Reelfoot Lake

THERE are changing fashions in the public taste for natural beauties as well as for the devices of art. At present the tourist tide sets away from our rivers, and unless they can disport themselves in a waterfall they have little chance of admiration. But the time will come when our wonderful streams will get their due of affectionate regard; when it will be seen that the great rivers of the continent are after all its chiefest glory. Thirty years ago the Mississippi had its rights as the great way over which all the tide of our Western life must flow; but the growth of the iron roads and the change that they have brought in trade have left it comparatively deserted. One of its many unconsidered beauties I wish to make known to those who are willing to seek the beautiful even when it comes in a questionable shape.

The summer of 1874 was one of surpassing warmth and drought throughout the whole of the Mississippi Valley: the heated and shrunken streams were pouring a lessened tide into the main rivers; the Mississippi itself was well drawn within its banks, and the vast forests of its delta had been so far drained of their waters that there was a chance of getting further into their shadowy depths than ever before. As I had long desired to see something of the swamp region of Western Kentucky and Tennessee, I determined to brave the intense malaria that comes from the unnatural baring of the morasses, and make a journey through them. My summer’s work had been in the westernmost of the table-lands of Kentucky, a heated region, where the bare ground was an overwarm bed at night with nothing over the body but the air; yet it is a healthful district, rich in noble streams of the purest water, and quite free from malaria; so the change to the swamp belt is like a passage from the Alban Hills to the Pontine Marshes.

The delta of the Mississippi begins at

Cairo; above that point its waters cut through table-lands and keep a little of the vigor that came with them from the mountains; but after the Ohio and Upper Mississippi join their floods their course is through the land of their own building, made but to be swept away by their ever-wandering stream, as it creeps over the thousand miles that lead to the sea. Even at Cairo the half-finished land has the temporary look that belongs to all deltas; the narrow peninsula that divides the two rivers wastes on both sides in the streams rushing on to their confluence. Imagine New York a spot of uneasy sand, with the North and East river a whirl of eddying and undermining waters, and you have the position of Cairo. Geography has done its best to make Cairo great, but the forlorn place seems to have profited little thereby. There is a look of disappointed ambition in its streets, that unhappy aspect of unrealized greatness that hangs over a thousand or so towns west of the Alleghanies. The death of the Mississippi River trade seems to have conspired with flood and shifting sands to avoid the augury of greatness that is in its name. It is but fifty miles down the river to Hickman, where I was to begin my search in the swamps, but there was no certainty of a steamer for days to come. The only way is by rail twenty miles out into Missouri, then back across the river in a zigzag into Kentucky, and then by another double to Hickman. The first thing is to cross the river on the ferry to the Missouri shore; although the river is at its lowest stage, it is scarce ten feet below the levees at Cairo and the yellow tide is gnawing away the land wherever the clinging willows allow the waste. On the Missouri side the landing place, a newly graded way down a bank of twenty feet in height was fast stepping into the whirling water. For hundreds of yards the face of the cliff was all covered with the fresh scars of the land slides, and the wash of the steamer made the water cut out the support of several great masses that slipped at once out of sight in the stream. Several pieces of clumsy engineering, designed to stop the waste, showed their ruins above the level of the river. The railway leads directly away from the river into the back swamps. It starts on land that is always above the floods, as is much of the rim of land along the river, but a short distance carries us down into the swamp levels, and then, for the remainder of several hours’ journey, our way is continually through the marvelous mixture of luxuriance and decay found only in these great morasses. The whole region seems even in this season of drought a strange tangle of water and land. The railway runs on interminable trestles over a floor that perceptibly quakes beneath the tread of the train. Every few miles we cross one of the great crescent lakes which are in fact the old horseshoe-shaped bends of the Mississippi, and have been abandoned by the ever-wandering stream; each one half a mile wide, its shore the green wall of the swamp tangle sweeping on either hand quite out of sight. In the still afternoon these lakes are as unruffled as the summer sky. There is an Indian tradition, that has found its way into few of our books, that all this region was a lake just before the coming of the white man, and that into this sheet of water the Mississippi and Ohio emptied by separate mouths. The lake was represented as having been half as large as Lake Erie, covering a large part of Missouri, Kentucky, and Southern Illinois. Some ground for a belief in the possibility of such a lake may be found in the structure of this country. Small rocky islands, such as are made only in open water, are said to be found at several points in the recesses of this swamp, and on their summits it is said there grows an assemblage of trees quite foreign to the swamp vegetation. Moreover, the earlv part of this century was marked by a convulsion of the most tremendous character, the frequent repetition of which would not be necessary to produce the most important changes in the geography of the country. The earthquakes of 1811-13 seem to have revolutionized the structure of this district in many of its details; regions which were arable land became swamp, and others which were water-covered became dry land. So great were the disasters that the stricken people were granted new lands by the general government in place of the farms in the convulsed region whence they had been driven.

At sundown the train came again to the Mississippi, opposite Columbus, Kentucky. We were ferried over in a boat that takes the whole train at one passage, and landed below the singular, isolated highland which has made Columbus one of the keys to the navigation of the Mississippi. This is the first and highest of the Chickasaw bluffs, a curious series of lofty islands that stretch along the Mississippi, overlooking its waters from point to point all the way down to Natchez. They are the relics of the ancient delta of the river, made in the tertiary time, when a loftier continent was giving its waste to the river and to the sea. When the French voyagers came to this stream, these steep-walled hills were possessed by one of the tribes of the great Natchez group of Indians, who have left, their abundant monuments over the hills. Along these ridges the mound-builder tribes survived to historical times, protected by their swamp moats and natural walls against the more barbarian races that fought their way down from the hungry and hard-limbed North. The great river, forming its ox-bow bends and then cutting them through at the isthmus, is always building fortresses which to savage warfare would be impregnable. The buffalo, which found its way into the eastern part of the Mississippi Valley with the ruder Indian tribes, who by their forest-burning habits opened a way to the unwieldy brutes, never came into this swamp belt. The savages here were preserved from that permanent debasement in which the herds of these animals — a source of easily obtained food and an incentive to a nomadic life — kept the more northern tribes. Here the swamp-entangled land forbade migrations, while the fertile soil and rivers full of fish conduced to a life of fixed habits and steadfast improvement. No other region north of Mexico had attained to the advancement that had been secured in the centuries of agricultural life led by these tribes of the Mississippi border - lands before the coming of our race. There can be little doubt that they were well advanced in the line of development. Wealth of a communistic kind and something like a decent social order had been created.

The geographical value of these ridges has been even greater to the white man than to the Indian. The natural fortress of Columbus has already played a part in the fate of this country that few fortresses of Europe can claim in their lands. The efforts to gain possession of this key to the Mississippi led to the casting of the lot of Kentucky with the Western rather than with the Southern States. When that commonwealth was endeavoring to hold the impossible neutrality she had chosen to assume at the outset of the past civil contest, the Confederate commander in the neighboring department felt that this point must be secured, for it was to Mississippi what Ehrenbreitstein was to the Rhine. So he trespassed on the bounds of the wouldbe neutral State to possess himself of this stronghold. He failed to remove after a summons from the state authorities, and Kentucky was bound by the conditions of her declaration of neutrality to cast in her lot with the North. So this island of hill-land in the lowlands of the Mississippi became the means of determining the course of a State which more than any other held the key position in the great contest.

From Columbus southward to near the Tennessee line these Chickasaw bluffs are more or less conspicuous features in the topography, forming a succession of islands that rise above the marsh belt and afford admirable refuges from the fevers that breed in the lowlands to the southward. From the steep sides of these table-topped hills we look far over the sombre forests of the Mississippi Valley, — forests that seem as unbroken as in their most primitive days. Cultivation breaks them somewhat as ships break the continuity of the sea. Now and then the river sunders the woods with its majestic sweeps. It too seems silent and solitary as the forest. One may watch it for hours without perceiving a trace of human occupancy. De Soto’s men could not have seen a wilder river than now rolls through this scarce trodden wilderness. It is impossible to give in words an idea of the magnificence of these primeval forests, where the axe has as yet made hardly a scar. Moving within their caverned shade, or looking through the breaks made by the steep hill-sides over the sombre and boundless plain of their close-woven tops, one experiences a sense of immensity that is not given even by the sea. This forest is an infinity of stalwart struggling through silent life above and a deep, entangled death below. Perhaps in no other region in the world can the varied glories of a primeval wood so well be seen as here. All of North America is peculiarly rich in trees. Where Europe has oaks we have spruces; and many of the beautiful forest trees that once existed in the Old World, and are found there only among its fossil relics, still lift their heads to the sun in this less changed continent. We see here the forests of the North and South mingling their noblest forms. With the white oaks, the sycamores, the tulip-trees, and the other familiar growths that clothe the slopes of the Great Lakes and flourish here with a peculiar luxuriance, we get gigantic sweet-gums with their beautiful star-like leaves, Spanish oaks, the swamp cypress, and a host of other forms that belong beneath a warmer sun.

Although the distant views give the aspect of a forest mass quite unbroken by man, we find along this road frequent clearings and many fine farms. The forest wall shuts them in, but fertility seems to dwell in its shelter. The borders of the cypress and the cotton he close together. So we find here the sometime king of trade; not at his best, but still very prosperous. Maize grows as if emulous of the woods. Fruit trees abound, and are richly laden. The people seem thrifty and well conditioned along this upland belt; the children showing no trace of malaria in their bright faces. We seem, by the names and ways of the people, to have got out of the main Virginian tide of emigration to where, in the westward flowing of the streams, the Carolinian population gives the most of the peopling. It is, however, fortunately from Western North Carolina, and not from the shore region, that most of the Kentucky Carolinian blood comes; a sturdy, Scotch-mixed people, mountain bred in their American home, and full of strong qualities.

As we approach the Tennessee line, the hills fall away. Our road winds down their sides riven by deep, irregular gulches, which tradition says were made in the great earthquakes of 1811—13, when this region for hundreds of miles about was rocked as in the billows of a stormy sea. Some of these gulches are, however, pretty fresh, and seem to be due to great land-slides, where acres of timbered land creep slowly down to the valley. All this riverward fall of these bluffs seems inclined to such movements, so that the great rocking of the earthquakes may have only precipitated the sliding. Two hundred feet of descent brings us down to the base of the hills into a vast forest, level, — an even denser wood than reigns above. A slow, percentible descent leads us beyond the region of farms and into the overflow belt of the Mississippi River. We trace the descent by a simple sign: around the trunks of the trees there is a faint yellow band; at first it is near the ground, butit gradually rises until it is above our heads. This line marks the surface of the water during last winter’s floods, the mud clinging there more tenaciously than would be expected. With the lowering level of the ground the shadow of the wood increases to the darkness of an eclipse, and the waters of the swamp creep through the earth; over them hang deep fringes of water-plants. Soon we are among the cypress-trees, the true swamp timber. With them comes a wonderful change in the whole aspect of the forest. The undergrowth of bushes fades away, and in its place the commingled land and water is thick set with the knees that spring up from the partly buried roots of the trees. Around each great trunk, whose gnarled roots interlace the swamp for fifty feet about its base, rise half a hundred of these fantastic columns, looking like the strong pillars that beset a cavern floor. From a few inches to five or six feet in height, these curious processes rise all over the submerged roots of the cypress; they often carry on their tops a fantastic turban-like knot recalling the turbaned columns of a Moslem cemetery. Their function is unknown, but it is clear that they are in some way connected with the submergence of tlie roots of the cypress; for when the tree grows with its roots in earth above the water level, they are not formed at all, and their abundance is proportioned to the amount of submergence of the roots. When by any accident the knees are sunk quite beneath the waters, the cypress is said to die, and all my observations bear out the assertion.

Within a mile of the base of the bluffs we are in the caverned shade of the soundless cypress forest, where the road creeps along in the medley of land and water. At length we are arrested by a broad lagoon, where the road ends and a foot-path winds on through the morass. The lagoon looked much like a green road with occasional pools of black water, so dense was the mat of vegetation borne upon its surface. Over it. was a tangle of half-buried trees, and their wreck strewed it so thickly that a boat could make no path through it. Every log was dotted over with bright-backed turtles, in their endless search for sunshine. It was warm enough to heat even their cold blood to a sparkling point, for it was a Northern July sun. A few hundred feet of wrestle with-the outlying swamp brought us to a natural foot-bridge, where a noble water-logged tree made a floating way over the lagoon.

A few steps beyond lay Reelfoot Lake, the great work of the earthquake of 1811. Nothing could well exceed the singularity of the view that meets the eye as one comes out of the shadows of the forest on to the border of this sheet of water. From the marshy shore spreads out the vast extent of the seemingly level carpet of vegetation, a mat of plants studded over with a host of beautiful flowers; through this green prairie runs a maze of water-ways, some just wide enough for a pirogue, some widening into pools of darkened water. All over this expanse rise the trunks of gigantic cypresses, shorn of all their limbs, and left like great obelisks, scattered so thickly that the distance is lost in the forest of spires. Some are whitened and some blackened by decay and fire; many rise to a hundred feet or more above the lake. The branches are all gone save in a few more gigantic forms, whose fantastic remnants of the old forest arches add to the illusion of monumental ruin which forces itself on the mind. The singularity of the general effect is quite matched by the wonder of the detail. Taking the solitary dug-out canoe, or pirogue, as it is called in the vernacular, we paddled out into the tangle of water-paths. The green carpet studded with yellow and white that we saw from the shores resolved itself into a marvelously beautiful and varied vegetation. From the tangle of curious forms the eye selects two noble flowers: our familiar Northern waterlily, grown to a royal form, its flowers ten inches broad and its floating pads near a foot across; and another grander flower, the Wampapin lily, the queen of American flowers. It is worth a long journey to see this shy denizen of our swamps in its full beauty. From the midst of its great floating leaves, which are two feet or more in diameter, rise two large leaves borne upon stout footstalks that bring them a yard above the water; from between these elevated leaves rises to a still greater height the stem of the flower. The corolla itself is a gold-colored cup a foot in diameter, lily-like in a general way, but with a large, pestle-shaped ovary rising in the centre of the flower, in which are planted a number of large seeds, the “pins” of the name. These huge golden cups are poised on their stems, and wave in the breeze above great, wheel - like leaves, while the innumerable white lilies fill in the spaces between, and enrich the air with their perfume.

Slowly we crept through the tangled paths until we were beyond the sight of shore, in the perfect silence of this vast ruined temple, on every side the endless obelisks of the decaying cypress; and as far as eye could see were ranged the numberless nodding bells of the yellow lilies and the still-eyed white stars below them. While we waited in the coming evening the silence was so deep that the whir of a bald eagle’s wings, as he swept through the air, was audible from afar. The lonely creature sat on the peak of one of the wooden towers over our boat, and looked curiously down upon us. The waters seem full of fish, and indeed the lake has much celebrity as a place for such game. We could see them creeping through the mazes of the waterforest, in a slow, blind way, not a bit like the dance of the Northern creatures of the active waters of our mountain streams.

There is something of forgetfulness in such a scene, a sense of a world far away with no path back to it. One might fall to eating our Wampapin lily, as did the Chickasaws of old, and find in it the allforgetting lotus, for it is indeed the brother of the lotus of the Nile. We do not know how far these forgotten savages found the mystic influence of the Nilotic lotus in these queenly flowers of the swamps, but tradition says that they ate not only the seeds but the bulbous roots, which the natives aver are quite edible. So we, too, can claim a lotus-eating race, and are even able to try the soul-subduing powers of the plant at our will.

There is something in the weight of life and death in these swamps that subdues the mind and makes the steps we take fall as in a dream. It was not easy to fix a basis for memory with the pencil, and the recollection shapes a vast sensation of strangeness, a feeling as if one had trod for a moment beyond the brink of time, rather than any distinct images.

The origin of this lake is no less stramre than its physical features. At the beginning of the century it was probably an ordinary swamp covered by a forest of gigantic cypresses. In the month of November, 1811, a succession of great earthquakes convulsed this country ; the levels were so upset that the current of the Mississippi was reversed, the hills were rent with great fissures, and the forest trees swept against each other till their boughs were entangled like the horns of fighting stags. When the shock was over, this swamp was found to have sunk from six to ten feet, over an area of at least thirty square miles. It may be that fifty square miles were involved in the subsidence. The incessant convulsions of the following months, though just enough to wreck the strong-built, primitive cabins, and to keep a brave people in constant terror, did not further affect the conditions of the new-made lake. The submerged forest trees slowly decayed. The hunters’ fires began to spread from the shores, and, wafted from tree to tree, so charred the tall trunks that they became preserved against further decay, and promised to remain as enduring as though made of stone. Fire and water are preservers as well as destroyers; the burned roots and crowns are safe from the access of decay by their submergence, and the fire-blackened surface of the trunks shuts out the action of the air and rain.

The tradition exists that during these great and singularly continuous earthquakes there were many other sudden changes of level in this region, and we might infer that a large part of the swamp region hereabouts was called suddenly into existence by these convulsions. There are also in the old sagas reports of a greater change in the remote part of this region than those brought about by the great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-13.

Our way out from the lake was through the vast forests that cover the overflow belt of the Mississippi,—a boundless, silent wood, where occasional breaks of culture only made the shadow seem the deeper. A soil of marvelous richness holds the bread of future generations within its depths. Thousands of acres of land, such as along the banks of the Po or the. Nile have given up their fatness through long centuries to man, await his demands beneath these guarding woods, with a beautiful climate and a river that makes a way to a whole world. These lands have still to find their possessors. A very simple and inexpensive system of dykes would bar out the freshets and keep the water level at a fixed point, and so remove the two barriers to cultivation, the floods and fevers that infect the region.

The next step in the subjugation of this country will doubtless lead to the reclamation of the most fertile of its lands, the border belt of the Mississippi. In the domination of that river there is a future for the exercise of the best engineering talent, and for the development of a second Holland out of the thrift that comes from an endless battle with the waters. So far nearly every step in the work has been a blunder. There is little knowledge of the means necessary to control a great river in its endless wanderings. As we go along the banks of the Mississippi we can see evidence of its incessant changes of course: here it is cutting out the foundations of a town; there a great stretch of corn fields is going down before our eyes; while on the other side a tangle of cotton-woods and willows marks where the forest is advancing into the stream. To give the basis for culture in the certainty of possession it will be necessary for man to institute a government for this vagarious and riotous river, lest it eat up a largo part of our heritage. We could easily find in the necessity of this government reason enough for the solidarity of the valley of the Mississippi. On the other hand, it is clear that the central control owes it to this region to master the enormous forces that are assembled in the river, and make them work the least possible destruction in their course.

Even the great tide of this wonderful river in its majestic movement fails to efface the memory of the strange lagoons behind us. The contrast between the two scenes is, in its way, no less striking than that which is given between a cavern and the broad day. Nothing that the hills have to give can exceed in intensity the impressions that one carries away from that strangely created, forestguarded lake.

N. S. Shaler.