The Last of the Floating Life

IN 1882, MARK TWAIN TOOK A steamboat ride on the Mississippi. There would have been nothing unusual about such a trip in the old days—Twain had once been a steamboat pilot and had made countless runs up and down the river. But that had been before the war; now he was middle-aged and the celebrated author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and this was the first time he’d been on the river in more than twenty years.

He began at St Louis. The first sight of the famous levee came as a shock. The warehouses were all shuttered; the docks were deserted; where there had been a hundred packed steamboats arriving and departing each day there were now only a lingering handful. “This was melancholy, this was woful,” he wrote. “Half a dozen lifeless steamboats, a mile of empty wharves.… Here was desolation, indeed.”

When he asked the few remaining crews what had happened, they all looked straight up. They weren’t gazing at the heavens; they were glaring at the new bridge. “The mighty bridge, stretching along over our heads,” Twain wrote, “had done its share in the slaughter and spoliation.” It was the first bridge across the lower river: its construction had begun after the war and had taken seven years to complete. It was being hailed all over the world as one of the wonders of the modern age—and it had ruined the steamboat business. With the lower river successfully spanned, the railroad networks on opposite sides were finally connected, and rail had become a safe, quick, and reliable alternative to the steamboats. There was really no reason any longer for the river to be used for transport at all. Within a few years, essentially everybody and everything that moved in the river valley went by rail. By the time of Twain’s visit, the big steamboat lines had all gone bankrupt and the few remaining boats were running mostly empty.

“Mississippi steamboating,” Twain wrote, “was born about 1812; at the end of thirty years, it had grown to mighty proportions; and in less than thirty more, it was dead! A strangely short life for so majestic a creature.”

Twain took one of the still-running steamboats downriver to New Orleans. The Mississippi wasn’t the river he remembered, either—but at least that was something he’d been expecting. He’d never lost his old river man’s habit of perpetually redrawing the map of the river in his mind. Twenty years meant a lot of shifting and twisting and writhing; almost all the old familiar landmarks had been altered or obliterated. Everywhere Twain went, he ticked off the places he remembered and noted how they’d been remade: “Beaver Dam Rock was out in the middle of the river now, and throwing a prodigious ‘break;’ it used to be close to the shore, and boats went down outside of it. A big island that used to be away out in mid-river, has retired to the Missouri shore, and boats do not go near it any more. The island called Jacket Pattern is whittled down to a wedge now, and is booked for early destruction. Goose Island is all gone but a little dab the size of a steamboat.”

And so on, and on, down every bend and twist: new cutoffs, new oxbow lakes, channels that had filled in, islets that had sprouted up or had melted away. The “great and once much-frequented” Walnut Bend was now “set … away back in a solitude far from the accustomed track of passing steamers.” The famous Graveyard south of the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, “among whose numberless wrecks we used to pick our way so slowly and gingerly,” was, he found, “far away from the channel now, and a terror to nobody.” He was most surprised by his first sight of Vicksburg. The town was standing on its bluff the way it always had, and around it on the hills, the “signs and scars still remain, as reminders of Vicksburg’s tremendous war-experiences.” But the river had shifted, and Vicksburg no longer had a riverfront. A cutoff had formed near the spot where the Yankees had tried to dig their canal, and the bend before Vicksburg Landing had emptied out. The cutoff, Twain observed, had made Vicksburg into “a country town.”

All this was the normal routine of river life. Other changes were more dismaying. Twain’s original plan had been to stop off at all the towns he remembered from his youth to see how they’d altered over time. But he quickly dropped that idea: there was no point. Even from the steamboat rail, he could see enough. Town after town, the scene was the same as he’d found in St. Louis. The rowdy riverfront districts were silent and the levees were empty. Behind them, the decorous towns on the bluffs were themselves growing dismal and shabby—all of them, Twain noted, could have used a fix-up and a good coat of whitewash. Several of the towns he best remembered were simply gone—burned down and not rebuilt, flooded out and left abandoned.

And there was another reason to stay in the boat: the riverbanks were dangerous. There were armed camps of squatters in the derelict riverfronts. Many of them were farmers who’d lost their homesteads after the war ended (peace had brought a catastrophic collapse in agricultural prices); others were veterans, many suffering severe psychic trauma from battle, who’d found themselves unable to fit in back at home or anywhere else. Some of the squatters were organizing into hunting parties that were terrorizing the river towns like the land pirates of the old days. It was as though the river valley were reverting back to the worst times of the Crow’s Nest.

But the greatest shock for Twain was the solitude. Not just the steamboats but all the old river traffic was gone: the flatboats and the keelboats, the pirogues and shanty boats and arks. “All day we swung along down the river,” he wrote, “and had the stream almost wholly to ourselves. Formerly, at such a stage of the water, we should have passed acres of lumber rafts, and dozens of big coal barges; also occasional little trading-scows, peddling along from farm to farm, with the pedler’s family on board; possibly, a random scow, bearing a humble Hamlet and Co. on an itinerant dramatic trip. But these were all absent.” Just once did he come across a scene that reminded him of the great days. His steamboat encountered an enormous convoy of lumber rafts heading downriver from the northern valley. But as he looked more closely, the disillusionment set in. The rafts were not “floating leisurely along, in the old-fashioned way, manned with joyous and reckless crews of fiddling, song-singing, whiskey-drinking, breakdown-dancing rapscallions; no, the whole thing was shoved swiftly along by a powerful stern-wheeler, modern fashion, and the small crews were quiet, orderly men, of a sedate business aspect, with not a suggestion of romance about them anywhere.”

The rest of the voyage glided by in eerie silence. There were no longer any glittering boat cities gathered in the evenings before the levees, no lashed boats making their way down the channels by first light, no steamboats furiously racing each other upriver and casting lesser boats aside like kindling—just more of the empty river down each bend.

We met two steamboats at New Madrid. Two steamboats in sight at once! an infrequent spectacle now in the lonesome Mississippi. The loneliness of this solemn, stupendous flood is impressive—and depressing. League after league, and still league after league, it pours its chocolate tide along, between its solid forest walls, its almost un-tenanted shores, with seldom a sail or a moving object of any kind to disturb the surface and break the monotony of the blank, watery solitude; and so the day goes, the night comes, and again the day—and still the same, night after night and day after day,—majestic, unchanging sameness of serenity, repose, tranquillity, lethargy, vacancy,—symbol of eternity, realization of the heaven pictured by priest and prophet, and longed for by the good and thoughtless!

Twain wasn’t alone on his river journey. There were other passengers on board: “river men, planters, journalists, and officers of the River Commission”—a thinned-out, modern version of the great riotous throngs of the prewar days. Twain spent a lot of idle time chatting with them. He was continually surprised to discover that they didn’t share his despondency about what had happened to the river. In fact, they were bubbling over with optimism. As the half-empty boat made its way down past the deserted shores, on the deck and in the common rooms there was nothing but upbeat talk about the grand future of the river valley. “Mississippi Improvement is a mighty topic, down yonder,” Twain wrote. “Every man on the river banks, south of Cairo, talks about it every day, during such moments as he is able to spare from talking about the war.”

The most outlandish proposals for remaking the river were being soberly discussed. There were plans to regulate the river current as though with a giant faucet; to build artificial lakes and rivers in order to drain off the floodwaters; to use the Great Lakes as reservoirs for replenishing the current whenever it ran low. The possibilities were dizzying and endlessly contradictory. “Wherever you find a man down there who believes in one of these theories,” Twain wrote, “you may turn to the next man and frame your talk upon the hypothesis that he does not believe in that theory.” Twain began to think that “Mississippi Improvement” was an incurable epidemic of competing and irreconcilable proposals. “You will have come to know, with a deep and restful certainty, that you are not going to meet two people sick of the same theory, one right after the other,” he wrote. “You may vaccinate yourself with deterrent facts as much as you please—it will do no good; it will seem to ‘take,’ but it doesn’t; the moment you rub against any one of those theorists, make up your mind that it is time to hang out your yellow flag.”

In all this welter of talk Twain heard, there was one name that kept recurring—James Eads, the man who was currently the biggest celebrity associated with the Mississippi, other than Twain himself.

Eads, the designer of the diving-bell salvage boats, had gone on to several new ventures in the last few decades. Some of them had washed out—a factory to make fancy window glass, for instance. Others had been triumphs—like a series of armored gunboats for the Union navy, which were later said to have revolutionized naval warfare. And one project had made him world-famous: he had designed and built the bridge at St. Louis.

Eads had had no formal training in engineering or architecture. He hadn’t even had a high-school education. All he’d had was an unshakable certainty that he could build the bridge. The professionals had scoffed at its radically original cantilevered design, and they claimed that its innovative new construction material, structural steel, wouldn’t hold up. But Eads persisted despite their opposition; he persisted in the face of chronic underfunding, a maze of political chicanery, and a blizzard of lawsuits from the steamboat companies; he persisted even when the unfinished bridge took a direct hit from a tornado. But when the bridge triumphantly opened to railroad traffic in 1874, he immediately gave up bridge building and moved on to something else.

His new project was the remaking of the Mississippi itself. He wanted to install a system of jetties along the entire length of the river to control its course and reduce its flooding. By the time of Twain’s river journey, Eads had already completed a pilot project—a jetty at the river mouth. It was intended to shape and focus the immense outflow of the current spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, in order to dredge a deeper channel and punch through the centuries of accumulated sandbars. If it worked, it would enable oceangoing ships to enter the river delta safely for the first time, without immediately going aground. It turned out to work perfectly.

Eads was one of those people whose brains are perpetually, almost involuntarily, brimming over with new ideas. Even as he was pressing the government for backing for his full-scale jetty system, he was dreaming up other projects for the Mississippi. He had already worked out a plan for revitalizing the river traffic. He wanted to build a fleet of gigantic cast-iron industrial barges to replace the steamboats. His friend and partner Richard Smith Elliott later recalled Eads’s boundless enthusiasm for the barges, and his ultimate disappointment: “Though the air was for a year or more as full of iron barges as ever the atmosphere of Utah was of grasshoppers, yet the barges did not actually get on the water.” (Decades after Eads’s death, they were the dominant form of traffic on the Mississippi.)

Eads wasn’t fazed by this or by any other setback. In the midst of his long and finally futile campaign for the jetties, he was devising a grander and stranger proposal. He wanted to construct a new transport system across the Central American isthmus at Panama. An idea had been mooted to build a canal there, inspired by the recent opening of the canal at Suez, but he’d opposed it—he considered the whole apparatus of locks and dams to be obsolete technology. He had something else in mind. He was going to load all the ships onto gargantuan flatbed railway cars, which he would design and build, and shuttle them by train between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Could this have worked? Twain observed that any sane man would have dismissed Eads’s river-mouth jetty project as “clearly impossible,” and yet it had worked: “We do not feel full confidence now to prophesy against like impossibilities.”

While Eads was the biggest name involved in remaking the Mississippi, he wasn’t ultimately the one with the most clout. That was the federal government. After the Civil War, it had created a new authority, the Mississippi River Commission, to take over the management of the river. It reflected a new attitude toward federalism in the wake of the Union victory. Before the war, the idea of the national government engaging in large-scale infrastructure improvements had been fiercely resisted; now such projects were expected, even demanded.

By the time of Twain’s trip, the commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already launched a series of radical new projects. They had begun by clearing the Mississippi of snags. This was something that had been undertaken earlier by independent entrepreneurs (including, inevitably, Eads), but only along small stretches of the river, on commission by individual communities. The corps sent out a fleet to sweep the entire river. It had taken them years, but gradually they’d rid the river of the thousands of pockets of sawyers and sleepers and preachers and planters that had been rotting in place for generations. “They have rooted out all the old clusters which made many localities so formidable; and they allow no new ones to collect,” Twain wrote in amazement. “The government’s snag-boats go patrolling up and down, in these matter-of-fact days, pulling the river’s teeth.”

The corps had gone on to an even more dramatic project. They had installed more than seven hundred beacons along the length of the river. A few of these were full-scale lighthouses built of brick; the rest were simple oil lamps set on tall poles planted securely in the riverbanks. (Local residents were hired to keep the oil tanks filled and to turn the lamps on and off.) Now, each day at sunset, the beacons flared to life, and the entire course of the river was illuminated. The river’s murkiest reaches—its shadowy islets, its dangerous shallows and shoals, its foaming and turbulent junctions—were for the first time visible all night, every night. “The national government has turned the Mississippi into a sort of two-thousand-mile torch-light procession,” Twain wrote. “There is always a beacon in sight, either before you, or behind you, or abreast. You are never entirely in the dark now.”

Yet more projects were getting under way. Twain could see the evidence of them everywhere. “They are building wing-dams here and there, to deflect the current,” he wrote, “and dikes to confine it in narrower bounds; and other dikes to make it stay there; and for unnumbered miles along the Mississippi, they are felling the timber-front for fifty yards back, with the purpose of shaving the bank down to low-water mark with the slant of a house-roof, and ballasting it with stones; and in many places they have protected the wasting shores with rows of piles.”

What was it all for? The corps was setting out on a successor project to the snag clearing: they were going to dredge the river of its sandbars and establish a minimum depth in the channels. Then they were going to construct an immense new maze of levees and spillways to regulate the river current and reduce its annual flooding. (They had rejected Eads’s large-scale jetty proposal—too hastily, as it turned out. Eventually they would incorporate elements of it in their designs.) And they were beginning to consider an even more ambitious proposal: permanently stabilizing the river’s course. Twain wrote:

One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver—not aloud, but to himself—that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at. But a discreet man will not put these things into spoken words; for the West Point engineers have not their superiors anywhere; they know all that can be known of their abstruse science; and so, since they conceive that they can fetter and handcuff that river and boss him, it is but wisdom for the unscientific man to keep still, lie low, and wait till they do it.

It did not escape Twain’s notice that all these projects were being carried out at a time when the Mississippi was almost entirely devoid of traffic. So what was the point? In Life on the Mississippi, he vented his doubts by way of a surrogate—a cranky, eccentric steamboat pilot of the old school named Uncle Mumford, who denounced the remaking of the river in a long monologue:

When there used to be four thousand steamboats and ten thousand acres of coal-barges, and rafts and trading scows, there wasn’t a lantern from St. Paul to New Orleans, and the snags were thicker than bristles on a hog’s back; and now when there’s three dozen steamboats and nary a barge or raft, Government has snatched out all the snags, and lit up the shores like Broadway, and a boat’s as safe on the river as she’d be in heaven. And I reckon that by the time there ain’t any boats left at all, the Commission will have the old thing all reorganized, and dredged out, and fenced in, and tidied up, to a degree that will make navigation just simply perfect, and absolutely safe and profitable; and all the days will be Sundays.

But Twain knew that he and Uncle Mumford were on the losing side. The river was bound to be transformed—even if generations would pass before anybody made any use of it. “The military engineers,” Twain concluded, “have taken upon their shoulders the job of making the Mississippi over again,—a job transcended in size by only the original job of creating it.”

Or, as Richard Smith Elliott, the friend and partner of Eads, put it, in words that are virtually a death warrant for the old, wild river:

The United States will have a population of about sixty-three millions in 1890, and eighty millions in 1900. The majority will be west of the Alleghenies. To say that we shall allow the great river to remain in its present imperfect and destructive condition, is to say that we do not understand the interests of the nation, or our own power.

Here and there on his journey downriver, Twain could glimpse, among the ruins of the old river economy, the first stirrings of new life. A few of the towns that he had expected to find abandoned turned out to be flourishing. There was never any mystery about why: “We found a railway intruding at Chester, Illinois; Chester has also a penitentiary now, and is otherwise marching on. At Grand Tower, too, there was a railway; and another at Cape Girardeau.”

The riverfronts may have been derelict, but the areas around the railway depots were alive with fresh growth. The shanties had been replaced by squat fortresses of brick: brick warehouses were rising alongside the rail yards, and there were brick smokestacks poking up from factories on the bluffs. Twain was particularly impressed by a tour of a cotton mill in Natchez. It was a hulking three-story factory that could turn out millions of yards of fabrics a year—the South was at last milling its own cotton for export.

Around New Orleans, the run-down old mansions and plantation houses of the sugarcane country were being rehabbed into factories and manufacturing plants. Twain visited one of them. It was, he said, “a spacious house, with some innocent steam machinery in one end of it and some big porcelain pipes running here and there.” But as he looked closer, he found that he was wrong: “No, not porcelain—they merely seemed to be; they were iron, but the ammonia which was being breathed through them had coated them to the thickness of your hand with solid milk-white ice.”

The house had been turned into an ice factory. The floors of the great rooms were lined with rows of countless tin boxes, each filled with filtered water and packed around with bags of salt. The ammonia chilled the water, and workers stirred it to keep it from clouding up. When the blocks of ice were ready—“hard, solid, and crystal-clear”—they were cut out of the tin boxes and lifted onto carts. The carts were then wheeled from the big hall out the back door, where a row of flatcars waited on a newly constructed spur line of the local railroad. Then the train trundled off to the street markets of New Orleans.

The ice blocks were being sold as decorative centerpieces for dinner tables. Lovely and curious objects had been frozen within them: coins and toys, bouquets of tropical flowers, French dolls dressed in silk. The blocks were set out in shallow bowls, and during the sultriness of the delta afternoons, they would slowly melt, cooling the diners gathered around the table. By twilight, as the last of the ice dissolved, the toys and trinkets in their depths would be left floating in the brimming bowls: dolls and flowers and gifts and party favors, like flotsam from a modern kind of flood. It made Twain marvel at how the world was changing. “In my time,” he observed, “ice was jewelry; none but the rich could wear it. But anybody and everybody can have it now.”


JOHN BANVARD TOOK HIS Mississippi River panorama on a tour of England in the early 1850s. It was a tremendous success. The “Three-Mile Painting” awed Queen Victoria and got a rave review from Charles Dickens—in fact, Dickens greatly preferred Banvard’s panorama to his actual experience of the Mississippi. Banvard himself became a celebrity. He served as his own narrator at the showings; after years of practice he had become a superb and polished entertainer. One reviewer in London praised his “Jonathanisms and jokes, poetry and patter, which delight his audience mightily.” (A Jonathanism was a wild hyperbole, which was regarded then as the hallmark of American speech.) The way Banvard told it, his creation of the panorama had been as exciting as anything shown on the canvas itself. His journeys up and down the river, to paint each scene from life (or so he claimed), had been one long epic of frontier adventure. He made it sound as though he had been sketching with one hand while fighting off wild animals, savage Indians, and menacing desperadoes with the other. He clearly gloried in the role of the heroic frontiersman. He liked to claim that he was entirely self-taught as an artist and had only taken up his paintbrush because he had been so inspired by the great river itself. (“No—he had a teacher,” his promotional pamphlet clarified. “He studied the omnipresent works of the One Great Living Master! Nature was his teacher.”)

Banvard had competition on his English tour: John Rowson Smith and his Leviathan Panorama of the Mississippi River. But Smith was nowhere near as theatrical a personality as Banvard. He hired other people to be his narrators while he supervised from offstage. His great pitch for his panorama wasn’t its romance, but its documentary veracity. It was, he claimed, a wholly exact rendering of the river, painted with scrupulous on-the-spot accuracy. He was particularly careful about his steamboats—there were steamboat buffs in the audiences then, ready to debate the most hairsplitting details of their design. He specifically guaranteed in his advertisements that every steamboat in his panorama was a faithful rendering of a real steamboat currently afloat somewhere on the Mississippi. His panorama even took an intermission from the vistas of the river for a detailed tour of basic steamboat design, including a cutaway schematic of a typical interior.

Smith was irked by Banvard and considered his panorama a sham. During their English tours they got into a fierce feud in the London newspapers over the truthfulness of their respective creations. This may have been a publicity stunt—and if it was, then it was a clever one: it kept the attention of the English public for months, and drove up attendance at both panoramas. But the artists themselves seem to have been entirely serious about it. Or at any rate Smith was. He was exultant when his attacks on Banvard received crushing, even conclusive support from a world-renowned authority. This was the artist and writer George Catlin, famous for his books on the Missouri Territory and the Plains Indians. (His Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians, first published in 1841, is still highly regarded today.) Catlin went to a showing of the Banvard panorama in London and declared that in his opinion its scenes of the Missouri River were faked. He found so many important landmarks missing, and so many inaccuracies in the ones that were shown, that he doubted Banvard had ever been on the Missouri at all. Smith immediately trumpeted Catlin’s charges in his ads; Banvard never refuted them.

But while Smith won the fight over accuracy, he lost with the public. His realistic panorama was never as popular as Banvard’s grand extravaganza. In the end he seems to have surrendered: he finished his tour and came back to America in 1853, long before Banvard did, and he immediately retired from the panorama business. There’s no evidence that after he returned from England he ever showed Leviathan Panorama again. He resumed his old career as a theatrical scene painter, and he died in obscurity in 1864.

It was around this time that the other Mississippi panoramas began to drop out of sight. Their original owners wearied of the touring life and sold them, their new owners were unable to get enough bookings for them, and they eventually were lost or destroyed. One of the panoramas was abandoned in Havana when a Caribbean tour went bust. Another was sold to a potential exhibitor in Asia, and the last recorded trace of it was when it was transshipped through Calcutta on its way to Java—there’s no evidence whether it ever reached its destination. One disappeared in a more spectacular fashion: Leon Pomarede had unwisely added special effects to his Original Panorama of the Mississippi, big billows of smoke and steam that came writhing out of the wings to enhance the illusion that the audience was on a steamboat with its boilers at full power; something went wrong before a showing in New Jersey and the canvas roll caught fire. The panorama went up like a torch and was irretrievably damaged within a few minutes.

By the middle 1850s, Banvard’s panorama was the only one still on tour. Banvard cashed in on the absence of competition: after England he continued on for the next several years through Europe and the Middle East. He was wildly popular wherever he went. By the time he finally returned to America, he was a wealthy man. He bought a mansion outside of New York City. He wrote travel books and poetry. He opened Banvard’s Museum in New York, a hall of curiosities and theatrical exhibitions in imitation of Barnum’s American Museum; the Mississippi panorama was the opening attraction. In his travels he’d collected material for several new panoramas as well, including one of the Holy Land and another of the Nile, and he debuted them in New York to great acclaim. By 1860 he had become the most famous artist in America.

The Mississippi panorama retained its popularity for several years. Banvard was careful to keep it fresh. During the Civil War he repainted large sections of it to include the latest news from the Mississippi River campaigns; when he exhibited it in 1863, he drew big crowds all over again—people were eager to get a look at the grand events they’d been reading about, the ironclad battles and the surrender of New Orleans and the siege of Vicksburg. But after the war was over, Banvard put the panorama in storage. He didn’t show it again for more than a decade.

Its next recorded display was in 1881. By then Banvard’s fortunes had taken a steep dive. The museum and an assortment of other big-budget ventures had failed, and he was going broke. If he’d hoped to make back some money with a revival of the panorama, he was disappointed. The vogue for panoramas had faded, and the Mississippi itself wasn’t of much interest to people then. The frontier had moved on west, and the river was no longer the edge of the world; it was just an immense obstacle the railroads had to cross. Banvard’s panorama was viewed as no more than an interesting historical curiosity. Soon afterward, Banvard’s luck ran out. His museum was closed down for good and his mansion repossessed. Banvard fled New York to escape his creditors.

He went west—first back to the Mississippi valley. But he, too, found it to be of little interest any longer. It was much the same as Twain described: empty, shabby, overregulated, tamed. So he kept on going, up the Missouri into the freshly settled territories beyond. He followed the outer tendrils of the new railroads until he reached the Glacial Lakes region of South Dakota. There he came to rest in Watertown, a railroad stop on the Big Sioux River, about a hundred miles north of Sioux Falls. Banvard was in his late sixties then, but he soon started a new career as a construction contractor.

He didn’t wholly give up on his theatrical art. A couple of years after he arrived in Watertown, he presented to the locals his new work. It wasn’t a panorama this time: it was a moving diorama that re-created the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, at the end of the Civil War. The premiere was a big event. Everyone in town showed up at the local hall to see it. It proved to be a wonderfully elaborate and cunning piece of work—but the real highlight of the show was Banvard himself. He narrated, pulled curtains back and forth, raised and lowered flats with windlasses, rang bells, blew whistles, and set off firecrackers. The people of Watertown were amused no end. He briefly toured with it around the Glacial Lakes until everyone in the region had seen it. Then he put the diorama away and retired from the entertainment business for good.

He lived with his wife and his children and grandchildren in a big house on the outskirts of town. Down in the basement was the one possession he’d managed to salvage from the wreck of his fortunes back east—the Mississippi panorama. But he never put it on display in Watertown. Later one of his grandsons remembered playing on it as a child: it was a titanic roll twenty feet long and six feet thick, perpetually hidden under a tarpaulin, as silent and ominous as a sleeping dragon.

Banvard died in 1891. Shortly after the funeral, the family got rid of the panorama. They said that nobody cared about it anymore and it was just taking up space. Besides, it could no longer be shown: after so many years of storage in that dank basement, the canvas had rotted and the images were unrecognizable. So it was carted off to the town dump.

But that may not have been the end of it. Decades later, after the Second World War, a historian named John Francis McDermott wrote a book about the panoramas, and he solicited the people of Watertown for their memories of Banvard. The editor of the local newspaper, Richard Albrook, wrote to McDermott with a story he had heard when he was young. According to Albrook, somebody had found the panorama in the dump and had rescued it; the salvageable vistas all along its length had been cut out and had been used to decorate the walls of a local building. But that was all that Albrook remembered. He couldn’t say what building it was: he’d forgotten, or maybe he’d never learned in the first place, and he’d never seen the building himself. McDermott wasn’t able to find out anything more, either; nobody else he contacted remembered hearing anything like Albrook’s story. He ended his book with the question of the panorama’s fate still open.

The question remains open to this day. No trace of the Banvard panorama has ever been found. Watertown today is a city of twenty thousand people, and there has been a century’s worth of new construction downtown. But many of its original buildings are still standing. It’s at least possible that the panorama survives in one of them, unsuspected by the current occupants, hidden under layers of lath and plaster and paint and wallpaper. It might even turn up again someday. An ancient wall might be knocked down, and a scrap of painted canvas might come to light: a glimpse of wide water, a burning steamboat, a lone human figure posed on a distant bluff—an authentic souvenir of the wicked river, the way it had been in the old times.

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