Take a close look at this rather fuzzy image. It’s from an old postcard archived in the Lauderdale Library, and it shows just what you think it shows: A gentleman in long pants, jacket, and cap is WALKING down the middle of the Mississippi River. The photo was taken just as he passed Arkansas City, Arkansas, sometime in January 1907. And though it’s hard to tell from the blurry old photo, he accomplished this seemingly impossible task by strapping six-foot “water shoes” — basically little canoes — to his feet. And no, this wasn’t one of the Lauderdales, though my Uncle Lance was known for his decidedly eccentric behavior after imbibing a bit too much moonshine. This fellow’s name was Charles Oldrieve.
Oldrieve lived in Massachusetts. For reasons that were never made clear — not to me, anyway — he accepted a $5,000 wager (an enormous sum in those days) to “walk” the Mississippi River, all the way from Cincinnati to New Orleans, a distance of more than 800 miles. A former circus performer, he experimented with various devices for five years, and finally came up with his cedar “water shoes.”
Oldrieve left Cincinnati on New Year’s Day 1907 and finally splashed into Memphis on the afternoon of January 22, 1907. The Memphis News-Scimitar observed: “When he walks the river, he never takes his feet from the water, but takes short quick strides. … The whole art is in keeping balance and never permitting the ends of the shoes to go underwater.” The newspaper also reported that when he came into view here, steamboats blew their whistles, and “a great crowd soon assembled on the waterfront, thinking some great disaster was taking place on the water.”
No, just some fellow walking down the middle of the river. Nothing to see here, folks. Break it up and go home.
Oldrieve didn’t make the journey alone. He was followed by his wife, in a rowboat, who circled around him whenever he lost his balance, which happened fairly often. Newspapers noted that she was “expert with the oars.” Suffering from chills and fever — can you imagine how cold that water was in January? — Oldrieve waddled ashore at the foot of Butler and spent the night in a hotel here before resuming his long journey the next morning.
But he made it, finally splashing into New Orleans a few weeks later, some 20 pounds lighter and $5,000 richer. What he did afterwards with the rest of his life I have no idea, but at least we have the postcard to document his remarkable stunt. And if you ask me, his wife (whose name wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper stories I found) should get plenty of credit too. Without her in that rowboat, Oldrieve would have probably ended up dead the first time he tumbled into the water. I imagine it would have been hard to fight the river currents wearing a full suit of water-logged clothes and six-foot wooden shoes.