The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis

Cementland: The Unfinished Adventure Land For Mischievous Adults

(by Ella Morton for Slate)

 

In 2000 Bob Cassilly rode his bike past the site. He saw the abandoned buildings, the piles of dirt, and the untamed weeds, and had an overwhelming thought: I need to buy this place and turn it into a cement-themed adventure park where you can do all the things you're not supposed to do. Cassilly, a sculptor, had a lot of out-there ideas. But they weren't just fantasies -- in 1983 he bought an old shoe factory in downtown St. Louis and installed caves, a 10-story slide, a rooftop Ferris wheel, a ball pit, and a massive jungle gym made from old airplanes and a fire truck. The transformed building, dubbed City Museum, opened to the public in 1997. It now attracts over 700,000 visitors per year. Cassilly's plan for the cement site -- Cementland, he called it -- was even more ambitious. He aimed to build a castle, climbable pyramids, water slides, and a field of animal sculptures mixed with old factory machines. He planned to install a spiral staircase around the smokestack so people could climb to the top and throw rocks off the side. ("I haven't worked out all the details," he told St. Louis' Riverfront Times in 2000, "but the theory's sound. Everyone likes to throw rocks.") For 11 years, Cassilly worked steadily on transforming the location, often shifting piles of dirt himself with a bulldozer. He built the castle. He constructed gazebos, installed bridges between the drab old buildings, and dug a lake where his future visitors could paddle canoes.Then, on September 26, 2011, it all came to an abrupt end. Cassilly was found dead at the site, his bulldozer having tumbled down a hill in a freak accident. He was 61. Cementland -- the dream; the playground; the big, weird place where you could be a naughty kid again -- lies silent and unfinished. Talk of what it could become periodically bubbles up, but for now the site remains a half-fulfilled promise, difficult to envision and impossible to define. It's a fitting reminder of Cassilly himself. In 2000, he gave this answer to the Riverfront Times when asked how he responds to the standard American small-talk question, "What do you do?": "I stutter. I get panic in my heart. I start looking out the window," Cassilly says, looking away. "I can't stand to define myself." (Slate)

 

Mark River’s Grandfather Earl Peoples Sr. worked for Portland Cement starting in the 1930s, and it was near here that Mark met Big Muddy Mike Clark who was returning from a day on the river with the 30 foot cypress strip voyageur canoe Junebug I (the amazing circles of life the river seems to facilitate). “One of the major influences in my river life was growing up near Missouri Portland Cement.  In the 1930s through the 1970s my grandfather drove the train cars which transported the smaller portions rock and limestone from the quarry across Scranton Dr. to the conveyor belt, which in turn would be sorted by size and used accordingly.  The big portions would be hauled by dump trucks down to the Mississippi River onto barges. Missouri Portland Cement use to have the first barge dock after the Chain of Rocks were built in the 1960s. 

 

“In the seventies as a very young boy, I remember a bustling neighborhood adjacent to the quarry and plant. You could feel the earth move from the quarry one block away from my grandparents home which they bought in the 1930s. This neighborhood, "Riverview",  was built around an orchard of fruit trees. Peach, plum, apple, and pear trees littered the surrounding area. My grandparents had three peach trees and  one pear tree. I would spend my time climbing these trees feasting on fruit. Sometimes I would eat the green apples to early and get a stomach ailment my grandma called the "flux", a fancy word for constipation.  The quarry on dry days would create dust clouds , which made the Mississippi River look like it was on fire. My parents home was built on a bluff they called Prospect Hill. There was a church by that name where I was baptized in 1977. If you walk through this neighborhood today, there are families of many workers still living in the surrounding homes. You can still find fruit trees, and if you look closely, you can still see the outline of the foundation of Prospect Hill Baptist Church.  Big Muddy Adventures is located behind this old plant with its peach and pear trees still bearing fruit. 

 

“After my grandfather retired in the 1970s, the plant changed its name to Lafarge, eventually closing its doors in the late 1980s. There was talk of imploding the whole site, but the threat of asbestos poisoning saved the structure. It was purchase by artist Bob Cassilly in 2000 and was being converted to a amusement-like park, "Cementland", until his untimely death in 2011.  Mark River attended the ceremony of spreading his ashes on the river, working at the time for Big Muddy Adventures. Below, he shares a story about the funeral for Bob Cassilly. Like all things that defined Bob’s life, his final parting ceremony was unique, mind opening, and full of mythologic expression.

 

Bob Cassilly Funeral

The day is sunny and the mood is easy as we come together to remember one of North County's finest. The days approaching this moment had been chaotic in disbelief of a man that was larger than life. Everything was big in his life.  His art, his vision, and most certainly his hands.  I remember meeting Bob. Myself and ex-athlete, strong and confident, but when I shook his hands for the first time, I felt weak and small.  So strong. I felt as if his hands reached my elbows. Strength  built up from years of working with concrete. He knew of my grandfather and his connection to his biggest project Cementland. He knew I spent my  childhood exploring the River. He knew I had spied on him and his crew-the Cassilly Crew working long hours. He knew that the neighborhood in which he planned his biggest project to date, was dear to my heart. His vision of creating a wonderland in our neighborhood that would draw people from all over the world was achievable. The plan was to build an amusement type park with bicycle rentals and canoe rentals. He planned a crosswalk that would lead to the River. He planned to convert old homes into living quarters for guest who wanted to spend long outings enjoying the park and the River. He would provide canoe excursions from the confluence, through the Chain of Rocks. He would save our beautiful slice of river from the building of casinos that fleece communities of monetary income.

 

These conversations floated through crowd as the volunteers scrambled to pull off a funeral that was bigger than life itself. Myself, working diligently with Scott Mandrell constructing a huge teepee on the grounds for friends and fellow artist to engage and share their favorite memories of Bob. Others worked on building a cross that rose high in the sky that would be burned after the service. Artist from around the world arrived with elaborate outfits. The fire and police departments manage the environment, making sure everyone is safe, and observing the structure and the pyrometrical elements involved.

 

The plan was to load family and close friends into canoes, then float down to Bob's property and release his ashes into the River. The time had come. The sun is starting to set as the Junebug canoe is loaded with family. Seven canoes floating downriver towards onlookers holding candles lining an old barge dock . The site was so surreal, that I couldn't hold back the tears. The River cut-banks full of people sobbing and holding each other. This man had affected many lives.

 

I felt a strong connection that night with the River. I used to stare at Bob's boat landlocked on top of the hill at Cementland. I was that boat.  Change was upon us. It was real. I knew that I wouldn't be around much longer. I knew that the River had plans for me. We sat in the teepee admiring a huge bonfire so fierce that fire department hung around all night. It was the best funeral I ever witnessed. No one left to the sun came up. When the sun finally rose, I walked down to the River and dedicated my life to the River and hoped that someday my ashes would be poured into the Mississippi River. (Mark River)

 

189 - 184 LBD Gabaret Island

Long Narrow Island behind Mosenthein, now connected to Chouteau Island. During Low/Med water a giant sandbar forms in the back channel against Gabaret Island (opposite the bottom end of Mosenthein Is). This bar makes good picnicking and camping if the weather is friendly and the winds calm. In inclement weather seek better protected campsites on Mosenthein. In high water, you might find shelter in the woods at the bottom end of the island. The Underground Railroad crossed the Mississippi from slave state Missouri into free state Illinois at the bottom end of Gabaret Island. “Big Muddy” Mike Clark calls this stretch of river “The Freedom Trail” because amongst other things it was Huck and Jim’s road to freedom.