The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Cairo To Caruthersville

The New Madrid Earthquake

The New Madrid earthquakes were the biggest earthquakes in American history. They occurred in the central Mississippi Valley, but were felt as far away as New York City, Boston, Montreal, and Washington D.C. President James Madison and his wife Dolly felt them in the White House. Church bells rang in Boston. From December 16, 1811 through March of 1812 there were over 2,000 earthquakes in the central Midwest, and between 6,000-10,000 earthquakes in the Bootheel of Missouri where New Madrid is located near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. In the known history of the world, no other earthquakes have lasted so long or produced so much evidence of damage as the New Madrid earthquakes. Three of the earthquakes are on the list of America’s top earthquakes: the first one on December 16, 1811, a magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter scale; the second on January 23, 1812, at 7.8; and the third on February 7, 1812, at as much as 8.8 magnitude. (From New Madrid Missouri Website)


Amazing Natural Phenomena Result of the Earthquake

The Mississippi Ran Backwards: After the February 7 earthquake, boatmen reported that the Mississippi actually ran backwards for several hours. The force of the land upheaval 15 miles south of New Madrid created Reelfoot Lake, drowned the inhabitants of an Indian village; turned the river against itself to flow backwards; devastated thousands of acres of virgin forest; and created two temporary waterfalls in the Mississippi. Boatmen on flatboats actually survived this experience and lived to tell the tale. Earth Cracks: As the general area experienced more than 2,000 earthquakes in five months, people discovered that most of crevices opening up during an earthquake ran from north to south, and when the earth began moving, they would chop down trees in an east- west direction and hold on using the tree as a bridge. There were “missing people” who were most likely swallowed up by the earth. Some earthquake fissures were as long as five miles. Sand Boils:  The world’s largest sand boil was created by the New Madrid earthquake. It is 1.4 miles long and 136 acres in extent, located in the Bootheel of Missouri, about eight miles west of Hayti, Missouri. Locals call it “The Beach.” Other, much smaller, sand boils are found throughout the area. Seismic Tar Balls: Small pellets up to golf ball sized tar balls are found in sand boils and fissures. They are petroleum that has been solidified, or “petroliferous nodules.”  Earthquake Lights: Lights flashed from the ground, caused by quartz crystals being squeezed. The phenomena is called “seismoluminescence.”  Warm Water:  Water thrown up by an earthquake was lukewarm. It is speculated that the shaking caused the water to heat up and/or quartz light heated the water.  Earthquake Smog:  The skies turned dark during the earthquakes, so dark that lighted lamps didn’t help. The air smelled bad, and it was hard to breathe. It is speculated that it was smog containing dust particles caused by the eruption of warm water into cold air. Loud Thunder: Sounds of distant thunder and loud explosions accompanied the earthquakes. Animal Warnings: People reported strange behavior by animals before the earthquakes. They were nervous and excited. Domestic animals became wild, and wild animals became tame. Snakes came out of the ground from hibernation. Flocks of ducks and geese landed near people. (From New Madrid Missouri Website)


902-898 RBD Winchester Towhead/Island No. 10

Good north wind protection: there are several miles of steep narrow sandbars thrown up against the interior bank RBD from 902 downstream, the best found around 901 RBD. These would make for tight quarters, but would also be excellent protection for a cold north wind. You could pull in here off the main channel and make camp. Build a fire and enjoy the restless river, you with your feet propped up on a piece of driftwood and a plate of hot food in your lap while the wild winds of the north howl overhead and whip the river into whitecaps. Good sand up to bankfull 35CG.


The Donaldson family, for which the Missouri point is named, were plantation owners on the Tennessee side of the river before the Civil War. When Union forces were making their way down the river early in 1862, General John Pope had his men dig a canal across Donaldson Point. It was his hope that the canal would enable the U. S. Navy gunboats to bypass Confederate fortifications around Island No. 10. The rebels promptly scuttled one of their own steamers, the Winchester, at the foot of the passage to obstruct it. It was an unnecessary precaution, for the canal proved to be too narrow and shallow for the Union vessels. A few days after the Winchester was sunk, a Union reconnaissance party boarded the boat and set fire to it. The towhead that grew up around the sunken rebel boat in later years is still known as Winchester Towhead, and the remains of the rebel vessel are probably buried beneath it. (Braggs: Historic Names)


902.5 - 897 RBD Winchester Chute

Winchester Chute, an old channel of the river, winds a serpentine course around the very end of Donaldson Point, which you can see quite clearly on Google earth. Winchester Chute could be accessed during flood stage when the water is flowing into the trees, but would only be doable for survivalists with excellent orienteering skills.


902 - 899 LBD Below Island No 9 Dikes

Some serious rock work has been done over the years around the outside of Slough Bend where the river makes its southernmost run around Donaldson Point before rolling ten miles north up to New Madrid. At low and medium water levels miles and miles of dikes along the outside of the bend, and others perpendicular running to shore create a hazardous canoe crunching shoreline, and you won’t want to make landing anywhere in the area. But once the river climbs over the dikes, at around 25CG, you can access a couple of beautiful willow-filled islands that have grown up amongst the rock work, the last of these around 900 LBD would make a great protected forest camp, especially in south winds or in the threat of storms coming from the southwest. This island features open, airy, sand floor forest bottoms filled with mature willows, elegant graceful places where you feel a sort of harmony between the vitality of nature and the power of the river.


899.1 LBD Slough Neck Landing Boat Ramp

The boat ramp at Slough Neck Landing is a rough gravel affair falling over the rip rap riverbank. Easiest to use in high water, this ramp bottoms out in mud in low water. There is no apparent upkeep here. But even though primitive landing it is always seems to be a usable landing, and makes a good place to stop for a quick stretch of the legs, or for a mid-day picnic. Camping not advised.


Slough Landing Neck (Bessie’s Bend)

The Mississippi's meander loop in the vicinity of New Madrid, Missouri, is the longest on the Lower Mississippi. The giant smokestack of the New Madrid Power Plant can be seen scraping the sky as you approach Slough Landing. It looks close, and it is straight line distance. But by the river it’s 20 miles downstream! The distance across Slough Landing Neck is about 1 mile at its narrowest place, but boats travel more than 20 miles around the loop, which locals know as Bessie’s Bend. In 1937 it was proposed that an artificial cutoff be made at Slough Landing Neck, and studies were made which indicated that the cutoff would not only shorten the navigation channel and bring it into a better alignment, but would also reduce flood heights above the cutoff. As always, before any project is adopted, public hearings were held. It quickly became apparent that local people were unalterably opposed to the project. The Mississippi River Commission, after listening to the opinions expressed by local interests, failed to recommend the project, and it was abandoned.   When the river later threatened a cutoff of its own, the Corps of Engineers constructed revetments and dikes in the area to stabilize the channel and to hold the river in its old bed.   (Braggs: Historic Names)