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Charles Burdick

Charles Burdick

As long as the Great Father of Waters, the Mississippi River, flows along the western shores of Southern Illinois, about 170 miles from St. Louis to Cairo, many of Its stories in that part of its long journey to the gulf is told in legend and lore.

Its gentile flow in low water is hard to visualize when its velocity is running fast and furious in high water. Man has found romance with its silent flow and hatred when it’s on a rampage. Its presence has been an asset to man while also a great liability. It is liked and disliked, praised and scorned.

The discovery of the upper Mississippi River was by Father Hennepin in 1680. If France ever had sufficient title to the Mississippi Valley to convey ownership, she undoubtedly had authority to name the principle river. If this follows, then the technically correct name of the great river is St. Louis. In 1712, the king of France ordered in letters that the river heretofore called Mississippi be called River St. Louis. But the people on its banks gave no heed to the royal decree.

Many people live along this meandering river that is about 1,800 miles long. In the north, it rises at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico 95 miles below New Orleans, Louisiana.

Much of American History is encompassed around this, one of the greatest rivers in our nation. The Indians with their canoes descended and ascended it, and lived along its shores. Early explorers traveled its course and later this great river was the subject of many of Mark Twain’s writings. It is part of the boundaries of 10 states — Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and a portion of Minnesota.

This great river, called The Mississippi River System, is the main stem of a network of inland navigable waterways, which form a system of about 12,350 miles in length, not including the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway of 1,173 miles.

The Mississippi River contributed greatly to the expansion of our nation in its early times. It provided a route for the westward movement. The introduction of steamboats upon the western waters deserves a mention, because it contributed more than any other single cause. Without this river and the coming of the steamboat our nations quest for expansion would have been delayed by many years.

With the river’s development in modern day, it has become a major mode in the transporting of goods included, but not limited to, gasoline, diesel oil, crude oil, coal, grain, sulphur, salt and many more products at a lower cost of transportation.

Many people are employed in this industry. Not only on thousands of shore jobs, but those that are working on the hundreds of vessels that move this product. These people are professionals at the job they do as captains, pilots, mates, deckhands, engineers and cooks. Also in these operations you have people employed in offices as marine managers, port captains and port engineers. The old river has contributed much to our country's economy and for this we must all be grateful.

During World War II, many Navy vessels were built at various inland shipyards. I remember on several occasions seeing submarines pass Grand Tower. These vessels were built and launched into Lake Michigan and they were floated onto a specially-built floating dry dock. River vessels moved them down river to New Orleans, where Navy crews came aboard and took charge.

Man has tried to harness the Mississippi River, and, in many ways, they have been successful. Dams and levees have played an important part in man’s endeavors. But still the threat of disasters exist. When the rains come in spring and the warmth of the sun melts the heavy winter snows in the north, the volume of water that flows into the river sometimes exceeds its capability to handle it, causing disastrous flooding.

As a river pilot for 35 years, I was in a key position to witness the forces of nature as Old Man River seems to rejoice when his level exceeded normal. One day, he was your friend. The next, your foe. He was fascinating and unpredictable, but I became familiar with his tricks and feel that he was more my friend than enemy.

After all I did make my living with him for 42 years. We all hope and pray that he will always be our friend and stay within his bounds.

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Charles F. Burdick is a lifelong resident of Grand Tower. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and then went on to a 42-year Maritime career including 35 years as Master Pilot. He has been retired for 23 years and enjoys local history and writing poetry.

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