What’s special about river cities?
A lot of my memories are tied to being raised along the Ohio River and playing in tributaries like Beargrass and Harrod’s Creeks. I suppose it’s possible to have a childhood without a nearby river, but … why?
Louisville would still be Louisville without the Ohio, but it would be lower-case louisville.
It would be less.
Rivers make great cities greater. They give life. Character. Constant motion. What would Memphis be without the Mississippi? Paris without the Seine? Cincinnati without the Ohio? London without the Thames? Portland without the Willamette? Amsterdam without the Amstel and canals? New York without the East, Harlem and Hudson?
They would be less.
We used to gaze at 12-Mile Island, half-a-mile distant from Belknap Beach, and wonder what mysteries it held. We’d wait for tugboats and barges to churn past and do our pathetic best to body surf in their monstrous (we thought) wakes. We’d catch catfish, crappie and the occasional turtle. We’d don the hungry looks of Charles Dickens street urchins, hoping to charm Dad’s pal Frank into a ride in his 70mph (we thought) outboard.
From downtown Louisville, we could walk across the George Rogers Clark bridge to Indiana, just for the thrill of walking back. On good days, the locally based Belle of Louisville excursion boat would paddle by. And on great days, Cincinnati’s stately Delta Queen, twice the size of the Titanic (we thought), steamed by destined for St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans.
When the Kentucky Derby Festival rolled around every May, the Delta Queen was villain of the day and we cheered for our hometown Belle in the Great Steamboat Race. Not for a moment did I imagine I would someday be on the Belle for race day and cruise the Mississippi on the Delta Queen. But I wouldn’t trade my childhood dreams of standing along their railings for the real thing. I’d no sooner embrace a childhood without the Ohio River than a kid from the Bronx would embrace one without the House that Ruth Built.
If you grew up in a river town, you understand. If you didn’t, love your parents anyway.
I can save save you the trouble of wondering how it would have been to experience youth on the river:
It would have been more.
Rivers, not people, dictated where many great cities were born. Transportation, recreation, agriculture and industry all depend on inland waterways. Popular culture is liberally peppered with river lore. Following are a dozen thoughts from a wide variety of celebrities who are drawn by the mesmerizing lure of a flowing river.
The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.
— Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It
If you go down to the river,
Bet you gonna find some people who live
You don’t have to worry if you got no money
People on the river are happy to give
— John Fogerty, Proud Mary
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.
–– Book of Amos, 5:24 (New Int’l Version)–
Life on the raft was like home for Huck and Jim. They could do whatever they wanted, and they had nobody to tell otherwise.
— Mark Twain, Tales of Huckleberry Finn
Who put their foot in the Missouri River first: Lewis or Clark? Who cares! –
— Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon
I always saw pollution as theft, and I always thought, ‘Why should somebody be able to pollute the air, which belongs to all of us, or destroy a river or a waterway, which is supposed to belong to the whole community?’
— Robert Kennedy Jr.
The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river.
— Ross Perot
Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.
— Carl Jackson & Robert Lowery, Shall We Gather By The River
We cannot be any stronger in our foreign policy for all the bombs and guns we may heap up in our arsenals…Foreign policy, like a river, cannot rise above its source.
— Adlai Stevenson II
For life and death are one,
even as the river and the sea
— Khalil Gibran
I’m really quite simple. I plant flowers and watch them grow… I stay at home and watch the river flow.
— George Harrison
How to get over the river was the bother. At last, after thinking a heap about it, I came to the conclusion that I always did:
That the boldest plan is the best and safest.
— Wild Bill Hickok