cutoff had basically created  Raccourci Island in the Middle of the Mississippi, with the Old Raccourci River to the west, and the Raccourci Cutoff to the east.

The new cutoff shortened the navigation channel by 19 miles, but failed to bring about much improvement in the reaches above. Raccourci Island was the scene of what Federal authorities called “a horrible murder” during the Civil War. When the commander of the Union vessel, the Nymph, went ashore at the island, he was surprised and killed by a Confederate force in the area. Four Union gunboats were sent to Raccourci, and the Union men landed and destroyed corn, sugar, molasses, storehouses, and everything else that they could find in the vicinity that might be “rebel property” (Bragg, 1977, p198).

This was nobody’s happy place.  And apparently, their public relations efforts fell a bit short, since the first steamboat to head down towards the Raccourci cutoff, had not been informed that the cutoff actually existed.  With a whole lot more sandbars and shallower water in the Old Raccourci River, this was a recipe for disaster.

The Raccourci Cutoff (L), 69.7 m., a 19-mile short cut in the Mississippi, was made in 1848. The old river bed was named Raccourci (Fr., shortened) Old River, and the island formed, Raccourci Island. It is now uninhabited and is a popular hunting ground. According to local belief, the ghost of an old steamboat haunts the Cutoff. On the night the river changed its course a boat entered the old channel in fog and rain. Hitting a sand bar, it backed off only to hit another. Enraged by these untimely obstructions, the pilot began to curse the boat, the crew, and the treacherous river. At the top of his voice he shouted that he’d be damned if he cared whether the boat got out or stayed in the bend until doomsday. His wish was granted. Trapped forever in the Cutoff, the old paddle wheeler can be heard on foggy nights chugging back and forth, the signal bell jangling and the pilot cursing (Louisiana Writer’s Project, 1941, p644).

No less than Mark Twain spoke with many Mississippi riverboat captains, who assured him that the unfortunate vessel was stuck in a navigational purgatory, doomed to eternally haunt the treacherous shallows of the Old Raccourci.  He recorded a version of the tale in his Life on the Mississippi.

It was said that a boat came along there in the night and went around the enormous elbow the usual way, the pilots not knowing that the cut off had been made. It was a grisly, hideous night, and all shapes were vague and distorted. The old bend had already begun to fill up, and the boat got to running away from mysterious reefs, and occasionally hitting one. The perplexed pilots fell to swearing, and finally uttered the entirely unnecessary wish that they might never get out of that place. As always happens in such cases, that particular prayer was answered, and the others neglected. So to this day that phantom steamer is still butting around in that deserted river, trying to find her way out. More than one grave watchman has sworn to me that on drizzly, dismal nights, he has glanced fearfully down that forgotten river as he passed the head of the island, and seen the faint glow of the spectre steamer’s lights drifting through the distant gloom, and heard the muffled cough of her ‘scape-pipes and the plaintive cry of her leadsmen (Twain, 1883, p175).

I have a theory that nature abhors redundancy.  For example, if you name a mountain “Mt. Mountain”, you’re just asking for avalanches, volcanic cataclysms, or various and sundry retributional acts levied upon you for your unoriginality.  In French, raccourci simply means “shortcut”, therefore, unsuspecting folks deliberately named this particular straightening of the Mississippi “Shortcut Shortcut”.  I mean, jeez, those celestial critters out there expect you to at least put a little effort into your naming conventions, or risk a smiting.

Or perhaps the name was an apt reference to the French phrase dans ce raccourci d’une vie (“In this abridgment of life”), that is “a raccourci is a thing seen, or heard, or told on a smaller scale, or in a smaller proportion” (Mellé,1895, p212).  Fair warning from the god of existential ennui and bad branding.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “Nature is full of genius, full of the divinty; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand”, consequently we should expect a little resentment when we get in there with spades and picks and try to bend the landscape to our will.  And for god’s sake, at least come up with a good name.

References
Bragg, Marion. Historic Names And Places On the Lower Mississippi River. Vicksburg, Miss.: Dept. of Defense, Dept. of the Army, Corps of Engineers, Mississippi River Commission, 1977.
Louisiana Writers’ Project. Louisiana: a Guide to the State. New York: Hastings House, 1941.
Lyell, Charles, Sir, 1797-1875. A Second Visit to the United States of North America. New York: Harper, 1868.
Twain, Mark, 1835-1910. Life On the Mississippi. Montreal: Dawson, 1883.
Humphreys, A.A. & Abbot, H.L. “The Mississippi River”. The North American Review 1:94. [Mount Vernon, Iowa], 1862.
Mellé, Rosine. The Contemporary French Writers. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1895.

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