Experience the Mississippi River Up Close and Personal – St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.

It isn't surprising that the Mississippi River was named such, because in the Algonquian Indian language, the word Mississippi means "father of waters". The triangular drainage area of this 2,300 plus-mile waterway covers roughly 40 per cent of the U.S.A. This river has been important to the growth and development of numerous cities, including St. Louis, which had been founded by French fur traders in 1764, most notably by Pierre Leclede. Today, this river is extremely vital to the economy and ecology of the United States. Here are some facts to prove it.

– The Mississippi River Basin produces 92 per cent of the nation's agricultural exports and 78 per cent of feed grain and soybean exports.Sixty per cent of all exported grain and over half the exported livestock from the U.S.A. is shipped via this great river.

– Ecologically, one quarter of all fish species in North America live on the river and floodplain.Sixty per cent of all North American birds use this river basin for migration, including 40 per cent of America's migratory waterfowl. One barge traveling on the river can carry the same tonnage as 15 Jumbo Hopper train cars or 58 semi-truck trailers fully loaded, which saves on a lot of fossil fuel!

In and around St. Louis, visitors can take in a variety of venues that will show just how important this river is:

The Mississippi's Vitality at The National Great Rivers Museum

The National Great Rivers Museum is one place to really find out just how important the Mississippi River is to the nation firsthand. Adjacent to the museum, one can take a tour of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, some of the many locks on the river that keep the water from becoming too shallow for ships to navigate.

I found out some interesting things as I toured the museum and enjoyed a number of its interactive exhibits which help the Mississippi River really come alive. First, I learned how past and present area inhabitants, including a steamboat captain, were and are being influenced by the Mississippi via a talking exhibit. I got to hear the sound of freshwater drum fish, which make a croaking sound like a frog. I did so by opening up a small door on one of the displays. I opened it one too many times because the people around me were starting to talk. I had always heard of the term river delta, but finally found out what it is: basically it's where the river branches out, which in the Mississippi's case, is at the Gulf of Mexico. I got to go inside a barge simulator to attempt to steer a barge through the locks. One exhibit has you input how much water you use daily via flushing, washing, showering, etc., and fills up a tub to show the amount while giving a digital readout, so as to make you more conservation-conscious.

After interacting with the museum exhibits, head outside to view the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, which were constructed just below the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. It has 246 miles of foundation pilings and is reinforced with enough steel for ten Gateway Arches! You may even be lucky enough to see a barge being navigated through one of the two locks in the system.

National Great Rivers Museum/Melvin Price Locks and Dam: Roughly a 35-minute drive north of downtown St. Louis in East Alton, IL. Call 1-877-462-6979 for museum information and 1-618-462-1713 for locks and dam information. Check out www.mvs.usace.army.mil/rivers/ngrm.htm for more information and directions. Free admission to both.

Barges on the Mississippi River supply our nation with many of our material needs.
Barges on the Mississippi River supply our nation
with many of our material needs.

Celebrate the Expedition of Lewis and Clark

From December 12, 1803, to May 14, 1804, a soon-to-be-legendary-expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would set up a winter camp, known as Camp River Dubois. It's near the confluence of the Missouri River and Mississippi River in Illinois. Basing at Camp River Dubois was the prelude to Lewis and Clark embarking upon their great journey westward, which would help change the fate of America forever.

Today, Lewis and Clark's temporary residency at this place is now recognized as the leading off point for the National Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail. Ceremonies will take place in late September to honor the bi-centennial anniversary of their return from the Western Frontier.

I found out some interesting bits of history via the guided tour I had of the facility, including the fact that Lewis and Clark couldn't base themselves in nearby St. Louis because during the winter of 1803-04, details were still being worked out over the Louisiana Purchase, and St. Louis was still "French". And given that the expedition was also military in nature, to have Lewis and Clark's Corp of Detachment unit in St. Louis would've been construed as an act of aggression.

Yes, I was informed by the guide that the oft-stated "Corp of Discovery" wasn't the correct name for Lewis and Clark's men, even though the venue's various pieces of literature and website states "Corp of Discovery". As you can tell, different interpretations of history abound. I could tell that our guide was really into the activities of Lewis and Clark, quoting verbatim certain journal entries by the explorers like they were bible verses.

Camp River Dubois was rebuilt from sketches left by William Clark, and contains some live figures inhabiting the fort-like structures, including a washerwoman and a countryperson sitting in one of the cabins. You get to see the old bunk areas, which were really drafty and smelled musty. The supply room contained a lot of American flags, because the expedition needed to give them out to Indian tribes to signify that the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were now under U.S. rule.

Passing the time at Camp River Dubois
Passing the time at Camp River Dubois

Within the museum itself are six galleries that honor this great expedition westward, including the "Bound for the West" gallery, which contains one-half of a 55-foot replica keelboat that is pointed to the west. The mast of this boat that was used for the westward journey is 30-plus feet in height, built with authentic materials of the early 19th century. The vessel is cut in half so visitors can see what the inside looks like with all its food and wares needed for the expedition. Nearby is an interactive exhibit where you can try to load a smaller scale model boat, using building block cargo, while attempting to keep the boat afloat.

The "Across the Continent" gallery showcases a large globe that features the worldwide trading routes of Lewis and Clark's day, and stresses how important the waterways were since airplanes and trains had yet to be in regular use. In the "Convergence Theater" gallery, you can watch a short high-definition video presentation against a 14' x 25' area of the theater wall that uses a lot of special effects to highlight the challenges of the expedition with all the last second dodges from peril, hard work, and relationships forged on the great expedition.

Lewis & Clark State Historic Site: Roughly a 25-minute drive north of downtown St. Louis. One Lewis and Clark Trail, Hartford, IL. 618-251-5811. Go to www.campdubois.com for more information, including directions. Free admission.

Taking in the St. Louis sights from the Tom Sawyer riverboat
Taking in the St. Louis sights from the Tom Sawyer

A St. Louis Harbor Tour Riverboat-Style

Riverboats have been an integral part of St. Louis' history and legend. The first one arrived at St. Louis in 1817, and soon 100 of them would be lining the levee. One third of the city was laid waste when the riverboat called the White Cloud exploded in 1849.

I got to ride on the Tom Sawyer, via Gateway Arch Riverboats. The boat has been in service since 1966. The Tom Sawyer is a 99-ton boat and can carry 375 passengers, and generates some 750 horsepower down the Mighty Mississippi River. For the one hour tour, we went about three miles roundtrip. The narration was given by the captain of the steamboat as well as an official from the National Park Service, who gave us a quick rundown on the history of slavery in America, and how it affected the St. Louis area. Some of the visual highlights of the tour were being able to see some of the floodwalls of St. Louis that extend 11 miles north, and to be able to see some old work of Robert E. Lee off of the Illinois shoreline where he helped to create some water diversion pylons. We went under the Martin Luther King Bridge, which connects St. Louis to East St. Louis, Illinois. This structure is just under 4,010 feet in total length and has a 962-plus foot span.

The touring company also offers private tours for all special, holiday, and job-related occasions. Check below website for details.

Gateway Arch Riverboats is located just below the Gateway Arch on the St. Louis Riverfront: 877-982-1410 or 314-621-4040. www.gatewayarchriverboats.com

Getting to the Bottom of River Area Conservation

The Columbia Bottom Conservation Area is over 4,300 acres in size. It's outside the city of St. Louis, but the city actually owned it until 1997, when it was bought out for this grand eco-friendly project. It's called the "Columbia Bottom", with the "bottom" word known also as a flood plain, or even more simply, a valley. This refuge also contains a 110-acre island, and over 6.5 miles of river frontage where such birds as eagles, herons, and egrets can be found. Cottonwoods and Sycamores are just some of the trees found along the waterways.

The conservation area also includes an interactive museum full of free informative materials on conservation-related subjects. My favorite exhibit in the museum was the fact that it uses an actual kitchen to make the analogy for what a cropland area is made up of; that is, the sink is the wetland, where water builds up in. The kitchen cabinets are the crop areas themselves that you open up to find out various bits of information about them. The Columbia Bottom officials actually let farmers bid on plots of land that are reserved for farming because of its rich topsoil. The crops grown here include corn and soybeans.

This area is so large, that a number of activities are available, including deer and dove hunting; waterfowl and turkey hunting; hiking; horseback riding; fishing and boating. A free passport book is available at the museum so as to navigate around the eight-station area that exists at this venue. One of the stations is the "Confluence" station, where visitors can see where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet up. The "Bottomland Forest" station makes up part of the 800 acres of bottomland forest that are a prime ingredient of this conservation area. It contains various types of trees like the pecan, bur oak, and maple. Via the passport book and exploring the stations, you even get to learn about sloughs firsthand (pronounced "slews"), which are parts of rivers or wetlands that have been cut off, making it very muddy and shallow, but are absorbent like sponges.

Columbia Bottom Conservation Area: Located in north St. Louis County roughly 20 minutes' drive north of downtown St. Louis. 1-636-441-4554. For more information and directions, go to http://mdc.mo.gov/areas/areas/bottom/ Exploring is free.

Go to www.explorestlouis.com to make the most of your St. Louis vacation!

If you haven't read Roy's first two St. Louis articles, they are at:

A Grand Slam day

Forest Park – More than picnic

Biography: Roy A. Barnes has frequently contributed travel articles to BootsnAl.com. When he's not exploring great rivers, you may just witness him running some 6-7 miles a day around the windy plains of southeastern Wyoming, no matter how cold and gusty it is outside. He really knows how to make very tasty brownies from scratch, too!

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