I’ve seen prickly pear cacti in some unexpected places. But Illinois? Well, yes. Eastern prickly pear is found on bluff outcroppings along the Mississippi River, which forms Illinois’ entire western border. I didn’t actually see it growing, but I read about it at the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton.
I wouldn’t have known NGRM existed if I hadn’t found St. Louis Inside, a so-called Official Visitors Guide. SLI was also my source of info for hard-scrabble Alton’s Historic Museum of Torture Devices. I went inside to see the devices, but HMTD didn’t open until noon, next weekend, so Ruth and I headed for our 2nd choice and discovered Alton’s best tourist attraction. Turn right at the end of the thrilling Clark Bridge to visit National Great Rivers Museum even though the street isn’t identified as Highway 143.
Great Rivers is full of information–the Clean Water Act passed in 1972 when only 1/3 of U.S. waters were safe for fishing, swimming, etc. Now 2/3 are. More than 60% of U.S. grain and oilseed exports are barged up and down inland waterways. For example, in a typical year 6,413,691 tons of soybeans move down the Mississippi while 169,499 move up. Barges need 9 feet of water to negotiate this river that, in some places, would provide only 3 feet without dams and dredging.
My learning was interrupted by Roxane, studier of restoration ecology, who announced that the 1 pm lock and dam tour was about to start. She invited us to sign up. We did despite the fact that it was a bitterly cold, torture-device-like March day. The tour lasts about an hour for up to 25 people. Today there were 6, including Roxane.
That there was a tour is due to the fact that this slightly more than 10-year-old museum run by the US Army Corps of Engineers is adjacent to Melvin Price Locks and Dam, the newest and most southern l&d on the Mississippi River. Completed in 1994, it replaced old Locks and Dam 26. In order to haul coal upstream, more than 4 million tons of it annually, 29 locks and dams have been built between Granite City, Illinois, elevation under 400 feet, and Minnesota’s Upper St. Anthony Falls, elevation about 750 feet. Melvin Price has a modern computer-assisted design and 2 lock chambers–a 600 footer for smaller boats and a 1,200 feet megalock. We watched barges glide into the latter like feet easing into comfortable shoes to be lowered 20 feet. Once down, it would be smooth sailing all the way to the delta.
After the tour we returned to the museum and my eduction continued. The word riffraff was invented to name those who still traveled rivers by riffs, or paddle rafts, after steamboats became the more affluents’ chosen mode of travel. I read about Captain Blanche Leathers, who bucked tradition in a male dominated field by becoming a riverboat pilot in 1894. I was reminded of the 500-year flood of 1993 that inundated 8 million acres of the Midwest and recalled that Ruth and I were in Australia when it started. I remembered flying toward St. Louis on our return, looking down, and seeing a sea. For a flash, I convinced myself that the confused pilot was landing in Chicago.
I moved on to a re-created Pilot House where kids and kid-like adults delight in a video presentation that lets them see what it’s like to steer a barge, say, under a bridge. However, it wasn’t working and I went to the front desk to report my disappointment. That’s when I learned that the National Great Rivers Museum is undergoing great changes. I was told to expect new and properly working exhibits on my next visit when I could also see soaring eagles if I visited earlier, say, in deep-torture winter.