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Historic Diaries: Emily Quiner, 1863

Aug. 27, 1863: Nearly Shipwrecked outside Cairo

Editor's Note:

The Mississippi River was a treacherous route. Its continually shifting banks threw trees and debris into the current, endangering the wooden-hulled boats. Sand bars formed and dissipated unpredictably, and fog descended as weather fronts moved through. Emily's experiences between Memphis and Cairo were by no means unusual.


Cairo: Cordelia Harvey also complained about this city. In a letter to Wisconsin Governor Edward Salomon, she wrote: "As I was detained at Cairo a short time I visited the hospital & found the following Wis. men. Most of them had been home on a Furlough which having expired they were obliged to report to some Military hospital. This being the nearest, caught them. Gave them a cot, &c. Cairo Atmosphere, with all its mud & filth. I could but wish the Hospital in Wis. had been ready to receive them."


Gangrene Swamp: For Emily's previous description of this impressive wetland, see her entry for July 3, 1863.

View Emily's entire diary at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

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Thursday 27th


We had quite a fright early this morning. I think between two and three o'clock I was awakened by a loud crash, and afterwards we heard screams and the boat stopped suddenly. We rose immediately, hastened on our clothing and went out to inquire the cause of the stoppage. Found all the ladies up but could get no definite idea of what was the matter, one lady said "God knows I believe we are sinking." Some thought we had been fired into. At last a gentleman told that a snag had run through the wheel house on one side, smashing the wheel. This was not very pleasant news, as we lay near Columbus, [Missouri] nearly twenty miles from Cairo, however they assured us that there was no immediate danger and we felt better.


After a while, when the real extent of the injury became known, it was found that the wheel was not injured but that a very large rupture had been made entirely through the boat to the upper deck just back of the wheel house, and within two feet of a state room door. It seemed very singular that it should strike just there, almost any where else it might have done a great deal of injury and caused loss of life. We stopped here about four hours.


About 6 o'clock the boat was ready to start and went off in fine style. It was very misty, and before we had got three miles from Columbus the fog closed around us so densely that nothing could be seen beyond the space of a few feet from the boat. The river is very low and the consequence was that we were very soon fast on a sand bar within 10 feet of a low sandy shore. The fog was so dense that there was no use in trying to start again, so we lay still waiting for it to clear up. Went to breakfast and after about an hour the boat was again in motion. We passed the Desuse which passed us yesterday morning, she was fast on a sand bar and had probably lain there for some hours. She got off a little after us and we had quite a race for a little ways, when we distanced her and she running into the fog got fast on another sand bar. She came into Cairo about a half a mile behind us. We reached Cairo about eight o'clock, disembarked and went to the hotel where I am waiting. We are expecting to leave here about 1 ½ o'clock this P.M. and in the meantime prepare to find out whether there is anything good about this miserable city.


Later. We have taken a long walk around Cairo, went into several stores, bought some knick knacks to take home with me of a soldier who was pedaling them at the depot. Cairo is a miserable place, that is a fact. There is only one street in the city which is passable in wet weather, unless it is those which are back up on piles five or six feet in height. The principal street runs parallel with the river and is much higher than the rest of the city. We did not see any one but soldiers and military and several officers. The streets are thronged with them. There are many gunboats and steamers lying here. We returned from our walk just in time for dinner. Major Rusk and Mr. Smith went down with us. The St. Charles Hotel is a very good house and seemed to be well patronized.


Took the cars [railroad] at 1 ½ o'clock, and left Cairo with very little regret. The scenery and vegetation along the route from Cairo to Centralia is more tropical than any that I have seen since I left home. The forest on each side was a perfect jungle, trees, limbs and vines seemed mingled together in inexplicable confusion. Near Cairo, and extending for some distance from it is a swamp, which is called (and very properly I think) by the 'natives', the gangrene swamp. It is the most desolate, horrible looking place I ever saw. We had a very comfortable ride from Cairo to Centralia, arriving at the latter place about 8 o'clock. Took supper here in a great hurry and then took berths in a sleeping car for the night.

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