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Grey on Gray - The Big River

I got to thinking about this column the day after I saw the news story about the closing of an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River near Greenville, Miss., because the water level was some 12 feet below normal. There were 97 barge tows backed up waiting for a deeper channel to be dredged. The lack of winter snows in the mountains and rains in the spring and summer had brought our mightiest waterway to her knees—or, should we say, to her sandbars.

Mississippi is, of course, an Indian word. They viewed her with awe and reverence and referred to her as “Father of Waters.” She’s also known as “The Big Muddy” because she carries a lot of silt causing her waters to be murky most of the time.

Most people only know her from the many high bridges that cross her path. She is impressive from several hundred feet above but you cannot appreciate her real size and power until you’ve walked her banks and sandbars, dipped your feet into her waters, and seen her at flood.

In the early 1940s during WWII, we lived near Greenville, Miss., at the little village of Hillhouse in the shadow of the levee. The most excitement the town ever had was the day the hobo who had been camping on the edge of town was hauled away by the authorities. He was a German spy with a short-wave radio who had been monitoring traffic on the river.

At Hillhouse the flood plain was 100 miles across and the river itself a mile wide in places. The levee perhaps 300 to 400 feet high was supposed to contain water that would normally spread out over this vast area—a daunting task. A dirt road ran along the crest of the levee and was patrolled regularly, especially during flood season. I remember Daddy taking me up there during one flood season. Until I saw the Atlantic Ocean at age 18 that was the most water I’d ever seen. The brown expanse stretched farther than the eye could see. It covered the tall cypress trees and everything else behind the levee and lapped within three feet of its crest. One man had brought a motorboat and was giving rides. The water was not swift so many miles from the main channel.

There was a network of roads—dirt trails, actually—behind the levee. Sometimes on a Sunday afternoon in the summer, Daddy would drive us back there to a blue hole where we’d go swimming. A blue hole is a borrow-pit or bar-pit whose contents had been used in the levee construction. It had a sand bottom and the trapped water would take on a blue hue after the sediments had settled out. They were good for fishing as well.

It was three or four miles from the levee to the riverbank. Sometimes Daddy would take us back to a big sand bar that was at least a half-mile wide. We’d play in the sand and walk out and play in the edge of the river. It was a big bonus if a barge tow came by. We’d wave to the boat and the captain would blow his horn for us. The sandbar was dotted with partially buried chunks of coal from wrecked coal barges. Some of the local folk would come with mule-drawn wagons and pick up a winter’s supply of fuel. No charge.

When we wanted some fresh catfish, Daddy would drive back to an old fellow’s place on the riverbank. He always had fish from his trotlines. He lived with his wife in a small cabin that was built on a log raft as were his two out-buildings. Each was tethered to the top of a tall cypress by a heavy chain. Thus, they, their cow, and chickens rode out the floods. After each flood season, his buildings would be in a different configuration since they never came down in the same places. There was no outhouse. I suspect the woods were their privy or a chamber pot inside with the river serving as their sewer.

During my Ole Miss days, we had a put-on we’d use. We’d tell about the great summer jobs in Memphis with the U. S. Corps of Engineers. We’d describe the crews that would go down one side of the river a certain distance and back up the other side, sleeping out for two weeks. Finally someone would ask what exactly they would be doing. Answer:  whipping the pee out of bullfrogs to keep the water level up. Looks as if the river could use some of those bullfrogs about now.


Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at      


Posted on: 9/17/2012


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