The rivers of southern Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
An excerpt from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. The rivers of far southern Illinois figure in the region's lore, in its history, and in its distinctive natural systems. Among them are three of the nation's legendary rivers—the Ohio, the Wabash, and the Mississippi—and one of its most peculiar, the Cache.
Visitors from many parts of the world come to Fort Defiance Park at Cairo’s southern tip to see what Raymond Wiggers in Geology Underfoot in Illinois calls “one of this planet’s great meeting places,” the spot where the mighty Mississippi and Ohio rivers flow together. In truth, on most days seeing this meeting of the waters is as exciting as staring at a massive brown parking lot.
Dull does not mean unimportant, however. Southern Illinois was shaped by rivers, physically and demographically. They were the means of commerce, and most of the region's important early towns grew on their banks. The Mississippi was the lifeline that tied the far-flung French farm settlements and garrison towns of the American Bottom to the rest of the French empire in North America. Several major southern rivers discharge into the Ohio just upstream from Illinois, making a downstream float to the Illinois country irresistibly convenient for the Tennesseans and Kentuckians who made up so much of the state’s founding population. The presence of the Wabash also explains the anomalous penetration of Southerners into what would otherwise be considered central Illinois.
There is a forgivable tendency to romanticize Egypt’s river days. Along with prosperity, the rivers brought Mike Fink and his fellow riverboat men to Illinois aboard their flatboats. The boats were big, clumsy craft—the largest weighed more than 20 tons—and big men were needed to handle them. The exploits of the flatboat men were easier to appreciate from a distance of time, which makes drunks, cutthroats, and thieves look like lovable rowdies. When the steamboat killed off the riverboat men it did wonders for the peace and quiet in the river towns, where life, it is said, was a regular cycle of floods, fishin,’ and fightin.’
The modern world moves on rails and wheels rather than water. (The exception is the congeries of factory towns in the American Bottom next to the Mississippi, a spot at which being near a river still confers an economic benefit.) Most river towns in Egypt—Shawneetown, Metropolis, Golconda, Thebes—are forlorn places these days. The entire town of Golconda survived to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places because, never threatened by improvement, it had never changed.
Old Shawneetown on the Ohio River doesn’t get to see too many Nobel Prize winners, but it did in 1957 when Saul Bellow dropped by while doing an article on Illinois places for a travel magazine. He left a vivid account that would describes all these towns.
A strange, Silurian smell emanates from the mud and the barren houses. The scene is Southern. Whittlers sit on boxes, and the dogs roll in the potholes; the stores sell fatback, collard greens, mustard greens, and black-eyed peas. The flies wait hungrily in the air, sheets of flies that make a noise like the tearing of tissue paper. People in the river bottoms tell you that old Shawneetown is a rip-roaring place on a Saturday night; it swallows up husbands and their paychecks. The bars near the levee burst into music, and the channel catfish fry in deep fat, and the beer flows.
William Oliver in the 1840s found the Wabash River bottomland “a dismal swampy looking place,” but the modern traveler is looking for different things and is more likely to be impressed; on its banks is the nearly 300-acre Beall (pronounced “bell”) Woods, one of the largest relatively undisturbed remnants of the deciduous forest that once covered the eastern U.S.
The Cache River drains nearly the entire southern tip of Illinois. The modern stream runs through the valley of the ancient Ohio River, which used to arch north of its current course. The Cache River bottomlands support the greatest diversity of tree species of any in Illinois; some individual trees are more than 1,000 years old—possibly the oldest living things east of the Mississippi River. The area contains three National Natural Landmarks as designated by the National Park Service.
The Cache basin is a stopover for tens of thousands of migrating snow geese and hundreds of thousands of Canada geese. Great egrets have a rookery on Boss Island in Little Black Slough; 20 to 50 bald eagles winter in the cypresses lining Horseshoe Lake—a cut-off bend on the nearby Mississippi—and trumpeter and tundra swans sometimes winter at Horseshoe Lake. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, in 1996 added the Cache River and Cypress Creek wetlands to its list of 15 “Wetlands of International Importance” because of their crucial role in sustaining waterfowl and shorebirds using the Mississippi flyway, which puts the area into the same class as more famous U.S. wetland systems such as the Florida Everglades and the Okefenokee Swamp.
The Big Muddy River is not a natural natural landmark. It is known to wider world only because of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale’s annual Big Muddy Film Festival, which showcases independently produced films. In his memoir of growing up in Jackson County, Lee Imhoff writes:
We stood up and sang about how wonderful eternal life would be, after we quit this life of “grief and stress” and went “to rest beyond the river.” Everyone pitched in and sang loud, like they were eager to go right now to that “place of rapture.” I knew that I was not ready to cross any river. And if that day ever came, I hoped that the last river I saw was prettier than the Big Muddy.
Even the prettier rivers in southern Illinois have bad manners. Beginning with the earliest Native Americans, humans have settled on the floodplains of the region’s rivers. The bottomlands and their backwater lakes and sloughs were where the richest soils were, and the most fish. Floodplains, unfortunately, flood. The Embarras River for example is said to have been given that name by the French who found it (quoting William Oliver) “a troublesome impediment” owing to its tendency to overflow its banks. It was a fault the Embarras shared with its southern cousins. Among the signal losses to the region caused by the high waters of the Wabash was Mr. Morris Birkbeck who drowned while crossing a swollen tributary of the Wabash after a heavy rain. As for the Mississippi, more than 20 major floods were recorded along that river between 1844 and 1930 alone.
Native Americans had lived in the area long enough to have learned well the local rivers’ habits. “Kaskaskia” is alleged by one expert to be an Indian tribal name meaning "uncertain." In the mid-1800s, railroad companies building new first tracks across flood plains like that of the Kaskaskia south of Vandalia atop wooden trestles, sensibly delaying investment in permanent embankments until experience could teach them how high the tracks needed to be to stay dry. Euro-American engineers have created a permanent flood in the upstream reaches of the Kaskaskia in reservoirs, which they can control, in order to prevent floods downstream, which they cannot. Two of the three biggest "lakes" in inland Illinois are Kaskaskia River flood control structures. One, Lake Shelbyville, was begun in 1963 and is twenty miles long at normal water levels; downstream, the Kaskaskia was dammed again, in 1969, to form Carlyle Lake, whose surface area of 24,580 acres makes it the largest inland lake in Illinois—"Illinois's other Great Lake.”
The mighty (inconvenient) Mississippi
The French had a knack for building their towns and forts where they were most likely to be damaged by floods. Forts had to be within cannon range of the water, for one thing, and merchants had to be close to the docks to move their goods. The French towns also might have agreed to keep their settlements near the rivers as a result of a political accommodation with local Indian tribes. Or perhaps the French, like newcomers who buy a house before they find out about the noisy neighbors, simply never saw the rivers’ worst side before building.
Nature punished the French for their folly. Virtually all the French settlements along the Mississippi succumbed eventually to water. Fort de Chartres was abandoned by its British inheritors in 1772 because the encroaching Mississippi had collapsed one of its walls. (The State-of-Illinois-restored fort narrowly avoided the same fate during the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993, when a nearby levee broke and the site briefly disappeared beneath fifteen feet of water.) Cahokia had held the Randolph County seat, but lost it to Chester after a bad flood in 1844. High water that carried the Mississippi into a new channel in 1881 wiped out the old French town of Kaskaskia altogether.
The Americans did not better. Cairo flooded often during the Civil War; one wag insisted that the high water turned the Union troops stationed there into gung-ho fighters, since they thought it preferable to die on a battlefield than to drown in camp. The Mississippi left the old American Bottom opposite St. Louis not exactly a paradise: no place that flooded so often and bred so many mosquitoes could be. The Bottom was regularly overwhelmed by the seasonal rise of both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Charles Dickens made a wearisome journey across these lands in 1843, which he later described in American Notes as “one unbroken slough of black mud and water.”
What was a nuisance to travelers had rather more serious consequences for the Bottom’s burgeoning residential population. The American Bottom was famous for sickness, owing to it being so poorly drained. William Oliver recorded a conversation on the topic with an innkeeper in Collinsville, who “expatiated at great length on the many advantages, and the salubrity of this neighbourhood.” Oliver noted, in contradiction, that several of his fellow guests appeared ill, but these, the innkeeper insisted, “were boarders who had come from St. Louis to get cured.”
Cities rose on the Bottom; unfortunately, so did the water. Venice was so named because its streets were so often flooded before the construction of levees. One Mississippi flood in the mid-1800s left the water so deep atop the American Bottom that steamboats were able to float miles inland to the foot of the bluffs that border and define the Bottom. In 1814, the St. Clair County seat was officially moved from Cahokia up onto the bluffs at Belleville, in part because of the continual flooding at Cahokia.
Levees were built around the larger towns such as East St. Louis, of course, but each time, within a few years, as if responding to a dare, the river would top them. Since East St. Louis couldn’t be moved from the floods, it was decided to raise the town above them. A scheme was proposed in 1870 to lift East St. Louis above then then-record high water mark by rebuilding foundations and streets. (Perhaps not a new idea in the American Bottom; the Native Americans may have built their important buildings atop earthen mounds in part to keep them dry.) The work wouldn't have been cheap; in a noisy battle between “High-Graders” and “Low-Graders” the High-Graders won. The new higher grade was mandated in 1875 but it didn’t help much in 1903, when the Mississippi flooded a quarter of the city anyway.
Apart from the ceremonial earthen Indian mounds, the first major public works on the American Bottom opposite St. Louis were the levees, drainage channels, relief wells, and catchment basins built beginning in 1907 with the formation of the East Side Levee and Sanitary District. The investment in pipes, pumps, ditches, levees and dams to catch, divert, and remove water has been huge. Some 40 percent of the American Bottom’s wetlands have been drained or filled. Sections of the interstate highways that crisscross the Bottom were built in areas so wet that as much as 10 million gallons of water a day have to be pumped away to keep road foundations from crumbling.
In general, however, humans have dried out the Bottom too much. Over the decades, engineers drained much of the Bottom, including such landmarks as Indian Lake, Spring Lake, and Crooked Lake; old meander lakes such as Goose Lake are gone; others such as Pittsburgh and Horseshoe Lakes are much reduced in size, and there is so little water standing in Grassy and Smith lakes that today’s mapmakers mark them as marshes. East St. Louis used to be on the river; today it is only near it.
Ironically, it was the availability of water in quantity that spurred the rapid industrialization of the Bottom after 1890. Factories became de facto flood control facilities; between the 1940s and 1960s especially, factories such as the Granite City steel works took as much water per day from underground sand and gravel formations as would be used by cities of 100,000 people. Such heavy withdrawals caused local water tables to drop temporarily, turning nearby wet land dry. The decline in the manufacturing economy thus has had unwelcome effects beyond the loss of jobs; recent slowdowns in groundwater withdrawals have caused water tables to climb back toward pre-industrial levels, flooding basements and undermining sewer lines.
The big floods
Some 80 years of levee and dam building has left the rivers towns of Egypt protected from routine floods, but big floods overwhelm even these elaborate defenses, in part because the levees narrow the river channels, forcing flood waters higher. Heavy winter rains and snow in the Ohio valley in 1936, when some parts of southern Illinois got six times the usual winter precipitation, created massive floods in early 1937 that set records up and down the river; eight Egyptian counties were largely under water as deep as a house. Harrisburg, some twenty miles from the Ohio River, was inundated by waters that backed up the nearby Saline River; Cairo came within inches of being swept away.
Photographers sent to Shawneetown by the federal Farm Security Administration to document the damage came back with pictures of houses that had been lifted wholly off their foundations and flipped on their sides. This was ill treatment even by the Ohio’s standards of comportment, but people along the river had long ago inured themselves to it. “Like old campaigners, they name the years of disaster with a ring of military pride,” reported Saul Bellow after a visit, “’eighty-four, ‘ninety-eight, nineteen and thirteen, nineteen and thirty-seven.’”
When the water receded, state and federal agencies sought to move the town out of harm’s way, to a new site some four miles west and several yards higher; many buildings, including a water tower and grain elevators, were moved up the hill, and a new Gallatin County courthouse was built. Many residents of the old town refused to leave, so it remains, derelict and damp, doing business as Old Shawneetown to distinguish it from its newer, drier scion.
The current champion flood on the Mississippi side came in 1993. Water rose in the spring and stayed there for weeks, backing up water in the river’s tributaries for miles. The National Guard, citizen volunteers, and media turned out in nearly equal numbers. So powerful was the deluge that it caused even federal bureaucrats to change course. The 900 or so residents of Valmeyer on the banks of the Mississippi River, 25 miles south of St. Louis, had survived floods in 1910, 1943, and 1944, but rebuilt each time, thanks in part to generous federal aid. The Great Flood of 1993 left 90 percent of Valmeyer’s buildings damaged beyond repair.
“Valmeyer” became a code word for the federal government’s attempts at a more sensible flood policy that aimed to reduce future flood costs by moving people out of flood-prone areas. The whole town was rebuilt atop a 500-acre bluff about two miles east of (and 400 feet higher than) the original site—an official admission that even the federal government can’t tell the Mississippi how to behave. ●