Tag Archives: Mississippi river


NatchitochesWhen you ask people about Louisiana they will probably think of New Orleans or eventually marshes and swamps of the Gulf Coast. These associations are obviously correct but there is much more than that in the Pelican State.

We entered the state driving across Mississippi River from Natchez to Vidalia on the impressive (if a bit narrow and precarious) cantilever bridge offering great views at how massive the Great River is. As we were driving the heavens opened and torrential downpour started. Basically while we were heading west a huge cold front was heading east. Literally in minutes temperature dropped from about 28C down to less than 15. We decided to wait-out the worst in the state welcome centre where lovely old lady furnished us with all the possible maps and brochures.

From the Mississippi valley we drove over 120 miles to Natchitoches crossing the sparsely populated and heavily forested centre of the state. It was raining, the landscape looked anything like the stereotypical Louisiana should look like and it got actually quite cold. As we got closer to the motel where we decided to stay for the night the weather cleared but it got so chilly that we had to put the heating on once we got into our room. Of course it wasn’t freezing, it was still Louisiana, but it was not better than London at the same time of the year. Which was a tad disappointing (to say the least).

Natchitoches SignThe following day welcomed us with a clear blue sky and crisp morning air so went to explore the town. Natchitoches (pronounced somethNak-ki-tish) was established in 1714 (four years before New Orleans) which makes it the oldest permanent settlement in Louisiana. It was founded as a French outpost on the Red River but the river shifted since then (cutting the trade off) and what used to be the river is nowadays just a lake. The town has a lively historic district with many B&B’s, restaurants, cafés and shops selling gifts, trinkets or even some genuine antiques. Lots of those businesses are lining the Front Street which is facing the lake (the one which once used to be the Red River). Many of them are located in buildings with wrought iron balconies which together with some French street names give the town an unmistakeably Louisiana feel. But it is not all just about the Front Street. The whole town is full of old historic buildings, oldest of them coming from 1780s when it was ruled by the Spanish. Natchitoches Front Street

However, the main reason why we made it all the way here was the replica of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The original fort was established in 1716 but it got abandoned by 1764 and its exact location is not precisely known. The current replica is based on the original footprints while the building materials were obtained locally. For example nearly 2,000 pine logs form the palisade and all of the hinges and latches were handmade at a nearby foundry. Many 18th-century techniques were also employed in the replication and the park does splendid job at showcasing life in 18 century French colonial fort. In many ways it resembles historic Fort Michilimackinac in northern Michigan (also built by the French in the 18 century) which I visited a few years ago. It just isn’t as big. Places like that really open one’s eyes to the fact how wast the area of French influence in North America was at the time. Fort St Jean Baptiste

From Natchitoches we started heading south-east towards New Orleans which was still more than 250 miles away. However, instead of choosing the fast main highway we were navigating small roads which let us explore the, so called, Creole Country. One of them, Hwy 119, hugs Cane River Lake, a former channel of the Red River. There are numerous historic sites here which showcase unique creole way of life which was multicultural long before the word was even invented. Here French, Spanish and African influences were mixed with British and later American way of life.

The region is managed as Cane River Creole National Historical Park and one of its best sites is Oakland Plantation run by the National park Service. It was built in 1821 and it was one of the first plantations to grow cotton on a large scale. Now, there are many plantations open for visitors across the American South but most of them concentrate on presenting fine architecture of the grand mansions and lifestyles of the plantation owning classes. Slavery is usually just an afterthought, often clearly added only recently. Though Oakland also contains a fine example of a raised Creole plantation main house, more important here are the 27 historic outbuildings still standing on the property. This rare wealth of buildings allows visitors to more completely understand life on a plantation as there are slave cabins and such unique features like two pigeonniers (buildings where pigeons were raised). I would strongly recommend joining a ranger-led tour of the mansion which offers fascinating insight into history of this place and the family which lived here until relatively recently.Oakland Plantation

From the Creole Country we headed south-east again. This time we chose the main freeways (which let us gather some proper speed) and by the evening we arrived in Louisiana’s capital, Baton Rouge. We only had enough time to watch sunset while strolling around the state capitol grounds, more exploration had to wait for the next day.

It was another glorious sunny morning when we parked our car outside the Louisiana State Capitol. Built in 1932 in the Art Deco style it is one of the most unique state legislatures as well as the tallest one. You see, it is a 34 story, 137 meters tall, skyscraper, still the tallest building in Baton Rouge, which is visible for miles around. Especially if you drive to the city along the interstate 10 from the west (as we did) you will see it sticking above the trees long before you notice any other sign of the city. The building does looks more like one of the NYC skyscrapers than a state capitol.

Baton Rouge DowntownWe stated our visit from riding an elevator to the observation deck located on the 27th floor. From there we admired panorama of Baton Rouge, Mississippi River and the surrounding areas. It is so flat in this part of Louisiana that nothing impaired our view all the way until distant (if a bit hazy) horizon. After getting back to the ground level we have spent quite a while admiring fantastically rich and symbolic details decorating the building inside and outside. One of the repeating motives was pelican which apart from being Louisiana’s state bird and symbol is also represented on the state flag and seal. There is so much interesting detail, I could write pages about this fascinating building but I’ll try to restrict myself.

State Capitol InteriorInside the grand entry hall, so called Memorial Hall, are numerous statues and one of them depicts Jean Baptiste LeMoyne Sieur de Bienville, who founded New Orleans in 1718. The elevator doors are solid bronze and the walls surrounding the elevator are made of dark red Lavanto marble from Italy. The whole décor (like in many other state capitols or government buildings from that period) had a lot of similarity with the art of the socialist block. For example check out the murals. Quoting the state capitol guide: The mural on the east wall is referred to as the “Goddess of Knowledge and Time.” The central figure holds a zodiac in one hand and an hourglass in the other. Harvest scenes make up the background. On the west wall, the mural is referred to as “Abundance of the Earth.” The central figure here represents agriculture and the figures surrounding her represent art, literature and music. Both murals depict Louisiana as a land of plenty” Doesn’t it sound like somewhere deep inside the Soviet Union?

The Alabama limestone-clad exterior is no less impressive. Four allegorical representing Law, Science, Philosophy and Art are carved into the corners of the tower reaching from the 22nd to the 25th floor while four stone eagles act as flying buttresses from the top of the cupola to the beacon atop the tower. Closer to the ground, flanking the monumental 49 steps, are limestone sculptures entitled Pioneers and Patriots, respectively, memorialazing both the early settlers and defenders of Louisiana. Higher up a frieze runs along the top of the tower’s base, at the fifth floor, depicting the actions of Louisianans in wartime and peace, from colonization to World War I. All the mentioned decorations as well as many others are all great examples of Art Deco design, one of my favourite architectural styles (together with Gothic).Louisiana State Capitol 2

From the current State Capitol grounds it is only a short walk to reach the Old Sate Capitol located on the bluff overlooking Mississippi River. Built in 1847 it is one of the best examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the United States. And it really looks like a medieval castle with all its turrets and cranellations. The most impressive feature inside is the spiral staircase and stained glass dome. Nowadays it houses Museum of Political History which focuses on rather dirty and corrupt politics of Louisiana.

After the fine architecture of both capitols the rest of downtown was much less interesting so we decided to leave Baton Rouge and head towards our ultimate destination in the Pelican State, New Orleans.

Obviously this splendid city deserves a completely separate chapter which I promise soon.Fort St Jean Baptiste 3

A short visit to Mississippi

Mississippi has a problem with reputation. Most visitors to the US either completely forget about its existence, or worse, have such a bad and prejudicial view of the Magnolia State that they give it a wide berth. So let me write a few words about it.

We got to Mississippi driving south from Memphis on the Interstate 55 and our entry was, lets say, less than grand. The state boundary cuts across the far outskirts of Memphis so the only way of knowing that you have crossed it is to look for a small sign on the side of the suburban looking freeway indicating the beginning of the DeSoto County.

After this less than spectacular welcome we booked ourselves into a motel in the small town of Senatobia, 26 miles from the border. We stayed on its outskirts in yet another cluster of chain motels and fast food establishments next to the freeway exit. For example our motel (Days Inn) had a franchise of the Waffle House on site and was next to three big gas stations as well as branches of Pizza Hut, KFC, Wendy’s, Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen and Subway. So far, so boring.

I-55But the following day things got much better. For a start the I-55 happened to be way more scenic than I though it would be. Looking at the road map I was expecting a flat and straight freeway running along the fields and farms, instead we got gently undulating and quite heavily forested landscape all the way to Jackson, almost 200 miles to the south of the Tennessee border. It was definitely a really nice piece of highway and a joy to drive.

But as much as I enjoyed the scenic interstate we decided to leave it and look for some place for a break. On our road map we spotted an icon marking “petrified forest” (not far from Jackson) so we decided to explore it. The site wasn’t really signed that well and we only had a general state map but after navigating some small rural roads, (lined by an occasional bullet road roads sign here and there), we managed to find it (working with maps sometimes really helps).Looking for Petrified Forest

Mississippi Petrified Forest is privately owned and operated and it showcases 36 million years old petrified logs. It is in fact the only petrified forest in the eastern United States. After paying a small fee we took the short circular nature trail which allows anyone to get close to the old trees. The walk was very pleasant as the trail sneaks through the ravines cut into the thick loess soil which covers the region. The petrified logs are visible in many places along the path and there are also some fine specimens in the park’s small museum. After wandering for a while we had our packed lunch (euphemism for a bagel with ham eaten from a trunk of our Camaro) and headed further south towards Jackson.Mississippi Petrified Forest

Now, Jackson wasn’t really our main target in Mississippi but it was on our way so we decided on a brief visit. It is, after all, the state capital so I was hoping to bag a visit to yet another state capitol building.

Mississippi State CapitolWe entered the city via a bit of a convoluted route by taking some smaller roads from the petrified forest rather than the main interstate. That way we nearly got lost once or twice but finally managed to reach its downtown which was absolutely deserted. I’m not kidding or exaggerating, most of the times we were the only car stopping at the traffic lights or the intersections. It did feel really weird. I mean Jackson is obviously not a metropolis, by any stretch of imagination, but being so empty? Then we realized that it was Sunday and everything was completely and absolutely shut. Unfortunately it included the capitol building which meant we could only walk around its grounds (full of mature trees and colourful flowers) and take some pictures of its exterior, including the usual dome.

You could see that here in the south people take their Sundays really seriously. We were actually about to leave the deserted city when we realized that there is also an old capitol building which was converted to a museum and it was open on Sundays. Yes, we couldn’t believe it either.

Mississippi Old CapitolThe building, originally called the State House, was open in 1839 and it served as a state capitol until 1903 when the current capitol was opened. It was then used as a state office building and historical museum. After being damaged by hurricane Katrina it was restored and opened as a museum dedicated to the building itself and to the politics of Mississippi. It is nowhere as grand as the new capitol and its exhibits were a bit mundane (even for me who is really interested in American history) but it was good for a short stop.

On the grounds of the old capitol is also located the Mississippi War Memorial Buildings which I found architecturally much more interesting than the capitol itself. It was built in 1939 in the Art Deco style characteristic of the inter war period. The sculptures on the facade are especially fascinating and they depict soldiers and Mississippi citizens during World War I.Mississippi War Memorial Facade

From Jackson we drove west towards the Mississippi River valley which was actually our main destination in the state, especially the historic towns of Vicksburg and Natchez (which deserve a separate chapter). So far the state of Mississippi proven to be quite pleasant, even if the best of it was still in front of us. More about it next.

Mississippi River

Mississippi is difficult word. Especially for non native English speaker, like me, all those double consonants were impossible to memorize. Only after some years I learnt how to spell it. It is also one of those names which start imagination. When I was young I was looking at maps of USA and this great river was always catching my attention. Then there were books, (anyone remembers Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer) and movies which placed Mississippi deep in my head. Finally, last summer, I decided to visit central USA, including the Mississippi river valley.

I started my trip in rather unusual place which was Davenport, Iowa. Now, it is not where most people start travelling alongside the Mississippi River. Iowa in general is not a state where tourists are going in droves. In my case I had to cross it on my way from the great plains of Dakotas and Nebraska to the Great River itself. Davenport didn’t really look like city worth stopping, (apart from the night in a cheap motel), so I immediately crossed to Moline, Illinois, which I would probably pass as well but I got lost. But let’s start from the beginning. I got off the highway to stop at the Illinois welcome center. Most states in the US operate tourist information centers alongside the major interstates. They are usually real mines of useful, as well as useless, information, brochures and glossy magazines. After getting all I needed I was trying to go back to the interstate 80 but somehow ended up in Moline. Driving up and down, trying to get back to the freeway, I found place called the John Deere pavilion. John Deere is one of the American icons. In the Midwest John Deere baseball cap is as important part of the local clothing as Stetson hat is in the American west. Pavilion itself, apart from great gift shop full of toy machines and branded clothing, offered a chance of getting into some seriously big machines. Where else could you try how it feels to sit in the driver’s seat of a combine harvester or the 8345RT tractor with caterpillars instead of wheels? If you have even a bit of child left in you, don’t skip this place!

From Moline I used main roads away from the river to get to Hannibal, Missouri where the real trip along the Mississippi started. Hannibal is small, quintessentially American, town famous as a place where Mark Twain grew up. The town became inspiration for fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nowadays the biggest attractions in town are those connected to the great writer himself like his boyhood home, museum or J.M. Clemens Justice of the peace office (Mark’s father office). But the best way of experiencing the town is to wonder aimlessly around its few streets enjoying lazy atmosphere. South of town there is a vista point on top of the high bluff which offers great view of the Mississippi valley and the town of Hannibal itself. Similarly good view you can find north of downtown from the lighthouse. Yes, there is a lighthouse in Hannibal, thousands of kilometers from the nearest ocean.

The best way of following Mississippi is to drive the Great River Road, a well marked scenic byway, running almost the entire length of the river. It uses local, county and state highways on both banks of the river as close to the water as possible. Navigation is made easy by signs featuring steering wheel but it helps to have some detailed map as this road can be a bit more complicated than you might expect from a popular tourist route. I decided to follow eastern branch of it which offered a taste of the real rural Illinois. Fields, farms, small towns, lush greenery and heat.

After passing towns Quincy and Warsaw I arrived to Nauvoo. It is small town, with population just above one thousand, but historically quite important. In 1839 group of Mormons settled there, among them Joseph Smith founder of the religion and Brigham Young, leader who after death of Smith led Mormons west to Utah territory. Because of that it is a place where you can probably see more Utah license plates than anywhere outside the Utah itself. Today Nauvoo is a very well preserved town with number of historic houses and local businesses (like black smith shop, bakery, post office or gunsmith shop) looking almost exactly as they did 160 years ago. There is also replica of the historic temple. Build in 2002 but looks identical as the original one.

North of Nauvoo I continued along the Great River Road. It wasn’t the most spectacular part of it. Land was flat and I couldn’t see river from the road as it was hidden behind the tall levees. Finally, I spend a night on some god forgotten campground where mosquitoes wanted to eat me alive.
In northern Illinois things got much more interesting. High bluffs appeared on the both sides of the river with road squeezed between them and the Mississippi itself. One of the best places to explore this varied topography is Mississippi Palisades State Park. Short hiking trails lead from parking lots to scenic overlooks from where you can see the river valley stretching for miles north and south. Apart from a spectacular topography, the northern Illinois (and Iowa on the western bank of Mississippi) offer interesting small towns like Fulton, Clinton, Savanna or Sabula, the last one located on the island in the middle of the river.

The most famous of them is actually few miles of the Mississippi. Galena at its peak in the mid-19th century was booming mining community with population of 14,000. Now, with only 3,500 inhabitants, it is much more quiet place. Its downtown is almost completely preserved and is full of historic houses and churches located on a hilly terrain. One of the main attractions is home of general Ulysses S. Grant, the civil war hero. The whole town is a perfect place for lazy stroll, doing some shopping, or having a nice meal. It is also very photogenic but the best time to take pictures is in the earlier part of the day as it is located mostly on the north-western slopes and in the afternoon you will have sun facing you. After Galena I left Mississippi river valley for a while and moved inland to southern Wisconsin. My destination was town of New Glarus. As the name suggests it was established as a Swiss community and even now in the countryside surrounding the highway leading there you can spot farms proudly displaying Swiss flags next to the American ones. The town itself offers quite bizarre experience with some pseudo-alpine buildings. In some moments you can get really confused. Are we still in USA? But all this unashamed commercialization hide community with really interesting history. You can explore it in Swiss Historical Village which preserve some original wooden buildings from the early pioneer times. At the end you can have pizza in pizzeria Ticino, which looks exactly like moved from the Alps.

After continuing my detour to Madison, where I visited Wisconsin State Capitol, it was time to get back to the river. In Wisconsin the Great River Road follows state highway 35 and it is a truly spectacular drive. One place which you shouldn’t miss is the Wyalusing State Park at the confluence of Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, just south of the Prairie Du Chien. It offers spectacular views from the 150m tall bluffs, on top of which you can find prehistoric Indian mounds. Campground in the park has some of the best tent sites I have seen in my life. They are located right on the bluffs edge so you can see spectacular views practically from your tent. Unfortunately they have to be reserved in advance, so I couldn’t stay there. That caused other problems. There was some convention or gathering going on the weekend I was there so all the hotels in Prairie Du Chien, and also in town of McGregor on the Iowa side of river, were full. I ended up driving over 20 miles west, inland into rural Iowa, to the town of Postville where I stayed in the worst motel in my life. Doggy, dirty, creepy, with bad service and not as cheap as you could imagine.

Anyway, the following morning weather was great and I got back to the river in a good mood indeed. North of Prarie Du Chien lays probably the most spectacular part of the Mississippi Valley. Almost all the way to the outskirts of St. Paul (about 200 miles away) you encounter one amazing vista after another one. The valley is also dotted with small towns like Ferryville, Genoa, Stockholm, De Soto or Alma. They usually contain few houses, a bar or two, local shop, sometimes a gas station, all which makes them very tranquil. It is also fun to cross the river on some narrow and steep steel bridges linking Wisconsin with northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. It is big attraction especially for road and bridge geeks like me. One of the best spots to enjoy the great view of the Mississippi valley is Garvin Heights City Park in Winona, Minnesota. Located just off the US Hwy 61, this view point offers an amazing vista of Winona, which is located in the middle of the valley, and the surrounding countryside. Equally good view you can find from Wabasha Overlook at the outskirts of the town of Wabasha, also in Minnesota just few miles up the river. The difference is that if you can drive to the viewpoint in Winona you have to climb to the one in Waabasha. The landscape is really impressive all the way to suburbs of the Twin Cities.

It was my dream for many years to follow the Mississippi river. I red books about it, explored maps, watched movies etc. And I have to say I wasn’t disappointed seeing it in reality.