VOL. 126 | NO. 39 | Friday, February 25, 2011
Exploring the Mississippi River’s Cutoffs
See what you can catch.
When the river determined its own course, before it got its manmade shoulders, before spring disaster and all-year fear made us try to tame it, it went where it wanted and – like the biggest bully in the schoolyard, the meanest drunk in the bar – directed its fury against those who talked back.
Think of it as original eminent domain.
When the river decided to change its course, it abandoned its own bends and curves, cutting them off and creating new banks, leaving new islands and lakes in its wake.
As it ceaselessly pushed its progress south, the stiller world left behind brought new experiences from old man river’s legacy.
These are quieter, calmer places – even soothing – like a beer at sunset on a Horseshoe dock, the aptly named Arkansas oxbow, or a bass boated in the Tunica Cutoff, a good bet long before there were legal casinos in Mississippi, or skiing around a Moon Lake island, where there once was an illegal casino in Mississippi.
Other cutoffs close at hand are worthy of exploration – modern day, dry land versions formed by the relentless progress of concrete and roadways, of making new plans for tomorrows and leaving our yesterdays behind.
One is just south of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, once our bustling gateway, now isolated by ever increasing lanes, ever rising barriers.
Here you can mine the unique assets of the Metal Museum, the mounds of the Chickasaw, and the haunting history of those who would seek to conquer the Mississippi and pay the price.
You can explore two parks, DeSoto and Crump, standing on a fort battery in one, and accessing the catwalk-like bridge walkway from the other, feeling the whole bridge shake as the semis flow by and the river flows beneath.
Here is the pride of Kemmons Wilson’s new chain when it was built in the ‘50s, its glass-walled, fifth floor dining room affording a stunning view of the river. Now a fading Super 8 Motel, scaling its heights to a fifth floor balcony still shows you the view and allows a peek into the mysterious, abandoned Marine Hospital grounds behind it.
You can see the imposing hospital built in 1936, but you can see that from the ground. From here you can see the original hospital, a deep-porched, metal-roofed elegant Victorian lady from 1883, her beauty still evident though sadly neglected.
If it’s not haunted, it should be – by Civil War wounded, some say, but that was far earlier, or by yellow fever victims, some say, but that, too, was earlier.
Those who took the air on this porch until 1965, who lost a battle in these rooms, were river people. They fought the Mississippi building the original levees, operating the boats, dredging and dragging land and life from the flotsam and jetsam of a nation, and it broke them.
You can feel the river, and hear them in the quiet.
I’m a Memphian, and I fish the cutoffs.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at email@example.com.