Pritchartt recalls life of boating on Mississippi River

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

Howard Pritchartt has, by his own estimation, had every kind of job he could have.

He’s owned real estate, run a pawn shop and served in the military. He’s been married, and he’s been made a widower. But there’s always been one constant in his 83 years of life — the Mississippi River.

He was 14 when he and a friend built his first boat, a little square vessel that soon became the property of the river.

“It didn’t last long,” he said. “It got carried off in some flood. It wasn’t much; my friend and I — I was 14 and he was maybe 16 — took it down to the river in a wagon.”

Pritchartt’s father had always owned boats, but it was from that point — from the time he built his own boat — that his life became intertwined with the crooks and curves of the river bends.

When Pritchartt graduated from high school in 1944, his father pulled some strings with the captain of a riverboat and got him a job as a deckhand placing buoys on the river. That job ended abruptly, however, by the younger Pritchartt’s entrance into World War II.

After the war, Pritchartt returned to river work, taking a job on a sounding boat that was mapping the bottom of the river.

It was during that time he started building his first cabin boat out of cypress wood.

“All these old people had these antique engines with big old iron flywheels and two-cylinder engines, and I used one of those,” he said. “The problem with those engines was they would always catch logs.”

The more time he spent on the river, the more Pritchartt got to know the people on it, commercial fishermen and drifters, folks he called “a rough lot.”

“A lot of them were running from the law, and they were open about it,” he said.

“It was a rough life because they would be out there in the coldest weather working.”

One man Pritchartt remembers clearly would fish with 30 lines in the river at a time.

“You couldn’t see the lines above the water, but he could tell you where every one of them was,” he said. “You could strike a match on the back of his hands, they were so rough.”

And while some of the drifters he met were just drifting down the river, others took the name “drifter” from their way of life.

“They would catch driftwood as well as fish,” he said. “The river bank was continually caving, and so big logs would fall in, and they would drive big spikes into the logs to mark ownership, and later they would come back and saw it and float it down to the sawmill in Natchez.”

As time progressed, Pritchartt built more boats — rowboats, pirogues, cabin boats, inboard boats, even an airboat with an airplane engine. And when the airplane engine burned out on the airboat, he converted it into a cabin boat — there was no sense in abandoning one vessel when it could be another.

In 1973, when the filming of “Huckleberry Finn” was being done in Natchez, the producers wanted a wooden boat in which one of the characters would be seen floating. The only one they could find had been built by Pritchartt in the 1950s.

“I still have that boat,” he said. “It doesn’t leak a drop.”

With time and all of his boats, Pritchartt got to know the river like a temperamental mistress, its curves and its treacherous currents.

“The river’s gotten a bad reputation — you always hear people saying, ‘Oh, that river’s dangerous,’” he said. “I’ve swum across it before, me and another guy. We had two fellows in a rowboat next to us, and we made it to the other side fine. We were a mile-and-a-half downstream, but we were fine.”

The point at which Pritchartt said he thinks the river got its reputation as a killer was after an accident in which six of what he called “high society folks” who were inexperienced in handling watercraft crashed the small boat they were in into a barge.

“Their boat got sucked under the barge,” he said. “One man survived that, and four women and another man drowned. It was really after that that you started hearing people say, ‘Don’t trust the river.’”

Pritchartt, however, knew the river’s temperament and knew how to pass the time with her.

“Before they put the control structures on the rivers, these large, beautiful sandbars would form,” he said. “I would go hunting down the river and sleep on those sandbars or in my boat.”

Those control structures, which ensure the river flows a certain way and doesn’t shift its course like it used to, are a sore point for Pritchartt.

“They’ve taken it and made a big ditch of the entire thing,” he said. “As the river came up, those (river) bends would fill up. When they cut them out, they started to silt up, and now they have silted up a lot of reservoirs that would fill up naturally with the river when it rose.”

But just as the way the river flows has changed, so has Pritchartt’s relationship to the river.

These days, at age 84, his knees aren’t what they used to be, and he has trouble getting from a sitting and standing position, so he doesn’t get to get out there like he once did. He’s got a lake on his property on the south end of the county, and he keeps a few boats, but it’s not the same.

“I’ve never had patience for fishing,” he said. “If they don’t bite in two minutes, I’m gone.”

And his love of the river and the boats he used on it shouldn’t be mistaken for the love of all water and watercraft.

“I have always had a love of small boats,” he said. “When I went overseas, I went over on the Queen Mary. I didn’t care for that — I would sleep in the life raft and throw up.”

The times he spent with the river have been good and bad, he said. People aren’t allowed to dump garbage into the water like they used to, but how the river flows — and behaves — has been forever changed by engineering and flood control structures.

The character of the river, and the characters associated with it, have evolved — there are few if any drifters, and teenage boys are no longer encouraged to test homemade watercraft in the muddy Mississippi waters.

“I’ve spent so much of my life on that river,” he said. “The river has changed a lot. There are a things that are a lot better, and things that are a lot worse.”