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Look Back:  River Des Peres, 1915

Water from the flooding River Des Peres covers DeBalievere Avenue and surrounds the Jefferson Memorial (now the Missouri History Museum) on Aug. 20, 1915, when 6.4 inches of rain fell in St. Louis. All told, 7.4 inches fell on Aug. 19-21 as remnants of a hurricane from Texas swept across the Midwest. The River Des Peres ran as much as a mile wide in Forest Park and drowned 11 people as it flooded 1,025 homes along its path. The flood led to voter approval in 1923 of an $11 million bond issue for most of the pipe, tunnel and channel project that form today's River Des Peres. (Missouri History Museum)

ST. LOUIS • In the year 1700, two Jesuit missionaries from Quebec established camp next to a small stream flowing into the Mississippi River. It became known as the River of the Fathers, the River Des Peres.

The mission was abandoned after three years. The namesake river, with headwaters in present-day Creve Coeur and Normandy, meandered through countryside to the village of Carondelet. It was still a pleasant enough stream when St. Louis annexed Carondelet in 1870.

But urban growth increasingly made it a flood-prone sewer. Its path through Forest Park was encased temporarily in a wooden culvert for the 1904 World's Fair. There was talk of a permanent solution, but the $4 million price tag kept the drawings on a City Hall shelf.

On the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1915, remnants of a hurricane reached St. Louis from Texas. Heavy and steady rainfall fell through the next day, dumping a total of 7.4 inches across the area. (6.85 inches on Aug. 20 remains the one-day record in St. Louis.)

The River Des Peres rushed from its banks, swamping long stretches of Delmar and Lindell boulevards, Manchester Avenue and other streets. People were stranded on the Wabash Railroad platform at Delmar (now a Metrolink station) by a seven-foot-deep current 200 yards wide. Firefighters reached them with ladders and used boats to rescue residents of Maple and Hodiamont avenues.

At Forest Park, water spread a mile wide on both sides of Lindell, reaching Art Hill. It became deadly along Manchester, where churning current in the narrow industrial valley smashed homes and mills. David and Adeline Bowman and three children were drowned in their one-room cottage near Hampton Avenue. Six more died in the Ellendale neighborhood near Arsenal Street, including Annie Wagoner, 80, found beneath her bed on Hermitage Avenue.

Downstream in Carondelet, 115 people were rescued from flooded homes. All told, 1,025 dwellings were damaged or destroyed.

It finally was disaster enough. In 1923, city voters adopted an $87 million bond issue that included $11 million to tame the River Des Peres. Steady work with steam shovels, horse teams and men swinging picks continued for more than a decade. They ran the river underground through the park and into a nine-mile-long open channel to the Mississippi. During the Depression, 5,000 men worked for 40 cents an hour from the federal Works Progress Administration.

Sewage was piped beneath the rock-lined channel, but heavy rain mixed it with runoff — and still does. The river occasionally floods neighborhoods in its upper reaches.