Monday, July 28, 2008

Memphis II

A trip to Memphis wouldn't be complete without a ride on a riverboat down the Mighty Mississip'. Truth be told, we plan to come back to Memphis not only to see the ever-hospitable Och and his family again, but also because we in no way exhausted our itinerary, even with said boat ride. The rides were narrated by a charming, middle-aged black man whose southern drawl very much flavored all the points he mentioned during our hour-and-a-half tour. John Fogerty was right: "...I never saw the good side of the city / Till I hitched a ride on a Riverboat Queen." While Memphis had several colorful aspects to it, I'm a sucker for anything out on the water, so I have to say that this trumped even the Gibson factory...

The wheels on the boats are powered by anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 horsepower, so we moved at a pretty steady clip. We learned about the Sultana while on this particular trip. Our guide asked us who knew about the Titanic. When we all raised our hands, he asked us who had heard of the Sultana, the ship whose demise was the gravest maritime disaster in U. S. history. Of course, none of us had heard of this tragedy, this due in large part to the fact that, on April 27, 1865, the country was still recovering from the end of the War Between the States as well as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Consequently, a war-weary populace had by and large stopped reading newspapers that promised little more than continual body counts, so this major disaster went largely unnoticed, save in Memphis, since the Sultana's boiler exploded just off her coast. The details of the incident shed an even sadder light on the whole ordeal, as the 376-passenger boat was carrying almost 2,500 passengers at the time! The overload was due to the fact that, in those days following the War, boats were paid by the passenger, in large part because they were bringing back Union P.O.W.s from Confederate prison camps. The captain noticed that one boiler was damaged, but rather than replace the boiler (a three-day job), he opted for a patch-up job on the existing boiler, hence the resulting explosion. Most of the passengers (about 1,800) perished either from burns from the explosion, exposure or hypothermia in the water, or from drowning. Quite sad that such a tragedy went and still goes largely unnoticed.

The steamboats were docked by cobblestone "walkways" -- put in quotes because, due to the steep incline, one was hard-pressed to walk down with any degree of ease. They had to be driven across carefully, as well, as they would wreak havoc on tires if driven across too quickly. The cobblestones used to serve as weight in boats that would cross the Atlantic before picking up any cargo; once the ship came in, the cobblestones were dropped off and cotton was loaded up. The cobblestones were then reused to make said walkway.

And now, for the "postcard" shot. Of course, being the flag buff and states aficionado that I am, I tried to get the best shot of the Memphis skyline alongside the Tennessee state flag which flew from the mast of the boat. Y'all can use it if you like. Our guide also pointed out the flags above the Mud Island attraction that heralded all of the countries that had ever laid claim to Memphis; as this was a three-deck boat, our guide was on the second deck, and I was entertaining our daughters down on the first, I could only listen as the guide kept waiting...and waiting...for folks to identify the flags. "Yes, that's Tennessee...United States, yes...No, that's not Australia, that's England..." (Great Britain, actually. Sheesh.) I yelled helplessly at the ceiling: "France! Spain! Confederate!" I must confess to being stumped by the flag to the far right; if y'all can take a look HERE and tell me what flag that is, I'd be much obliged. Our guide probably named it, but as I was busy running after toddlers, I must have missed it.

This post and lintel is a monument of when the city of Memphis actually lost its charter as a city due to severe population decline from Yellow Fever. Not sure why this was chosen for that; perhaps a reference to the plagues of Egypt and the passing over of doors? Our guide did not say. The outbreak of 1878 led to the bankruptcy of the city of Memphis, as 5,000 of its citizens were claimed by the fever which was spread by the then-unknown means of mosquitos. The U.S. Census Bureau reported a total population drop from 40,226 people in 1870 to just 33,592 in 1880. The city didn't regain its charter until 1893.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Ever since we read Huck Finn in High School I've always wanted to travel down the Mississipi [though preferably on a steamer or big boat, not a raft! :)] Thanks for allowing me a sample while sitting here on the other side of the world.