Bridges, shipwrecks, and salvage: St. Louis riverfront history
A brief trip along the St. Louis Riverfront
Usually here on Unseen St. Louis, I dive deep into some random historical oddity about the city. This time around I’d like to recount a brief trip on the Tom Sawyer riverboat, a tour narrated in part by Missouri History Riverfront Takeover Cruise led by Missouri Historical Society’s Amanda Clark.
It was a beautiful fall afternoon when I climbed aboard the Tom Sawyer riverboat at the base of the Gateway Arch. It was an exciting first for me—even though I was born and raised here, never once did I find myself on the Mississippi River.
(Well, I did take a tour of the USS Inaugural one hot summer day as a teenager and was forever shaken by its claustrophobic interior, but the ship was permanently moored along the riverfront, or so everyone assumed. More on that ship later).
For part of the cruise, the captain told us about the business of the riverfront and the essential barge traffic that carries dry goods up and down the river. That day, one of the barges carrying cement was being emptied, and we watched the industrial vacuum slurp up all of the powdered cargo. He also explained the importance of gravel wing dams that jut out from the shore (there were several on the Illinois side) that help keep the channel clear for shipping at a fraction of the cost of dredging.
But on this cruise, as the tour guide of the day, Amanda treated us to fascinating historical tidbits you probably won’t read in any tourist guidebook.
As a big fan of James Buchanan Eads, Amanda related how he not only designed and built the bridge that bears his name, but way before the bridge construction, he made his fortune doing salvage in the Mississippi River mud, descending in a tar-coated barrel to recover items lost to the mighty river.
After the cruise, I was still trying to figure out how Eads could have seen anything, much less been able to salvage anything, under so much murky water in just a barrel with an air hose. While those questions may never be satisfactorily answered, she did offer up a couple of images of his contraption:
Past the Eads Bridge and the others spanning the river, we cruised past the Ashley Power Station. This building once powered the 1904 World’s Fair—and bears the discoloration of decades of coal smoke from those times. Remarkably, it’s still in operation today, generating steam power for the city.
Amanda told us that when they first turned the riverfront into a wharf, they used limestone rocks, but then constructed a more stable surface with hand-hewn bricks of granite—the famous riverfront cobblestones. In an interesting twist of fate, the extremely low water levels of the river allowed us geeks to see some of the original limestone right at the water’s edge as we disembarked later on.
Perhaps most exciting to me, I finally got to check off a box on my personal scavenger hunt bingo card. We turned back towards the Arch right at the shipwreck remains of the USS Inaugural, a WWII minesweeper that was long docked at the base of the Arch (until the 1993 flood pulled it from its moorings and sent it to its demise downstream). I’ve been trying over the past 18 months to see it from the bank, but failed on a number of occasions because of closed floodgates and the like. But there it was, not unlike a beached whale, caught up between a barge and the rocky bank. Some of it has been salvaged over the years, and this is all that’s left.
All in all, it was a great way to spend an afternoon. If you’re in the vicinity from March-November and have time to kill, I definitely recommend a cruise—and if you can catch Amanda’s history takeover, you won’t be disappointed!
A brief announcement:
For the month of November, I’m taking a brief hiatus from Unseen St. Louis to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), something I do every year. This year I’ll be working on a new novel project, a murder mystery set in a heavily-fictionalized small town outside of St. Louis during a snowstorm. For updates on my progress and to read some of my fiction, follow me over on Story Cauldron.
But don’t worry—I’ll be back in December with more St. Louis history goodness!