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A Look Back • Big Mound in St. Louis, legacy of a lost culture, leveled in 1869

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ST. LOUIS • “Men are digging on every side. And what should have been purchased by the city and preserved inviolate will soon be known only in location tradition.”

So wrote the Daily Missouri Democrat, a local newspaper, on Nov. 8, 1868, on the fate of Big Mound, the largest of a cluster of earthen formations left by a long-departed Native American culture. The mounds were north of the city’s main business district, on the rise overlooking the Mississippi River.

Big Mound, at today’s North Broadway and Mound Street, was 319 feet long, 158 feet wide and 34 feet high. Its flat top provided a panorama of river and city. It was a landmark for steamboat pilots and inspired one of St. Louis’ first nicknames — Mound City, a term that once graced dozens of names of businesses and associations.

What the formations didn’t get was respect. Some people built homes on them. In 1833, the city hollowed out Little Mound, at Third and O’Fallon streets, for a water reservoir. A steam engine pumped water from the river.

In 1844, the Field & Vandeventer lumber company built a two-story reception building atop Big Mound “with an extensive and beautiful view.” Called Mound Pavilion, it flopped as an attraction and burned in 1848.

The best survey of the mounds was made in 1819, when Army engineers en route to the upper Missouri River measured them while waiting for their steamboat to be repaired. They counted 25 mounds from Biddle Street north to Mound and east of Broadway, north of today’s Laclede’s Landing. One of the most distinctive, at Ashley and Biddle streets, was known as Falling Garden because of its three-wide step terraces facing the river.

Archaeologists believe the mounds were erected by members of the Mississippian society that built the great Cahokia mounds across the river. Their work probably took place between the years 1000 and 1450 AD, confirming the importance of this area to commerce long before white people arrived.

By the 1830s, city development pushing northward led to wholesale destruction of the mounds. Most of Falling Garden was gone by the early 1840s. Workers dug away part of Big Mound after 1850. The water reservoir was leveled in 1856.

A few people objected, but they were overwhelmed by what the St. Louis Dispatch called “the grasping money-making spirit of our age.” The destruction of Big Mound was completed in 1869, its dirt used to build the North Missouri Railroad along the river.

Excavators found evidence of ancient graves, items made of shell from the Gulf of Mexico and two copper earrings of “long-nosed gods.” But few things survived the carelessness and pilfering. The earrings are gone.

Archaeologists made one more dig before work began on the new Mississippi River bridge, which is connected to Interstate 70 with an elevated approach that runs above the site of Big Mound. Nothing of significance was found.

The only handiwork of the Mississippians to survive in the city is Sugar Loaf, topped by a house at 4420 Ohio Avenue overlooking the river. The Osage Nation of Oklahoma now owns the property.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series. 

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