Dear Vance: Is it true that a Memphian somehow “walked” down the river, all the way to New Orleans, sometime in the early 1900s? — R.B., Memphis.
Dear R.B.: It is indeed true that a gentleman “walked the Mississippi” in the early 1900s, but his journey was considerably longer than the one you describe, and — I hate to break it to you — he wasn’t a Memphian.
This remarkable fellow was Charles Oldrieve, and here’s his story.
Born in England and raised in the Boston area, Oldrieve began performing stunts at a young age, developing considerable expertise as a tightrope walker and working for several years as a high-wire performer at Revere Beach near that city. But one day in late 1907, he somehow got into a $5,000 wager with another Boston resident named Edwin Williams, identified in the old newspaper accounts as a “sporting gentleman.” The bet went something like this: Oldrieve would win the money — an enormous sum in those days, when the average annual wage was barely $500 — if he “walked” down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, all the way from Cincinnati to New Orleans. It would be a journey of some 1,600 miles.
Now obviously a normal human being can’t walk on water, so Oldrieve developed a special pair of shoes, if you can even call them that, which were effectually canoes strapped to his feet. Newspapers explained, “The boots in which he walks are made of fine cedar, 4 feet long, 6 inches wide, and 6 inches deep. His feet are retained in the boots by an elastic web.”
Now this apparently wasn’t some spur-of-the-moment thing. Newspapers reported that Oldrieve spent five years perfecting these things, nurturing a reputation as “The Human Water Spider,” even though early tests weren’t promising. One “walk” around Boston Harbor got him lost in a fog, and he had to wait 12 hours for friends to find and rescue him.
Even so, on New Year’s Day he left Cincinnati, wearing dress pants, shirt, vest, and overcoat, and even a hat. I have no idea why he didn’t wait for warmer weather; perhaps that was part of the bet. He didn’t actually “walk” along the water by taking steps; instead he apparently shuffled each foot forward, one at a time, while trying to keep his balance.
And he wasn’t alone. His wife, Caroline, described as “an expert rowboatswoman” (now there’s a term you don’t hear every day), accompanied him for most of the journey to pull him from the water in case of a spill. What’s more, a motor launch called The Rover followed the Oldrieves as they made their way downstream. It was too risky to perform this stunt at night, so after dark Charles and Caroline ate and slept aboard the boat.
They splashed into — or past — Memphis on the afternoon of January 22, 1907. Newspapers here reported that as soon as he came into view, steamboats started blowing their whistles, “and a great crowd soon assembled on the riverfront, thinking some great disaster was taking place on the water.”
All those boats that greeted him when he approached any city caused no end of problems, because they kicked up waves, and, as he explained, “the whole art is in keeping your balance and never permitting the ends of the shoes to go underwater.” Reporters noted that Oldrieve “kept his arms in constant motion to balance himself” and praised the efforts of his wife, rowing along behind him the whole way, noting that “her task is almost equal to his.”
Even without interference from boats and barges, the Mississippi is twisting with eddies and currents, and Oldrieve splashed into the cold water countless times. As a result, by the time he and his wife reached our city, both were suffering from fever and chills, but they pressed on. The old postcard image above shows Oldrieve passing Arkansas City, Arkansas, a few days later. He was making rather astonishing progress, sometimes traveling as far as 50 miles in one day.
And he made it, finally waddling into New Orleans on February 10, 1907, some 10 pounds lighter than when he began — and $5,000 richer.
Dear Vance: What can you tell me about a well-known Memphis athlete named Ned Turner? — T.W., Memphis.
Dear T.W.: I can tell you that it frustrates me when I can’t share the entire story of somebody: where they were born, what pets they owned, their favorite birthday presents, that kind of thing. And I’m especially aggravated that I turned up a few interesting details about Turner’s life, but I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to uncover more about him.
Here’s what I know. He was born in Memphis in 1896. As a young man, he excelled at almost every sport he encountered. According to an old Press-Scimitar article, “Turner earned varsity letters at Annapolis in swimming, water polo, and rifle shooting. He also earned a basketball letter at Union University in Jackson, and often qualified in championship golf matches.”
But Turner really made his name in bowling, becoming a well-known player at the city’s top bowling alley, Southern Lanes on South Cleveland. Back in those days, and I’m talking about the 1940s now, bowling was organized into rather complicated divisions. One newspaper story reported that Turner “is a member of the Stewart Rose Bud Coffee team of the Classic League, and the Canadian Club squad of the Victory League.”
I’m sure these made sense at the time.
But his greatest moment was when he became the 1949 Champion of the entire Southern Bowling Congress, following a heated competition at Southern Lanes. The photos here, in fact, were taken during that tournament.
Despite his athletic skills, Turner never tried to make a living off sports. His day job was serving as the sales manager for the Consolidated Distributing Company, a division of Plough Pharmaceuticals. He retired from that job in 1959, and for years was a regular participant at matches conducted by the American Contract Bridge League. In later years, he helped promote a new boating and fishing development being developed by the Belz Company at Grenada, Mississippi. He passed away in 1974 at the age of 78. I wonder what happened to all his bowling trophies?
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Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103