“The fifth night we passed St. Louis, and it was like the whole world lit up.”
— Mark Twain,
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

As the sun rises over the city of St. Louis, an arch-shaped shadow moves eastward over the city’s bustling downtown and toward the Mississippi River, where it will leave its invisible mark until early evening. The 630-foot steel structure casting this iconic shadow over the city’s riverfront serves as a visual reminder of St. Louis’ role as a gateway for early American explorers, and of the river’s past (and no doubt future) as an invaluable means of commerce and travel.

 

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Photos: Sarah van Schagen and Katharine Wroth

 

From atop that arch, a visceral understanding of the river’s purpose is inescapable: The aerial view makes clear that St. Louis’ muddy Mississippi does not meander at a pedestrian pace; there are no kayaks, canoes, or pleasure craft floating blithely by. This is a powerful, fast-moving, working river … and has been since the city’s founding in the 1760s by French explorers hoping to take advantage of trade coming downstream from the Missouri River.

For it is here that two of the country’s mightiest (and muddiest) rivers flow together in a 200-square-mile area known as the confluence. Along the Mississippi’s shores, farmland and forests once flourished, providing habitat for wildlife and a home for Native peoples. But after the rivers were harnessed as liquid highway, they bore a commerce-focused boomtown that by the 1850s had become the second-largest port in the country. In 1904, St. Louis hosted both a World’s Fair and the Olympic Games, and had grown to be the fourth-largest city in the nation.

At that time, development in St. Louis — whether industrial, commercial, or residential — was clustered near the riverfront. But with the rise of the automobile, the growth of the highway system, and increasing suburbanization in the mid-20th century, downtown St. Louis began to lose population. And as economic development in the area moved away from the industrial corridor, the river became a backyard of sorts.

Although the city took a first step toward rejuvenating the riverfront in the 1980s by developing a Riverfront Trail, the project moved forward slowly, its piecemeal construction left disconnected in many areas. The devastating floods in 1993 did nothing to strengthen the image of the river in St. Louis’ collective heart.

Then in 2000, the tide turned. Work by a number of grassroots groups was slowly swaying public sentiment about the value of green space and neighborhood parks, and in November of that year, that value became quantifiable in the form of a one-tenth-of-one-cent sales tax. That tax, which was put to a vote and passed in both Missouri and Illinois, now generates some $10 million a year on the Missouri side alone and is earmarked to fund riverfront projects that restore greenways and create trail systems.

The Tax of Life

Once the levy was approved, the Great Rivers Greenway District was established to create an overall plan and then manage and dole out the funds on the Missouri side of the river (a mirror organization called Metro East Park and Recreation District manages the money on the Illinois side). The original plan for the funds identified some 45 greenways throughout three counties and two states, creating a 600-mile web of trail systems — an amount comparable to other green cities, like Seattle or Minneapolis. The resulting River Ring project involves collaboration among a number of groups, but overall, their aim is to connect people in the St. Louis metropolitan area to the Mississippi.

“Going through [the planning process], it became very apparent that the average St. Louisan is very disconnected from the rivers,” said Todd Antoine, GRG’s deputy director for planning. “They pass over them on a highway bridge, or maybe they see it from glimpses here and there — the Missouri or Mississippi — but they really don’t look at the natural features here as something to really, truly appreciate.”

GRG evaluates the programs under its funding umbrella on three tenets: social equity, environmental stewardship, and economic development (or SEED). And in some cases, emphasizing that third tenet is key, GRG organizers say.

“In this region, we have a lot of different types of constituencies, a lot of different economic levels of the communities that we work in,” said Janet Wilding, GRG’s deputy director for administration. “For us the challenge is in each community really understanding what the greenway is going to mean to that community and helping them understand that.”

Perhaps it’s the “Show Me State” mentality, Antoine said, but as the efforts have progressed — with creative projects like running a trailway over an abandoned railroad trestle crossing the river — people are beginning to see the larger vision and to demonstrate a growing awareness of the river itself.

Sphere of Confluence

One of the organizations benefiting from the sales tax’s boon is the Confluence Greenway, an effort focused on preserving the green-space and wildlife-rich land where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers come together. Funded in part by private grants from organizations like the McKnight Foundation, which also helped fund this Grist series, the Confluence Greenway formed in 1997 as a collaboration between regional and national organizations with specialties ranging from natural resources to land acquisition to trail-based efforts.

Illinois historian Brad Winn on the confluence of the Mississippi
and Missouri rivers.

This collaborative effort to protect the greenway by pooling multiple talents and resources has been “one of the big success stories,” said Confluence Director Laura Cohen. “It’s been the process of really bringing people together, getting them to know and talk to each other, sharing expertise, and making sure you’re not duplicating efforts.”

One of the Confluence Greenway’s recent endeavors has been the creation of the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, a 4,300-acre park situated along both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers that allows visitors to see the confluence firsthand — on good days, even seeing the change in color and composition of the two rivers (the Missouri being the darker and muddier of the two). Across the river, in Hartford, Ill., a Confluence Tower slated to open next fall will offer a similar view, but from an aerial perspective.

“The rivers are political boundaries, but they’ve really become social and cultural boundaries in a lot of ways as well,” Cohen said. “So getting people to see the rivers as almost a common ground — as opposed to the boundaries — is a whole kind of mind shift that we’re trying to engage people in.”

Through annual programs like Eagle Days and Wings of Spring — both of which take advantage of the aviary bounty of the area — as well as Lewis and Clark themed events, which highlight the area’s historical significance, the Confluence project aims to bring an audience to the river.

“There’s this incredible potential,” Cohen said, “to really use the rivers in a way to connect people with that history, provide recreational opportunities, and really do our part in this massive river system of helping to protect and improve the quality of the river here.”

Getting at the Issue’s Corps

One group working very closely on environmental stewardship and watershed quality is the five-person AmeriCorps team headed by Danielle Lee and stationed at Columbia Bottom. The five volunteers, ranging in age from 19 to 41, are all from north St. Louis, an area of town known more for its high crime rate than its conservation efforts. They’re handpicked by Grace Hill, a social service agency that works in the area on a number of issues, including the Confluence Greenway — and is a perfect example of the breadth of that group’s membership.

Columbia Bottom AmeriCorps volunteers describe their relationship
to the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

“We are on one of the largest watersheds in the world, and it’s part of our responsibility to help keep our water sources clean,” said Kneely Williams Jr., a member of Danielle’s troop. “We go along the confluence and the river sites where we offer more access — with more access, we have more litter — and we try to manage [the litter] and remove it to protect our resources.”

Their work also involves educational efforts at local schools and events. Games like “Trash or Recycle” and “Take a Guess,” which asks how long trash takes to biodegrade, help get their messages across to children of all ages (and even entertained us adults).

And they’ve already seen the benefits of their work and the work of others before them. Williams says that although he lives in the Baden community right on the river, he never used to be able to get near the water. “But now, with the Riverfront Trail and the trail that’s coming along here at the confluence,” he said, “it’s really great access to get closer to nature.”

It’s like that old adage, explained GRG Executive Director David Fisher, “What you don’t understand, you don’t value; what you don’t value, you don’t protect.” But the ongoing efforts in St. Louis to highlight and protect the river’s greenways are helping “bring the environmental stewardship premise to the forefront, on a river that had been neglected, actually thrown away, if you will, by the city.”

Trashed as it was, the river is quickly becoming St. Louis’ treasure.