The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Missouri Portland Cement
One of the major influences in my river life was growing up near Missouri Portland Cement. In the 1930’s through the 1970’s 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 1960’s.
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 1930’s. 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 1970’s, the plant changed its name to Lafarge, eventually closing its doors in the late 1980’s. 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
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
The Flood of 1993
In between football tryouts in 1993, I had the opportunity to fly back to St.Louis and observe the infamous flood. Growing up between the confluence of two great rivers and downtown St. Louis, I was anxious to see what the Mississippi River looked like when it reclaimed its natural floodplain. I wasn’t disappointed as the River reach to the bluffs. Riverview Dr. was closed and only locals in that area were aloud to access the neighborhood by john boats and canoes. Looking from the bluff on which Missouri Portland Cement rest, you could see how vast the natural floodplain reached. Moseithein Island was underwater with just the tops of the largest trees exposed with its back channel not distinguishable. The Chain of Rocks low water dam was unrecognizable. The confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers was a wild ocean-like area with displaced farms and equipment scattered throughout. The field in which I grew up practicing football was underwater. The golf course which graced the land below the 270 bridge was wiped out. Deer and other mammals were pushed into the neighborhoods, flooding the streets at night. Accidents skyrocketed along the roadways. Local fisherman took advantage of the incredible flood. The fish went on a spawning frenzy, moving up the streams and creeks making themselves accessible to anglers. People were catching lunkers out of their backyard creeks. Hand fisherman were crawling through the shallow streams pulling catfish out of logs and other obstructions. Waterfowl filled the shallows feasting on newborn fry.
As the water receded, new gravel beds were exposed and sandbars reappeared in unusual areas. Small depressions within the landscape were full of fish. Locals in gallowses and waders pulled huge buffalo and grass carps out of these depressions. Many farmers relocated after the flood. Selling their properties and looking for land in higher elevations. Years afterward when the floodplain dried out, the land close to the confluence was purchased and made into a state park. The surrounding lands were left alone to return to its natural state. . The golf course was never restored. A lot was learned from this historical natural event and was a lesson in how important the floodplain is to our natural environment. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: St. Louis to Caruthersville
Healing with the Eagles
In 1975, when I was 7 years old, my family bought a house in North County, St. Louis on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. My grandfather, already living in St.
Louis, gave my parents the idea we would have more opportunities, and it pulled us from lower middle class to upper. St. Louis being a very conservative town, resisted minorities moving to their pristine neighborhoods of north county, and showed resistance in ways of intimidation and systematic tactics. My brother Earl used my grandfather?s address to attend Riverview Gardens High School which was a powerhouse in sports in the 70?s through the 90?s. This made the decision a no brainer.
I remember discussing diversity with my mother, Iveara Peoples, during her very short time in this world. My mother was born in Bolivar, TN. She was an All-State track star who fell in love with a up and coming baseball player. She was very diverse woman, who survived the assassination of Martin Luther King to still love her state and her beloved, Elvis. Along with Rod Stewart and the Beatles. She always told me, “Once they get to know you, they will love you.” Still lives with me today.
My childhood started as being the only minority in my third grade class, having to wrestle and fight with my fellow students for being smarter, faster, and different. Eventually gaining acceptance for my athletic ability, rather than character and handling societies indifferences by complying with the masses for security and opportunity purposes. During those times, the powers that be were The Pipefitters, one of the most powerful unions who owned the majority of the floodplain of the confluence of
the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to Cementland. Owning coveted property along the Chain of Rocks bluffs with tax benefits feeding a beaming athletic program ironically named after a natural national icon, the Mississippi River. As students we dealt with the pressures of separatism by driving to the levee and listening to music to hide our friendships to keep the peace. We would go on float trips to the rivers of central Missouri, the Ozarks, and the Meramac, sometimes hearing racial dialect yelled from the bluffs, but ignoring them as if numb to the situation. Back then it was forbidden to venture southward past the St. Louis Port for there was a chance you would not come back. I went on to excel at Riverview Gardens High School losing my mother at 11 years of age, but surviving the grief to go on to college and the rest is history.
As we drove from Clarksdale, Mississippi, en route to St. Louis all these old thoughts and experiences flow and wander through my head and heart as I wish for forgiveness and closure. This beautiful iconic river that I love and honor, brought back a combination of love and discomfort, as we drive along the floodplain towards the confluence where I develop my skills practicing football on its rich soil and becoming the athlete I am today. When I was young, 7 months out off the year, this land was flooded, swampy, mosquito infested floodplain that produced trophy mammals during deer season as well as prized waterfowl and fish. Now incorporated as a State
Conservation Area to share the love of our river with the masses. There use to be a golf course along this stretch also, only to be swallowed up by the 1993 flood and never replaced.The making of this park was highly protested after the 1993 flood by locals not wanting to give up their sacred hunting and fishing spots to humanity. Thankfully a proposed mega-casino project was recently killed by locals.
We arrive at the boat ramp with high spirits meeting friends and well wishers. There are fishermen, kayakers, and nature lovers enjoying the day. I immediately notice the diversity in the people and it made me smile inside. We launch the Grasshopper and head towards the Confluence. The Grasshopper glides effortlessly through the water causing fishermen to stare as we head towards Duck Island. On the top end sits an eagle?s nest with a whole family intact. It made me reflect back to my childhood when we never saw eagles due to their deaths caused by DDT in the 1970’s. It was welcoming site to start the day. We experienced a small rain shower as we headed towards the Chain of Rocks, but the Mississippi River is up so riding ” the chain” won’t be an issue today. We choose Mosenthein Island for our first camp looking at the neighborhood where my grandfather bought a house in the 1920’s. I spent my evening staring across the channel thanking the Creator for this perspective, a perspective I used to wish for when I was young and had no resources to get to the island. We used to think that we
would catch more fish if we could cross the channel like the rich kids, but who knows. It must be good fishing as a eagles nest sits high in the trees.
The morning comes quick, as we weathered a storm throughout the night, and I’m excited knowing we will past by Jefferson Barracks Cemetery where my mother is buried. We take the back channel and witness a lone coyote swimming as if returning from a long evening. I see the Gateway Arch in the distant with a new bridge that was being constructed in 2012 while we circumnavigated St. Louis. Many of my childhood fishing spots are now industrial zones and private, but I still have love for this town. We clear the Port of St. Louis and head towards the Meramac River. I feel discomfort and start to stress with my childhood experiences hovering over my shoulders, when we spot a great site for lunch, which happened to be Jefferson Barracks. I’m at peace enjoying lunch with my mother and friends. I could feel a sign of relief as I’m able to smile and celebrate her life through my path. The healing continues.
An immature bald eagle crosses the bluffs as we see the Meramac River in the distance. A john boat approaches and I think, “I hope this goes well.” A lone fishermen, curious about our journey, introduces himself and gives us a history lesson about this stretch of river. At the end of the discussion, he offers us an already filleted catfish. I beam with hope and throw out the stereotypes of my childhood. This river continues to blow my mind. It seemed as if we where being escorted by the eagles the whole way and I feel like I’m on a vision quest for healing my soul. Our captain guided us logistically through storms sometimes stopping in the distant to watch them develop and dissipate before our eyes. It was the first time I could see water falling from the sky as if the Creator was dumping a bucket of water.
As the trip continued, we met generous people along the way. We met a couple of river lovers close to Cairo who offered us refreshments and showed us their favorite camp site. In Hickman, KY we met a friendly news reporter, and an entrepreneur whose business has been active in town for 90 plus years. The city of New Madrid embraced four river rats wandering around town searching for supplies. Finally, the town of Caruthersville who let us escape a vicious storm by offering us a dry place (Mike?s Pizza Place) to prepare for our journey home.
We experienced beautiful sunrises and storms. Sunsets that lasted thirty to forty minutes. Families of eagles around every bend to the point were we stopped counting them. We heard drums from the bluffs of the Trail of Tears National Park. We mourned dead sturgeon as we camped on the gravel bar across from Lee Towhead. We enjoyed many back channels, thriving with wildlife and wood ducks. This expedition changes my feeling for the better of the complex history involving my plight and was needed in
order for me to continue my stewardship to this river. Just like the meanders of the river, life is full of change and challenges. You must embrace the challenges of the present, heal the wounds of the past, and prepare to face the future with open arms. Like the return of the eagles along the Mississippi River. I’m back. -Mark River
Mark River Blog:
Rivergator Chronicles: Low-water Treasures
Millions of years ago, after the glaciers receded north, the Mississippi River Valley was covered by a shallow, warm, clear sea called Kaskaskia. It advanced from the south inland and reach the east and west boundaries of the valley. The period, between Mississippian and Devonian, was a time of thriving marine animals such as crinoids, brachiopods, coral, and bryozoans.
Crinoids seemed to be the abundant species during these periods. Over 260 species of crinoids have been found in the Burlington limestone which in places are 2000 ft thick reaching from Iowa to Alabama. Crinoids, being filter feeders, thrived in these warm waters full of dissolved calcium carbonate. Burlington limestone is unusually thick, coarse-grained, crystalline,crinoidal limestone, with thin cherty beds and cherty modules.
The flood of 1993 exposed many of these creatures in limestone beds throughout the Mississippi and Missouri River tributaries giving us a broad perspective of what life was in those periods. The fossils in these formations of limestone are entirely of marine life. Letting us know that life started in the sea.
Being a river guide on the greatest river of them all, I’ve built a budding collection of fossils . When the water recedes, gravel bars appear throughout the river channel exposing everything from petrified wood, mud and bones, to tabulate and rugose coral. Hematite geodes, agates, and the rare carnelian are also found in these cherty beds. With the inconsistent rise and fall of the River, these beds are resupplied frequently, making them valuable to collectors.
The summer in the Delta is in full swing as the River recedes and exposing life from the past. Gravel bars from Buck Island, Montezuma, Island 62 , Knowlton, and Island 69 are releasing treasures from the past waiting to claimed by exploratory minds and hearts. It’s hard to believe that 400 million years ago these creatures where thriving and we get a chance to study their lives through petrified exoskeletons left behind. It is also clear that these limestone deposits are responsible for filtering our aquifers and springs, giving us the freshwater needed to sustain healthy, enriched lives.
With the fall coming rapidly, now is the time to plan a trip on the Mississippi River. The water is refreshing, the sandbars manicured, and the sky is full of glistening stars. The warm days are complimented by cool nights. The campfire roars, calming the souls of all, making the trip to your tent the hardest chore of the day. The Mississippi River is a haven for paddlers, fishermen, collectors, and outdoor enthusiast.
Go to www.rivergator.org and plan your expedition today!
St. Louis born Mark “River” Peoples is a river guide and youth leader with the Quapaw Canoe Company. Mark grew up hunting and fishing along the river with his father. Mark is the Southern Region leader for 1 Mississippi (www.1Mississippi.org) and also serves on the board of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation. When not on the water, Mark mentors Delta youth and educates them on the importance of the protection and preservation of our national treasure for generations to come. Mark works hard on changing the perception of our great River and its tributaries. Through river trips, cleanups, and workshops, Mark’s goal is overall systemic health of the Mississippi River.