by Virginia Jewell
(First in a series)
(Appeared in The Hickman County Gazette, Clinton (Hickman County, Ky.) on Jan. 11, 1990)
OLD COLUMBUS, WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
Faded photographs and word pictures are all that remain to help us reconstruct in our minds the town which lay on the sugar-sad delta at the foot of the Columbus bluffs and which extended nearly one-third mile into the overflowing Mississippi River.
Repeated flooding played a bit role, but there were economic factors as well.
Here was a town in an enviable location as a port on the Mississippi. What is more, just about the time the first shots were fired in the Civil War the Mobile & Ohio Railroad had built northward as far as Columbus. Construction was halted because of the war and Columbus became the northern terminus for the line, a distinction it held for 20 years.
From the north, the Illinois Central Railroad ended at Cairo, Ill., leaving a 20-mile watery gap between there and Columbus — a distance which could only be bridged by steamboat. Even with this gap, mail traveled swiftly from Cairo to Memphis, Tenn., in an amazing 14 hours — by packet boat to Columbus, M&O to Jackson, Tenn., by rail to Grand Junction, Tenn., and then by rail to Memphis.
At the same time freight and passengers were streaming back and forth by train ferry between Columbus and Belmont, Mo., just across the river where Iron Mountain Railraod had its terminal and roundtable.
Freight cars were loaded and unloaded at the wharfboat at Columbus. The “General Anderson” and other paddlewheelers in turn switched freight for daily runs to and from Cairo.
Picture, if you will, these hustlebustle days. No wonder the town flourished.
The third largest town in the Jackson Purchase, Columbus had a population of around 2000 in 1880. Paducah and Hickman, both river cities, were larger. Towns located on the rivers were the ones which thrived because waterways were the highways of the day.
The marvelous and sometimes romantic steamboat era nurtured the little city of Columbus set on a delta, a town which would someday, of necessity, be set on a hill.
Emmett Lewis of Tiptonville, a devotee of the steamboat era, said that several hundred packet boats operated on the inland waterways in the 1800s. They carried passengers primarily, but also hauled freight on the lower decks, especially bales of cotton, lumber and mail. It was the packet boats, he said, that were romantically attached to the Mississippi River. A packet boat was a fragile giant, he explained, with an average life span of only five years. “Fire, shifting sand bars, massive snags formed by uprooted trees from the banks, or boiler explosions claimed an uncountable number of boats, and those were only the ‘deaths by nature causes.'” He said a river pilot’s error in a dangerous curve such as New Madrid Bend could easily mean a steamboat wreck. There was no modern navigational equipment available. Pilots knew the rivers by instinct and experience.
But the reign of the steamboat was diminished as the railroad network expanded. The Illinois Central wished to eliminate the water trans-shipment between Columbus and Cairo. Because IC was running over M&O lines from Jackson, Tenn., to Columbus, the firm was eager to negotiate with M&O to complete the 24-mile extension from Columbus to Cairo. Finally, in 1873 IC built its own line from Jackson to East Cairo near Wickliffe in Kentucky.
Even so, huge transfer boats were sill required to connect the two Cairos opposite each other on the Ohio River.
Finally, 100 years ago on October 29, 1889, the ICRR bridge was constructed connecting the ends of steel.
The grand opening of the bridge was compared to the driving of the Golden Spike that linked the Union and Central Pacific railroads in 1869 at Promontory, Utah.
Completion of the bridge was considered a triumph of modern engineering science, but such inevitable progress, contributed further to the changing face of Columbus.