The pull of the river


“To one who resides beside a river, its restless flowing can be as compelling as an eddy is for a piece of driftwood. A moving stream awakens the nomad in us. Its waters flow, as a riverboat captain once said, ‘out of the mystery above, into the mystery below.’ Who can watch the Mississippi without feeling the pull?”
— Norah Deakin Davis, preface to The Father of Waters: A Mississippi River Chronicle, 1982

Gateway Arch

As one who resided beside the Mississippi from birth into early adulthood, I can testify to the powerful allure of the Big River. As a kid, I fantasized about rafting down the river like Huck and Jim. Later, I saw that “strong brown god,” as T.S. Eliot called it, as a magic carpet that could transport a traveler far from my hometown, Alton, Ill., downriver to such exotic places as Memphis and New Orleans, and from there to the ports of all the seven seas.
I still travel frequently to Alton, perched on limestone bluffs a few miles upstream from St. Louis. I’ve bicycled down the river from Minneapolis to St. Louis and have frequented the bike trails along its banks in the Alton-St. Louis area.
But until this fall, I had never ridden a relatively new section of trail that allows a cyclist to travel from Alton to the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis — a round trip of about 60 miles from my sister’s house in north Alton.
The newest portion of the route is the Riverfront Trail on the Missouri side of the river — 11 miles from the Missouri side of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge to the waterfront in downtown St. Louis.
Planning for the Riverfront Trail began in 1987 and the first portion opened in 1999. But not until 2005 did the final segment open: the link between the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge and North Riverfront Park.
I had ridden several times from Alton, along trail and levee service road, and crossed the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge into Missouri. But I had turned around and headed back because I would have had to ride along busy Riverfront Boulevard, heavy with truck traffic, to get to downtown St. Louis.
With completion of the Riverfront Trail, you can now ride through a panorama of American history at one of the world’s great crossroads: Just upriver from Alton, at Grafton, the Mississippi is joined by the Illinois River, which brought French explorers to the Mississippi from the Great Lakes. Just downriver, between Alton and St. Louis, is the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, which opened the Louisiana Purchase to waves of westward migration.
Along a paved trail just downriver from downtown Alton is the National Great Rivers Museum at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. The museum, like the locks and dam, is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It provides an overview of the lay of the land and water of America’s most important river system, its flora and fauna and the history of human habitation.

Barge traffic on Chain of Rocks Canal

A few miles further down the trail near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri is the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, a fine museum on the Corps of Discovery’s expedition up the Missouri led by Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; a recreation of Camp DuBois, the fort where the Corps spent the winter of 1803-1804 before embarking May 14, 1804, on their exploration of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory; and the newly opened Confluence Tower, which affords a panoramic view of the meeting of the great rivers from a 150-foot-tall vantage point.
All along the Illinois side of the river, beginning just south of Alton, is a flood plain encompassing about 175 square miles, a region of extremely fertile farmland felicitously called the Great American Bottom.
“This soil cannot be surpassed in fertility by any land upon the globe,” traveler Richard Lee Mason wrote in 1819. “Eighty and one hundred bushels of corn to the acre are common crops without any labor except that which is necessary for planting. This, in truth, is the promised land — the land that flows with milk and honey.”
Still on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, a section of service road atop the levee passes along the Chain of Rocks Canal to the Illinois end of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, a cycling and pedestrian path across the Mississippi into Missouri.
The Chain of Rocks Canal, excavated by the Army Corps of Engineers and opened Feb. 7, 1953, diverts river traffic around a series of rocky shoals across the Mississippi just upriver from St. Louis. At the southern end of the canal is Lock No. 27, the last of series of locks and dams that maintain a navigational channel at a minimum depth of nine feet from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis. Below the Chain of Rocks Canal, the river flows unfettered by locks and dams to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge was once the Mississippi River crossing for old Route 66, which, as the song says, “winds from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles all the way.” Built in 1929 and closed in 1967 to motor traffic, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge is now a span for cyclists and pedestrians.
The bridge, fitted with such Route 66 memorabilia as road and motel signs and a vintage Texaco gas pump, offers a view of turbulent water rushing over the rocky ledges, two castle-like structures in the river just below the bridge that are intake towers for a St. Louis municipal water-treatment plant just downstream and the skyline of the city on the southern horizon.
The remaining 11 miles of the trail, including the newest parts, take a rider along the river through Riverview Park and then along the flood wall — sometimes inside and sometimes on the river side. It passes through the industrial northern edge of downtown, past the clatter and clutter of a scrap metal resalvage yard, rusting, derelict barges moored at bankside and a shantytown of ramshackle dwellings occupied by homeless people. The trail ends at the old Laclede Power Plant, built to supply electricity to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and now set for renovation as offices and as the St. Louis gateway to the trail upriver.
A poem by Jane Ellen Ibur, “Song of the Mississippi,” muralized on the flood wall, well describes this section of the trail: “Recalling time before man, I marvel at my landscape pocked with cement pilings, steel beams, factories belching soot that sinks to silt on my floor, stench of industry, erosion on my banks, tangled iron rods, broken-glass embedded.”
From the Laclede Power Plant, it’s a short ride south on Lewis and Commercial streets, past the old SS Admiral, a five-deck, Art Deco-style excursion steamer in her mid-century heyday, later a casino and now awaiting a new role — or the scrap yard.
Then it’s under the Eads Bridge, completed in 1874 as the city’s first span across the Mississippi, to a 91-acre green swath that’s home to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, otherwise known as the Gateway Arch.
The arch, one of America’s iconic structures like the Washington Monument, Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building, was built in the 1960s to commemorate St. Louis’s role as the gateway of western expansion.
Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947 and finished in 1965, the tapered curve of stainless steel soars to a height of 630 feet, the tallest memorial in the United States. At the base, the legs are 54 feet wide, narrowing to 17 feet at the top.
After a lunch of power bars and bananas, as I watched the tourists gaping at this modern American wonder and listened to Dixieland jazz wafting from a loudspeaker for an excursion company along the levee, I hopped back on the bike and headed back up the trail to Alton — a southerly wind at my back.
A long bicycle ride through familiar terrain, whose features and landmarks rekindle memories from childhood and adolsescence, affords ample time to ponder such things as “roots” — the place where you were born and the people you grew up with, a place that you’re continually drawn to even though you’ll probably never live there again.
I have a friend who feels most at home on the treeless plains of West Texas. Others prefer the mountains or a rock-bound sea coast. For me, it’s the Mississippi River, in all it’s moods, as it rolls inexorably to the sea.
Many songs have been written about the Mississippi. But one by Jimmie Rodgers from 1929, “Mississippi River Blues,” sums up pretty well the pull of the river on those who once lived beside it:
Oh you Mississippi River, with waters so deep and wide.
My thoughts of you keep risin’, just like an evening tide.
I’m just like a seagull that’s left the sea
Oh, your muddy waters keep on callin’ me.

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2 Comments

Filed under History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels, Uncle Ray

2 responses to “The pull of the river

  1. Mark

    Greetings from a fellow Altonian! I discovered your blog a while back while searching for information on “The Lost Cyclist”, and have been following it religiously since. I have greatly appreciated the quality of your journalism, the insights you provide from an experienced cyclist’s perspective, and the reminiscent style of your narration.
    If you write a book, I will buy it. And when you visit Alton again it would be my honor to meet you, and take in a bike ride if time allows — your favorite place will do.
    Merry Christmas!

    • Mark,
      Many, many thanks for your kind words and for following my blog. I’m not sure when I’ll get up to Alton again, but I drive up there two to three times a year to visit my sister. Perhaps we can get together for a brew at Fast Eddie’s or a watering hole of your choice. Best wishes for the holiday season to you and your family.
      Jim

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