The Green Scene: A Tale of Two Rivers

For most St. Louisans, the rivers that course through the land are simply a backdrop on the way to work.

Yet rivers and citizens continue to shape each other through centuries of flooding and fishing, engineering and erosion. A look at efforts along the Mississippi River and River Des Peres provides some perspective on the ebb and flow of River City.

The Confluence
A mighty legacy along the Mississippi

Branching out for 200 miles from the meeting point of the nation’s two largest rivers, the Confluence Greenway carves out a network of trails, greenways, and museums, educating visitors about the river’s heritage while helping preserve it. At the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a man peers through binoculars at a heron. Grizzled fishermen use heavy-duty test line to pluck large fish from water spilling through the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. On the opposite shore, inside the National Great Rivers Museum, children pretend to be river pilots steering a virtual 1,000-foot barge beneath a bridge.

Along the Mississippi River’s east shore, more is in the works. Near the museum, the $16.5 million National Great Rivers Research and Education Center—planned to feature solar panels and hydro and wind turbines—will double as a field station for river research and educational opportunities. Mesocosms, or concrete channels with flowing water and plankton, will allow scientists to conduct aquatic experiments.

Farther south along the Great River Road, the 150-foot Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower is slated to open in late summer, after a two-year delay. The summit’s breathtaking view promises to be worth the wait. “We were up there one morning, and you could see pelicans flying up the river,” says Deanna Barnes, project manager with the village of Hartford. “It’s just beautiful.”

The Great Waste
A brief look at the River Des Peres’ murky history

1700: French Jesuit priests create a settlement along the river, later known as La Rivière des Pères, or “The River of the Fathers.”

1887: Waste from chamber pots in the Central West End begins to seep into the river; the city approves plans for interceptor sewers but fails to fund the project.

1894: The Post-Dispatch dubs the river “a monster open sewer, poisoning the air.”

Engineers enclose nearly a mile of the river in a wooden box prior to the 1904 World’s Fair.

1915: Flooding kills 11 people and forces 1,025 citizens from homes.

1923: St. Louis passes a municipal bond to channel and reroute the river.

River Des Peres Sewerage and Drainage Works project completed; the river’s banks are paved, and bends straightened.

1972: Mayor Alfonso Cervantes proposes inflatable dams to create a basin for boats. Locals mock the idea with T-shirts reading “River Des Peres Yacht Club.”

1988: The river is designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark; sewage and other contaminants still seep into surface channels.

2000: The state awards the city a $1.2 million grant for Forest Park’s “The River Returns” project.

2002: The Green Center creates the River Des Peres Watershed Coalition.

2005: The Great Rivers Greenway (GRG) unveils a beautification project, with bike trails and bridges.

2008: Filmmakers Boyd Pickup and Jamie Leiendecker premiere their documentary A Sewer Runs Through It: A History of the River Des Peres.

2009: Grass-roots cleanup efforts continue for concerned citizens.

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