Meet Me in St. Louis
From the land of Lincoln to the Gateway Arch, Route 66 highlights interesting insights into history.
By Bill Langer
As we continue our trip along old Route 66 from Chicago, Ill., to St. Louis, Mo., we pass through Springfield, Ill., home of Abraham Lincoln. A side trip to see the associated historical sites is certainly in order. Further down the road, we can hop off the interstate at Litchfield and experience the nostalgia of three miles of original Route 66 ‘Mother Road’ highway; then off down the road to St. Louis, Mo. — our destination for today.
About 15 minutes east of St. Louis, we come to the Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site. A great civilization of Mississippian people lived here during ancient times. In A.D. 1150, the population of Cahokia was about 15,000 making it one of the greatest cities of the world — comparable to the populations of London or Paris at the time. Cahokia began to decline after A.D. 1200 and was abandoned more than a century before Europeans arrived in North America. Maintaining the houses, stockade, and residential and ritual fires of the community would have required the annual harvesting of thousands of logs, and some scholars believe that deforestation and over-hunting were causes for its decline.
I’ll drive as we travel along I-55 so you can gaze around as we cross over the Mississippi River into Missouri. The Gateway Arch is about half a mile upriver, but don’t be distracted. If you look over the rails, you can see dozens of barges moving up and down the river. Barge tows operating above St. Louis on the upper Mississippi, and on the Ohio and Illinois Rivers, must pass through locks so they are restricted in size to 15 barges; three across and five long. Barge tows headed downstream from St. Louis can be much larger because they have no locks to navigate. A typical tow consisting of 40 barges lashed together, eight wide by five long, can carry a whopping 60,000 tons of cargo, the equivalent of six 100-car unit trains, or 2,400 large semi-trucks.
The Mississippi has been used to move goods long before the towboats and barges we see today. For example, the inhabitants at Cahokia, the place we visited on the way here, maintained trade along the Mississippi with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south.
A wide range of bulk commercial commodities travel up and down the Mississippi River. Fertilizer from Florida goes upriver to grow the grain that comes down river. Salt from Louisiana is used on northern winter roads. Cement goes downstream for construction in Gulf Coast states. Other bulk commodities include ammonia, caustic soda, coal, molasses, pipe, slag, steel, twine…the list goes on and on. My favorite commodity — the 60 to 70 million tons of sand, gravel, crushed stone, and building stone that are shipped on the Mississippi Waterway every year.
Most of the aggregate comes from aggregate operations located along the Mississippi and its tributaries. Let’s take a side trip a few miles downstream to visit one of those quarries that started in 1882 to make crushed stone for the Corps of Engineers river levee program. The limestone from this quarry comes from underground mines engineered for the final after-mining use of climate-controlled warehouses. The constant year-round temperature within the finished underground space is between 65 and 72 degrees, providing tenants with utility savings of up to 70 percent. Pretty cool!
I hate to leave, but we’ve got lots more to see along old Route 66.
Bill Langer is a consulting research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey before starting his own business.
He can be reached at Bill_Langer@hotmail.com