Quad Cities, IL/IA

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The Mississippi: Servant or Master?


By Jan Rittmer, Ridgecrest Village resident

Here at Ridgecrest Village where I live, one resident calls herself, “A river rat from down by Muscatine,” and doubts she could sleep without the river flowing nearby. One man learned to sail on Lake Davenport above Lock and Dam 15, and remembers those days with great joy. Another friend shared how he caught river carp and buffalo to help feed his family during the Great Depression. Some residents partied on a cruiser in the old lock chamber off Arsenal Island, and picnicked with their kids on Andalusia Island.

My story is different. I grew up inland, knowing the Mississippi as a name in my geography book. When I married into a family that had worked on the river for three generations, it became more: I became wife, mother, grandmother, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, sister, and aunt to 12 licensed towboat pilots. Five of my family still work on the river, with my grandson being our sixth generation to earn a living from it.

We know the river as captains, deckhands, and dispatchers. In the 1960s I sold charters and tickets for our excursion boat, the Thunderbird, docked at the foot of Davenport’s Main Street. Some customers rode our boat to learn about the navigational locks and dams and the nine-foot channel; many more came to relax, or to brag about their river to out-of-town family and friends. More than once passengers debarked and walked down to the water’s edge to fill a small bottle for a souvenir.

The Thunderbird encouraged the common romantic view of the Mississippi River as a beautiful home for wildlife, a river that, except for occasional quickly forgiven floods, was a friendly, gentle giant.

I soon became a dispatcher of our towboats. We handled the important commerce of the river and dealt daily with its natural, mindless power.

“Today, like most of you, I love and revere the Mississippi.”

My first flood was in 1965.

We were living with our four small boys atop a high hill just south of the Scott County fairgrounds, well above the flood plain. Even there, I saw flood waters snake up through the combined storm and sanitary sewers to the street in front of our house.

During that flood, our harbor boats hauled sandbags and flood workers. Sometimes they worked on Second Street in downtown Davenport, riding the current past Petersen’s and Parker’s department stores. I worried about the safety of my family while rescuing people from their homes, and dozens of animals, wild like raccoon and deer, and domestic like dogs and cats and the cow they found swimming for its life.
In ‘65, my boys already expected to someday do rescue work. They practiced by playing towboat games and using towboat jargon as their second language. When they grew up and finally went to work, they rescued each other and coworkers, saving them from serious injury and drowning. Inevitably, the river claimed the life of one of my family. My young sister-in-law, a newly licensed pilot, drowned in icy water near Buffalo.

Today, like most of you, I love and revere the Mississippi. From my apartment at Ridgecrest, high above the flood plain, I relive my river experiences with my friends. We go on golf cart tours along its banks, watch eagles from the Skybridge, and cruise on the Channel Cat. I never, ever, however, underestimate it. Always in my mind are my sons, my grandson, and my nephew, who daily do the important but dangerous work of the Mississippi.

Everyone’s life story is unique. We are anxious to learn about yours. Call 563-391-3430 for more information and a tour. Karen or Mary welcome you to have lunch with us.