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A river runs through us: New book, exhibit explain how a river shaped St. Louis

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If you live in St. Louis, do you even think about the Mississippi River?

Do you have a childhood memory of leaning over the rail of the McDonald’s riverboat, dropping fries into the water to “feed the fish?” Do you grumble as you crawl in traffic across a bridge during your commute? Do you remember breezy summer evenings aboard the Admiral?

St. Louis wouldn’t be St. Louis without the Mississippi. A new exhibit at the Missouri History Museum explains why.

“Mighty Mississippi” opens Saturday and runs through April 18. A companion book, “Great River City: How the Mississippi River Shaped St. Louis,” includes more images, maps and stories.

Exhibit team prepares for Mighty Missisippi opening

Missouri History Museum environmental curator David Lobbig walks in front of a painting on Mississippian culture by Gary R. Lucy the museum's "Mighty Mississippi" exhibit.

Photo by Troy Stolt, Post-Dispatch

Great River City: How the Mississippi Shaped St. Louis

"Great River City: How the Mississippi Shaped St. Louis"

By Andrew Wanko

Published by the Missouri Historical Society, 308 pages, $35 

Andrew Wanko

Andrew Wanko of the Missouri History Museum wrote "Great River City: How the Mississippi Shaped St. Louis."

Courtesy of Missouri Historical Society

Andrew Wanko, the museum’s public historian, wrote the book, published by the Missouri Historical Society Press, and worked with museum curator David Lobbig to assemble the exhibit.

Wanko, 33, grew up in south St. Louis County and says he probably has “the same memories of the river as a lot of St. Louisans — and that is not very many.” He came to the river for the VP Fair, known since 1995 as Fair St. Louis, and has vague memories of seeing the McDonald’s floating in floodwaters.

Wanko divided the book into 56 short, digestible chapters with more than 450 images that tell the story of city and river. He mapped the book with sticky notes on his wall and spent days collecting notes at the Missouri History Library and Research Center. Like the river, the book itself takes the reader on a journey, with stretches both smooth and turbulent.

It begins with the area’s first metropolis, later known as Cahokia, that peaked with more than 20,000 residents around 1200 AD. It ends with the completion of renovations at the Gateway Arch grounds and museum in 2018, an effort to bring more people to the river and connect the national monument to the city.

Exhibit team prepares for Mighty Missisippi opening

Missouri History Museum environmental curator David Lobbig opens a display to adjust an artifact in the "Mighty Mississippi" exhibit Nov. 13, 2019.

Photo by Troy Stolt, Post-Dispatch

The book explains why the city of St. Louis came to be: a limestone bluff along the water, now beneath Gateway Arch National Park, gave city founders in 1764 some protection from enemies and floodwater. The nearby confluence with the Missouri River made St. Louis a terminal of trade for furs boated in from the West.

The first steamboat arrived in 1817, and by the 1850s, walls of them sometimes stretched about 5 miles along the riverfront.

By then, development had stretched west, with the 1874 completion of the Eads Bridge. Trains and people crossed it and kept going, taking industry and development with them.

One of Wanko’s favorite river stories involves Albert Koch, who found the bones of a mastodon around 1841, reassembled the skeleton, added extra bones and called it the Missouri Leviathan, or the Missourium. He opened a museum of curiosities on the riverfront to attract people to visit the city and see the creature he claimed once lived in our rivers.

Missouri Leviathan

In 1841, Albert Koch, who operated a hall of wonders called the St. Louis Museum on the riverfront, uncovered the bones of a prehistoric mastodon and called it the Missouri Leviathan. In 1843, he sold the bones to the British Museum, which reassembled the bones into an accurate mastodon skeleton.

Courtesy of Missouri Historical Society

Wanko was also startled to learn that people drank unfiltered, raw river water as late as the early 1900s. Upstream factories dumped their waste into the river, yet some locals claimed the murky “Mississippi Relish” nourished them. One doctor even packed a jar of river mud with him on his travels, so he could swish a spoonful into a glass of water.

“It’s a pretty good time to be alive, when getting a drink of water out of the river back then was a gamble,” Wanko says.

The river was also the epicenter of conflict and change. It’s where a fire started on the steamboat White Cloud in 1849, burning 15 city blocks. It’s where numerous floods destroyed towns and lives. It’s the dividing line between the free state of Illinois and the slave state of Missouri. It’s how immigrants arrived in St. Louis, where they weren’t always welcomed.

“I don’t think I could have comprehended how everything about this city is tied into the river,” Wanko says. Even the beer industry sprung up in the caves that formed from rainwater draining into the ground toward the river. “The river is what makes us so complex.”

The “Mighty Mississippi” exhibit tells the river’s story with more than 200 artifacts — 79 of which have never been displayed — in four sections: the river today, the first settlers, colonization and the fur trade, and the industrial age. It’s the largest display of Mississippian artifacts at the museum in 30 years.

One of the largest things in the collection, the pilothouse from the Golden Eagle Riverboat, is the centerpiece. The Community School in Ladue donated the piece to the museum in the early 1960s; it had been salvaged and placed on the school grounds, thanks to an enthusiastic fifth-grade teacher, Ruth Ferris, who loved teaching her students about the river. The pilothouse was on display at the museum through 1995 and was restored for this exhibit, says Lobbig, the curator.

Mighty Mississippi exhibit at Missouri History Museum

The pilothouse from the Golden Eagle steamboat, seen here circa 1920-1947, will be on display as part of the Missouri History Museum's "Mighty Mississippi" exhibit.

Photograph by William Swekosky, Missouri Historical Society Collections. 

Lobbig was pleased to find objects in the collection that told layered stories, such as a taxidermied duck, shot in 1922 but banded just a few years earlier by newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer II. It shows the effort to conserve and track natural resources along the river.

“I think I was really excited to make connections that I knew nobody had made before,” Lobbig says. “It’s more than our community being a 19th-century industrial city built on the river. I think there’s a natural history people forget.”

Lobbig thinks automobiles, trains and airplanes turned people away from the river. But he also thinks we can do better to get people back on the river for recreational activities such as canoeing or kayaking, which he’s done several times.

Wanko, who has never paddled on the Mississippi but would like to, is happy to see a renewed focus on the river. Projects such as renovations at Gateway Arch National Park and development on Laclede’s Landing, the last place where people can walk on the city’s original street grid, are signs of progress.

Wanko served as the exhibit lead for “Lost Buildings of St. Louis” and “A Walk in 1875 St. Louis,” two previous Missouri History Museum exhibitions that told local stories using bold pictures and graphics. He hopes the new book and exhibit help people see the river and city with new eyes.

“You really can’t understand the history of our city without understanding the river,” he says.

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