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Low Water of '64

This Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Mississippi River likes a practical joke as well as the next person. How else to explain the summer of 1864?

By that spring, the communities along the Upper Mississippi had come to accept the inevitability of floods. Ever since towns like Burlington, Muscatine, Rock Island, Clinton, and Dubuque had sprung up in the 1830s, high water had been a fact of life. The hardy, early settlers had dismissed them as "freshets," but by 1864, they had become floods. Each spring, some town along the river was going to get it.

The spring of 1864 brought a sigh of relief. There had been little snow in Minnesota the previous winter, and therefore little runoff. Spring rains were light everywhere. The Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye predicted there would be no June rise, no flood this year.

Relief was short-lived. On June 20th, the Muscatine Daily Journal chastised the Mississippi. "How the Mighty Have Fallen" said the headlines. "Our great river moves sluggishly along as if aware that its glory had departed."

Before June was out, steamboats could no longer reach St. Paul. By July, they could no longer navigate above Lake Pepin. Still the Mississippi fell. By mid-August, the river at Dubuque was 20 feet 9 inches below its 1859 level. A huge sandbar appeared on the Dubuque waterfront. "Something will have to be done soon," said a newspaper editor, "or Dubuque will be an inland city."

Still the Mississippi fell. Shipping costs soared, but steamboats still lost money. Sawmills closed when log rafts could no longer float down the river. Upriver from Dubuque, there were reports that the few small steamboats still operating had to toot their whistles to drive cattle out of the channel in order to pass by.

In the end, 1864 marked the lowest water ever recorded on the Mississippi. Even today, the Corps of Engineers uses the low water mark of 1864 as the base against which to measure river levels—and it's so marked on every lock wall.

Setting a record was at least some consolation to the towns and steamboat companies who suffered through it. It became something to be proud of—just like the great Armistice Day blizzard you may remember. "I was there, I survived," we tell our grandchildren.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa 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.