Riverboat Adventure, Part 3 (Borders)

Europeans began to subdivide the Lower Mississippi watershed into various colonial claims, and the nascent United States carved it further into states, counties and even smaller units. They used the rivers as boundaries in some instances, and straight lines laid arbitrarily in others. Both interacted to form an awesome string of geo-oddities throughout the region. I visited as many as feasible along our path. Kentucky seemed to have an overabundance of them and that’s where I began as I worked my way downstream.

Dorena-Hickman Ferry

Dorena-Hickman Ferry

Missouri and Kentucky border each other, and yet, no bridge spans directly between the two states. In fact there’s a complete lack of any bridges over the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to the Interstate 155 bridge west of Dyersburg, Tennessee, a minimum road distance of nearly 85 miles (140 kilometers) (map).

There is one additional option however, the Dorena-Hickman Ferry (map), running from Dorena, Missouri to Hickman, Kentucky. Not only does it span the gap between those widely-spaced Mississippi River bridges in a very rural area, it offers a rare, direct crossing between two states with a tiny shared border. Few people complete this feat. The ferry holds only a handful of vehicles at a time.

Wolf Island

Wolf Island

To be honest, I’d forgotten about this little oddity until new reader Aaron sent an email message a few days before the trip completely by coincidence and happened to mention it. I figured I’d already planned to drive within a few miles of Wolf Island so I might as well check it out along the way. I would have been kicking myself if the message had arrived a week later and I’d missed my chance.

Wolf Island, Virtually

Consider that there were couple of Kentucky exclaves on the "wrong" side of the Mississippi River appended to Missouri due to changes in the path of the river over time. This made it possible to drive between Kentucky and Missouri on dry land in a few out-of-the-way places. I examined maps closely and determined that the best spot to accomplish such a crossing would involve Kentucky’s Wolf Island via Missouri’s Route 80.

Wolf Island figured into a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1870, Missouri v. Kentucky. Missouri claimed that Wolf Island belonged to it because it had been connected physically to the Missouri from its origin. Kentucky argued the opposite point and offered witness testimony to demonstrate that Wolf Island had once been connected to the eastern shore until the river shifted. The Court found Kentucky’s argument more persuasive and affirmed the legitimacy of the Kentucky exclave.

Route 80 offered a paved surface as it headed towards the river. From there, it was a simple matter of turning onto the gravel of Wolf Island Road for just a few feet until crossing the Kentucky border. The road had an iron rail that could be closed to block access to Kentucky, however it was open when we arrived and I drove over the border just long enough to take the photograph, above. I didn’t bother to ask for permission and there wasn’t anybody nearby to ask anyway. This was actually very easy.

I’ve now crossed between Kentucky and Missouri on water (Dorena-Hickman Ferry) and on dry land (from Missouri to Kentucky’s Wolf Island exclave). I imagine there aren’t very many people who can say the same.

Kentucky Bend

Kentucky Bend

I’ve received numerous inquires from the 12MC audience over the years asking why I’ve never mentioned Kentucky Bend, a place sometimes called Bubbleland for its unusual shape. For the longest time my wife misunderstood what I’d been calling it and thought the name was "Bubba Land." In a sense Bubba Land felt more appropriate, actually.

Kentucky Bend, Virtually

Kentucky Bend formed on a sharp curve in the Mississippi River, physically separated from the rest of the state. It existed where an artificial line intersected the river. The only overland driving route goes through Tennessee.

Kentucky’s southern border with Tennessee was defined along a specific line of latitude dating back to colonial times before Kentucky and Tennessee even existed. Kentucky’s border with Missouri, however, followed the Mississippi River. Surely an accommodation would have been made had this intersection been explored and better understood when designated, although it was deep in the wilderness at the time and nobody really thought about it. Imagine the surprise of surveyors establishing a border between Kentucky and Tennessee when they finally arrived at the end of their journey and discovered that their line cut through a loop of the river.

The reason I’d never written about Kentucky Bend previously was because I wanted to visit it in person instead of simply writing about it in an abstract manner. That visit has now been completed. There’s not much out there although that’s hardly the point. I noticed the usual eye-rolls from my wife while I photographed each sign in succession. Then I photographed the road itself to record the changes in pavement that took place at the state border. Fun times.

As an aside, anytime 12MC ignores a famous US geo-oddity that truly deserves mention, it means that I’m waiting to visit it in person.

Welcome to Arkansas

I crossed state borders repeatedly as I jogged back-and-forth across the Mississippi River during our journey. Every river crossing marked a boundary between two different states. For me, those included Illinois-Missouri; Missouri-Kentucky; Tennessee-Arkansas; Arkansas-Mississippi and Mississippi-Louisiana (and Kentucky-Illinois if one counts my Ohio River crossing). The image of the "Welcome to Arkansas" sign reproduced above appeared on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on Interstate 40, spanning between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas.

Those were wonderful opportunities from the perspective of experiencing a number of awesome bridges plus a leisurely ferry. However there wouldn’t be any state tripoint adventures this time unlike my Dustbowl trip. The tripoints, like the borders, were all located within the river.

Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park

I drove to perhaps the most obscure state park in Arkansas (map). A boardwalk led deep into a headland swamp, to a simple marker noting:

This stone marks the base established Nov. 10, 1815 from which the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were surveyed by United States engineers, the first survey from this point was made to satisfy the claims of the soldiers of the War of 1812 with land bounties.

More specifically, this marked the intersection of the Fifth Principal Meridian (north-south) and its Baseline (east-west). Why did they locate such an important surveying reference in the middle of a swamp? Again it related back to the artificial nature of straight lines interacting with rivers. The meridian began at the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. The base began at the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi Rivers. Their intersection by simple happenstance occurred in a swamp. This marshy spot served as a survey point for the current states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota along with portions of South Dakota and Minnesota.

The marker also served as the tripoint for Arkansas’ Lee, Monroe and Phillips Counties. I may not have captured any state tripoints so counties would have suffice as a substitute.

The Riverboat Adventure articles:

6 Replies to “Riverboat Adventure, Part 3 (Borders)”

  1. Wow, I’m honored by the mention! Despite growing up in Lexington, I’ve never really had the chance to explore Western Kentucky. The last time I was in this area was 2010, before I started counting counties and border crossings and learned about the Kentucky Bend. Now I’m kicking myself!

    I noticed something interesting near the turnoff for Wolf Island Road – a tiny marker on google maps that said “Battle of Belmont.” I did some research, and it turns out that this tiny part of Missouri was the site of the Civil War’s Battle of Belmont in November of 1861. While not necessarily the most significant battle of the Mississippi River Campaign, Belmont had one important distinction: it was the first time Ulysses S Grant (then a Brigadier General) saw combat in the Civil War. While the state park dedicated to the battle is located across the river in Columbus, KY, it seems the actual site of the battle was in this little corner of Missouri. The Wolf Island exclave area isn’t only geographically significant, it’s historically significant too!

    Thanks again!

  2. The Dorena-Hickman ferry may be small, but for your refreshment and comfort it’s equipped with a Coke machine and a porta-potty!

    1. After driving through an empty stretch of rural Missouri bereft of facilities and waiting another twenty minutes-or-so for the ferry… I can attest that the porta-potty was both functional and clean.

  3. I just completed a trip “back East” this past week. Outbound, I was alone, so I took the opportunity to use the Dorena-Hickman ferry. I would not have known about it but for 12MC. It was a lot of fun! Thank you!
    On the way back, wife and daughter joining me, I expected to take the more traditional routes using Interstate highways and modern bridges. As soon as they heard about the ferry, however, they were quite insistent that they wanted to experience it as well.
    Both times, our car was the only one on the trip. One-way fare for a car is $14. However, if you save your receipt you can return for half price. There’s no time limit on that, as far as I know. Crossing time is around 15 minutes, but if you have the unfortunate luck to arrive just as the ferry leaves, you can plan on 45 minutes or so before it gets back. On my first trip, the ferry was within sight and close to pulling in as I arrived. On the second, we didn’t wait more than 10 minutes until we saw it coming. While waiting on the Missouri side, there isn’t much to do but look at the mighty river. Waiting on the Kentucky side may afford the chance to see barges and tugboats in operation.
    By the way, I was NOT impressed with the cleanliness of the porta-potty onboard, but when one needs it, it comes in mighty handy. Any port in a storm and all that …

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