Nathaniel Bishop (1837-1902)
A “Sneak Box” is the colloquial term for a Barnegat duck-boat, commonly built by craftsmen on the New Jersey coast. It has a flat bottom, with a six-inch draft, and a domed deck with several hatches that allow it to be closed up, creating a sort of a coffin for those boaters who dislike mosquitoes. Bishop had one made for him for $75.00, including sleeping bag, cooking apparatus, and personal gear.
Bishop was a seasoned traveller and adventurer, having walked across South America from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso at the age of 17. He began that trip with $45.00 and finished with $50.00, indicating the nature of his New England parsimony.
At any rate, he began this trip on December 2, 1875, at Pittsburg, the confluence of the Monongehela and Allegheny rivers. His intention was to row down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and thence along the Gulf Coast to the Suwanee river about half-way down Florida. When he first set out, there was lots of ice on the river, and he had to pursue a circuitous route to avoid holing his relatively thin-hulled craft. Initially, he had to stay awake for 36 hours, as he was just ahead of gigantic ice dam that stretched from bank to bank and that was floating along behind him, threatening to crush him and the “Centennial Republic”(the name of his boat) to a pulp. After about a hundred miles, the ice broke up a bit and his major complaint became smog. Below Pittsburg lay a country economically dependent on the coal industry, mining and burning it for money and heat. The fallout was so bad that after a night sleeping in his “coffin”, there was an eighth inch of coal dust on the top of the boat. Passing Wheeling, he noted that the water was coated with oil; that, combined with the fires, smoke, and noise from the mills, made the area resemble a kind of Hades, especially at night. Later, Bishop commented on the shanty rafts that he frequently met and occasionally visited. These were pieced together affairs of timber remnants and scrap lumber that held one or more families or groups, and were voyaging down to New Orleans. The residents hunted along the shores for deer, pigs, and birds, and traded for corn, bread and other necessities with the settlers and farmers along the way. Some of the travelers were more interested in cards and whiskey than anything else. Some were more ambitious, offering goods and services to each other and the riverside populations.. Bishop talked to one boat that was a sewing machine repair station, and trades from carpentry to shoemaker were proffered by enterprising shantyboat sailors. He saw one raft that had been made into a photographic gallery.
Approaching Cincinnati, he saw the first suspension bridge on the river , connecting Kentucky with Ohio. While sleeping in a slough one night, the Box became frozen into the ice and Nathaniel was fortunate enough to find hospitality with a local German farmer for a few days. They charged him 25 cents per meal and nothing for bed. The temperature got down to 7 degrees below zero. Worried about the possibility of thieves, he managed, with local assistance, to free his boat and slide it into the river. Avoiding lots of “bob sawyers”(sunken trees whose branches could perforate ship hulls), Nathaniel soon arrived at Big Bone Lick Creek, the site of a very large collection of Pleistocene fossils: mammoths, mastodons and smaller fauna. Approaching Cairo, the convergence of the Mississippi and the Ohio, steamboats became numerous: the first one to ascend this far was the “New Orleans” in 1811. Passengers were generally quite riotous, and Nathaniel became adept at dodging thrown whiskey bottles and other disposable trash.
Bishop described the meandering Mississippi’s geographical characteristics briefly: the oxbow lakes, and the 1150 miles of sediment composing the river bed and the sandstone cliffs along the banks. He noted some of the still observable results of the New Madrid earthquakes that had changed the river’s course and fractured many of the local sedimentary formations in 1811-1813. He also stated, quite vehemently, that the Missouri was the longest river in the world. Camping at Reed Lake, Carolina Parakeets were much in evidence: green bodies, yellow heads with red cheeks and forehead, and white bills and eyes. These birds were extremely gregarious, nesting together in holes and feeding as a flock, and thereby presenting an easy target for hunters with shotguns. They were declared extinct in 1939.
One night Nathaniel had a dream: he was talking to Jules Verne who told him about a second moon circling the earth that was 4650 miles distant and orbited the planet in 3 hours and 20 minutes. The dream stayed with him and turned into a city in the sky, which he observed for several minutes, wondering how it got there, until he realized that he was looking at the city of Vicksburg. He blamed the mirage on the fog.
Arriving in New Orleans, he was confused about which watercourse to take and finally ended up on the Atchafalaya, the main passageway to the city. Here he stayed for several days at the local yacht club. During this time he experienced altercations with local drunk residents who wanted to abuse him because they suspected him of being a government spy. He was rescued by the yacht club members, but not without a more or less major physical confrontation. As a result of this event, he agreed to continue his journey in company, with a local boat person whom he called “Saddles”. Together, with Saddles in a double-ended canoe, the pair paddled and rowed into the Gulf of Mexico and turned eastward.
Their progress was a more or less a hit or miss excursion: they travelled for the most part behind a series of off-shore islands that decorate the coast all along the way to Florida. They had to portage some of the time, and occasionally ran into dead-ends and had to retrace their steps. Interesting locals they met included light-house keepers, farmers, hermits, hunters, periodic murderers (living outside the law) and even a naturalist compiling a list of indigenous birds. When they reached Florida, Saddles became sick with swamp fever. The lack of his medicine (whiskey) threatened to permanently incapacitate him, so Bishop had to continue on alone. Eventually he arrived at the Suwanee river, at the same location that he had arrived at when engaged in a trip he had taken a year before, in a paper canoe from Quebec. But that’s another story.
I liked this book quite a bit, in spite of, or maybe because of the erroneous data provided, and because of the grit and determination Bishop displayed in overcoming and dealing with hostile drunks, environmental hazards, and harsh climatic challenges; his descriptions and opinions of the local cultures he encountered were lucid and periodically acerbic. His views of history and geography and his opinions on the educational and political practices of the time were enlightening and sometimes amusing. The prose was easy to follow and I plan on tackling his other two books…. sometime….