There is more to the South than Mardi Gras, Blues, Cajun cooking, and white guys with confederate flags in the back of their trucks. Photos from Cairo, Illinois.

Tenth Street

Gem Theater
Eighth Street

Cairo had two strongly distinctive faces. On the one hand, there’s been an attempt to restore much of the history of the town, including its many unusual buildings: some dating from the Civil War when General Grant was stationed in the community. On the other hand, the poverty of the people manifests in the many boarded up and abandoned buildings, some used as wild cat havens; or destroyed by tornado and just left, fallen in the streets. There is no yellow tape around the remains, no warnings of danger. You could walk in the middle of the street, and no one would care. In addition, a racial divide is strong in the town: walk along 8th street, and the people are white; a block over, they’re entirely black.

Mansion Two
Historical society mansion

Mansion One
Glory days gone

Imagine, also, a finger of land about a mile wide, bordered by two of the biggest, fiercest rivers in the country; accessible by one bridge going to Missouri, the other, a 1/4 mile away, to Kentucky. What land there is, is the richest in the world; top soil a hundred feet deep, as one would expect from the northernmost point of the Mississippi Delta. To this geography, add a Civil War history, turn of the century opulence giving away to extreme poverty and race riots. This is Cairo, Illinois–named after the city in Egypt, with all the same hopes of grandeur. This is the South.

river barge
Barge heading from the Ohio to the Sip

A Will and a Big Water

In 1927, the rain kept falling in the Mississippi delta. Folks would look at the sky anxiously, hoping for a break, but none came. Those who lived near the Mississippi, well they knew he was a cantankerous old bastard and could turn on they any old time. They’d watch the levees, those mounds of dirt and tough old swamp grass that was all that stood between them and the waters.

Most years, the levees held and the rich, wet lands yielded plentiful crops–usually cotton, though some land owners ran sugar cane. The folks that farmed the lands were black, but they didn’t own the lands, no sir. No they were sharecroppers, which back in those days was only about a drop of blood away from slavery.

Then early that year, a wall of water came down south, riding the Sip like a drunk-happy gambling boat captain. It started in Illinois, where those in charge, the Mississippi River Commission pointed to their work, their levees and said without a doubt they’d hold. Then right before Easter, the levees gave up their fight and started to fail, one after another.

“On that night that the levee broke, when daddy went out and he could see the water coming across the fields. And our house was about, I guess about eighteen inches off the ground. And he come back in the house, he says, “”I see the water coming across the field. It done filled up a big slew coming between our house and the levee,” and it’s level out there. So he come back in the house and stayed about twenty minutes. About 10: 00 that night, we were moving a few bed things up in the loft part of the house, and there’s where we was until the next morning. And we stayed in there, up there, two nights and three days. Finally a seaplane come along, and my daddy had done cut a hole where we could look out on the outside, and he was waving a white rag when that seaplane come by. And then about two hours after then, it was a gas boat going up there and taking us all to the levee. And we lived up there on the levee until the water went down.”

William Cobb On the Night when the Levee Broke

In Greenville, Mississippi over 13,000 blacks are stranded on the levee without food and water and little protection from the elements. When boats arrive to rescue those flooded out, only the whites are picked up, because the plantation owners in the area are worried that if the blacks are ferried out, they won’t return to farm the land.

Will Percy decides that the only honorable and decent course of action is to evacuate the refugees to safer ground down river and arranges for barges to pick up and transport the refugees. Many people are reluctant to abandon Greenville, despite the fact that their homes have been submerged. The planters, in particular, oppose Will’s plan, fearing that if the African American refugees leave, they will never return, and there will be no labor to work the crops. LeRoy (ed. note: Will Percy’s father), placing his business interests above his family’s tradition of aiding those less fortunate, betrays his son and secretly sides with the planters. Boats with room for all the refugees arrive, but only 33 white women and children are allowed to board. The African American refugees are left behind, trapped on the levee. Later, Will Percy will write that he was “astounded and horrified” by this turn of events.

To justify his relief committee’s failure to evacuate the refugees, Will Percy convinces the Red Cross to make Greenville a distribution center, with the African Americans providing the labor. Red Cross relief provisions arrive in Greenville, but the best provisions go to the whites in town. Only African Americans wearing tags around their necks marked “laborer” receive rations. National Guard is called in to patrol the refugee camps in Greenville. Word filters out of the camps that guardsmen are robbing, assaulting, raping and even murdering African Americans held on the levee.

From: PBS A Fatal Flood

The flood waters covered over over 27,000 square miles across several states, Mississippi and Arkansas being hardest hit. Over 240 are known to have died, but record keeping was poor in those times.

“Back up to a house . . . there was seven people on it. I presume it was wife . . . man, his wife, and five children. And I was heading over to this house. This was on my first hauling, the next day after the levee broke. And on the way getting to the house—this house was just moving along [in the river], you know—and all of a sudden it must of hit a stump or something. And the house flew all to pieces. And I searched the boards and things around there for ten minutes, and you know I never saw a soulÌs hand come up, not a soul.”

Henry Caillouet Seven All Together Went Down

The flood lasted two months, and the folks in New Orleans had actually dynamited a levee before the city–an act that proved unnecessary because broken levees elsewhere along the Sip had spilled enough water so the river wasn’t a threat to the city.

By the time it was over, 700,000 people had lost their homes, and a hundred thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. The costs of the flood topped 4 billion dollars by 1993 standard’s–a comparison brought to mind because in 1993, another great flood hit, but this time further north in Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. I remember talking to a man in an old lighthouse on the hill overlooking Hannibal, Missouri about the day when the waters began to rise. He was a simple man who liked to talk with people, becoming an unofficial greeter to those visiting the lighthouse.

“You see there”, he pointed out at the far shore of the Mississippi. “The water came from that direction. It just kept rising and rising, and it came toward the town, like a great, slow moving wave.”

He then pointed at the bridge that spanned the River.

“There was another bridge here during the flood. I watched as people tried to get across the bridge, to get to their families and homes before they were cut off from the waters.” I remember him smiling, raising his red feedcap (of which he was very proud), to resettle back on his head. “I watched as they blowed it up to make way for the new bridge.”

When the floods washed out the approaches to the bridge, people had to commute from one side to the other of the river either by plane, or driving 200 miles away. Hannibal was underwater for 147 days before the flood began to recede; some towns were under even longer. Even St. Louis had flood waters lapping at the heels of the Arch, and flowing down the normally dry Des Peres river into the city and into the neighborhoods only a block or two from where I live now.

The 1993 flood displaced 74,000 people, and destroyed 45,000 buildings and homes. It’s cost was 7.5 billion.

Today, the most significant sign you see of the flood of 1927 is the number of blacks living in northern cities. After the flood, many left the delta area, either because they lost their homes, or because of their harsh treatment; most likely because of the harsh treatment. There is some irony in this mistreatment of blacks, and the fears on the part of the white landowners about losing their workers. I think if the blacks had been treated decently, many wouldn’t have left, thereby hastening the final curtain call for the old southern plantation culture.

And when the blacks left, they took with them part of the southern culture, manifested in the blues that followed every where they went: Chicago, Seattle, New York, and points beyond. Some would even say that the 1927 flood was the birth of the blues, such as this When the Levees Break, recorded by Kansas Joe, recorded in 1929.

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay

Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin’ ’bout my baby and my happy home

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And all these people have no place to stay

Now look here mama what am I to do
Now look here mama what am I to do
I ain’t got nobody to tell my troubles to

I works on the levee mama both night and day
I works on the levee mama both night and day
I ain’t got nobody, keep the water away

Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose

I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works so hard, to keep the water away

I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I’m goin’ back to my used to be

I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home.

The flood was also responsible, in part, for some of the success of the Civil Rights movement later in the 1960’s. Whites in the north, and even parts of the south, came face to face with the atrocities committed on blacks in the delta. And blacks found that they were no longer willing to be free in name only.

You also don’t see any of the damage from the 1993 flood, though again you see signs of it everywhere. At the restored Hodgson Mill, there was a pencil scratch half way up the second floor of the mill that marked the highest level of the flood. Most of the towns at risk along the Sip have also installed high floodgates, painted or not dependent on the town. The government also bought out flood-prone farms and made many into parks and conservation land.

When floods happen, people move, but when the waters recede some return, while others move in. Life goes on, because flooding, no matter how tragic the losses, is a part of life. It is a part of the delta, a legacy and a price for living by the river.

Right now, the delta is being hit again, but this time it isn’t Old Man River who is to blame. Lots of stories about this new flood, too; lots of cries of doom and destruction: Thousands are dead, exclaims the mayor, even while he has people on roofs listening in on radio;Katrina leaves a trail of death and destruction, says the papers, even while people desperately hope for a green cot in a dome in another city; The Mississippi coast is gone, says the governor, even as people pick through rubble and find a single shoe. The recovery will take years, says the President, even as the finger pointing and blaming has begun. Stories about looters and havoc and ruin and how nothing will be the same again.

The city is destroyed. Well, now, I take exception to that one. You can’t destroy a city unless you kill off every last one of the people who live in and love the city. You would also have to remove every reference to it in history, and all of its culture, and every last bit of influence it has ever had in the past, present, and we presume, future.

But I do not intend to give up easily. Why? Because I am absolutely convinced that New Orleanians will not allow their city to become a ghost town. And I intend to be part of the renewal that springs from this determination.

The culture of New Orleans has long since factored disasters and general uncertainty into its economic and philosophical outlook. An early-19th-century cholera epidemic killed one out of five New Orleanians, the equivalent of 100,000 today. Even the gravediggers died, forcing people to pile bodies at the cemetery gates. The first owner of the Lombard Plantation was among those who succumbed. But his wife and family stayed on, and some of their descendants, both white and black, are still in New Orleans today, perhaps perched on their rooftop awaiting rescue or huddling gratefully with friends out in Lafayette or Breaux Bridge.

I expect they, too, will return, and that life in New Orleans will go on, with all its precariousness and sense of fragility and, yes, with all its relish for the moment. That relish, by the way, which arose from the constant awareness of precisely such disasters as we are experiencing today, accounts for much of what gives the people of that city their reckless abandon, their devil-may-care attitude, and their zest for life. Rebuilding after Katrina will be just the next in a long series of events in which that spirit has been manifested.

S. Frederick Starr in A Sad Day, too, for Architecture.

Here’s a prediction: come March, 2006, with our help, the towns along the coast will rebuild. A home will replace rubble, and a church will open its doors again. With our care, the bodies will be buried, and those who have suffered loss will be comforted. With our force, we will overcome those who grab gun and seek to cause fear (and in the process find that the ‘gangs’ become ‘groups’ and the groups are fewer than our lurid speculations imply). With our support, the casinos and businesses along the coast of Mississippi will be in full swing, and folks will be back at work. And with our hard work and sacrifice, the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans will be the best. Ever.

The city is destroyed. What foolish nonsense. You know, the people that wrote this, they really don’t know the South, and the people who live by big water.

A Speck of Dirt

The road to Alley Spring Mill is full of twists and turns, and I gave up watching the speedometer about the time when I realized there was no chance I’d be going over the speed limit. Most of the trees along the way were still leafless, and twisted, white branches mixed in with the short pine, only partially obscuring views of rolling hills, stretching out as far as the eye can see.

The Ozarks are old; old, and filled with vague memories of mountains that split this land, greater than the tallest peaks of the Cascades, mightier than the Rockies. So old that time has worn them down and softened their edges; carving the rocks scattered about, great boulders that once lay at the bottom of long, gone seas.

Alley Mill

Small towns dotted the way with names like “Steelville” and “Eminence”, most still retaining both their original look and their vitality. Each was a pure slice of post-war prosperity, perserved for all time, except that Betty’s Beauty Salon is now The House of Tanning.

As the road crossed the many creeks and rivers that threaded the hills, it would shrink–at one time becoming a one lane crossing with warnings on both sides to “Yield to oncoming traffic”. I’ve wondered what would happen if two cars approached at the exact same time. Would they both slow until stopped, lost in a mix of politeness and caution? Or would the aggressive hit the pedal and the two cars collide mid-bridge? Then I thought of how little traffic I’d seen along the way and realized that the point was mute.

I had a headache when I started out on the trip. In fact, I have a headache most days, lately; and too many mornings being greeted by a face in frowns in the mirror. However, as I drove deeper into the Ozarks, the headache began to recede and I notched my speed up just a hair; just enough to add a swoop to the feel as I drove down the hills and around the corners.

I put on my own customized travel CD, the one with all the really good travel music. Listening to the mix of songs–”Born to Be Wild” between “Stop the Rock” and “Dueling Banjos”, “Gimme Some Loving” followed by “Queen of the Night” followed by “Rave On”–I edged the speed up just a tad more until I must have been going, my, close to 50. A wild woman on wheels, and mamas hide your sons! Wheee!

(Hot music is for hills. I save the soft stuff for the plains and the moody crap for the ocean.)

At the Mill I parked in the lot and grabbed my camera bag, but decided to leave my walking stick. It’s only a short walk on a path by the river to the Mill, and you can easily see its bright, red color against the dead winter grasses. However, it wasn’t until I was at the bridge over the creek to the Mill that I was able to see it’s surroundings, and I stumbled to a stop at the sight.

Alley Mill

The water that rushed past the mill filled a hollow before flowing into the stream leading away. A trick of the light and shadow painted it a bright aqua color, as it foamed in a wide circle from the falls; however, as I got close to the water, I could see it was clear. Clear enough to see the individual tiny rocks at the stream’s bottom, and the bright green plants–watercress–that floated just beneath the surface.

Alley Mill

The Mill was in a hollow, with steep limestone cliffs on the other side of the spring basin formed by the backed up water. In the cliffs, water and time had worn small pockets in the rock, forming caves just deep enough to leave the back wall in shadow.

I explored along the spring’s edge for a time, and then walked along the Mill back porch, right above the overflow gate. I was surprised at how fast the water was flowing and how much there was, especially this time of year.

Alley Mill

I stared, mesmerized, into the flowing water until I noticed something white and wispy in the dark blue, at the gate where the water entered. It looked like a skeleton of a fish that had become trapped and died, with the force of the water stripping most of its flesh away.

Alley Mill

A family walked by while I was lost in the waters, following a trail that cut into the cliff above the basin. I waited until the laughter and the sounds of their passing had died, and then followed. I wanted the place to myself, to savor the feel of the true Ozarks. It was a very intimate moment for me; I almost put my hand on ground, thinking I would feel the heartbeat of the mountain if I did.

The spring basin is an odd thing. According to descriptions, it’s 32 feet deep, and forms a funnel shape. It had a mirror like stillness, and the waters were clear, but you could only see so far down. A tree was growing out of the hill above the water in one spot, and underneath what looked like another tree had fallen in and become covered in green growth. It was eerie and I actually began to feel a little uncomfortable. Deep water has that effect on me.

Alley Mill

But then, so do holes in cliff walls when I cannot see the back, and the trail I needed to take led directly between the two: lake and short, steep hill on one side; tall, pocketed and carved cliffs on the other. I desperately wanted my stick on the moment and I had no idea why because the only living things around were the birds, and I imagine cousins of the fish whose skeleton now decorated the Mill.

The path was wide enough for a family to walk side by side, but I teetered along the middle, equidistant between my twin fears of shadowed water and shadowed rock. I think if I had closed my eyes, I could have walked the path safely, the fear was that tangible. I wonder if this is how soldiers during war feel–held upright and kept moving by a fear of shadows; except for them, the monsters in the dark are real. If I were one of those soldiers, I think I would go mad; at the least, I would become numb.

Alley Mill

The basin isn’t really big and the cliff mostly solid and I started to relax as I walked until I was, again, enjoying myself. I ended up stopping every few feet to take a photo of rock formations, the Mill, the stream, the Mill, and all variations of the three. The trail followed the spring as it headed to the river, with foot bridges to cross just after the basin and at the end of the park. I took the last one and then circled down by the spring, in the space between the bushes and the water.

I hadn’t heard anyone for a while, so I assumed I had the place to myself. Round a corner, though, was an old man sitting in a lawn chair by the river, ice chest by his side, sipping a coke. He wasn’t particularly remarkable looking: lined face, gray hair, and wearing a white shirt and jeans. I started to walk past, not wanting him to intrude into my privacy, but he called out “Nice day, isn’t it?” as I drew near, raising his can in salute.

I sighed softly to myself, stopped, and agreed that yes, the weather was nice.

“You know, you look tired and thirsty. Why don’t you stop for a moment, and have a cold coke.”

As he said this, he reached into the ice chest, pulled out a can and held it out to me. I was thirsty, having forgotten to bring any water, and the pop did look good. I also thought it would be rude to just say, “No, thanks” and move along. Besides, I’ve found from past experience that people who sit and stare into water are usually people who have something interesting to say.

Alley Mill

As we sipped our drinks, I asked if he was from this area, and he said no, he was born in Oklahoma and moved to Missouri after he served in the war. From his age, I thought he probably meant the Korean war, but he could have meant World War II or even Vietnam. I didn’t want to pry, though.

He asked how long I’d been in Missouri, and I said only a couple of years. He nodded, and said he could see that. I thought it was an odd thing to say, and asked him about it. He replied, that I looked a person who had found home, but wasn’t used to it yet.

I could agree with him, about finding home. Every time I visit the Ozarks, I feel as if all the worries of every day life just sort of fall away, leaving only peace and contentment behind. I even remarked on it, telling him I’d seen most of the country and some beautiful places, but nothing had the pull for me that Missoui did.

He nodded his head in understanding, and said it was because I had a “…grain of Missouri dirt buried deep inside”. A grain of Missouri dirt buried deep inside? Seeing my puzzled look, he chuckled and said it was an expression he picked up from a story his Dad used to tell him when he was a kid.

According to the old man, his father used to tell him of a time, many years ago when the earth had cooled, the grasses in the plain had sprouted, and people were ready to be born. The spirits of the earth (“or angels, if you prefer”, he said) each grabbed up a handful of dirt from all around the plant and then tossed it high into the air. Higher than the mountains the dirt flew, until it was captured by the Winds that blew around the world. In the Winds the dirt became all mixed up, until a speck of Paris dirt was alongside one from Hawaii, and one from China next to one from South Africa, and so on.

As each person is born, a speck of this dirt falls to the earth and becomes embedded, deep inside them, at the very center of their being. This speck, this land of their soul would stay inside the person all their life. Then, when they died, at the very moment after the last breath, the spirits would gently retrieve it, and toss it back into the wind.

(“My Dad swore he saw this once, when my great aunt died, but I think he was pulling my leg. Made my mother angry, though; she thought something was wrong with me when I told her I wanted to go to the hospital and watch people die.”)

Alley Mill

Now, the speck of dirt a person gets could be from the homes of their birth, and some people live their whole lives being content to stay in one place. Most folks, though, are born with specks of dirt outside their homes, and this leaves them with both a curiosity and fascination with faraway lands.

Not all can travel, though, and those who can’t eventually grow to appreciate the land where they live, but never with that strong pull that you find between a person and the land of their soul. Even among travelers, most will never find this land, but for those who do, the attraction may defy both reason and understanding.

The land pulls them, pulls at the speck of dirt within them, trying to reclaim that bit of itself lost long ago. And if you ask the people why they love the land so much, most of the time they’ll say that they feel like they’ve come home

Over time as some of the specks are claimed and reclaimed by people who never find their lands, they change, become less defined, as if all that bouncing about brushing up against strange places rounds the edges. People who get these specks seem to be happy wherever they are, even if it’s a tar hut in North Dakota. (“And I’ve lived in a tar hut in North Dakota; you’d have to be crazy or a priest to be happy in a tar hut in North Dakota.”)

Others, though, are born without any speck at all and this is a great tragedy. It’s like a piece of their soul is gone, leaving them always hungry, always wanting and reaching for more in an effort to find what they never can. They may end up rich and powerful and even leaders of many nations–but they’ll never be happy, and they’ll never be content.

“So that’s why I said that you must have been born with a grain of Missouri dirt”, the old man finished. Enthralled I could only nod my head in agreement. Of course, makes sense. I have Missouri dirt inside. That explains why I hate Los Angeles–no affinity to my dirt.

I thought, though, on those moments of fear I felt of the shadowed caves and the deep water; of the time when I was lost in the woods; and the other time when I wouldn’t walk into the crack in the ground at Pickle Creek. I didn’t want to tell man I was afraid of a little water or a rock formation, but I did tell him I have had moments in the Ozarks when I’ve been afraid. I asked him wouldn’t the land of my soul be a place where I wouldn’t be afraid? Where there would be no fear?

“Live in a place without fear? Why would someone want to live in a place without fear,” he laughed at the idea.

“What would be the fun of that?”

I’d finished my pop and since it was getting late and I still had a four hour drive home. I thanked the old man, both for the pop and the wonderful story and headed back to my car. Once there, as I was putting my photo pack in the back seat, I noticed that I did have a bottle of water in the bottle pocket. Must be getting old, I thought, to forget I’d brought water.

I started the car and rolled the windows down because it was warm and I wanted to enjoy the smell of green in the air. As I was driving down the lot to the exit, though, I noticed that there were no other cars. I slowed down and stopped and looked carefully around, but couldn’t see any other car but mine.

It was just like that time at Elephant Rocks, when I came upon that guy who was stopped by the side of the path, gazing into the quarry pond; except that one told me the story about his dad and quarry mining. On that day, too, I remembered there was no car other than my own in the parking lot when I left.

A cool breeze blew in the open window, causing me to shiver, and I rolled the windows back up.

What would be the fun of that, indeed.

Alley Mill

Tyson Valley, a Lone Elk, and the Bomb

Christmas Eve, I spent at a local place, Lone Elk park, just outside of St. Louis. It’s a large animal preserve and outdoor facility, with a 3.2 mile hike around the perimeter. My hiking book described the hike as ‘easy’ but the park labeled it difficult. I tend to side with the park–though the trail was very well marked and in decent shape (meaning no rocks to trip over), there was some pretty stiff climbs at times.

The park has some old buildings left over from World War II, and a nice small man-made lake in what’s called ‘Elk Hollow’. However, the stars of the park are the animals: the herds of bison, deer, and elk. Especially the elk.

Out walking, I saw a few deer and the geese on the frozen surface of the lake, but the only elk I saw were a couple of females at a distance, partially obscured by trees. When I got back to the car, though, I saw two young bucks by the side of the road, not ten feet away, browsing on the winter dried grass. I grabbed my camera and had just started taking photos, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye, across the lot in another clearing, a mature male, with a beautiful rack, sun reflecting on his gold/brown fur. He was stunning. Absolutely stunning.

I moved closer to him, but not too close to be a threat, and started taking more photos. After a few minutes of me dancing about, taking shot after shot, he stopped eating and looked at me. He started to step to the parking lot, and I backed up to the car, not sure if I had antagonized him. But when I moved back, he moved back. I moved forward, and he started moving forward. We danced back and forth for a few minutes, until I got the point and just stood still. He carefully stepped into the lot, and then walked in front of the cars that were now stopped to enjoy his (and I have a feeling my) antics.

The other two elk, in turn, followed him toward the lake — keeping an eye on me, but not particularly worried at my presence (they’re used to people). I followed them to the lake, trying not to crowd them, snapping all the way.

All in all, I have a lot of elk photos. You knew this was coming, didn’t you? I thought then that rather than just dump them in the page, I would tell you the story about Tyson Valley, its history, and the reason that the park I walked in is named Lone Elk Park. It’s a story of war and peace, and war and peace, again. It’s also a story of perseverance and deep loneliness.

And the atom bomb.

The Lone Elk

No one knows for sure how old the lone elk was; they didn’t even know he still existed, much less the year he was born. When he was finally discovered in the hollow of the old Tyson Valley Powder Farm by the surprised park worker, he was a full grown male, …standing over seven feet tall.

At a minimum, he had to be at least seven years old, because elk are dependent on their mothers for their first year; and his mother, along with every other member of his herd, had been rounded up by members of the US Army and shot within a three month period, exactly six years before his discovery. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

From Peace to War

Tyson Valley is the area framed by the Meramec River and old Route 66, what is now Interstate 44. Prior to the 1940’s, the area served primarily for mining by whatever people were dominate at the time. Before Europeans appeared, the native American people would mine the area’s chert deposits, and trade the high quality material with other tribes. After the 1800’s, the area served as a limestone mine and quarry, generating enough business to start a town, which eventually attracted it’s own railway line. However, the mine played out in 1927, and aside from some planned lumber operation, the land lay fallow.

All this changed when the US was suddenly drawn into World War II. In 1941, the government bought the land under the concept of imminent domain, purchasing over 2600 acres of hilly country pocketed with the remains of shallow mines. It turned the old town and the rest of the space into the Tyson Valley Powder Farm: an ammunition dump, chemical storage center, and weapon test site. The Army built concrete storage shelters, vaults, and several buildings, along with several miles of road, and enclosed all but a few hundred acres of it with a strong, wire fence. Patrols in jeeps carrying machine guns, or on mules with rifles, rode the parameter keeping intruders out.

There were no elk in the area at that time, and chances are, none of the white-tailed deer that are so ubiquitous now. However, even if there were larger animals trapped within the military fence, its unlikely that animals would have been allowed among the firing ranges, and near the buildings, where the TNT and PETN were stored. They especially wouldn’t be allowed near the building that stored the uranium refined by Mallinckrodt Chemical for the Manhattan Project.

From War to More War

In 1942, several members of the Manhattan Project paid a visit to Edward Mallinckrodt of the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, in St. Louis. They had a problem and wanted to know if he could help them. Their problem was that they needed uranium refined to a higher degree of purity than had ever been produced before.

Following a procedure designed by the University of Chicago, the people at Mallinckrodt were able to meet the needs of the project; the company re-tooled a plant in St. Louis specifically to produce this refined uranium.

Most of the workers had no idea what they were working on.

An operator working for Walter Schmidt read an article in the newspaper about uranium-235–the story was about some work the Austrians were doing at the time. Later that day, as an Army official watched the men work, the man quite innocently asked if the material was similar to U-235. Shocked speechless, the Army man literally ran from the scene and soon returned with three more officials. A barrage of questions followed and they were stunned to learn that the operator had read the very small article and connected it with the work Mallinckrodt was doing.

Not until that day in August, 1945 did the men of Mallinckrodt know how vital their work had been to the winning of the war. A holiday was declared for the people of the uranium project — a brief respite for relaxing and celebrating. Then, on with the job, because there was still much work to do.

Mallinckrodt ended up providing uranium fuel for weapons and for nuclear plants. In the process, due to the contamination of the Weldon Springs area, it also helped create one of St. Louis major superfund site (see here).

During the production of the uranium, an issue of where to store the material arose. It had to be stored in an isolated place, with good security, and already set up for storing hazardous material. It didn’t take the powers that be all that long before turning their eyes to Tyson Valley. From documents released by the DoE, Tyson was used to store refined uranium, consisting of 0.7% u-235, from 1942 to 1947. Just a few years later, when the guns of war stilled yet again, the same area that housed uranium was used to house mushrooms.

From War back to Peace

In 1947, at the end of World War II, the government no longer needed the ammo dump and started looking around for a buyer. One of the first and most interested was the St. Louis County, which sought to turn the area into a park, with hiking trails and horseback riding. Tyson Valley Park officially opened in 1948, and included among its attractions a miniature railway. It also served as a wildlife refuge, as elk from Yellowstone, Bison from South Dakota, and white-tailed deer from Grant’s Farm were brought in.

The Park thrived, attracting a number of visitors, and the park management made good use of the roads and facilities left by the government. Buildings were turned into restaurants and hot dog stands, and shelters were used to store animal feed. Even the concrete storage ‘igloos’ were put to use, leased out to mushroom farmers who found the dark, damp interiors ideal mushroom growing conditions. The animals imported into the park also thrived, and the elk numbers especially started to grow. However, Tyson Valley and the animals peaceful existence was short-lived, because following on the heels of World War II, the United States was about to embark on another war, this time with Korea.

From Peace back to War

In 1951, invoking provisions written into the original contract of sale, the government decided to re-instate the Tyson Valley Powder Farm, and return buildings and the land to their former uses. At first the Army leased the space, but eventually they bought it back from the county–all but a small portion outside of the fence, which ended up becoming West Tyson County Park.

The County tried to find homes for all the animals it brought in, and finally moved the Bison to the zoo at Kansas City. However, no one wanted the elk or the deer so the county left them; they co-existed for years with the military.

It’s into this environment that the lone elk was born, somewhere in the late 1950’s. By now, the original herd of ten elk had grown hugely, and now numbered 108 members; too many for the area to support. It must have been tough for the little elk and his mother to survive; since all the elk were penned within the military fence, they couldn’t migrate to find food, and had to scavenge for what green they could find–even to pulling up grass edging around the ammo dumps and the chemical storage. The scents must have been confusing: faint shadows of mushroom and hot dogs overlaid by that of TNT.

One fall day, a bull elk in the midst of rutting behavior attacked and damaged one of the Army’s cars. An officer at the time decided that the animals were no longer safe to have about — especially since there was now no longer any vegetation for the animals to live on, and the military did not ‘have the funds’ to feed the animals.

The officer gave the order to gather all the elk together and shoot them, donating the meat to the local Pantry, as food for the poor. From October 1958 to March 1959, soldiers shot any elk they discovered, until no more could be found. They left the deer be, which may have been the saving grace for our young, and now very much alone elk.

It’s that old peace thing again

The Korean War ended, or faded to an end is more realistic. For a while, the land was used by the government for storage of odds and ends, such as the storage of surplus corn and wheat. However, in 1961 the government decided it no longer needed the Tyson Valley Powder Farm and put the land up for sale. The County wanted to re-claim as much land as they could, but Washington University also wanted as much as possible for biological and medical research. The government sold 2000 acres to Washington University, with an odd stipulation that it must conduct research for twenty years. Of the rest, the County was able to buy back an additional 465 acres to add to the West Tyson County Park.

The County had plans to make the park into a winter playground, with skiing and sledding and support for other winter sports. It was while work was underway for both sections of land–the Tyson Research Center and the now expanded Tyson Valley Park, including building fences between the two–that the park worker stumbled on to the large elk, trying to stay hidden in among the trees.

The elk had been hiding for six years (I’ve read reports of ten, but this longer length doesn’t match other records), keeping out of way of any humans, and living off of whatever green it could find in the enclosed area. It’s discovery was to soon change everything. As Conor Watkins wrote:

At the same time, the county was busy constructing a chain-link fence between the park and Washington University’s Tyson Research Center. The park Superintendent, Wayne Kennedy, ordered that a gap be left in the fence until the elk was on the park side of the fence. Kennedy told the park Supervisor, Gene McGillis, to oversee this task. McGillis was an American Indian and familiar with tracking animals. He dumped a truckload of sand at the gap in the fence and waited a few days. When a set of elk tracks was seen entering the park with none leaving, McGillis called Kennedy to have the gap in the fence closed. The gap was closed when Kennedy spotted the elk in the park from a helicopter.

St. Louis County originally planned to turn the hilly park into a winter recreation area with ski slopes, sled and toboggan tracks, camping, and an archery range. Once the elk was in the park, it was decided that the area be used for hiking and picnicking, activities more friendly for an elk. Soon the park was re-named to Lone Elk. The public became involved and students from elementary schools in the Rockwood School District collectively donated $300 to transport more elk from Yellowstone National Park. Students were encouraged to bring dimes to school to help the cause. Any student contributing a dime or more earned a certificate for a share of ‘Elk Stock’. The truckload of elk stopped at Ellisville Elementary and was viewed by exited students. The Fred Weber Corporation donated a $50,000 dam to build a lake within the park. The elk story even gained enough national attention for Walter Cronkite to cover the event.

When the five female and one male elk were brought into the now newly renamed Lone Elk park, the lone elk, formerly so shy, showed up within 20 minutes of their being released. He stayed with the herd until he was found dead a little over a year later. However, several of the elk in the park I was able to appreciate on Christmas eve were descended from the lone elk; perhaps even the beauty I photographed at the start of this story.

Speaking of which, does this Story have an Ending

There is no statue to the lone elk, and no burial mound to stand at with bowed head. His story is a testament to the will to survive, and no memorial is more fitting than to take a moment and stand at the banks of the frozen lake in Elk Hollow and watch the geese walk carefully across the ice; or to watch two buck males casually lock antlers, as they work through hierarchy and dominance. Life is, itself, a memorial, and perhaps the only truly worthwhile one at that.

As for Tyson Valley, the marks of war are mostly gone in the park area, though the old Army buildings are still being used in the Tyson Research Center. The government did find buried metal and discarded ammunition in the park, which had to be cleaned up. However, a specially trained medical team from Washington University investigated both the park and the Center and reported in 1988 that they could find no traces of radioactive contamination from the stored uranium.

Who is to say if this is always so, and wouldn’t there be irony, as there was in the last set of links, and perhaps even some justice if there was some radioactive contamination in the meat taken from the elks gathered up and hunted? Or in the grain stored for so long, the mushrooms grown in the dark, or the hot dogs served those many years ago?

Most likely not. However, if there’s ever a blackout in St. Louis and those in Illinois still see a dim glow out our way, listen for the faint bugle of a triumphant lone elk in the wind.

Making Our Mark

Today was going to be the last sunny day until midweek, and it would have been a shame to waste it inside. I remembered a hike I had intended to take once in the summer, Bluff View at Meramec State park, but didn’t because of the spider webs across the path. Today seemed an ideal day to try it again.

And it was an ideal day–in the 50’s, with a gentle cool breeze, and not a web in sight. Like the earlier hike, Bluff View is also a moderately difficult hike, with very rocky ground and steep hills, and narrow paths that border a cliff overlooking the Meramec River. Unlike earlier, though, the terrain was more familiar. And dry. In fact, other than having to use caution with footing, today’s hike ended up being more of a enjoyable walk than a challenging hike.

There are a couple of shelters made by the old CCC (Conservation Corp) back during the depression, along the way. Kids had spray painted messages over the one I visited. In particular, “Leslie + Jeff” featured prominantly, along with various exclamation of people ‘rulz’ and ‘Jesus Savs’.

I usually get annoyed by graffiti, but wasn’t very annoyed at the marking, primarily because the shelter itself is a marking as such: a shelter that really wasn’t needed, funded by a society that was both crafy and benevolent; built by men desperate to feed their families during one of our darkest times. The trail that led to the decision to create such a shelter is one that grew over time, rather than developed naturally–the markings of thousands of hikers like me who saw the hill and had to climb it, just to see what was at the top. And it was these same hills that provided home to ancient Indian people, who used to carve pictures of animals and gods into the rocks to celebrate a hunt or protect a new child. At the most, Leslie and Jeff were just leaving this generation’s scent on stone long claimed by humanity.

The rest of the trail was without much to remark, other than the casual mention of the quiet only broken by my footsteps and the beautiful weather and how wonderful it is to stand at the top of a tall bluff and see for miles around. But Missouri in Winter tends to exist in shades of rust and brown and gray, with an occasional slash of blue or green — I’m not sure I can continue to remark on this tree or that rock without resorting to, ‘There was a tree’ and ‘there was a rock’; or variations such as ‘there is a tree on the rock’.

The best part of the hike was getting back to the car and feeling like I hadn’t walked enough. Say now, this is progress! Especially after my dismal showing in the earlier hike. So I treated myself to a gentle walk along the road that parallels the Meramec by the campgrounds.

There were a few hearty souls out camping, friendly as always when in the back woods–nodding their heads and saying hello, or stopping to chat. Yes the same inbred ignoramuses who threw aside the chance to toss Bush out will smile at you, and tip a finger to their hats in greeting as you pass. Those savages.

I noticed a group of large, predator like birds flying in circles overhead and a man and his wife passing told me they were turkey vultures. I was surprised, because I know what an ugly bird this can be, but they were beautiful and graceful in the air as they circled. I continued walking, trying to take a photo of the birds, but without a telephoto, this would be impossible. As they flew, they overlapped each other and dove and circled, but never made a sound, quiet as death itself.

(I shamefully confess to feeling no small amount of relief when the birds suddenly found something to land on across the river because it did seem as if they were uncannily matching my steps for the longest time. I know these creatures sense of smell is keen; were they trying to tell me I needed a shower after my hike?)