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Walking to New Orleans

Thirsting big river exposes history November 7, 2022 at 5:03 a.m.

The late, great Fats Domino--the real king of rock and roll, according to the recognized crown-bearer who reportedly haunts doughnut joints--once sang about "Walking to New Orleans."

At the rate the Mississippi River is evaporating, Arkansawyers might be able to do just that soon.

The Big Muddy recently hit record lows at Memphis; an AP photo depicted a barge navigating the shrunken main channel at Tiptonville, an exposed sand bar on its port bow impersonating a desert coast. And doing so convincingly.

America's mighty river is thirsty. At Baton Rouge in early October, a century-old long-lost ferry--the SS Brookhill--was exposed on the river's west bank. About three weeks later, another shipwreck was revealed upriver. The Diamond Lady was a floating casino retired to marina at Memphis in the late '90s before winter storms sent her below the water line last year. But she's resurfaced, her full glory from hull to mast. One wonders what other treasures along America's first great interstate throughway wait to be rediscovered.

We're tempted to make the drive to Desha County and see for ourselves how much of Arkansas' best forgotten ghost town is visible at the confluence where the Arkansas meets the Mississippi. Napoleon was the seat of Desha County until 1874, a major river port that locals hoped one day could rival St. Louis and New Orleans.

That hope was bolstered by Napoleon's selection as a site for a highly coveted federal Marine Hospital to serve sick and injured boatmen. The first Marine Hospital was established in 1799 at Boston; one soon followed in Norfolk, Va.; and by 1837 the U.S. surgeon general was authorized to establish seven more: three along the Mississippi River.

Napoleon's Marine Hospital served the middle Mississippi, and for a while in the mid-19th century the town was a big deal. Until it wasn't. Union forces captured it in 1863, and by then the town was largely abandoned. Damage from the war made Mother Nature's job a little easier and by 1874, it was submerged. (That's another interesting story for another time; in the meantime, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas is a treasure chest in its own right.)

In the mid-1920s, a man whose name history did not record decided to walk to New Orleans from St. Louis. Via the river. A photo of him, mid-stride with custom-made pontoons attached to his feet, the current Desha County seat's substantial pre-flood downtown serving as backdrop, adorns the town museum inside the old jail at Arkansas City.

Our trailblazer eventually made it to the Crescent City, but not in the best of shape. Local officials in Arkansas City believe he did not survive to make a return trip, regardless of the means.

We don't recommend walking to New Orleans, by foot or pontoon, even if that exposed channel beckons with promise of treasure. But for those who answer the call, then just as Fats sang, we'd recommend two pairs of shoes to walk those blues.

Print Headline: Walking to New Orleans


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