The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Some Natchez Stories
You would expect any river landing anywhere to have more than a few stories tucked under its belt. True to form Natchez-Under-the-Hill’s reputation far exceeds even its colorful name. I’ll just stick to the few that I have personally heard, and leave out the rest. When I first paddled into town several decades ago, a grizzled pilot named Andre grabbed my ear shortly after I entered Natchez-Under-the-Hill, as if he had been waiting all night for me. Without any provocation on my part, he launched into several humorous tales concerning the unusual expeditions he had seen coming down the Ol’ Man. There was the girl from Wisconsin. She paddled it alone in her kayak. A couple of days after she left Natchez, some men in a canoe arrived, and inquired about her. They were trying to catch up with her, but she was the fastest paddler anybody had ever seen. “Maybe those poor men are still chasing her somewhere across the Caribbean,” surmised Andre with a grin.
Then there was Effie and her crew of Germans,” said Andre. He picked up his cell phone and put it to his ear. “All of the tugboat pilots had their VHF radios like this and were telling each other about those Germans, and each was hoping for a view.” Seems those Germans liked to raft au natural. They stayed in Natchez a while, and then pushed on. The next day they rounded Carthage Point, where the river widens several miles. “It looks like the river goes both ways,” said Andre, “they went the wrong way.” The Germans had bottomed out in the shallow water of the chute behind Carthage Towhead. “Effie sent for me. She told them to get Andre down here and pull them out. So I got my boat, and a big winch, and I asked the boys if anyone would come help me get them out. I had so many volunteers, we couldn’t fit them all.” Andre grinned like a walrus at the recollection, and then continued his narration. When they got close to Effie and the breached raft full of Germans, Andre anchored his boat, and began winching. His men eagerly got out in the water and pushed the raft from behind, alongside all the au natural German women. “It was the most motivated group of volunteers I ever had,” he said, pleased with the recollection.
“Then there was Mr. Oregon,” said Andre, and grinned again like a walrus, sobering quickly to proceed. “Mr. Oregon was a golden gloves boxer. One day he got an idea. He went to the ‘Y’ and learned to swim. After becoming the best swimmer anyone had seen, he went to the headwaters of the Mississippi (Lake Itaska, Minnesota) and stood there in a wet suit, in the middle of the river, and then lowered his body into the current, and began to swim.” Mr. Oregon swam through the Twin Cities. He swam through the Quad Cities (Moline, Davenport, Rock Island, and Bettendorf), through St. Louis, through Memphis, and kept going. He must have been some kind of superman.
(note: I’ve swam across the Mississippi. It’s no easy feat. You end up far downstream of where you started, and there are all kinds of boils and eddies to contend with. One time I couldn’t get back to shore. It was on the edge of the river, near island 63. The boils were pushing against me. In fact, it took about a half hour of hard swimming to get back to shore, and I was only thirty feet away from it. It was quite frightening. In the end, I only made landing by swimming back out into the current and floating around a large eddy which eventually brought me back in close enough to make landing. Some people say I’m crazy for canoeing on the Mississippi. What would they say about swimming the length of it? Just when you draw the line you’ll always find someone on the other side.)
Andre continued: “I was standing at the landing one day and there came this black thing that looked like a pile of trash, like inner tubes and tires…” It was Mr. Oregon. He was an insurance salesman for New York Life. As he made his way down the river – swimming, mind you, every stroke of the way – he would call ahead and arrange accommodations with the NY Life salesman in every town he came to. “He left Natchez with a plan for a pickup and ended up sleeping with the mosquitoes on Warnicott Bar!” Andre grinned big at this one, “he had to bury himself in the sand to get away from the mosquitoes! Stayed all night buried in the sand.”
What happened was that Mr. Oregon had made plans with the Natchez NY Life representative to meet him at Such-and-Such a Point at such-and-such a time. But one of them got confused, and poor Mr. Oregon was left standing on Warnicott Bar in the darkness, the mosquitoes becoming ravenous. Warnicott-Esperance is an amazing smattering of islands arranged neatly left bank descending along the main channel, any one of the half dozen or so places would be a spectacular campsite (keep reading below for more about these islands). Mr. Oregon swam up to what he thought was the agreed-upon rendezvous point. And so he waited. And waited. And waited. Sunset came and went, and still no pickup. And then the mosquitoes came out. Mr. Oregon was swimming the length of the Mississippi River, but he was no match for the ruthless Mississippi mosquitoes. He ran from place to place, but they kept finding him. There was no breeze. The skeeters got worse. In desperation, Mr. Oregon dug a hole in the sand, and covered himself with sand.
Of course, he couldn’t carry a tent or any sort of protection with him as he was swimming. So, he dug a hole and covered himself with Mississippi Valley sand, still warm from the relentless sun of the day. Finally relief… that is except his nose… The only part not covered. There was no way to slap the skeeters because his arms were buried. It was a miserable night. Mr. Oregon discovered that there are as many bugs in the sand as there are in the air. The sand became itchy. The skeeters were attacking his nose. He waved down a passing fisherman the next morning and caught a ride back to Natchez to recover from his miserable night. But he was in such miserable condition he couldn’t swim. And his nose… well it was the biggest puffiest nose you’d ever seen. He looked like the elephant man. But the following day he returned to Warnicott Bar, and the intrepid Mr. Oregon continued his journey.
A more sobering tale involves a local reporter named Danny Richardson who one night got lit up like a Christmas tree and bet everyone in the bar that he could swim across the Mississippi River over to Vidalia. No one took him seriously as he made the bets. He walked out the saloon door, down the ramp and dove into the dark river, never to be seen alive again. They did recover his body three days later.
Danny is the author of many a good Natchez story, including this one about the dangers of messing with a Loess Bluff.
The Natchez Bluff — Mississippi Loess Bluff #4
Natchez Democrat. MUDSLIDE RIPS APART U-T-H.
By Danny Richardson. March 30, 1980
NATCHEZ – A mountain of mud swept into Natchez Under-the-Hill Saturday afternoon, killing at least two people and destroying two buildings….Rescue workers dug their way into the debris throughout the afternoon, fighting to get to the victims through the brick and timbers but the mass of material stymied officials in making an actual count of victims or determining if anyone else [was] still trapped…
Killed were Amy Russell, 26, a barmaid in the saloon and Carrie Smith, 34, a waitress at the deli.
Sheriff William T. “Billy” Ferrell said …it would be early Sunday morning before rescue workers could clear the tons of mud and brick to determine additional fatalities.
Amid the roar of chain saws, the rumbling of gasoline powered generators and with television lights glaring, the last body was removed at 9:20 pm.
Ms. Smith’s body was removed around 5 pm. The deli in which she worked had just opened for business Friday. Her sister, Mary Ann, also a waitress at the deli, was injured and was hospitalized…with multiple injuries.
The mud apparently started its descent down the hill at approximately 3 pm. Steve Stephens, owner of a boat dock, said he looked up and saw the huge wall of mud and an 80-foot tree sliding down the bluff. “I started to yell like hell,” Stephens said. “But nobody in the bar could hear me.” Stephens said he watched helplessly as the mud crashed into the buildings, sending people literally flying out the door. “I thought for a minute the whole thing was going to come on down the hill into the river,” Stephens said.