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May 15, 2011 by markstani

The Mississippi has always possessed an almost mythic quality to me. When I was little, I read Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn and wished it flowed right past my front door. We built rafts and dreamed of floating to island hideouts, fighting off foes like Injun Joe. So it’s strangely comforting to know it still retains its untameable spirit. We can build all the levees and dams we want, but still can’t stop it. It’s been wiping out whole communities for centuries. In Mark Twain’s ‘Life On The Mississippi’ – to me, maybe more evocative of Tom and Huck and that lust for adventure than Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn itself – he recalls a plan to stop off during a riverboat ride to visit Napoleon, where a dying man told him some years earlier he had stashed ten thousand dollars of ill gotten gains:

“Brick livery stable, stone foundation, middle of town, corner of Orleans and Market. Corner toward Court-house. Third stone, fourth row. Stick notice there, saying how many are to come.”

Twain recalls causing much hilarity when he informed the captain of his wish to disembark:

‘Why, hang it, don’t you know? There isn’t any Napoleon any more. Hasn’t been for yers and years. The Arkansas River burst through it, tore it all to rags, and emptied it into the Mississippi!’
‘Carried the whole town away? – banks, churches, jails, newspaper offices, court-house, theatre, fire department, livery stable, everything?’
‘Everything. Just a fifteen minute job, or such a matter. Didn’t leave hide nor hair, shred nor shingle of it, except the fag-end of a shanty and one brick chimney. This boat is paddling along right now, where the dead-centre of that town used to be; yonder is the brick chimney – all that’s left of Napoleon.’

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