The Caroline

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The second part of the journey begins.

The Caroline left the landing in late afternoon, now that all expected passengers were aboard. She was one of the last to leave and would be the slowest, though the river was still busy with shipping and sail boats moving up and down river, as well as ferries going from one side to the other.

The boat headed out into the main current of the Mississippi, gently nudged deep into a convoy of rafts moored ready in the river, to the extent of about a half boat length, and saw them fastened to her on either side with chains, a yoke of sorts, and heavy rope, so that neither could easily be loosened from the other. She began pushing it ahead of her as she gradually made headway against the current trying to send her down to the gulf along with the river’s silty cargo once the rafts had been turned loose from their mooring for the boat to deal with. Rafting was not so very common on the river, though once a pilot became skilled in reading his rafts and maneuvering them, he could move almost as much cargo as the train, though not as quickly, but the money they made on each trip up and downriver easily made up for their lack of speed and the time taken.

Even massive white egrets could outpace her with serene dignity for the first minutes, as the Caroline slowly overcame the current. There would be little to impede or concern them for the first two hundred miles with the river being fairly high and deep over that distance. Ferries crossing the river might be the only momentary hazard as some fool tried to beat the steamer and cross too close ahead of the boat, almost as though he were playing a game of seeing who might give way first. He would always lose, but accidents were rare; the fools were soon sorted out in other ways, if not by irate passengers who did not like to dice with death by being run down by a steamboat that could not easily stop or avoid them. More than one such ferryman had to swim ashore when his angry passengers dumped him overboard.

Most of the rafts were fully laden, though some were empty, and with other empty rafts lashed on either side of her hull for cargo and even to transfer passengers they would pick up as they went upriver, or to drop off to be loaded with cordwood to join them on the trip down again while others, loaded with firewood, waited for them on the way upriver.

The boat made good speed eventually, though it was hard to judge other than from the slow change in parallax of those object on the shore compared with those much farther away. They glided slowly, gracefully, and sedately past open plantations of sugarcane, with their former slave quarters and mills. Everything seemed to be as it had been years earlier despite the proclamation of emancipation. Many of the slaves were still there, working, but under a different arrangement that kept them just as much slaves as they had been earlier but this time with different masters, self-interest, and economic necessity, as well as the illusion of freedom to which all men were happily bound.

The first part of the journey would be easy—the river was deep and free of wrecks, snags, or other difficulties—and there was no fear of running aground up to Baton Rouge, though before that, above Convent, the river began to sweep around more, especially at White Castle and Plaquemines before one got to Baton Rouge.

Caroline, the woman, was just one pair of eyes seeing the banks gently slide by in the distance, but it all seemed so slow against that current. She knew that there were thousands of pairs of eyes watching the boat from those same banks, seeing it as either no threat to their continued existence in that environment where only the fittest survived, or speculating about its destination; its passengers; and its cargo, though she could see none of them.

Above New Orleans to as far as Baton Rouge, sugar plantations bordered both sides of the river behind the levees, with strips of tall trees, heavily draped with Spanish moss, locating the boundaries between some of them. Where the original growth had not been so well cleared, there were splashes of vibrant color from the riot of flowering shrubs along the shore.

There were plenty of dwellings all the way on both banks though only the upper parts or roofs of those closest to the river might be visible, even from the upper deck, other than for church spires and a few magnificent houses built on higher ground to be above the flood level. The land had long since been cleared of nearly all its pristine natural growth, which could just be seen as a solid gray-green wall of trees, some distance back from the river, and shimmering in the constant haze, if they were not obscured by the smoke from large fires, as the workers burned the crushed canes. A few bearded cypress still survived here and there.

Great plumes of gray-black smoke rose from the chimneys of the mills, which crushed the sugarcane stems, to produce sugar and molasses. The further steps of fermentation and distillation were carried out in only a few of those areas; but it was a highly profitable venture, producing various grades of the demon rum, which supposedly alleviated so many of life’s miseries for many.

Some of those rafts loaded with cargo destined for settlements and plantations back from the river would be untied once they came abreast of their destination and would be turned loose with their owner or his agent on board, to be poled, swept, or hauled ashore. Those that were dropped off, might be replaced by other loaded rafts waiting for the boat or with empty ones waiting in the river for them to be pushed some miles upriver as they progressed and for which a fee could be charged.

Passengers generally had more than enough time to embark or to disembark. Others hitched rides as they could and were well tolerated. Nearly all those riding there found their meals in the river and had lines or small nets constantly out to see what might be snagged, as long as it was not one of the big alligators unless one had a harpoon or a gun, close to hand. They were unlikely to be caught anyway. They were usually wary beasts. Such feasts were usually shared.

As boats passed, and despite the competition between the various owners, the pilots were gentlemen enough, and wise enough, to exchange information on the state of the stretch of the river they had just traversed, if such an exchange was necessary. They recognized that at low water, if one ship were to run aground and possibly foul a narrow chute or cause a channel to become even more difficult to navigate after all of the clutter from that war, especially up around island ten, that all would suffer. Stupidity would be an unforgiving wreck for which there was a high price to be paid by everyone. Most of the burgeoning commerce of the postwar recovery was moved by the river, the lifeline of the nation, and much more than moved up or down the coasts. The train might be faster, but with only one or two lines, it could move only a minuscule fraction of the commerce that moved by hundreds of steamboats each day on that massive river.

Cargo was mostly tied to the seasons and availability of space and rafts, cotton, sugar, tobacco, hemp, and, at other times, molasses, lumber, liquor, and coal. One put petty squabbles and personal feelings aside to protect it for everyone. Most of the time.

Protocols were well defined, depending upon the manifest, cargos, and needs. Usually a set of specific whistles announced the arrival of a steamboat, sometimes long before it actually appeared, announcing which boat, and that it was coming upriver or going downriver, and depending upon what was required. Usually the boat would be met in the river by rafts or skiffs with cargo and passengers or would match its speed to the current and see rafts taken off or offloaded to others and take on tens of cords of firewood and other needed supplies at the same time. There was also a constant flow of newspapers, pamphlets, and fruit, freshly picked, and other supplies.

When they returned downriver in about two weeks, they would mostly be fully laden with cargo or pushing lumber barges for New Orleans, and even for the eastern seaboard and Europe, and would make fewer calls other than to pick up passengers going to New Orleans.

All passengers were catered to in one way or another. The wealthy were accommodated in the relatively luxurious cabins of the upper deck, with their families, their wives (or their mistresses), or those other temporary distractions, more recently brought aboard to relieve the tedium of the trip. Those latter might be aboard for the entire trip or would be dropped off after a day or so to make their way back downriver escorted by a different gentleman, intending to enjoy the fleshpots of New Orleans and intent on getting a head start on it. Those women and those others in that expensive accommodation and who seemed married were always well dressed and might be described as beautiful, though wealth and beauty did not always go together. The other women in the lower accommodation, loaded down by young children or even babies still at breast, were careworn and showed it in their tired faces and with their generally unkempt appearance. Life was not easy for them.

Caroline was surprised to recognize one of the better-dressed women, but only after observing her for some time. It was the strikingly beautiful young Creole woman that had left the ship berthed close by the Osprey just that morning. She could not be sure that it was the same young woman. She was dressed much differently, as befitted a lady, and was on the arm of one of the distinguished older gentlemen taking passage upriver. She even smiled at Caroline as she passed her, revealing the whitest and most regular of teeth. Her complexion was flawless. If it was the same woman, then she seemed to be a chameleon or a bird of many different plumages who could adapt herself to whatever might be needed, and did not seem to be embarrassed by any of her roles but had come to grips with her life and had accepted it.

Those passengers with lesser means, spoke for accommodation on the lower deck, with less spacious cabins and sometimes with several bunks in each one, and paid for their plainer meals if they had not brought enough food with them. Those who could not afford even those limited comforts were housed on one or two of the rafts, where they sat around a fire built upon it and slept wherever they might sleep, in a tent or beneath a canvas. They often worked for their passage, helping to unload cordwood at regular intervals. When their destination came up on them, they would sometimes just dive off into the river and swim ashore as the boat continued at speed. They would be far enough from the boat, as it swept by them, that there was little danger of being pulled into the wheel. The boat stopped only for paying passengers and cargo: to avoid a collision, or to make repairs. Rather than an average speed of about fourteen miles an hour against the current, the Caroline was lucky to make an average of four or five, with all the rafts ahead of her, or tying up overnight.

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