The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
183.4 RBD The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing and Rest Area
This nine-acre site is on the St. Louis Riverfront Trail, three miles north of downtown St. Louis, just north of the Merchant’s Bridge rght bank descending. This site recognizes the first documented Underground Railroad event in Missouri. In the early morning hours of May 21, 1855 a group of slaves escaped and tried to cross the river from Missouri into Illinois for freedom. Mary Meachum, who was already a free Africa American woman, assisted and accompanied them in their attempt to escape. Mary was the wife of John Berry Meachum who had bought his own freedom, founded the first free black church in St. Louis, and bought other African Americans out of slavery while teaching them how to read and write. When he died, Mary carried on the movement. She was helping a woman named Ester, her two small children and at least two other people to cross into freedom at this very location. Unfortunately, a police officer was waiting on the Illinois side for them and Mary Meachum was arrested and thrown in jail.
Ester was “owned” by Henry Shaw who was a very prominent St. Louisan and best known for founding the Missouri Botanical Garden and being a generous philanthropist. Since Shaw was such a well known business man, the local newspapers covered the story in detail and documented what would have otherwise been a forgotten historic event. Ester was returned to Shaw who in turn sold her to a plantation in Mississippi for $350 minus a $161.62 reward to the bounty hunter. Her children were not sold and probably remained behind. While the newspapers documented the story well, it would be interesting to know what happened to Mary Meachum and Ester and her two children.
The area is marked by a designation sign. A colorful wall mural by the students of Logos School interprets the Meachum event. A rest stop and native plant nursery are housed in a former Coast Guard boat facility. The building features a spacious deck overlooking the river. It is staffed during peak periods by the Grace Hill AmeriCorps Trail Rangers, who provide directions, general and mechanical assistance. In December 2001, the Meachum site was dedicated as part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
This landmark is a work in progress and consists of murals painted on the levee wall, historic markers, informative signs, and a building which is sporadically open (usually on nice summer weekend days). The building is used for special events, displays and as a rest stop for trail users. A nice deck also overlooks the river on the back side. The area is also used annually for the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Celebration which consists of a historic reenactment, storytelling, music and dance.
184.1 LBD Chain of Rocks Canal (Bottom End)
The peaceful respite of paddling with no tow traffic is over as you leave Mosenthein/Gabaret and swing downstream towards the Merchants Railroad Bridge. Tow traffic will now rejoin you on the big river at the bottom (southern) entrance to the Chain of Rocks Canal. In general it is best to maintain a line of travel following the flow along the Missouri shore. Most big tows will be staying on the Illinois shore LBD for entry or exit from the Canal. However, it is time to put away your cell phone, and remove your ear plugs, and place all of your attention on the channel below and movement of tows and work boats.
Safe Paddling through the St. Louis Harbor
As you prepare to paddle through the 20-mile long St. Louis Harbor you should be aware of a few critical elements: 1) Check the wind forecast. If the wind is going to be gusting anywhere out of the south above 15 mph stay on shore until it subsides. The harbor becomes a wind tunnel in a south wind, and the bridges increase the effect. Large crashing waves and accentuated turbulence as result. 2) There are very few opportunities for landing once you leave the waterfront in front of the Arch. After you get started down the harbor there is no turning back, so make sure you have what you need and all business is taken care of so you can paddle with a clear and focused mind. 3) Avoid extreme turbulence around docking piers and Bridge pylons. 4) Best line of travel is Right Bank Descending to Arch. Go middle channel below Arch. Return to Right Bank Descending once past industry several miles above JB Bridge. 5) Chevrons have been placed RBD between Merchants Bridge and Stiles Bridge (RBD183-182). Added turbulence, especially around SLG 15-25. Paddle around chevrons (preferably on the inside RBD if there is no traffic) not through them. 6) Giant flotillas of fleeted barges are found anchored primarily on the Illinois side of the channel throughout the middle of harbor (below Arch). Dangerous position in front of any anchored vessels. Stay well away from fleeted barges, in particular don’t approach from top end. 7) Secure your decks, and make sure you have extra paddles, bailers and sponges, plenty of drinking water, lifejackets for each person on board and your vessel is not overloaded. You might be inspected along the way by the Harbor Patrol or Search & Rescue. 8) if you are on a large raft, or are paddling with a large group of paddlers, you might want to call ahead and alert the US Coast Guard. They will notify all commercial vessels on the water of your presence, which will add to the safety and success of your expedition.
Safe Paddling through the St. Louis Harbor involves the same elements for safe paddling anywhere, as detailed in the Rivergator Introduction: you need to have the right experience (big river skills), the right equipment (including a sea-worthy vessel) and the right preparations (did you check the wind forecast for the day?). For a complete breakdown and listing of the necessary skills and preparations you should have made, go to https://www.rivergator.org/paddlers-guide/safety/.
Port of St. Louis
St. Louis is the hub of America’s Midwest, Grain Basket to the world. The river provides the transportation via tows and grain barges, each of which can ferry the equivalent of 12 train cars or 55 semis packed full of corn, soybeans, milo or wheat. Not surprisingly, at least half of the docks along the river are grain elevators or grain related. Cargill AgHorizons, Peavey/ConAgra, Consolidated Grain Monsanto, Kinder Morgan, Archer Daniel Midland (ADM), and others crowd the waterfront, elbowing for river position with petroleum and chemical services, cement, dry goods/wharfing, scrap steel and power generation. River traffic reflects global markets. St. Louis auto shredding is especially busy when the demand for scrap steel increases in China. The granaries run double time when droughts hit India and Africa. Meanwhile America’s appetite for cheap fuel needs water and transportation; river has plenty of both. Coal comes in by train from Wyoming and Montana, and burned into electricity at one of the areas power plants, or loaded onto barges and shipped elsewhere for the same.