- The Mobile River by John S. Sledge
Although I grew up just north of where the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers converge, I knew very little about the stream that convergence created. Driving south on Highway 43 to the City by the Bay, we paralleled the river, but never saw it. It was just “over there.” It was not until we reached Mobile and went down to the State Docks that I realized how big and powerful the Mobile River is and how important it is to the economy of Alabama. With this publication, John S. Sledge gives the Mobile River its due. Though the Mobile is a short stream, it has a long and colorful history. Sledge, the senior architectural historian for the Mobile Historical Development Commission, tells the Mobile River’s story with style, grace, and insight. This is a splendid book.
Down the Mobile River came the bounty of much of Alabama. Mobile was the Black Belt’s entrepot. It was where cotton was unloaded from the steamboats and stored until it could be loaded on ocean-going vessels and carried afar. Down from the piney woods came the logs and lumber that helped build both the Old and New South. It was here too that the produce from Latin America arrived to be transported north by river and by railroad, for in time Mobile became three cities in one – a river town, a rail center, and a port. It was a diversity boasted by few other American cities. By charting that commerce the author reveals the combination of circumstances and situations, manmade and environmental, which transformed the city of Mobile into one of the most important ports on the Gulf.
The variety of people who conducted this commerce gave Mobile a cosmopolitan flavor unique unto itself. From the Native Americans who came first, to and through the French adventurers, a brief British presence, and then the Americans, Sledge introduces the reader to a cast of characters that are the glue that holds the telling together—river rats, steamboat men, slaves, slave traders, slave smugglers, shipbuilders, cotton brokers, freedmen, shopkeepers, those who sat high in the offices [End Page 366] of the shipping lines and those who worked down on the banana docks. Many of them might seem to be something out of a novel, fiction, yet they actually walked the banks and rode the current of the river. Some are heroic, some are notorious, some are both, but thanks to the author’s vivid descriptions of them they come alive and add spice to the narrative. These individuals, singularly and collectively, enable Sledge to weave town and river into a single story. Throw into the mix hurricanes, disastrous fires, and political shenanigans, and you have an exciting narrative told by a master of the material and the moment.
So it follows that the story of the Mobile River is also the story of the village that grew into a town that became the city that shares its name. By treating city and stream as partners in the development of the region, Sledge gives readers a comprehensive history of Alabama’s window on the wider world. I cannot think of another study where the connections between a stream and a city are more clearly identified and explained.
What is also important about The Mobile River is the way the author’s understanding of riparian culture–of how land and water interact to create conditions for civilizations to exist and evolve–informs the narrative and instructs the reader. This is a book that only John Sledge could have written.
It is hard to put The Mobile River into a single category. It could be listed under environmental history, economic history, even urban studies. Its action–filled account of the defense of the city and the Battle of Mobile Bay could justify a listing under Civil War. Meanwhile the postwar efforts to revive and expand local manufacturing and commerce place the river and city comfortably in the New South...