© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Combat Zone

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

At 2,300 to 2,551 miles, depending on who's measuring, the Mississippi is far too long to be just one river. There are at least four: the wilderness river in Minnesota from Lake Itasca down to the Falls of St. Anthony, the navigable Upper Mississippi from the falls down to St. Louis where it meets the Missouri, the Middle Mississippi from there to Cairo, where it meets the Ohio River, and the Lower Mississippi from there down to the Huey P. Long Highway/Railroad Bridge near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

That bridge, just above a navigation light called the Devil's Swamp, marks the beginning of a fifth Mississippi River down to New Orleans which towboat pilots call the Combat Zone. That bridge is like Cerberus guarding the gates of the underworld, is how one towboat pilot put it. What it really does, at a clearance of only 110 feet above the water, is to prevent sea-going ships from going any further. The 40-foot channel, made for those ships, ends there as well. Some say Huey Long, the powerful politician known as the Kingfish, wanted it that way, to prevent ships and their cargo from going upstream to competing ports such as Vicksburg or Natchez. Others claim the Corps of Engineers wanted to avoid the work of extending the forty-foot channel any further.

Whatever the truth, you can imagine that the ships are not happy being cooped up in such a small stretch of the Mississippi. They seem to be just lying in wait for towboats to dare to enter the Combat Zone. Because the large ships are so lucrative for New Orleans, the ships' pilots' union is powerful enough to get its way. Ships get to choose the size of the docks and where to put them. In addition, ships on the Combat Zone take on state-appointed pilots. There is not much the tiny towboats can do in the Combat Zone but try to get out of the way of the seagoing ships going where they want to go. The gentlemanly manners which guide boats on the Upper Mississippi are worthless south of Baton Rouge, where anything goes. Towboat operators claim there is a sigh of relief whenever their boats pass the Baton Rouge bridge, heading upstream for God's country.

The Combat Zone seems to have only one advantage for towboat crews. They don't need to be told about a hell, like some of us. They know where they're going to end up if they've been bad.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.