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Mound City, Il. March 10, 2012

Posted by sandyclaus in Uncategorized.
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 I’d like to introduce you to Mound City, Illinois. This tiny town of around 700 people sits on the west bank of the Ohio River. It is just up from Cairo, the greatest missed exit in literature, at the junction of the Mississippi. If Huck and Jim hadn’t slept through their turn, they would have ended up coming through here.

To see the town, you would little expect its history. At one time it was one of the most vital shipyards and Naval Stations in the United States. It was home port to numerous ships of historic significance and frightening destructive potential. It is true though. Once upon a time this drowsy little town churned out some of the most fearsome weapons in the U.S. fleet.

James B. Eads, who died with a reputation as bridge builder and first-rate civil engineer, was largely responsible for this town’s transformation. He wasn’t known for civil engineering in 1862, he was known as a shipbuilder with an eye for destruction.

He built seven fearsome “City-class” ironclads in just five months. To meet the deadline, he enlisted Mound City into assisting on his Navy contract. The yard there was swarmed with workers constructing the U.S.S. Cairo, the U.S.S. Mound City, and the U.S.S. Cincinnati. You will find a more comprehensive history of Mound City at the website brownwaternavy.org. The ships served with distinction, and much combat. The U.S.S. Cairo, sunk by a Confederate mine, was raised and put on display in Vicksburg, MS where you can visit and study its construction.

When these ships were rolling out of Mound City, the shipyard employed twice the population of the town today. These ironclads formed the heart of the Mississippi Squadron, raining fire up and down Confederate waterways. They were technologically advanced. They were cramped. They were loud. They were deadly. They look positively steampunk today.

Another famous ship at Mound City was the Red Rover. This hospital ship frequented Mound City as its home port. This ship was also home to some of the first women to serve in the Navy, including African American women including Anne Bradford, a slave. She was taken by a Union vessel as contraband in January of 1863 and served until October of 1864 as a nurse on the Red Rover. She became the first woman to receive a Navy pension for her service.

Go to a satellite view of Mound City, Il today and the slipways are still visible on the south side of town, along the Ohio, right at the end of Sleepy Road. The canal for the powder barges is still visible just north of town.

In 1865, the Mississippi squadron was largely auctioned off. I’ve attached the notice from the June 27, 1865 Norfolk Post. For months the hulks of these great warships rested at Mound City, waiting for buyers. Their armor stripped, guns removed and powder safe in the arsenal at St. Louis, they waited at anchor for the scrap-men and scavengers to do what the Confederacy could not.

I’ve blown past signs for Mound City on trips before. There is no large historic site. There is no tourist attraction. From the Interstate, there is no hint at the crucial role this town played. Next time I’m through though, I’m making it a point to stop. I want to see the ghosts of these slipways myself.

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