The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Cairo To Caruthersville

937.2 LBD Columbus-Belmont State Park

In the 1670s Frenchmen Marquette and Joliet explored the area where Columbus now stands. Originally called “Iron Banks” due to the purported deposits of iron ore in the bluffs along the river (which turned out to be a falsehood), the settlement changed its name to Columbus and attempted to have the U.S. capital moved from Washington to western Kentucky. Washington D.C. had been burned by the British during the War of 1812. The nation’s capital stayed in Washington, but Columbus did grow to be an important river town. Columbus again became the center of national attention in the opening months of the Civil War. The town had the distinction of being the opening phase of the Federal campaign to secure the West. On September 1, 1861, General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union District of Southeast Missouri, secured Cairo, Ill. and Paducah. His forces then moved on to take the high ground around Columbus. To his surprise Confederate General Leonidas Polk moved up from Tennessee and took the heights. The Confederates established a camp at Belmont, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. Both Confederate and Union forces had now violated Kentucky’s neutrality forcing the state to ultimately choose the Union. The military advantage of taking the heights could not be overlooked. Confederate guns now looked down on the Mississippi River giving the South a defensible and controlling position of that vital waterway. The Confederacy began to fortify the bluffs above Columbus to such an extent that many military experts felt the position to be impregnable. During the autumn and winter of 1861, the South had 19,000 men laboring on the fortifications around Columbus. Confederate forces installed 140 siege guns along the heights and extended a huge chain across the Mississippi to stop Union gunboats and other vessels from navigating the river. By the time the Confederates finished their work, Columbus had become the most heavily fortified place in North America. It earned the sobriquet, the “Gibraltar of the West.” (from Columbus-Belmont State Park website)


937 LBD Iron Bank Light

The peculiar color and strange appearance of the high bluff at Columbus, Kentucky, attracted the attention of some of the earliest explorers, who commented on it more than a century before the founding of the town. French explorers, having failed to find the gold and silver mines they sought so diligently, reported that they had at least discovered an "iron mine." Father Jacques Gravier, a Jesuit missionary who made a voyage down the Mississippi in 1700, stopped at the bluff to investigate the famous iron mine, about which he had heard so many wondrous tales. He described it scornfully, as follows: "The pretended plates of iron attached to the pebbles are anything but what was supposed, and what I was told. They are merely veins of hard and almost petrified earth, which have indeed the color of iron, but which are not heavy and break easily. I took a piece, to show that if there is an iron mine, it must not be judged by that earth."

Another priest, Father Pierre Charlevoix, came down the river 21 years later and stopped to examine the bluff. Although rumors of the supposed iron mine were still heard, he said he found only yellow earth and could only conclude that the mine was a figment of someone's imagination. The iron mine which never existed gave the bluff its name, which is preserved today by the navigation light.


937.0 LBD Columbus Boat Ramp

Columbus Boat Ramp is a wide concrete boat ramp laid over rip-rap in large eddy above the Columbus Service Dock, with a turnaround and parking above. If making landing be careful to to overshoot entrance and get stuck above docked barges. Especially dangerous entrance in high water (fast currents). Access to Columbus via Riverside Drive, and Hwy 58. Paddlers can find hot showers in nearby Columbus-Belmont State Park campground, which is on the bluff above the ramp, but it is a long ways to walk to camp, and your tent will be surrounded by RVs. No grocery in Columbus, but paddlers can resupply water and find accouterments at convenience store.


936.9 LBD Ingram Drydock

Drydock operation along Columbus waterfront for servicing tows and barges. Ingram is the largest tow company operating on the Mississippi River with headquarters in Nashville. Ingram is known to be paddler friendly, but always paddle defensively and always yield right of way to all tows. Ingram began operations after WWII in 1946, but the heritage stretches back to the 1800s when the Ingram family was involved in logging in the upper Midwest. Today paddlers will daily encounter big 3-screw Ingram towboats such as the E. Bronson Ingram, The John M. Donnelly, the John R. Ingram, the Sally Bromfield, and many dozen others, sometimes pushing upwards of 42 barges (6x7) and churning the big river into a muddy froth with 8 foot tall standing waves behind the props.


Wild Miles below Columbus

Paddlers headed downstream from Columbus are entering the first stretch of “Wild Miles” on the Lower Miss. Rolling around Wolf Island, and then through Beckwith Bend, past Hickman, around Island No.8, Donaldson Point, and then into Bessie’s Bend, paddlers will get a taste of the big forests, big islands, and big waters awaiting them as they continue on downstream towards the Gulf of Mexico. According to 71% of the river miles along the main channel of the Lower Mississippi give paddlers that “wild” feeling they seek (and usually have to go far away to exotic locales to find!).


What are the Wild Miles? Wild Miles are places where nature predominates and nothing is seen of mankind save passing tows (and other river traffic) and maybe a tiny hunting camp or a single fisherman buzzing by in a johnboat.  These are places where the landscape is filled with giant islands bounded by endless mud banks & sandbars, where the river is overseen by big skies and where the sun sets uninterrupted by buildings or wires and where big river predominates with creative wild beauty, each high water results in shifting sand dunes and re-made sandbars.  This is a floodplain valley where only deer & coyote tracks are seen along the sandbars and enormous flocks of shy birds like the White Pelican and Double Breasted Cormorant are comfortable enough to make landing for the night.  These are places where it's dark & quiet at night, where the stars fill the skies like brightly shining jewels poured out on a dark purple velvet blanket, almost as thick & vibrant as the night skies of the Great Plains or Rocky Mountains.


This stretch of Wild Miles below Columbus ends at the New Madrid Harbor, where big industry and agricultural silos are again found on the river’s edge, but then again resumes further downstream (below the Arcola Plant) between Hickman and Caruthersville.  


935 - 934 LBD South Columbus Island

Below the last of Ingram fleeting along mile 935.3 paddlers following the Kentucky shore left bank descending will find an eddy and some sandbars and a low place in the woods.   This is the top of an old island that has joined the bank, except in high water when passage is possible through the woods. Close up views of the 3rd Kentucky Bluff behind island. Best route is to go to base of island and paddle around point of island (above big dike at Wolf Island) and continue up back channel along the base of the Chalk Bluffs. This route is open in all but low water levels, below 10CG.