Saturday, October 17, 2009

Down the Ohio to the Mississippi

We've been exploring one slice of the vast Ohio River watershed ever since we entered West Virginia: the New and Gauley Rivers, the Kentucky River, and the main course of the Ohio itself. Settlers, settlements, transport and the river's inclination to flood are parts of that story, and, finally, there's the fact that the mighty Ohio is simply a tributary to the even mightier Mississippi River.

Louis and Clark began their great expedition of discovery near the Falls of the Ohio (see earlier post). On the Indiana side of the river, we checked out the cabin of George Rogers Clark (William's older brother) where the expedition started in 1803.

A yen for chocolate then led us into Jeffersonville, to Schimpff's candy store, which has been in the family since the 1850s. Owners Jill and Warren had lived in California for years; he had worked for the Metropolitan Water District doing water quality work! The store survived the big flood of the Ohio in 1937, the worst natural disaster in the United States before Katrina (red marks high on the outside wall of the store show where the flood reached). We sampled warm marshmallow and caramel Modjeska candies, named for a Polish opera singer (who also has a canyon in southern California named for her).

Later that day, after crossing western Indiana, we crossed over the Ohio again, re-entering Kentucky to stop at Audubon State Park (37°52'), which has a wonderful museum exhibiting many of Audubon's original paintings. Audubon had a passion for birds and drawing that he followed in spite of struggling to support his family. Many of the copper etching plates from Birds of America were sold for scrap metal by his destitute widow. He was not truly recognized as a genius until after he was gone.

We spent a night right beside the Ohio River at Cave-In-Rock (37°28', 88°09'), as a birthday present for Dave, who remembered the place as the pirate's lair in the movie, How the West Was Won. It was disappointing to see the striking, historic cave defaced by spray-painted graffiti and with no interpretive information. Maybe the bad-boy atmosphere of the pirates simply lingers at that place. Through the night, the lights of passing coal barges glowed in the mist that hung over the river. In the morning, we finally got a good look at how much coal one boat can move.

The next morning brought our first view of the grand Mississippi at Grand Tower, Illinois (37°37'). Looking for a place to warm ourselves, we found the Mississippi River Museum being used as an office by the County Clerk, Charles Burdick, who explained that he was also a retired river boat pilot. We learned about river steering, pushing barges, reading radar and living conditions on the river system that extends from Minnesota down to New Orleans.

North of Chester, where a bridge crosses the big river, we were back on the line at Fort Kaskaskia (37°58'). Kaskaskia Island was visible on the far side of the Mississippi: the only piece of Illinois west of the river! The land ended up on the wrong side after the Mississippi changed course in an 1881 flood. It had been the first capital of the Illinois Territory and capital of the state until 1820, but the river washed all of that away in the flood.

The bridge at Chester led us over to Missouri and the beautiful little French-flavored town of St. Genevieve, the oldest town in Missouri. A car ferry crosses the river there, at exactly 38 degrees. Of course, a ride across and back over again as walk-on passengers was irresistible. The Mississippi seemed less than a mile wide here, but the moving water looked exceptionally swift and powerful from a small ferry boat chugging back and forth across the surface.

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