” The river is within us,” said T.S . Eliot, ” the sea is all about us. “
The American poet was writing from exile in England about rock ledges in the ocean in his famous ”Dry Salvages” – but to get his true bearings he started with the river.
Writing home to a correspondent in the river city of St. Louis, Missouri , he said: “
I feel there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those who have not.
… Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world .”
It was the trade magazine Waterways Journal, customaril y concerned with dredgi ng and locks
and the horsepower of the new tugs that propel huge cargoes up and down the rivers serving the American heartland ,
who made their own poetry by stringing these thoughts of Eliot’s together.
They concluded with his remembering the Eads Bridge during a fl ood and ‘ ‘the steamboats blowing in New Year’s Day. “
Poetry seizes the most practical Americans when they’re talking about the great rivers of their country.
Henry Shreve , who drove the first practical steamboats on the Ohio-Mississippi river system, observed toward the end of his days:
”When ~t reaches you from somewhere in the distance , a steamboat whistle is the sweetest music in the world .”
The idea of distance , of things coming from far away , is vital to that thought! In the loneliness of the great Western plains,
and in the isolated fa rms of the rolling Ohio or Kentucky countryside the steamboat whistle announced that there was an outside world ,
and people , books, news and fashions came in from it—or you could go out to it-by steamboat.
Henry Miller Shreve’s career spanned the transition of the United States from the original Atlantic Coast colonies to a continental nation-and contributed to bringing about that transition.
Born in New Jersey right after the Revolution in 1785 , he grew up in the frontier town of Brownsville in western Pennsylvania , where his father moved to try farming on new lands bought by his wartime commander George Washington.
Washington proved lenient about the rents from a less-than-successful operation run
by an old colonel of the Continental Army and the family struggled on until Shreve’s father died in the same year as his protector, 1799.
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