Reflections 2015
Series 18
October 18
Mississippi River VI: Kentucky Bend-New Madrid-Cairo–Ste Genevieve


It's always a surprise how trips evolve, then sometimes even develop into new trips. The Texas+Louisiana/Mississippi trip took place about eleven months ago, between late October and late November, although a backlog in writing it up ended with it being written up and published between January and early June. In any case, it had developed as an Amtrak trip, with a desire to complete four overnight rail routes I hadn't traveled before. They it logically split in two semi-trips, Texas and the Lower Mississippi River. I hadn't been planning on doing any more, but then I was offered a deal I couldn't refuse on the American Queen along the Upper Mississippi. At that point it then made sense to complete travel on the river, so here we are, less than a year later traveling between mid-September and mid-October.


The Great River Road (GRR) was created in 1938 by weaving together bits and pieces from federal, state, and local roads. It's not really a unified road, but comes and goes, flips and flops, crosses and recrosses. Of course, that's how it has to be, since levees are in the way of regularly seeing the lower part of the river. From the land, one has to be content with seeing it when crossing it, when on top of a levee, or in the few places where one can see it from a low shore, such as Under the Hill in Natchez. The alternative is to sail on the river.


I drove the GRR between New Orleans and Venice on hwy 23; thru "Plantation Alley" in the past, and up from Baton Rouge on highway 61 leading to a section of the Natchez Trace Parkway. On this later trip, we'll find our own way. If we should happen to be on the GRR, it'll be by chance, because I'm looking to find the most interesting route to see what I feel is worth seeing. For that reason, I won't be referring to the above map—I find it quite touristy--and am providing it only should the reader have any interest in it.


On the other hand, this second map is clear and easy to use. This brown map will be our key map, for those who wish to follow. On it we can review what we learned in the past, that the Mississippi River is 3,766 km (2,340 mi) long. From its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the passes into the Gulf of Mexico, it drops 450 m (1,475 ft). It takes 90 days for a drop of water to travel its entire length. It's a border river, since it forms either an eastern or western boundary for most of the ten states it touches. That's even true for the two states at either end, Minnesota and Louisiana, although these are also the two states that have large parts of the river completely within their borders, specifically the source and the mouth.


This trip was laid out and booked, even before I left for Ecuador in the spring, as the logical second half of travel on the river. To review, last year's river trip involved visiting locations within Mississippi on or near the river, with the trip on the river itself starting (see brown map) in Memphis TN, and opposite Arkansas. After New Orleans, it involved driving down to Venice and a boat ride with Mike Strohmeyer to Port Eads Lighthouse at the end of South Pass. Still, that first trip involved setting foot in just three river states, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.


To visit—or revisit--the most interesting places along the rest of the river, we'll start by flying to Memphis, then driving and steamboating to see locations in the river states of Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, completing the ten river states. But for very good reasons to be explained, there will be two side trips. One will be west out of Saint Louis to the Kansas City area, and into Kansas as well. The other will be north, further into Minnesota, and will slightly involve Canada as well, so be sure to pack your passport. And in addition to the one flight and travel by rental car (three times) and steamboat, there will also be rail travel in Missouri and from Minnesota back to New York. This is all just a preview, details will emerge as we move along.


But do note that we'll spend minimal time in several states along the river. The bulk of our trip by far will lie in Missouri (with immediately adjacent Illinois, and that foray into Kansas) and in Minnesota (with a foray into both Manitoba and Ontario.). Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Iowa, and Wisconsin will just have quick visits in passing. This is rather different from the Lower Mississippi trip, which just involved Louisiana and Mississippi, and a side trip into Memphis TN.


The brown map will continue to be our guide, but let's look at a couple of maps for additional information. This one we saw in the past, showing the entire Mississippi River Basin. In the Lower Mississippi, we were joined by the Arkansas (the White enters just north of it). We discussed how the Red River enters later and becomes in actuality the Atchafalaya River, although that tends instead to be counted as another mouth of the Mississippi.


As we continue north on the Upper Mississippi, we'll be joined by two major rivers, and visit both mouths. First comes the Ohio, the major one from the east, at Cairo IL. In many ways, the Ohio-Lower Mississippi connection has always been a major routing between the Northeast and the Gulf. But then there's the one big river that never quite makes it to the Mississippi on its own. That's the Tennessee river, which joins the Ohio just barely before the Ohio joins the Mississippi. That makes the Tennessee the largest tributary of the Ohio. Finally, we'll also watch the Missouri come in just above Saint Louis. Those are the big rivers. On the Upper Mississippi, we'll also have cause to visit the mouths, and sometimes more, of the Kaskaskia, Illinois, Minnesota, and St Croix Rivers.


I want to add this second map as well. I like the way it makes the Mississippi stand out, including the question mark section within Minnesota. Three things show up nicely here. We see where the Illinois enters, one of the spots we'll visit. We see the Tennessee actually joining the Ohio at the last minute. And this map combines the Red and the Atchafalaya as one, just "kissing" the Mississippi.


The nature of the rivers will be changing as dams with bypass locks appear. This is typical of the Upper Mississippi beyond Saint Louis, which we'll see, but also of the Illinois, and of the Ohio. Most of the Tennessee and Missouri Rivers on the other hand are just managed by dams. All this contrasts with the Lower Mississippi, which is, as we know, characterized instead by its levees.


A final point on names. In the 19C, when many places in the US were founded and named, there were two naming trends. One reflected back to Napoleon's campaign in Egypt at the turn of the 19C (even Humboldt had wanted to go there), which was followed by an influence on Western style and architecture. Within the next couple of decades, both Memphis TN, Cairo IL, and the small town of Thebes IL, were founded and given these Egyptian designations. The Cairo-Thebes area of Illinois is known as Little Egypt.


The second trend was naming cities in North America after Old World places, either directly (London ON) or modified (New London CT). For the most part, that was harmless, such as with Athens GA, Rome NY, Venice FL or CA, St Petersburg FL. But sometimes foreign place names got twisted around when locals were unused to saying them:


Berlin, Germany, is ber.LIN, BUT Berlin NH is BER.lin, rhyming with "Merlin".
Prague, Czech Republic, rhymes with "frog", BUT New Prague MN rhymes with "Craig".
Delhi, India rhymes with "jelly", BUT Delhi NY ends in a stressed "HIGH".
Madrid, Spain is ma.DRID, BUT New Madrid MO is MAD.rid.
Cairo, Egypt rhymes with "gyro", BUT Cairo IL rhymes with "[Can] Kay row?"

We will come across New Madrid MO and Cairo IL in rapid succession, so be prepared!

Whoops! One more. We've commented in the past that English speakers do well when adopting French words that have WA in them, spelled "OI", such as "boudoir" or "memoir", or even the humorously used "moi". But one exception is the name of the state of Illinois. It long ago lost its original French pronunciation (remember, this was Upper Louisiana!) of, although it retains the French end-stress. Most English speakers rhyme it with "annoy", although some move even further from the original French and rhyme it with "noise". Perhaps we can call them "annoying noisemakers". (And still one more, but within Lower Louisiana: Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, which in French is dé.MWAN, is standardly anglicized to da.MOIN.)


Day 1: to Memphis & West Memphis    So back to the river we go, less than a year later! It was logical to start by picking up with Memphis again, to get to Arkansas as our real starting point. I would have loved to do it by rail, but the only rail connection Memphis has is the City of New Orleans, which would have meant going back to New Orleans or Chicago right after having just been there. Also, both arrival times in Memphis are not good. Therefore, I decided that this first leg of the trip would be by air, and would be the only bit by air. Everything else is rail 'n' sail or rental car. This is what I further characterize as "rail 'n' sail 'n' trail'.


Then there was good news, followed by some bothersome news. This in turn was followed by better news and best news. The good news is that I found I had enough points (12,500) to fly to Memphis free on United, just paying a piddling "security fee", so that clinched it. It would be the first of several freebies I worked out for this trip. The bothersome part is that it turned out that the flight from Newark to Memphis would connect in Houston of all places, so it would involve backtracking, but that was OK, even though, with the layover in Houston it would take 6h44. But when I got to Newark, the flight was oversold. As usual, they asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to take another flight, for a financial benefit, but that didn't interest me. Then she announced something I'd never heard before. She suggested that, if someone were just connecting in Houston, maybe she could get them on a direct flight. That got me up to the console really fast. Sure enough, she had direct flight an hour after the Houston flight left, and it was scheduled for just 2h49! So off I went. It was a small plane, and not even a quarter filled, with perhaps ten passengers. But then the best news is that it left early, and got in early, so it ended up being only 2h20 long. Sometimes thing work out well.


I'd booked a car with Enterprise that I'd leave in Kansas City. The dealership was right at the airport here, but are known for picking you up and dropping you off (as in San Antonio and Memphis downtown last year), so they'd later drop me off at my KC hotel. As to my first night, I had just been in downtown Memphis last year, so I booked a simple accommodation in West Memphis, Arkansas, across the Mississippi, a Knights Inn that was recommended and really quite nice for a motel-style building. The only problem with the early arrival was that I wanted to go to a Mongolian Grill in East Memphis, but now I'd arrived too early for dinner, so I had to backtrack in the evening, but it was worth it.


Day 2: West Memphis to Sainte Genevieve    Other than the arrival in Memphis, we'll only have one other pass-through in Tennessee, in just a moment. We're briefly in Arkansas, though, to see if we can get to see parts of Tennessee on the Arkansas side of the river. A short ride on I-55 (which we'll be seeing a lot of) brings us to Wilson AR, and later Osceola AR to do some snooping around. Copy and paste:


We know that historically, the Mississippi has meandered relentlessly during flood season, as has the Missouri, resulting on pieces of states on one side getting cut off and ending up on the other side, often as islands, but sometimes becoming attached to the other bank. The colors on this map are incomplete. All of Arkansas on the left should be white, and all of Tennessee on the right should be beige. The part of Tennessee near Wilson is correctly also beige; so should the next bit upstream, plus a narrow strip of one at Osceola, plus another one further upstream. There's also an piece of Arkansas on the right side, correctly white. Put differently, there is some of Tennessee here on both sides of the river, and a bit of Arkansas as well. Of all these areas, I've been able to find information on only one, the part of Tennessee abutting Wilson AR.


It's called Reverie TN. The river used to be to the west of it, but over a period of about 24 hours on 7 March 1876, it abandoned that former western channel, which was the Tennessee-Arkansas border dating to 1795, and it established a new eastern channel, the present one. This put Reverie on the Arkansas side of the river, with a state line in the old channel still separating it from Arkansas. Reverie is in Tipton County TN, which is then also divided, but with most of it still on the Tennessee side. This change led to a 1918 Supreme Court case on whether the border should move with the river, which apparently was answered in the negative. Although the tiny western channel of the river is disconnected most of the time, the area is registered as Island Number 35 of the Mississippi River.


In 2000, the population of Reverie was 11. The state of Tennessee, because of Reverie's location, pays for the children to attend school in Arkansas. Although the direct distance between Reverie and the Tipton County seat of Covington is only 29 km (18 mi), the road trip involves going via the closest bridge, the one we crossed last night between West Memphis and Memphis, and adds up to over 134 km (83 mi).


But while this trip along the Arkansas side gives an insight of life in small river towns, it's ultimately unsuccessful. The local road to the river side of town of Wilson ends up going over a levee (Arkansas protects itself, but it doesn't protect Tennessee) and then becomes an unmarked dirt road going off into the woods, and I'm not THAT curious.


So we continue on some pleasant country roads to Osceola, where this map shows even more clearly the narrow channel between Arkansas and the Tennessee Island deposited at its doorstep. This time the levee has a grassy park on it, but no obvious access, so it doesn't look as though we're meant to find these places, and off we go again. However, tomorrow we'll be in a famous one of these places and will be able to investigate that thoroughly.


Take a look at this five-state map (Map by Kbh3rd) to see the many places we'll be today on our way to Sainte Genevieve. We'll have been in all five states, but the three lower ones only fleetingly. We started on the west bank and will end there, making two loops onto the east bank. (If you want to open this same map in a separate window, here's the link:)

● Coming up from West Memphis, Wilson, and Osceola on I-55, we'll first cross into that odd-shaped corner of Missouri known as the Missouri Bootheel. We'll start our first loop on I-155, crossing back into Tennessee to see that odd little exclave of Kentucky known as the Kentucky Bend (under New Madrid on the map, with a line connecting it to the rest of Kentucky). We'll have to return to Tennessee one last time to get to the main part of Kentucky to take a quaint little ferry across the river to Missouri, to New Madrid, to complete our first east bank loop.

● After more time on I-55, our second east bank loop brings us to Cairo IL (with a tiny foray again into Kentucky) then riding north in Illinois and coming back across the river at Cape Girardeau to complete our second loop. Finally, I-55 will take us north to Sainte Genevieve, on the west bank just off this map, for the next three nights.


The Missouri Bootheel is an odd-shaped corner of the state (Map by Wapcaplet & Kbh3rd) that obviously gets its name because it looks like the heel of a boot when compared to the rest of Missouri. It's all the result of political dickering.


When Missouri was admitted to the union, it was proposed that its entire southern border merely be an extension of the 36° 30' N parallel that divides Tennessee and Kentucky (see five-state map above). But a pioneer planter living in what is today the bootheel argued that the area had more in common with Cape Girardeau, Sainte Genevieve, and Saint Louis to the north than to Arkansas Territory to the south, which it was about to be a part of. The result was that the border was dropped to the south about 80 km (50 mi) to 36° 00' N. It then continues west about 48 km (30 mi) to the St Francis River, then follows that river north to 36° 30' N, where it turns west. But note that that's still not the same as the original proposal of 36° 50' N. Perhaps that was a case of Missourians asserting themselves just a bit more.


Missouri is also involved in another quirk. Look at this map of the United States (it happens to show population density, but disregard that). Note the southwestern corner of Missouri, where it adjoins first Oklahoma then Kansas above it. Now trace the line across the United States that starts with the VA-NC border and reaches to the UT-AZ border, which then bumps into Nevada, and ends. The only interruptions to this nearly straight line are the two southern corners of Missouri, the Bootheel, and the MO-OK-KS corner. It would appear that Missourians are individualists!


From the Bootheel, I-155 gets us back into Tennessee, where we immediately turn north again to go on local roads via Tiptonville to the Kentucky Bend. These two maps show it much more clearly than the five-state one.


The tricolor map shows most starkly how Kentucky has an exclave totally apart from the main bulk of the state. It also shows the local Tennessee roads through (unnamed) Tiptonville that we need to pass through to reach it. To give another preview of where we're going, follow the local roads into the main part of Kentucky to (unnamed) Hickman, between the K and the island, where the ferry will bring us to Dorena MO. There local roads will bring us due west to New Madrid, unnamed, but shown in a darker green. Returning then to I-55 will then complete our first east bank loop. The brown map supplements this to show New Madrid and I-55. Both maps show in the lower right corner Reelfoot Lake (and its State Park), which we'll discuss in a moment.


The Kentucky Bend, cut off from the rest of Kentucky, is the absolute epitome of the quirkiness of the meandering of the Mississippi. How many rivers wiggle back and forth like that? Colonial-era surveyors marking the boundary between Kentucky and Tennessee estimated where the line they were laying out would meet the Mississippi. How could they imagine it would meet it TWICE? Later on, more accurate readings further revealed the odd geography of the area and showed that the line surveyed would pass through bends in the river like this. The eastern border of Missouri, on the west bank, is designated as the Mississippi, and that works—even though a piece of that west bank cuts down through Kentucky and into Tennessee. The western border of Kentucky on the east bank is likewise designated as the Mississippi, and weirdly, that works, too, but twice. The major part of Kentucky lies on the east bank of the Mississippi—and north of Tennessee, of course—but then the Kentucky Bend ALSO lies on the east bank of the Mississippi—and north of Tennessee. Tennessee is in no way affected by all this, as it lies south of Kentucky—both parts--just as it's supposed to do. This is a fabulous clashing between the political map and the physical map as the former overlays the latter.


The Kentucky Bend is without a doubt a total exclave. To go between the two parts of Kentucky—or locally, the two parts of Fulton County--by land, you MUST cross into Tennessee. Some areas difficult or impossible to reach by land on one's own ground are reachable by native waters--we talked about Campobello Island in Canada, which COULD be reached by boat in Canadian waters without entering the US. But note that no Kentucky waters reach the Bend, because of the stretch of Missouri/Tennessee waters that interrupts.


Common sense here would dictate that the Bend should be part of Tennessee, sort of a northern extension of it, and for a while, the two states fought over the matter. Despite the state line, Tennessee felt it had logical and obvious rights to the land and did administer it as part of its Obion County until at least 1848, but it eventually dropped its claim, so here we are.


Apparently, the Bend was created as a result of the infamous New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, so there does seem to be a basis for the oddity. Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, that we saw on the above maps, was created at the same time, seemingly from bits and pieces of the river. But we'll discuss the quakes when we're in New Madrid. Settlers came shortly afterward, and ferries shuttled residents to Missouri and back. During the steamboat era, the population of the Bend grew from 2 in 1820 to over 300 in 1870. Corn- and wheatfields gave way to cottonfields. There was even a small cotton gin and a couple of sawmills. But times change. There's no store, church, or gas station in the Bend. As of the 2000 census, 17 people lived there. Today there are a few houses, a cemetery, and farmland. The few schoolchildren take a bus 19 km (12 mi) into Tiptonville. Based on what usually happens, the state of Kentucky probably pays their tuition. Residents also depend on Tiptonville for shopping and emergency help. There are no longer any voting machines, so voters drive 64 km (40 mi) to Hickman KY (where we'll take the ferry) to vote. Only four residents have library cards to use for the monthly visit of the bookmobile from Fulton KY, 89 km (55 mi) away. The mailing address is, sure enough, Tiptonville, Tennessee, because of the land connection to the south, although the nearest town and post office are across the river to the north, in New Madrid, Missouri. Because of its location, the Bend is also called New Madrid Bend. Humorously, because of its shape, it's called Bubbleland.


Look again a the shape of "Bubbleland" and think of how fickle the Mississippi is. The peninsula is KY from the waist up and TN from the waist down. It doesn't seem exactly impossible that someday the river could slice into the Bend, creating a new division. If it cut into the head, part would become a KY island, with the rest remaining a KY-TN peninsula. If the river cuts at the waist, it would be a KY island and the remaining peninsula all TN. If it cuts at the foot, which, being the narrowest, would seem to be the most likely, there'd be a KY-TN island at the end of a stubby TN peninsula. Anything could happen in Bubbleland—especially with the New Madrid fault still lurking across the river.


So we pass through Tiptonville and take the rather good TN-22 to where it ends at the state line. Crossing over, we're on Kentucky Bend Road. We pass the cemetery, but everything is just farmland. There's really nothing to see here, you just go there because it's there. We turn around and leave KY and return to TN at this point (Photo by Zzzuucx). The flat farmland is typical of both sides of the border.


From Tiptonville, finally visible on this map, we need to get back to the west bank, that is, Missouri. This map now shows how TN-79 and TN-78 got us up from I-155 to Tiptonville, and will also bring us up to Hickman, the route that Bend voters have to take to cast their ballot. Reelfoot Lake appears here again. You'll also note that we're on the Great River Road here, but still don't see much of the river unless we try very hard. We'll see it at Hickman. Note here that we'll take the Dorena-Hickman ferry to Missouri. It's run by Missouri, so smaller Dorena has its name first. We'll then take a back road west to New Madrid above the Bend, neither of which is shown here. There we regain I-55. (Hold on to this map for our second loop later.)


The Dorena-Hickman Ferry is the first of four ferries we'll take this trip across the Mississippi, partly for tradition, but also, because they remain a convenience, as is the case here. This ferry runs a single boat for vehicular traffic between KY and MO, and is the only direct road connection between the two states. Since the nearby Ohio River (see map) is the historic division between the Upper and Lower Mississippi, this ferry is the farthest-upstream crossing of any kind of the Lower Mississippi. That's another reason to take it!


I'd read the instructions online, and also on arrival at the edge of Hickman, in a very quiet area. Assuming the ferry isn't at the dock, you pull up to a utility pole with a sign, push the call button, and wait for the ferry to appear. If it doesn't come in fifteen minutes, you push the button again. Remember, this is a rather off-beat area, which is another reason we're doing this. Another thing—there wasn't a dock, and the paved road plunged precipitously down a slope to the water, which was a somewhat unnerving sight. And on top of it all, I was the only one waiting for the ferry.


You may recall from the tricolor map that Hickman isn't on the main river, but on a side channel behind an island, so you can't see Dorena right away. But after a few minutes, here comes the most unusual ferry I think I've ever seen chugging around the corner of the island. But I got used to the style, since all four ferries used were of a similar format. Here she comes!


As you see, the rather steep, paved road ahead of you plunges rather unnervingly right into the water, as though you were launching a boat, so the ferry semi-beaches itself so that it overlaps the road so you can drive on or off. But look at the unusual style. Part of the ferry is a barge, with gates at both ends. Some of the four ferries taken were larger than this, and many, if not all, could take large tractor-trailers. But it's the motive part of the ferry that's so unusual. It has all the machinery, and to my surprise, works like a flip-phone. Look at that white arm in front of the motive part of the ferry. The ferry is arriving, because when it's ready to leave, the motive part will move from the twelve-o'clock position it's now in and pivot around the arm into the six-o'clock position. I suppose that, even though it's at the side of the barge section, it's always pushing. That is not Dorena across the water, but the island. We have to swing left from this side channel around the island to get into the center of the river.


I was not quite the only passenger, since a leather-jacketed, middle-aged guy on a motorbike came along with me. After we paid the toll, he explained he's from Colorado, but whenever he's in this area, he goes out of his way to take the Dorena-Hickman ferry. One thing I liked during the 15-minute crossing was to stand at the front gate and see how down low and close to the water one was, something you don't really get in the same way on the American Queen. It was a fun experience, and I was glad to repeat it three more times on the other ferries. At Dorena, back in Missouri, with only a little trouble, I found my back roads westbound to New Madrid, only about a half-hour away, and always with a high, grassy levee on the left.


When you say Hannibal, you think Mark Twain, and when you say New Madrid, you think earthquakes. (And remember, it's nu.MAD.rid.) Regarding earthquakes in the US, maybe most people think first of San Francisco in 1906. That's understandable, since that was only a century ago, and that quake struck a major city. You have to go a full two centuries back to ponder the grouping of four New Madrid earthquakes, and then they hit a mostly unpopulated area. But they reverberated across the continent.


The scientists call this earthquake area the New Madrid Seismic Zone, but commonly we talk of the New Madrid Fault, just as California has its San Andreas Fault. But what's unusual about the New Madrid Fault is that it's NOT a subduction zone, where one tectonic plate is sliding under another, which IS the situation of the San Andreas Fault. New Madrid is located well inland from the edges of the North American Plate. To put it quite unscientifically, I suppose we can say the North American Tectonic Plate is broken, or damaged. If it were a pottery plate, the factory would have to put it in the seconds bin because of this fissure. Yet the New Madrid Fault caused the four 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes, and still may cause a major quake in the future. Those four quakes, which occurred between December 1811 and February 1812, were among the largest in North American history, with magnitudes estimated to be as large as 8.0.


On the first map, you can see both Dorena and Hickman upstream, with that island between them. The first earthquake in this area was typical. The ground was uplifted and waves of water in the Mississippi moved upstream, giving the impression that the river was flowing backwards creating temporary upstream waterfalls. In New Madrid, trees fell and riverbanks collapsed; observers said it lasted 10-12 minutes. Way over in Indiana, furniture moved, and in Ohio, people fled their homes. The quake shook windows and furniture in Washington DC and sloshed well water and shook houses in Charleston SC. It rang bells in Richmond VA, and even in New York City and Boston, ground motion caused church bells to ring. It was the most powerful NON-subduction earthquake ever recorded in the US.


The second map shows the range of the New Madrid seismic zone. The system runs some 240 km (150 mi) and extends into five states, the very same five we've been discussing and traveling in all day today, and will continue up to Sainte Genevieve. You can see that the Bootheel, Kentucky Bend, and Reelfoot Lake are all part of it. And the seismic activity is ongoing. This third map (Map by Kbh3rd) shows 6,057 tremors recorded in the New Madrid Seismic Zone between June 1974 and July 2011. You can see that it's mostly Missouri and Tennessee, and somewhat Arkansas, that are affected. The dots do not indicate magnitude, but most of the tremors represented here were below the threshold of human sensitivity.


It always struck me as odd that a town located here would be named after the capital of Spain, but the slightest bit of research made it totally clear. I still suffer on occasion from the mistaken thought that the Louisiana Purchase was French, but of course, it was Spanish for four decades at the end of the 18th Century before the French took it back and sold it to the US. It makes perfect sense that Spain would want to honor Madrid. I'd assumed it was originally named Nueva Madrid, since cities in Spanish are feminine (cf Nueva York), and checking more deeply, it was. It was founded in 1777-8 by none other than an old friend of ours, Spanish Governor of Louisiana Bernardo de Gálvez, who we last met in Natchez, but most notably know from Galveston, which is named after him. All these historical threads slowly come together.


Back to our visit. The inset map will reorient you to the fact that here in New Madrid, we're due north of the Kentucky Bend, or New Madrid Bend if you're partisan, and next to I-55. New Madrid is a pleasant river town, but as will be typical on this whole trip, or any trip, attractive courthouses, pretty churches, and fine older homes, are not what we're here for. They're of local importance, and their cause should be furthered, but usually just a driveby will suffice to give one a taste of the local atmosphere. We drive in from the right, down Vandenvender Avenue, and do a driveby of a few landmarks, but head to #1, the Observation Deck on the levee (of course there's a levee!) and #5, Riverside Park, on the flood-plain side of the levee. We can drive all along the levee between these points, then down the slope on the river side to near the water level, where there's a boat-launching ramp and other park areas. But back on top, and returning to the observation deck we get this view to the south of the Kentucky Bend across the Mississippi (Photo by Nyttend).


But there are two fun signs. At the observation deck at the end of Main Street up on the levee is the sign that points out that right there "you're standing on the fault line". If you're really into this sort of thing, that gives a thrill. But by far the cleverest thing I saw in New Madrid was the large sign nearby that announces, with tongue in cheek: IT'S OUR FAULT! What a clever double meaning!


We are now ready for our second east-bank loop, the one to Cairo IL (see above). Just keep in mind that we're not in Egypt, so we have to ask "[Can] Kay row?" Note again, where the five-state map indicates that I-55 will only take us so far, then I-57 will get us over to Illinois, where local Illinois roads will get us to Cape Girardeau and Sainte Genevieve. Our plans now are to get off of I-57 earlier in order to take the bridges through Cairo and over two rivers, but our plans will be hitting a minor bump.


The first map shows the highly unusual situation of Cairo's location, an iconic coming together of two major rivers, the confluence where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi. Note on both maps how the Ohio, at the top, twists sharply to the southeast. The Upper Mississippi, despite an island in the way, twists even more and for a moment, ends up pointing, amazingly, northeast! They seem to compromise as they form the Lower Mississippi, and, joined, flow east for a bit, before turning sharply due south, which is what we expect. With all these shenanigans, Cairo's peninsula twists to where it almost is pointing east itself, though not quite. Do realize you are seeing three states in this compact area, where Illinois in the center is squeezing its nose between Kentucky at the top and Missouri at the bottom.


Another notable confluence I've seen is in Germany, where the Mosel/Moselle enters the Rhine at the Deutsches Eck in Koblenz. That's rather impressive; later we'll see that where the Missouri enters the Mississippi is merely OK, but to my mind, little compares to the spectacular confluence at Cairo. [Whoops! I almost forgot. The very best of the best is the Encontro das Águas / Meeting of the Waters, where the Rio Negro joins the Amazon at Manaus. See the pictures at 2011/13.]


Leaving I-155, it's US-62 (numbered as US-60 on these maps) that takes us to this area. There is no direct connection here between Missouri and Kentucky, which is why the Dorena-Hickman ferry can boast it's the only direct connection. US-62 crosses the river on the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge, which is the southernmost bridge on the Upper Mississippi. It essentially tiptoes through Illinois, because it's hardly more than a few paces before it enters and crosses over the Cairo Ohio River Bridge into Kentucky on what is the southernmost bridge on the Ohio. Fantastic geography, here. You'll also note on the first map that there's an Illinois park to the east of US-62, right at the sweet spot where the two bridges almost touch, and the park has access to the very tippy-tip of the peninsula where you can see the confluence perfectly.


Both these maps also show that Cairo itself faces the Ohio, while it is only near the Mississippi. It's surrounded by its levee—you'd better believe it, with two flood-prone rivers at its front and back doors. Finally we have this magnificent picture:


You couldn't want a better depiction of this wonder of nature. Let's start with the water—first note the blue, sediment-poor Ohio, then find the brown, sediment-rich Mississippi. Then see how, after the point, they each retain their color for some distance. I understand the distinct boundary between them is maintained up to 5-6 km (3-4 mi) downstream. The last time we saw anything like this was on the Amazon. Now for the land. Missouri is at the bottom, so follow US-62 over the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge, then tiptoe through Illinois for a few seconds, then follow it over the Cairo Ohio River Bridge into Kentucky—three states in a minute or two. We can come back and go to the very point of confluence in the park. Then Cairo itself, facing the Ohio, is in the background, and from there we can continue north into Illinois. Right?


Well, my luck usually holds out pretty well with travel plans, but sometimes things end up just slightly askew. Check the second map again. While still on I-57, a sign explains a detour. Anyone wanting to go to Kentucky should NOT take the exit for US-62 to the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge but should stay on the interstate across the Mississippi and get off in Illinois north of Cairo, then drive through Cairo on US-51 to the Cairo Ohio River Bridge to Kentucky. It never explained what the problem was, but I doubt it was road work. It's just conjecture, but the infrastructure in the US is coming apart, and I'm guessing that the Mississippi bridge is no longer safe.


So we follow directions and arrive at the sweet spot between the bridges from the "wrong" direction. This means that we ended up crossing the Upper Mississippi on the next-to-the-last bridge, the I-155 bridge, and not the last. It also means that we can stare at that sweet spot, but only use the half of it that takes us into Kentucky, which we, of course, do—then come back. We might as well as enjoy as much of the experience as possible.


Then it's into the park, and down to the point to watch the waters come together, each with its own color. Both from the sweet spot and from the point we can see the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge, standing there apparently useless. It's an odd experience in an otherwise fun place.


We then head north into town, which unfortunately is a depressing experience. Cairo itself is not doing well, and boarded-up shop windows and vacant lots are not unusual. Poor Cairo is struggling to improve itself. It's best to see a few sights at the same time as we review the story.


Before, during, and after the Civil War, Cairo was extremely prosperous due to its strategic position. It was a river port at the intersection of the Ohio, Upper Mississippi, and Lower Mississippi, so what could be better? This was the steamboat era and river commerce continued to be a boon to the city. Several banks were created in Cairo during the war, and banking and steamboat growth continued even after the war. There is an upscale part of town with a number of mansions that reflect this period, and we can drive by and take a look at beautiful Magnolia Manor from 1869 (Photo by MuZemike).


At the height of Cairo's prosperity in the 1840s, the US Post Office in Cairo was the third busiest in the US because of its mail connections to and from the emerging West. Overland mail from the East was transferred to boats, then stagecoaches, for delivery further west. In addition, with so much river traffic, by Act of Congress in 1854, Cairo was designated a Port of Delivery. That meant that goods would enter by boat at New Orleans, acting as a Port of Entry, without passing customs. Only when they arrived at Cairo's Port of Delivery would the goods have to go through customs and pay appropriate fees. For this purpose, in 1872 the magnificent US Custom House (Photo by Nyttend) in Cairo was opened to the public, glowing with gas lights. It's now known as the Old Custom House, but is still a very attractive building in the center of Cairo. It's Italianate, with rounded windows and a bracketed cornice at the edge of the roof, all of which is very rare in federal buildings.


But as transportation involving Cairo's waterways made Cairo's fortunes, other transportation developments over and around those waterways killed those fortunes. First it was rail. In 1889 the Illinois Central Railroad bridge was completed over the Ohio River. (Amtrak's City of New Orleans we took last year does follow the Illinois Central route, so supposedly uses this bridge.) The bridge at the time reduced rail ferry business, but that was not too severe, since rail traffic still went through Cairo and auto traffic was just barely evolving. Then in 1905 a second rail bridge was built, this time over the Mississippi at Thebes IL (see below), north of Cairo. This was more of a problem since rail traffic was reduced through Cairo and rail ferries became a thing of the past.


Then the steamboat industry started to disappear, and traffic was replaced with barges, so there was no longer a reason for river traffic to stop in Cairo. Finally comes the coup de grace, that involves what we're doing as we speak. In 1929, the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge was built. A few years later, in 1937, the Cairo Ohio River Bridge was built, as we know, almost as a continuous connection. But then there was (1) no longer a need for any ferries at all, and (2) the pair of bridges connected south of town, so motorists could cross the southern trip of Illinois and completely bypass Cairo. What seemed to us as a fun thing to do is one of the things that killed Cairo.


But Cairo's decline continued even further, and Amtrak service to Cairo ended in 1987, when the City of New Orleans began bypassing the city. Although we passed the area in the middle of the night, I was aware that we wouldn't be stopping there. Travelers to and from Cairo have to use stations in Kentucky or further north in Illinois.


The community and region are working to stop abandonment of the city, to restore its architectural landmarks and to establish tourism based on the unusual geography of the confluence of rivers. Much of Cairo is a historic district, although some of it looks like a ghost town. When discussing with others visiting Cairo, the implication was why would you want to go there. We have to let people know why.


Two other unique points about Cairo are also river-related. Aside from being the southernmost location in Illinois, Cairo also has the lowest elevation of any location in Illinois. In addition, it's the only city in Illinois surrounded by levees. The above maps and aerial view show that Cairo is shaped like a half-moon, with the straight line on the Ohio and the curve protecting from the Mississippi. It's only vaguely noticeable when passing through the levee at the southern end, but is striking at the northern end. In our unexpected northern arrival, as we first entered Cairo from just off of the interstate, this is US-51 southbound entering the city (Photo by Martin Davis). At first I thought we were just going under a railroad underpass. Well, actually, we were. First is an iron railroad bridge in red with "Cairo" in white. Nice touch. Immediately behind it, and higher than the first, is another iron railroad bridge. Curious. Then immediately after that is a concrete railroad overpass. Odd. To complement these three rail overpasses is another railroad crossing at grade, immediately afterward. Still, I thought little of it. It was only on returning northbound, leaving Cairo, that I realized that these were more than three rail overpasses squeezed together. It was the northern section of the levee that the rail lines followed! It was at that point that I noticed under the underpass the portcullis-like gate that can come down in an emergency and close off the levee. Cairo is indeed unusual and deserves to be more in the limelight.


On the five-state map, you can estimate where local roads now take us parallel to the Mississippi from Cairo to Thebes, in the area known locally as Little Egypt. There's little to see when we stop in Thebes, but we have the knowledge that Abraham Lincoln practiced law here. Just beyond Thebes, we complete our second east-bank loop and cross the Mississippi back to Missouri over a magnificent new bridge, the Bill Emerson Bridge (Photo by Daniel Schwen) at Cape Girardeau. We can now see from that name that we're back in French-influenced country. The town was founded around 1733 in La Louisiane when a temporary trading post was established by one Jean Baptiste de Girardot. (Disregard the flip-flop French spelling between –OT and –EAU, which both sound the same.) Girardot was a French soldier stationed at nearby Kaskaskia (see below) between 1704 and 1720. The cape referred to is alas, no more. It was a rock promontory on the river, later destroyed by railroad construction.


Over the bridge, we immediately make two quick right turns to come back close to the riverside to see, paradoxically, something that isn't there, or at least, not any more. The older bridge had been completed in 1928 and was a wonder of its day. But it was narrow, built with only two lanes, and meant to accommodate Model Ts, and precious few of those at a time. It was no longer adequate for modern use and was demolished in 2004, after being replaced in 2003 by the Bill Emerson Bridge we just came across. But one thing was saved from the old bridge:


The first picture shows the former entrance on the Missouri side to the old bridge. You can see how narrow it was. But this portal, and the ramp leading up to it (and then into nothingness) was kept after the bridge was demolished. That short drive to the left leads to the Old Mississippi River Bridge Scenic Overlook, in the second picture, which has a commanding view of the Mississippi—a rarity, as we know—as well as of the new bridge.


When I got there to admire the view, there was only one other person there, a man in street clothes with a camera, a phone, and some paperwork, and we struck up a conversation. It turns out he was working. He was a safety inspector for the BNSF and was checking out the freight trains passing below. At one point we both admired something only people into transportation can appreciate: immediately under the parapet in the picture was a street with auto traffic, barely beyond that was a freight train rumbling by, and right beyond that were barges moving up the Mississippi. We both appreciated this triple play of transportation, all lined up before us.


It's getting late. We've done a lot today and we still have to get to Sainte Genevieve for our three-night stay. I-55 will zip us up there from Cape Girardeau and we can be in time to register at the B&B we've booked and still get their late-afternoon happy hour of wine and crackers 'n' dips.


Day 3: French Colonial Country    While we discussed in the past what happened to New France, it bears repeating here briefly, since where we are at the moment was right at a major dividing line. Three maps should properly reassemble our thoughts. This, in blue, is New France in 1750 (Map by JF Lepage). Think of it at this stage in terms of what it was, sadly, to become: (1) the upper area, Québec and Acadia; (2) the central area (that we too easily forget about) Upper Louisiana or Illinois country, located south of the Great Lakes; and (3) (Lower) Louisiana, west of the Mississippi down to the Gulf.


I think in the last couple of years we've paid adequate tribute to the upper area, and you will recognize names (click) beyond Québec (City), such as Tadoussac, Louisbourg, and Port-Royal. We've also discussed amply (Lower) Louisiana, which we tend to refer to as the Louisiana Purchase. Beyond New Orleans, we have Baton Rouge, and remember that the ruins of Fort Rosalie were in Natchez on the grounds of the Rosalie Plantation House we discussed. So now we'll put emphasis on the central area, Upper Louisiana, or the Illinois Country. Note particularly Fort de Chartres, which we'll visit later today.


But France's fortunes declined, as we see in this map of the same area in 1763 (Map by Jon Platek). To paraphrase what we said in 2015/2, the Treaty of Paris of 1763 ended France's war with Britain. It gave Britain all of New France from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. It included the upper and central parts of New France. The lower area, as we know, went to Spain for several decades. For our purposes, concentrate on the area south of the Great lakes and north of the Mississippi River/Ohio River line, which the first map clearly labels Upper Louisiana.


Our third map shows the same area in 1789 (Map by Golbez). The upper part of the former New France, with areas today in Canada, isn't even shown. The central area, Upper Louisiana/Illinois Country, stayed British for two decades, until Britain lost the Thirteen Colonies, along with all the rest of the territory to the Mississippi, including Upper Louisiana. This became known as the Northwest Territory of the United States. Louisiana proper, west of the Mississippi, later went, as we know, to Spain for a few decades, then France took it back and sold it to the US. Thus, via two different routes, all of New France south of the Great Lakes became part of the US.

 There are interesting borders on this map, explained in the past. But since we just visited the Kentucky Bend, an exclave of Kentucky, note on this map the (Connecticut) Western Reserve. Connecticut relinquished all claims to intermediate areas, but reserved its rights to this western area. If it had succeed, it would today have been an exclave of Connecticut. But it yielded the land and it became part of the Northwest Territory. Yet the name survives in names like Western Reserve University.

In 2015/6, I used the term "the Point" to indicate that southwestern part of Mississippi near Natchez, today unimportant, but originally the SW corner of the US, as the third map shows. I said I'd use two other terms that help me understand historical geography, and one of them comes up now, The Y. We've talked about the Upper Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Lower Mississippi, from a maritime point of view. Now let's look to see how these rivers divide the land in a Y shape historically, the center of the Y being Cairo. To the SE is the original US, here still shown as Virginia, but this part is today Kentucky. To the west is Lower Louisiana, now (at this point) Missouri. And to the north of the Y is Upper Louisiana/Illinois Country, today Illinois. Look at the Cairo area today and you see three states. Look at it with a historical map overlay, and you see still-divided territories, which will be coming together.


Our concentration now, under the above heading of French Colonial Country, is in the two sides of the Mississippi River, Sainte Genevieve and Cape Girardeau on the Missouri side, and several areas, including the Fort de Chartres, on the Illinois side. They are as we see them historically, two parts of New France, abandoned by France, one to Britain, the other to Spain, then both to the US.


Our three nights in Sainte Genevieve give us two full days. On the second one we'll enjoy the town itself, but today we'll do our third east-bank loop into French Colonial Country, which, as it turns out, due to the wild vagaries of the river, involves both states. We have two excellent maps to help us. This first one will give a good overview of the French Colonial Country on BOTH sides of the Mississippi.


We'll first summarize what we're going to do today, and be sure to take note of the frequent French place names that survive to this very day. You see how I-55 got us to Sainte Genevieve yesterday. This morning we'll take the Ste Genevieve-Modoc ferry to Illinois and pass through Prairie du Rocher to Fort de Chartres. We'll come back south through Modoc and be foiled (!!) in our attempt to cross the Kaskaskia River to get to Fort Kaskaskia, but will solve the problem. We'll use the Chester Bridge to come back, but will first have a pleasant surprise in Chester. We'll then visit the remnants of the village of Kaskaskia before returning to Sainte Genevieve. While the name "Kaskaskia" doesn't look French—it's probably of Native American origin—the village, and the river and fort named for it, was originally just as French as Sainte Genevieve.


To pique curiosity and interest, I have been tiptoeing around the elephant in the room. What happened to Kaskaskia? Why is it separate from its river and fort? Why is an Illinois village on the Missouri side of the river? Well, we know that the Mississippi goes where it wants to. In Arkansas, we had little success in investigating the pieces of Tennessee on the Arkansas (western) side of the river, but I said we'd have a better example later. This is it.


This is not only an example of the fickleness of the Mississippi, but also of its thievery. Since this map is somewhat simplified, it's easier to see what happened in 1881. The Mississippi originally went around the western side of what is now called Kaskaskia Island, which is now only a small channel. That it shifted is an example of its well-known fickleness. But thievery? Look at where the Kaskaskia River enters now. The Mississippi stole the entire end, the last 16 km (10 mi), of its original riverbed including its mouth! The Kaskaskia River before 1881 went along east of the village and entered the Mississippi close to Chester. But its riverbed was slightly lower than that of the Mississippi, so during a flood in that year, the Mississippi discovered an easier way to move downstream and jumped into the Kaskaskia riverbed, thereby cutting off the peninsula that Kaskaskia village was located on. Thus today, the Kaskaskia River ends "earlier" than it used to, and the village is separated from the rest of Illinois.

 I suppose I'm being unduly unfair to the Mississippi. After all, it was people and commerce that started it all. Steamboats were introduced and stimulated the economies of all the 19C river towns. Steamboats needed wood for fuel. Forests were cut down along the river banks. The banks became unstable and collapsed into the river. From Saint Louis to Cairo, the Mississippi became wider and more shallow. More severe seasonal flooding resulted. One of those floods caused the more unstable Mississippi to jump riverbeds. Moral: don't fool around with Mother Nature.

We'll discuss it more as we continue along.


The first, simpler map gave a good overview, but this one is really splendid to see what we're doing. You'll see it's a brochure put out by Ste Genevieve, where they refer to the French Colonial Country geographically as the Confluence Heritage Area. You need to scroll down to page five for the map. Start at the bottom left to the small historical map to witness the thievery. It shows the original Kaskaskia peninsula; read the notes about the Kaskaskia River across the top. On the left is today's mouth, on the right is the original mouth, and in between is where the Mississippi broke in and stole the end of the riverbed, abandoning its original bed across the bottom. Actually, it really makes sense. The Mississippi had to do an about-face around what was called Kaskaskia Bend, but in the flood it shot forward to its new bed instead.


Right above is Ste Genevieve (often locally just "Ste Gen"). Let's take a five-minute drive up North Main Street—it's the street our B&B is on, anyway—and through the levee to the unprotected river side, to the Ste Gen-Modoc ferry:


As we pull up, the worker's just swinging the gates closed, but opens them again for us. The ferry is set up exactly as the Dorena-Hickman one yesterday—barge plus "flip-phone" motive source--but is smaller. I am absolutely delighted to report that this ferry is actually nicknamed locally "The French Connection" (see map) in recognition of its tying together once again Upper Louisiana (here, Illinois) and Lower Louisiana (here, Missouri), which is exactly the point we are trying to make here, too.


Note the areas along the river called bottoms. These are the flood plain, areas that are expected to hold flood waters when necessary. To actually reach Modoc, we drive quite a way across farmland in the American Bottom, passing through the gates of 2-3 levees. We're headed for the Fort de Chartres (1720), but first reach Prairie du Rocher ("Rock Prairie"), founded in 1722 by French colonists, mostly from what is now Canada. Both the fort and town were a center of government and commerce during the period of New France. There are at least twelve surviving 18C French Colonial houses in the village today, including the 1800 Creole House (Photo by Nyttend) that we pass right by on the main road. Old French customs are also practiced today in the village including a type of New Year's Eve caroling dating to medieval France that has been practiced every year in Prairie du Rocher since settlement in 1722.


It's not much farther to our goal here, the Fort de Chartres. I'd expected merely another older structure of note, and was pleasantly surprised. When the French first arrived, they chose this spot as their center of power, and three successive structures were built. The first two were square palisaded wooden structures built in the 1720s, but flooding by the Mississippi caused their successive downfall. But the third, built in 1753-5, was a massive square stone structure enclosing six buildings, including a powder magazine, still standing, that may be the oldest building in Illinois. This fort is the building that served as the French seat of government as well as the chief military installation in the region.


Ah, but then came 1763, and Upper Louisiana went to Britain. British troops occupied the fort from 1765 to 1772, but then that same old third power won out after all: the Mississippi. It kept eating away at the bank behind the fort until a wall collapsed, after which the rest was allowed to fall into ruin.


During the early 20C the historic site was taken over and various restorations done. What appears today is described as a "partial reconstruction", which seemed to me an odd description. From the parking lot it's intentionally a bit of a walk across a large lawn to the building, and it seems magnificent. A model beside the path shows a square building about two city blocks square in size, with corner bastions, and several buildings inside around a parade ground, and we have no reason to believe that isn't what we'll see. We approach the front wall of the fort with its gatehouse, and it's magnificent. On the corners are the bastions we expect to see. But when we enter through the gate and look towards the parade ground, we see the extent to which this is all an illusion. The entire back half of the walls of the fort are still missing. The two buildings on the far side of the parade ground are rebuilt (note the modern levee behind them to keep the Mississippi away), and can be toured, but the others are just foundations, and, most interestingly, a couple are skeletons on the foundations, with just their wooden post-and-beam framework restored to illustrate the building technique. But nearby is the fully restored powder magazine, the only original structure remaining (All four photos by Kbh3rd). I find that this type of partial restoration, by mixing abstraction with solid stone and mortar, gives a unique look at history. A full restoration involves the visitor deeply in history, while a partially abstract one allows one to keep more historical distance and perspective.


On our way to the next fort, we backtrack through Modoc (see big map) where a sign says the road to Ellis Grove is closed five miles ahead. Nonsense. That couldn't be, not at least without a marked detour. So we forge ahead. As we pull up to where we know we'd be crossing the Kaskaskia River, we are foiled after all! With no further explanation—or detour shown—we come across a "road closed" sign. Although the problem is not visible, from the location, it cannot be road construction, it must be the bridge, as was the problem yesterday in Cairo. Assuming that's the case, it's another example of the deteriorating infrastructure of facilities in the United States.


But return? Never! There was a turnoff a short distance back, and we'll take that and see where it gets us. Interestingly, it's a continuation of the Historic Kaskaskia Trace (see map), the road that went to the ORIGINAL village of Kaskaskia before the shift in the river. And today? This turnoff leads to a lock and dam, not on the Mississippi, but on the Kaskaskia.


We pull up and go into the visitor center, with no one else in sight. A young man comes out of the back to greet us. We ask how to get to Ellis Grove with the road closure, and he points out the road to Ruma (the fine black road on the map), which will do the trick. We point out that, while we're there, we'd like to hear about why there's a dam and lock on a side river like this, and he explains it's to keep it deep enough for the commerce that still remains. We bet we're the first to visit all day and he agrees, and probably also the last of the day, and he says, especially with the road closure, probably so. An interesting interlude. We peek at the dam and lock, and off we go to Ellis Grove via Ruma, and finally get to cross the Kaskaskia River up at Evansville.


Kaskaskia had been the southern anchor of France's colony in this area. When the river shifted in 1881, it overwhelmed the original 1703 site of Kaskaskia Village, which had been located on and depended on, the Kaskaskia River, whose bed was usurped. At this point, two things were done. The 3,000 graves in the cemetery were relocated to higher ground, near the old Fort Kaskaskia, on the "new" east bank of the Mississippi. However, the village was relocated a distance south, remaining on the floodplain. One can only assume it was to be able to continue taking advantage of the surrounding farmland, but with subsequent flooding over the years, it proved to be a disastrous decision, causing the virtual death of the village. More shortly.


The side road takes us to Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site, a park high on the bluffs, with a historic French home, the 1802 Pierre Menard House, below. Located on the bluffs is the cemetery, now called Garrison Hill Cemetery, that had been moved from the flood plain to the hills to preserve it, but primarily we find the remains of Fort Kaskaskia, which consists today only of earthen ramparts (Photo by Kbh3rd) forming a small square with corner bastions. It was a small fort, consisting only a three-room barracks and a kitchen, and was apparently never fully completed. The fort had been built by the French in about 1759 to defend Kaskaskia below, which was the region's principal commercial center for over a century.


While of interest, neither the cemetery nor the fort is spectacular. If spectacular is what you want, you move a bit further along to the Mississippi River Overlook (Photo by Goodpairofshoes). From a platform and the terrace ahead is a roughly western view over the Mississippi in its "new" riverbed to the former peninsula, now on the far side and known as Kaskaskia Island, since it's a separated piece of Illinois yonder over on the Missouri side (but not attached to it). That's where we're headed next.


We drive along the river, although the levee blocks our view, and circle around to take the Chester Bridge (Photo by Kbh3rd), which crosses the Mississippi across its narrowest part between Saint Louis and New Orleans. But just before we're about to leave the Illinois side, we notice a visitor center, which presents us with the pleasant surprise mentioned earlier. Chester bills itself as the "Home of Popeye", and in a tiny park just inland from the visitor center at the bridge is a statue of none other than Popeye the Sailor Man himself (Photo by Markkaempfer). It's bronze, and is 1.8 m (6 ft) tall and weighs 410 kg (900 lbs). This seems worthy of putting Kaskaskia on hold for a few minutes and checking this out.


Displays explain that Chester was the home of Elzie Segar, born in Chester in 1894, who created the cartoon character, and this statue here in Segar Park is one of the several characters in the Popeye comic strip that are located around town. And the background as explained is compelling. I'd wondered why the opening panel of a Popeye strip always made reference to the Thimble Theater, and it was here explained.


In 1919, Segar created a strip called the Thimble Theater, which featured the Oyl family; Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl, a father, mother, boyfriend, and more. This was the entire strip for a full decade. It wasn't until 1929 that an alternate beau for Olive was introduced, Popeye. He became so popular, that he became the star character, and the whole strip changed. Olive was the only character retained from the Thimble Theater, and new ones were introduced, with only a minor reference to the Thimble Theater in the opening panel.


Furthermore, the whole strip is a comic-strip version of a roman à clef, since most of the characters were based on people Segar knew in Chester. Popeye was based on Frank "Rocky" Fiegel, a local scrapper. Lanky Olive, who dates back to the beginning in 1919, was based on Dora Paskel, a lean local storekeeper. Segar's boss, Bill Schuchert, liked to eat hamburgers, and he became the prototype for hamburger-eating J Wellington Wimpy, introduced in 1931.


Popeye has become an international character. I've known for some time, though, that Spanish readers hispanicize his name. For them, Popeye is pronounced po.PÉ.yé. That led me to again utilize the languages bar on the Wikipedia entry to flip through what other languages call him. What interested me most was Russian, which does the opposite from Spanish and keeps the name quite authentic (this isn't always the case when names go into the Cyrillic alphabet). In Russian, Popeye is Попай, (Popai) pronounced po.PAI, quite authentic, although end-stressed. And I found it interesting that French Wikipedia found it worthwhile to explain that the name Olive Oyl was based on the English phrase "olive oil", which means huile d'olive. I agree—tell is how it is!


But let's get over the bridge and back to the Missouri side, in order to visit that stray piece of Illinois, Kaskaskia itself. There's just one road over to it, and you do cross over a miniscule swampy channel, which I'm sure dries out at times, yet this is still considered an island. Some call it an exclave of Illinois, but I do not agree, since it's not attached to anything. It's just a difficult-to-reach part of the state, similar to Campobello Island (2014/17). You will have noticed that on this map, levees are in yellow, so each state is protecting its own territory. But the road then goes up and over the levee to the center of the island.


It's all farmland, and in the "town", the only Illinois town west of the Mississippi, there are the remnants of streets, and several houses, but the main street has three brick buildings on it, the Catholic Church (Photo by Charles Houchin), another associated building shown here (I'll comment below on those two small trees in front of it), and the small building further to the left with the Bell Memorial (not shown here). Otherwise it's quite desolate. The church was established in 1675, but these two buildings date from 1893, as Kaskaskia has continued to suffer flooding. In the 2010 census, the town had a population of 14, whereas in its French heyday in the 18C, the population reached 7,000, making it a regional center. Today, Illinois maintains its roads, and the citizens vote in Illinois; it has an Illinois telephone area code (618), but a Missouri ZIP Code (63673).


It became the capital of Upper Louisiana. It later served as the capital of Illinois Territory from 1809 until statehood in 1818, and then continued as state capital for two years, until the capital was moved to Vandalia in 1819. Lewis and Clark stopped here in 1803 and recruited many of the professional hunters and sharpshooters they took with them on their expedition. During French rule, Kaskaskia and other settlements in Upper Louisiana supplied wheat and corn to Lower Louisiana, especially New Orleans, since these crops couldn't be grown in the Gulf climate.


We need to explain the bell. Louis XV had sent it to Kaskaskia in 1741 for its church. Under British rule, Kaskaskia was an important administrative center. During one of the westernmost battles of the American Revolution, Kaskaskia fell to a small band of Americans in 1778. After the Americans captured Fort Kaskaskia, now across the river, they rang the 272 kg (600 lb) Louis XV bell in the French Catholic church. Since then, that bell has been called the "Liberty Bell of the West", and is housed in a separate building near the current church. One cannot enter the unstaffed building, but one presses a buzzer which opens the front door behind a large grille so the bell (Photo by Kbh3rd) can be seen on its pedestal in the interior.


One of the worst Mississippi River floods was in 1993—one hears stories all along the river. Kaskaskia was of course evacuated, but this picture of Kaskaskia during the Great Flood of 1993, when the remnants of the town were covered with three meters/yards of water, will demonstrate two things, the flood's affects and the size of the town. The view looks south, so the rest of Illinois is to the left. You can see the church and the adjoining building—the Bell Memorial is hidden by the trees. You can estimate the size of the main street before these buildings. But also, the treed area is the size of the town, so you see how few buildings I drove around before stopping on the main street. And this was once (in its original location) the capital of Upper Louisiana, of the Territory of Illinois, and of the State of Illinois.

 To add to the sense of other-worldliness in a place like this, I had a very pleasant encounter that only can happen when traveling. After I drove around the town a bit, I pulled up below those two trees I mentioned above (it was HOT and the sun was intense) and parked the car. But there was already a car parked there—odd, since there were no locals around. Then a young man came up to me with a big smile and handshake. At first I thought he was a local, and in retrospect, I suppose he thought I was. We got into such an interesting conversation that we talked, standing there (in the shade of those trees!) for almost three-quarters of an hour. I explained why I was there, and so did he. He's a writer, and—I hope I got the story right—is working to write a narrative for a real-estate company. The connection with Kaskaskia is that it was the capital of Illinois, and at that period, Illinois was the first entity anywhere that passed a certain kind of real estate tax, that's now universal. If I didn't get that quite right, the point is that he wanted the atmosphere and background of the first capital of Illinois, to be in the place that the legislation was passed, and I liked hearing that connection.

As we finally finish our loop and return to Sainte Genevieve note on the map that it, too, was moved due to flooding. It was established in the mid-18C at the site indicated, but moved to its present site toward the end of that century. Mississippi flooding affects everyone.


Day 4: Sainte Genevieve's Historic District    Let's start with the name. Genevieve, who lived in the 5C, is the patron saint of Paris. In French, a male saint is a saint and the T is not pronounced; a female saint is a sainte and the T IS pronounced. The corresponding abbreviations are St and Ste. But English treats, and pronounces, both French versions the same. The town's name in French is actually written Ste-Geneviève.


The town was traditionally founded in 1735 at the old site, but the actual date could be more like 1750. It's the oldest permanent European settlement in Missouri. It was founded by French Canadian colonists and settlers from Upper Louisiana across the river, but then all of New France as it grew was essentially an extended version of what we call French Canadian today. Of the four French settlements in the mid-Mississippi Valley region it was the only one on the west bank of the Mississippi, in other words, in Lower Louisiana, while the other three, Fort de Chartres, Prairie du Rocher, and Kaskaskia—all of which we've visited--were all in Upper Louisiana, on the east bank.


World events impacted Ste Genevieve when the mid-Mississippi Valley was split, Upper Louisiana going to Britain, and (Lower) Louisiana going to Spain—then both sides ending up in the United States. But Ste Gen retained its French character and language throughout. However, we do come across a similar situation as we did in New Orleans. Here, too, the oldest buildings, although described as French Colonial, were actually all built under Spanish late 18C rule. Perhaps we can call both Ste Genevieve and the Vieux Carré of New Orleans as a Spanish overlay on a strong French foundation.


While there are strip malls to the south of town, the charm and ambience of Sainte Genevieve lie in its historic center, which is a National Landmark Historic District. Here there is remarkable preservation of the original colonial settlement. The streets are narrow, there are fenced gardens, all encompassing some of the most significant 18C architecture in the US, including houses with hipped roofs and wide galleries (porches) around them.


But as the area became part of the US, American merchants, lawyers, and entrepreneurs settled into the village, and the houses they built were intermingled with those in the older French style. Thus the architecture one sees today in the village is late 18C French and early 19C American—historical change reflected in architecture.


We will visit examples of both, but early 19C American architecture, while lending a charm of its own, does not have the uniqueness of late 18C French architecture, which is what we'll investigate most closely. This in light of the fact that there is an architectural style close to unique in Ste Genevieve.


It all comes down to posts. These, in French are poteaux, pronounced po.TOH (the "pot-" stem has lost the S it once had, which English "post" still retains.) How are you going to set up your poteaux when you build your house? Anglo-American frontier tradition maintained a log-cabin style, where logs were laid horizontally. Well, the fact that they're called posts already indicates that, like fenceposts, they'll be set up vertically. This is already one level of uniqueness, houses whose walls consist of vertical wooden posts—highly uncommon in the US, but which can be found in Québec and Normandy. So far, mark one up for Ste Gen.


But it gets better. Next question: what will your vertical wooden posts rest on? We have two variations: rare and rarest. The rare examples rest the posts on a sill; think "window sill" but here we mean a horizontal beam. The beam is then supported in turn every so often by simple, low, raised stone or brick columns. French for "sill" is sol, also spelled sole or solle, and this style of architecture is called poteaux-sur-sol, or "posts-on-[a]-sill" style. Houses in this rare style are found in Ste Genevieve, in Prairie du Rocher, in Louisiana, and in other parts of the former New France. Most are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


If that's rare, what can be done that's even more distinctive, making it rarest? Well, why bother with a sill? Just stick your posts right into the ground. Make post holes, like for a fence, and in go your poteaux. This type of construction is called poteaux-en-terre, or "posts-in-[the]-ground". It's considered an impermanent form of construction for houses that are meant to be short-term until a better house can be built. These posts, although often made of rot-resistant cedar, were still subject to rot eventually, as well as termites and flooding. It can be now understood why examples of this style are so rare. Furthermore, in this style of architecture, the walls do not support the floor! The ground floor stands independently on stone pillars.


Now let's see about "rarest": there are five surviving poteaux-en-terre houses in the United States. Two of them are downriver, near the Gulf: one in Pascagoula, Mississippi and one near Natchitoches, Louisiana. But the other THREE are all in Ste Genevieve, and we'll visit them all.


Before we go on our town tour, we should really point out where we're staying, a B&B right in the historic district of course. It's the Inn St Gemme Beauvais, which claims to be the oldest continuously operated B&B in Missouri. The history of the inn dates back to the 1700s, when the daughter of Vital St Gemme Beauvais—we'll shortly see his house down the street—farmed the property. The building dates from 1848 as a private residence for the Roziers, a successful local family. The inn is on the National Register of Historic Places.

 I have to split linguistic hairs, but that's what we're here for, right? Vital had a double last name, but I was curious about St Gemme, and looked it up. I was mildly surprised to find that the name referred to is Gemma, the Italian form looking slightly more familiar in English. In that case, if it's a woman, shouldn't it be Ste Gemme? I looked up the family, and some members spelled it St, disregarding who she was, and others Ste. Still, since the Inn uses how Vital spelled his name, we have to accept this incongruity. Picky, picky, picky.

This is the handsome Inn St (sic) Gemme Beauvais on upper Main Street:


We said, when we came rushing up the first day from Cape Girardeau, that we were in time for the happy hour with cheese-and-crackers. We made it all three days, and this is the cobalt-blue dining room where it takes place. Breakfasts were also served here, and weekends (my last night was a Friday), they become a public restaurant and serve a gourmet dinner, which I then had a chance to enjoy. Talking of dinners, one other night I dined at the 1785 Old Brick House restaurant in town (Photo by Andrew Balet), which claims to be the first brick building ever built west of the Mississippi.


We're ready to go visit the town. We'll use the above map as our planning guide. The river is beyond a levee to the right and is a good 1 km (1/2 mi) away. You can see that almost all of the historic center lies centered at Merchant and Market Streets, starting at Main Street on the right and barely reaching Fifth Street (the numbers go higher beyond). It's quite compact. The Inn St Gemme Beauvais lies at the top edge of Main Street at the intersection with Jefferson. You'll recall, this was our exit route to the ferry yesterday.


While we have the key to all the numbers, it's still confusing where to start, since one always needs a rating guide, like with Michelin or Frommer, to give you a heads-up as to what's best. For once it may be helpful to visit the tourist office at #1 on the map. But on the way there, serendipity prevails. Walking just one block down Main Street—even on the same side!—we come across #3 so we check to see what we have. And it's a winner on two fronts. It's one of the oldest houses, the Vital St Gemme Beauvais House (Photo by Andrew Balet), built in 1792 of sturdy, anti-insect red cedar. First, you'll recognize Vital's name as being the father of the woman who first farmed the land up the street that's now our B&B. But second, it's one of the three poteaux-en-terre houses in town! And interestingly, it remains to this day a private residence, not a museum or show home, helping to indicate that Ste Gen is still a living community, and not just a museum.


We're in luck. The tourist office has a list of the most important museum-houses in town, and also a reduced-rate ticket for entry to whole group. And there's another advantage. The list includes two important houses outside of the center, down Main Street beyond the creek. This distance, and also the heat of the day, shows that our potentially lengthy walking tour will end up be a driving tour, just as it was in Fredericksburg TX (2015/3). We'll go to the ones on the ticket first, then cruise around to see the others. As it turns out, all the houses on the ticket are from the French period except for one from the Anglo-American period. Also, we'll get solo tours in all but one, and that one will have only one other adult, with a child.


Why not start with the two beyond the creek? It turns out they're among the gems. The slightly further of the two is the Bequette-Ribault House, dating from the 1790s. (This and all four photos of the following house are by Andrew Balet.) It's still undergoing restoration, and is only open tomorrow, Saturday, so we have to enjoy it from the outside. Don't expect a neat little 19C Anglo-American house. These are sturdy, wooden, late-18C houses. If you get the feeling they remind you of a more primitive, frontier-type structure, so be it—that was the style of the era. That style roof and the gallery (porch) on all sides are absolutely typical. And best of all: it's the second of the three poteaux-en-terre houses in town. It's a little hard to tell, since the walls seem to be stuccoed, or perhaps just whitewashed, but, with a little imagination, follow the line of the posts going right into the ground.


But no more than about two houses closer to town on the same side of the street is the 1792 Beauvais-Amoureux House—those Beauvais did get around, didn't they?. As luck would have it, this turns out to be the third and final poteaux-en-terre house in town, and the one we can visit most thoroughly. The roof style is familiar, although the gallery is only on one side. The building has gone through many metamorphoses, and it is not furnished, but is used for displays showing architectural styles, and also has a model inside of old Ste Gen. The young woman guide was reading a book on the porch, and I suspect no one else has been here yet—and very few more might still be coming on a hot weekday autumn morning. She tells us about the house over the years, and inside, most of what she has to say involves the architecture, including where walls have been left open to see their construction. A new technique for me is how the spaces between the posts are filled in using bousillage (, a kind of reinforced mud. This infill, or chinking, is a mixture of clay and grass that is similar to adobe, and which was very typical of 18C French Colonial construction. This picture, which is from the Amoureux House, shows not only the bousillage, but also the vertical wall posts and part of one of the displays in the building in place of furniture.


Quite frankly, what is mostly to be seen here is architecture, so I was surprised when she asked if I wanted to see the basement. Of course! Who wouldn't? Refer back to the first Amoureux picture for two things. Look under the porch and click to see quite clearly the vertical posts going into the ground. Disregard the horizontal siding on this end of the house, as well as the stone foundation there, both of which presumably came from an add-on in a later period, but do note the door to the basement and the trench leading up to it.


When we get there, we see that there wasn't really a basement originally, only a crawl space, so that trench outside is continued inside, where waist-down we're in that extended trench, but waist-up we're in the crawl space, and even then have to duck our heads. There's illumination in the crawl space so we're not the first ones to be interested. And look at what we get to see!. The posts in the far wall (click) clearly go directly into the ground, and bousillage fills in the spaces between them. And we have another treat. As we know, in poteaux-en-terre houses, the floor is not attached to the walls. so follow in the picture: we see the floor above resting on huge beams, which in turn rest on a supporting perpendicular beam. This in turn rests on brick or stone columns spaced every so often. And the walls offer no support for the floor, since they're not attached. (Careful inspection will again show the interior of that later wall we saw outside. On the left there IS a footing with a vertical beam, but this has all been added later on. The virginal structure is in front of us.) If the floor construction still isn't clear, let's go upstairs again and look at one of the models on display. Click to confirm that the ground-level floor is independent of the walls and are resting on their own stone pillars. This is indeed a unique form of construction.


There are three more houses on our tour ticket, but some give tours only at certain times. It's most convenient time-wise to go to the Anglo-American house next, then finish with the two remaining French ones. That house is the Felix Vallé House (Photo by Andrew Balet), whose 1818 date alone indicates we're in a new century with a new culture joining the old. It's #6 on the map, and behind it in the picture is #7, the 1819 Dr Benjamin Shaw House, also historical, but presently used as an office for the Vallé.


When I enter the Shaw House to get my ticket punched and get the Vallé tour, the greeting I get from the young man floors me. "Are you the guy from New York interested in architecture?" Apparently one's reputation proceedeth one. I know there are no secrets in a small town, but I just GOT here! It was obvious what must have happened. "She CALLED you?" "Well, yeah. She IS my wife." I'm sure many come to Ste Gen for the charm, but I don't see how you can avoid getting interested in the architecture. Well, apparently, many people must skim over it.


Look at the Vallé again. It's two-story, in Federalist style, built of limestone, not of wood. It's totally different from the French buildings. How could someone not notice the architecture? But then things become clear. This is the Felix Vallé House State Historic Site, owned by the State of Missouri and run by Missouri State Parks. And the Vallé Site it threefold, since it also includes the Shaw house—and the Beauvais-Amoureux house where I'd by chance just been, so that husband and wife should be working together here makes more sense. She knew I had the multiple-house ticket and would be showing up at the Vallé sooner or later—it just turned out to be sooner. All of a sudden, small-town life became less confusing.


This straight-on view of the Vallé House (Photo by Andrew Balet) gives it a whole new aspect, and it becomes clearer that, while most of the downstairs and the whole upstairs were the residence, the room at the right, with its own entrance, was a mercantile store representing the historic trading firm of Menard & Vallé. The tour starts there, and it's a fully stocked store, primarily with dry-goods, but with a lot more. The Empire furnishings and original mantels and interior trim complete the family living quarters, and, to save space, the staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms is outdoors, in the back, but enclosed. I hope I showed enough appreciation for this later-period house not to disappoint the guide!


It was by pure chance that the first three houses we saw, at least from the outside, were the three of the rarest French kind, and, after the Anglo-American house (or houses, including the Shaw), the last two were both of the rare (but not rarest) kind, the poteaux-sur-sol, where the vertical posts rested on a sill. The charming, but less primitive-looking one of the two was the Guibourd House, #12 on the map (Photo by Nyttend). It has the French roof and a gallery on one side, but its 1806 date is already an indication that, unlike the three earlier ones, and the other French one coming up, the Bolduc, all with late 18C dates, this house is already into the new century. You can see that by the clapboard siding on the house, and the interior, which is fully furnished, has more to do with the Anglo-American Vallé house than the upcoming older-period Bolduc House. Still, behind all these veneers, it's a poteaux-sur-sol house, and behind the interior walls, there is bousillage filling in the chinks between the poteaux. This house gives you the feeling that it's trying to transition between two worlds.


But probably the most unique of all the houses is the Bolduc House, #23 on the map (Photo by Andrew Balet), which I visited along with a woman and her young daughter on the tour. My thinking goes this way. The French houses are older, and more unique in style, than the Vallé or Shaw. While the Bolduc doesn't have the rarest construction, it does have the rather rare sill-construction, as this model shows (Photo by Andrew Balet)—that foundation supports the sill. In addition, it's possibly the only one that was moved from the original site of Ste Genevieve. Bolduc had built a smaller house there in 1770. Although much of that house was severely damaged by flooding, parts were dismantled and moved to the higher ground of the new townsite in 1785, and the present house was completed in 1792. And who will not notice the (reconstructed) palisade fence! It by itself is an indication of life on the frontier.


You see the typical roof and gallery, which originally went around all four sides, as in the Bequette-Ribault House. However, at an earlier period, one corner of the gallery (on the back right) was surrendered to an extension of the kitchen. The Bolduc has three rooms. One enters in the center to a slim commercial office area with a desk. The huge room to the left (under the left chimney) is a comfortable living and social gathering area, but the smaller room to the right of the office (under the right chimney) is the bedroom-cum-general living space where the family hunkered down in the cold weather, heating only this area. This house is the only one with authentic 18C wooden furniture, perhaps less elegant than in the Anglo-American houses, and more of a frontier, colonial style. Furthermore, the Bolduc has been designated a National Historic Landmark.


After these house tours, we take a drive around town to see the other places of interest. This includes the Old Brick House restaurant mentioned above, at #19, a traditional hotel at # 20, the Catholic church at #17, the cemetery at #14, where Mrs Vallé's tombstone is visible from the street, the town museum at #10, and, at #9, even a 1920s-1930s era cinema. It's been a busy day, and this itinerary is much better done by car. And we finish our last day in Ste Gen in time for happy hour at the B&B.

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