Sunday, August 10, 2008

Life on the Mississippi

Downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, from Harriet Island Regional Park.

"St. Paul is a wonderful town," Mark Twain says, in Life on the Mississippi. In 1882, he says, the population of the city was 71,000. Nearly a thousand new houses had been built in the first three-quarters of the year. In the previous year, the city had taken in $52 million dollars in trade revenues. That's over a billion dollars in 2007 dollars. St. Paul was also, in 1882, "a land of libraries and schools," with three public libraries containing over 40,000 books. More than $70,000 ($1.5 million in 2007 dollars) was spent annually on teacher's salaries. Even in 1882, Mark Twain was remarking on the Minnesota Miracle.

St. Paul (Lower Landing) in the late 1800s. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

In 2008, Minnesota's public schools are facing a combined $130 million budget shortfall for the coming school year. The economy is slumping. As we drove into the city, we passed a sign offering information about home foreclosures. But the city of St. Paul itself was spotless for the upcoming Republican National Convention. There was a huge red sign, with an elephant rampant, on the front of the Xcel Energy Center. Across the street, a huge circus tent had been erected for Fox News. We headed down Kellogg Blvd. to the Wabasha St. bridge, where we saw the first of the drunken Irishmen who, according to former governor Jesse Ventura, laid out the streets of St. Paul. The city was flooded with green for an Irish festival on Harriet Island.

The Jonathan Padelford returning from a cruise.

When we arrived at Harriet Island, we dodged the little Irish step dancers in their fake curls and made our way to the Padelford Riverboat Company dock. Harriet Island, incidentally, is no longer an island. The channel was filled and it was connected to the mainland in the early 1950s. The island was originally given to the city of St. Paul in the early 1900s, and was named after Minnesota's first public school teacher, Harriet Bishop, who died in 1883 (a year after Mark Twain's visit).

The Mississippi River, just south of St. Paul, as seen from the riverboat.

The Jonathan Padelford, built in 1970, is owned by the Padelford Riverboat Company, which started offering riverboat rides on the Mississippi in 1969. The ride, from Harriet Island to within view of Fort Snelling, takes about two hours. It's a smooth, gentle ride, with none of the danger of boiler explosion that shortened the lives of so many riverboat passengers and crew (including Mark Twain's younger brother) in the 1800s. The river, in early August, was wide and placid. There were stretches of river where it's possible to forget that a modern city of 275,000 people lies just around the bend.

Bald eagles overlooking the Mississippi River, near St. Paul. Penny's new digiscoping technique would have come in handy here. Click to enlarge.


Bleeet said...

"circus tent... for Fox News"

Good one. None too subtle a significance there.

You didn't go to the Flogging Molly concert then?

My son went. I was bummed that he didn't tell me about it. They're a great live band.

Jim H. said...

I like rivers. They are made of water and have fishies and make pretty sounds.

Sometimes they don't smell very good, though. May daddy says thats because stoopid people dump stuff in the river.

One problem with rivers is that they just run in one direction. That's why I can't send my floaty thing up to my grandma's house in St. Paul. She should move to St. Loois I guess.

Thank you for the nice pictures of the river and the boats.


New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .