Float, Cruise, or Sail Through History, by Travel Writers

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By Victor Block

Using a paddle to guide my canoe through the rapids of the Allagash River in northern Maine, I thought of those who had traversed this wilderness area before me. The native Penobscot Tribe gave the 65-mile waterway its name, which means “bark stream”. In the 1840s, dams were built to facilitate the shipment of logs to the coast of Maine. Soon after, Henry David Thoreau canoed to the source of the river and wrote about the excursion.

Whether paddling a canoe or kayak, boarding a passenger boat, or crossing a body of water in some other way, history often accompanies the ride. In addition to enjoying the trip itself, stories from the past can enhance the experience and add to the fun. From the length of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, from creeks to bayous, opportunities await those who wish to combine a water excursion with a history lesson.

The mighty Mississippi conjures up a variety of historical treats, and a great way to learn more is to board one of the American Cruise Lines ships that ply the Mississippi-Ohio river system. Some of them are pedal boats which add to the authentic atmosphere. Itineraries include exploring Vicksburg and other Civil War battlefields, the historic Mississippi Delta, and historic towns along the way.

In Minnesota alone, where the Mississippi has its source, it crosses sites with a rich past. Fort Snelling, a fortification completed in 1825, overlooks the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Towns born in the 1870s in the Brainerd Lakes area were clustered where a railroad crossed the Mississippi and collected logs for local sawmills.

The Missouri River is the longest in the country, flowing 2,341 miles from Montana before entering Mississippi. A number of Native American groups populated its watershed, Lewis and Clark floated along it during their westward exploration, and it became one of the main routes of eastward expansion. west during the 19th century. Petroglyphs at some Native American tribal sites are reminders that they were there.

Other river courses offer very different but no less appealing experiences. Native Americans also populated sites along the James River, which runs through Virginia from the Appalachians to the Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown and Williamsburg, Virginia’s first colonial capitals, lie along the James.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, flat-bottomed boats transported flour, tobacco and coal to the east coast. At one time, some 1,500 boatmen operated 500 boats. Their journey is recreated every June during the James River Batteau Festival.

In addition to rivers rich in history, other bodies of water also bring chapters of the past to life. The Augusta Canal in Georgia is the only one of its kind in continuous use in the South. It was built in 1845 to serve as a source of water, electricity and transportation. Textiles and other manufacturing were drawn to the area by the canal, and during the Civil War a gunpowder factory was built next door. Historical and other tours are offered aboard a replica of an old river boat.

An even older and more famous canal was dug between 1828 and 1850. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal runs 184.5 miles from Washington, DC west to Cumberland, Maryland. It operated until 1924, when it fell victim to destructive floods and the fact that the railways began to transport goods at lower fares.

The canal was primarily used to bring coal from the Allegheny Mountains to Washington. Other cargo moving there included timber, limestone, and meat. Typical toll rates in 1851 were up to 2 cents per ton per mile for slaughtered hogs, bacon, and meat and 1 cent for salt. The breeding canal boats offer rides from spring to fall. Seven visitor centers along the way feature exhibits that tell the story of the canal.

Bourbon and a bayou also offer intriguing floating floats that tell leftover stories from the past. Kentucky is known for its bourbon, and traces of the drink’s earliest heritage can be found along Elkhorn Creek and the Kentucky River near Lexington. Those taking in the water on the state’s most popular creek pass the abandoned James M. Stone Distillery, which was the largest of its kind in the late 1800s; the old bridge abutments that once carried the trains of a now defunct railway; and the historic community of Forks of the Elkhorn, believed to have been established in 1784.

The story of a former Supreme Court justice is among those told on Bayou Lafourche in Louisiana. Along its 106-mile long route, the bayou, whose name comes from the French for “the fork”, turns from open waterway to marsh and then wetland. Rangers on boat tours that depart from the Acadian Wetlands Cultural Center in Thibodaux discuss the Chitimacha natives, the region’s first European settlers, and the rise of the sugar industry. Passengers disembark to tour the ED White Historic Site, home of Louisiana’s first judge of the nation’s High Court, where he served for 27 years.

Whatever your interest in the past, from Native American petroglyphs to a gunpowder factory, from Thoreau to a Supreme Court justice, the inviting ways to get a history lesson often come from the water. The experience can combine a little learning with a lot of fun.

WHEN YOU GO

www.americancruiselines.com

www.adventureboundcanoe.com

www.visitmt.com

www.vacanals.org/boat

www.augustacanal.com

www.nps.gov/choh

www.franklinkentucky.org

www.nps/gov/jela

Kayaking Elkhorn Creek is one way to learn about Kentucky’s bourbon history. Photo courtesy of Visit LEX.

(SETIMAGE2) tad041022bdAP.jpg (END IMAGE2) (SET CAPTION2) Boaters along the Missouri River can see this statue of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by Pat Kennedy in St. Charles, Missouri. Photo courtesy of Britnchick1/Dreamstime.com. (END CAPTION2)

    The riverboat cruise is one way to see historic waterways.  Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines.

The riverboat cruise is one way to see historic waterways. Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines.

Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read articles by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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