Pruned — On landscape architecture and related fields — ArchivesFuture Plural@pruned — Offshoots — #Chicagos@altchicagoparks@southworkspark
Mythologizing the Dredge Boaters
Dredge Boaters

Once the cities established their beachheads, the dredge boaters and their mud-suckers entered the soft, defenseless womb-belly of the Great Dismal Swamp.

There was an Empire to be made.

Dredge Boaters

Some began on the margins, gnawing away at the neither solid nor liquid surface, leaving an alien grid of ditches and canals, by which the wetlands were sucked dry. Others were dropped in the middle of the marshy wilderness, carrying planks of timber, bushels of coal, and the iron marvels of nascent modernity, all assembled together at the gooey center before cutting their escape routes.

At the vanguard of each cadre was the giant, steel hardened, biting snout of the sludge-extractor, which swiveled left and right to regurgitate its cargo of excavated slime. It was both the mouth and the anus of the monstrous beast. At the back were rooms where the dredge boaters ate, slept and passed the time away. Indeed, these dredge boats were their homes for the weeks and months and sometimes years that it took to exsanguinate the wetlands. They were terrestrial-sailors plying the waves of an inland prairie-sea.

Dredge Boaters

Dredge Boaters

Once in a while, the dredge boaters passed through a pioneer township, a sort of Land Grant port of call. Like their seaborne counterparts, these landlocked mariners relieved themselves on booze, cabaret, gambling and prostitutes. One or two even left with a partner. Some of the newcomers became lived-in whores for the crews, while others actually married into the dredging life, in which case the dredge boat was turned into a floating cathedral for the wedding.

Dredge Boaters

The new couple was then given their own dredge boat, and there they raised a family, a new crew of dredge boaters. They birthed swamp babies on dead-straight lines of stagnant waters, sent them to floating schools staffed with traveling minstrel-teachers from the East, entertained them with stories of the Bog Monster, apprenticed them on the art of marsh-bloodletting, and indoctrinated them on empire-building.

And there, on that same dredge boat, that's where they also died, had their quivering as steam whistled lamentations in the front, before being scooped up by the bucket-ladder and buried on some stretch of dredged tumulus-levee, at peace with the knowledge that they did their heroic part in preparing the landscape for the heroic farmers, the heroic ranchers, the heroic rail builders, and the heroic megalopolis.

  • Anonymous
  • January 25, 2012 at 7:45:00 AM CST
  • That was great!

  • Anonymous
  • January 26, 2012 at 12:56:00 PM CST
  • A friend sent me a link to this story. If you don't mind, can you tell us where these photos came from? I'm intrigued with how you were able to post them. Also, where were these taken? Are these Louisiana wetlands? I'm so interested because I have a blog about life in the Louisiana Wetlands. These photos are something I could use in a story about how all the canals were dug, thus beginning the degradation of our protective wetlands here. Any information you could share would be greatly appreciated. If you would rather write me privately, please do so at And thanks so much!

  • Alexander Trevi
  • January 26, 2012 at 1:11:00 PM CST
  • bayouwoman:

    In each photo's label is a link to where I got it from. Those links will have more information, plus much larger versions of the photos. The mythologized version of history I presented here are based on actual dredging activities in Illinois and elsewhere in the Midwest (I'm based in Chicago) in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

  • Brian Davis
  • January 27, 2012 at 4:40:00 PM CST
  • of course this myth, is a forest myth. Henry Disston was a saw-man after all...

  • Anonymous
  • January 29, 2012 at 7:34:00 PM CST
  • I was so enthralled with the text and photos, that I didn't even notice the captions. Sorry. Thanks again for the post.

  • Alexander Trevi
  • January 29, 2012 at 8:12:00 PM CST
  • Hi bayouwoman:

    I'm very intrigued by your future Louisiana Wetlands story. I've got a thing for wetlands as you can probably tell, and I'm sure a lot of my readers have as well. So when it's finished, I'd be very grateful if you come back and leave a link here as a comment.

Post a Comment —
Comments on posts older than a week are moderated —

—— Newer Post Older Post —— Home