A thousand years ago, there was no railroad, no interstate highways. The continent's rivers were the route of choice for important trade. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers were two of the best routes, and a great city flourished for several hundred years near their confluence. Until Philadelphia's population passed 40,000 in 1800, it was the largest city in North American history.
A Mississippian tribe built their city on Cahokia Creek, three miles upstream from the confluence, where there would be no danger of flooding. Their trade routes were virtually unlimited. Copper and minerals from the Great Lakes have been found here, as well as shells and other artifacts from the Gulf of Mexico. Because of their strategic location, they were probably also able to extract tolls from others who passed this point where the Mississippi and Missouri trade routes converged.
Sometime around the 14th century, they completely abandoned the place. Nobody knows for sure why they left, or what happened to them.
Cahokia was first settled around 650. They began building mounds here about 400 years later, during the Mississippian period. The people left no written records, and the original name of their city is unknown. The name Cahokia is after the unrelated tribe of the Illinois confederacy who were living here when European explorers arrived in the 17th century. Those people freely acknowledged that they had not built the place, and they knew nothing of its origins.
Three distinct kinds of mounds were built at Cahokia: platform, conical, and ridgetop mounds. The descriptions that follow are adapted from signs inside the visitor center.
Platform mounds served as elevated bases for the largest and most important buildings. Temples, homes of leaders, tribal council lodges, and charnel houses were probably constructed on platform mounds.
At least thirty-five platform mounds were built throughout the Cahokia site. Because the platform mounds formed well-drained "hills," the important buildings constructed on them were protected from the damp of the bottomlands and probably lasted longer.
Square or rectangular at the base, platform mounds are entirely man-made earthen structures. They rise above the ground like flat-topped, or truncated, pyramids.
Smaller Platform mounds rise just a few feet, while others may be as much as 40 or more feet high. The great Monks Mound has four terraces and rises more than 100 feet above ground level.
Mississippians buried important people in conical mounds. The families of these people, members of their clan, their friends, and their advisors may have been entombed there as well. In some instances burials are not in a conical mound, but under it. The mound then serves as a grave marker.
Conical mounds are often paired with platform mounds at Cahokia. People buried in a conical mound may have lived on the nearby platform mound or may have been prepared for burial in a charnel house there. Because few of the conical mounds at Cahokia have been excavated, the exact burial customs are not known.
Conical mounds are generally smaller and lower than platform mounds. Dimensions vary from 20 or 30 feet up to 100 or more feet in diameter. Conical mounds grew in size as more people were buried in them.
Many conical mounds have almost disappeared in recent times, as farming equipment has plowed them down. Today many conical mounds are barely visible, rising just a foot or so above the landscape. Others, left untouched, still rise up to 40 feet above ground level.
Located in strategic spots, at least four of the six ridgetop mounds may have been markers of the Cahokia city site. One was located at an extreme western point of the site "diamond," toward the Mississippi. Another is at the extreme southern point, and two more lie on a possible center line of the city, directly south of Monks Mound.
Excavations at Powell, Mound 72, and Rattlesnake have revealed burials in all three, and have indicated that ridgetop mounds may have held more significance than just location. Powell Mound seems to have been built upon an earlier platform mound; and Mound 72 covered three smaller conical mounds.
The shape of the ridgetop mounds was linear, like a long pup tent or a mountain ridge. They varied greatly in size. Powell Mound was 40 feet high, 310 feet long, and 180 feet wide. That is a striking contrast with Mound 72, which was only 6 feet high, 160 feet long, and 85 feet wide.
Central Cahokia was surrounded by a stockade two miles long, started around 1100 and rebuilt three times over a period of 200 years. Each time, the builders used 15-20 thousand oak and hickory logs, one foot across and twenty feet tall. There is no evidence that Cahokia was ever invaded, so the purpose of the stockade is puzzling. However, its construction clearly indicates a defensive structure.
Part of our visit was a short guided tour "from shade tree to shade tree" (it was hot that day). Our docent explained that some scholars believe the stockades played a pivotal role in the departure of the people who originally built Cahokia. There are only so many trees nearby, which are also needed to build shelters, canoes, and rafts; and for fuel. Perhaps the stockades consumed so much timber that there wasn't enough left to conduct life normally.
Fox Mound and Round Top Mound are very close to each other, so they are known as the Twin Mounds. Round Top is partly hidden behind some trees in the first photo, to the right of Fox Mound. Experts believe that the people who lived on the platform mound were buried in the conical mound, but there has not yet been any excavation here; so there's plenty of room for speculation.
North of the Twin Mounds is the Grand Plaza. This 50-acre field astonished archaeologists when they did excavations there, because they found no artifacts. They were able to determine that this expansive area was meant to be empty, and that the Cahokians spent a lot of effort to fill it and make it level – as much effort as they used to build the mounds.
Preservation at the Cahokia Mounds is a relatively recent idea; there was
only slight interest in the place until part of it was almost lost to
Interstate highway right-of-way in the 1960s.
In 1966, the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When it was also designated a U.N. World Heritage Site in 1982, the State of Illinois decided it was also worth preserving as a State Historic Site. Not far from the Twin Mounds there was a village of small houses that were built quickly after World War II to house returning veterans. Only one of these houses remains; it is now the residence of the park superintendent.
There were also a few farms that the state had to buy in order to assure protection. Before that could happen, one farmer had completely levelled one of the larger conical mounds because it got in his way.
Illinois Tick Trefoil
New Jersey Tea
Purple Prairie Clover
White False Indigo
Monks Mound dominates the site. It's the largest prehistoric earthworks in the Americas. A massive building once stood on top, where the principal chief lived, conducted ceremonies, and ruled Cahokia. It was named for French Trappist monks who farmed its terraces while they lived on a nearby mound from 1809-13.
The lower terrace was probably not built in the same century as the rest of Monks Mound. Experts speculate that as Cahokia started to lose influence and power, the main chief had the terrace built so that he could come down there and be more accessible to his subjects and visitors.
It's only 155 steps to the top. Our guide said that some folks run up and
down, but we didn't see any of that on the day we were there. Temperatures
were well up into the 90s.
There are two people in this photo. One is sitting at the base of the staircase, on the left. The other is standing at the top.
Monks Mound contains about 22 million cubic feet of earth. The people who built it did not know about the wheel. All of that dirt was moved in 1½ cubic foot increments, in baskets on the backs of laborers. A team of 30 workers, each filling and moving eight baskets a day, would take 167 years to carry the 14.7 million baskets needed to build Monks Mound. 300 workers would need almost 17 years. 3000 workers ... well, you get the idea. Where did all that dirt come from?
Cahokians "borrowed" dirt to build mounds, creating many large borrow pits around the city. Empty pits rapidly filled with water, and may have been used as fish farms until they gradually filled with silt and were abandoned. Several borrow pits were intentionally filled with trash and debris. Then - with dirt from more borrow pits - new mounds were constructed over the old pits.
– adapted from a sign in the visitor center
We have already seen Mound 72 as an example of a ridgetop mound. It's only six feet high, and doesn't stand out very strongly. Maybe that's why this family walked right by. They're not the only ones to ignore it. In 1876 John Patrick compiled a reference map with a numbering system that is still used today by students of Cahokia. It includes 71 mounds, and this is not one of them.
In 1967, crews from the University of Wisconsin decided to dig here. The
site was unusual at Cahokia for at least three reasons:
• It's exactly on the site's north-south axis
• It's oriented NW/SE rather than N/S or E/W
• There are very few ridgetop mounds
Working for the next five years, the crews discovered that Mound 72 had been constructed as a series of smaller mounds that were then reshaped and covered to produce the final shape. Within these smaller mounds were a series of features, mainly burial pits and burial deposits. They found almost 300 skeletons.
One of the skeletons was special - more than special. He was about 45 years old when he died. His people laid him out on a bed of 20,000 marine shells set in the shape of a large raptor bird. Every single shell had a hole in it – they were Cahokian money. Nearby were several hundred arrowheads of very fine quality, whose styles indicated they had come from as far away as Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
Most of the burials were women, but a special foursome was male. Their heads and hands were missing, and their arms were linked at the elbows – sort of a guard force for eternity. It is very clear that when the chief died, his retinue died too, to serve him in the next world.
The crews learned several important aspects of Mississippian life from Mound 72, particularly that there was a very well-defined stratification of society there, and that there was trade from widely separated areas of North America.
Like others in England, the Mississippians built henges. These were discovered almost by accident. The State of Illinois was preparing to build an interstate highway through this site, when archaeologist Warren Wittry discovered groups of oval pits arranged in circles. He found evidence of red cedar posts in these pits. There was also red ocher, indicating the posts had been painted red. Two posts obviously marked the summer and winter solstices. Another marked both equinoxes. This circle had 48 posts; the function of the others is not known.
Interstate Route 55/70 was slightly re-routed as a result of Dr. Wittry's research.
This circle was reconstructed in 1985 on the site of the original AD 1000 structure. It's 410 feet in diameter. This was the third of five woodhenges built over a 200-year period at Cahokia. The fifth was only a 12-post arc along the annual track of the sunrise. If it had been a complete circle, there would have been 72 posts. The partial construction suggests that cedar trees were becoming scarce.
We've already had a few peeks inside the visitor center. To get inside, the
visitor must open enormous bronze doors that are heavy enough to require two
hands. They almost require two people. You will have to stand back several
feet to see the beauty of the ravens soaring over Monks Mound. To help
you get oriented, there are four seven-foot doors in this picture. Each one
weighs eight hundred pounds.
They were designed and sculpted by Preston Jackson of Peoria, Illinois. Originally produced in beeswax, the sections were cast in bronze and welded together.
Sponsored by New Orleans merchant Gilbert Maxent, Pierre Laclède and his assistant Auguste Chouteau led an expedition in 1763 to establish a trading post near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. They found the area too marshy, but there was good ground about fifteen miles downstream. They selected a spot on a bluff, so it would be protected from flooding. The area is now called Laclede's Landing in his honor. From Chouteau's journal,
In the year 1762 ... the French Governor at New Orleans granted to a company the exclusive trade with the savages of the Missouri and all the nations residing west of the Mississippi ... the company was formed under the name Maxan-Laclède.
Laclède returned briefly to New Orleans on business, and Chouteau remained with thirty men to build log huts and a warehouse for the furs they intended to trade. They named their new city after King Louis IX.
Louis IX became King of France in 1226 at age 12. He went on the Seventh Crusade in 1248, where his army of 15,000 was overwhelmed; Louis was captured in Egypt and had to be ransomed. Louis ruled when France was at its apex, both politically and economically. He was highly regarded throughout Europe, occasionally arbitrating disputes among other European leaders. He was also a patron of the arts and a devout supporter of the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1270, Louis IX embarked on the Eighth Crusade, but he fell ill and died in Tunis. In 1297, Pope Boniface VII canonized him St. Louis IX.
The Coronation of St. Louis IX, King of France
This painting shows Louis IX kneeling before the altar on the night before his coronation. Louis XVIII gave it in 1818 to Father DuBourg, first Bishop of St. Louis, who founded this cathedral. The painting has been restored twice, in 1949 and 1999.
The Old Cathedral is on the site of a log house that served as St. Louis's first church. It's the only building in the city still in the original 1764 location. Also, it was the only building spared when St. Louis razed its waterfront to make room for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
It was hot in St. Louis, so we wanted to take a cruise on the river. That's only possible because of the work of Robert E. Lee, when he was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers. By the late 1830s, a growing sand bar in the middle of the river was causing its navigation channel to drift eastward. Lee figured out where to place pilings so the river would wash the sand bar away, restoring the channel to a location that assured St. Louis's growth as a river shipping center. Lee was promoted to Captain for that work.
We took that cruise on the sternwheeler Tom Sawyer, a highly recommended way to pass a couple of hours on a hot afternoon.
Now, let's leave Tom and Becky behind, and go visit the place our government calls the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Most everybody else calls it the Gateway Arch, or simply the Arch. Any way you look at it, it's beautiful and it's enormous. At 630 feet above the ground, it's the country's tallest monument (#2, the Washington Monument, is 555 feet tall). It's also 630 feet wide, but that doesn't set any records.
If you hang a chain by its ends, it will form a shape called a
catenary, where the forces are pure tension. Eero Saarinen designed
the Arch as an inverted catenary, where the forces are purely compression
– there is no shear, so the structure only needs to support its own
weight. This allowed Saarinen to build it with very little
material compared to the size of the structure, and at the same time make it
This allowed the Arch to be built from the ground up, both legs at the same
time. Engineering tolerances were tight; the bases had to be located within
1/64 inch (0.4 mm), or the two legs would not be aligned well enough to
connect them safely. The foundations were laid before lasers were invented.
The Arch was finished when the two legs were connected through the keystone segment in October 1965. It had been almost twenty years from concept to completion. When it came time to install the keystone, the sun had warmed the south leg and it would not align properly with its partner. So the St. Louis Fire Department hosed it down until it cooled enough to line up with the other leg.
Mountain climbers do their thing "because it's there." Likewise, the Arch is too tempting for some people to leave alone. Eleven light aircraft have been flown between its legs; the first in 1966, before the Arch had been finished for a year. The most recent was a helicopter pilot who was brought to justice for his 1984 prank.
In 1980, Kenneth Swyers tried to parachute onto the arch, planning to wait a bit and then jump off again. He miscalculated and slid to his death down the north leg.
In 1984, David Adcock started to climb up the outside of the Arch, using suction cups on his hands and feet. He was convinced to come back down after he got about 20 feet up. The next day he used the same equipment to climb the outside of a 21-story building.
So, how do good citizens get to the top? First, by passing through a security checkpoint like the airlines use, into a waiting area that doubles as a museum to westward expansion. It also has a display honoring the people who built the Arch.
On the other side of the door is a pod whose design was inspired by a cement mixer. It seats five, intimately. The tram system pulls eight pods to the top in about four minutes. The system is a combination railway and elevator, with a mechanism to rotate the pods every once in a while so the passengers stay upright. At the bottom, the pods are actually under the rails.
This brilliant system was designed in two weeks' time by a man who had dropped out of college.
No major architect or firm would touch the design of an automated system to move people to the top of the Arch. An elevator wouldn't work, and neither would a conventional tram.
One day in 1960, Dick Bowser visited a friend at the Montgomery Elevator Company in Moline, Ill. Before his visit was done, he found himself on the phone with Eero Saarinen's office. They talked about unconventional elevators for a while, and then Bowser was asked, "when can you meet with Eero Saarinen?"
Bowser worked on his design for two weeks, and went to Saarinen's office in Michigan. He expected to meet with the architect and his staff, but instead found himself in a room full of political bigwigs, construction engineers, and the director of the National Park Service.
They couldn't stump him, so he got the job. The system has been working without a hitch for over 40 years.
If the tram doesn't work, there are 1076 steps – of traditional design – in each emergency stairwell.
The Arch was built directly across from the Old Courthouse, which saw many trials dealing with freedom and equality, like Virginia Minor's suit for women's right to vote in the 1870s. It's a good place for reflection.
In 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott filed suit to affirm their status as free Americans, based on the fact that they had lived free in Minnesota. They lost their case in 1847, but some of the evidence was suspect; in a second trial in 1850, a jury decided that they were free. This room is where those decisions were delivered.
Because the ceiling was weak, a wall was built in the room where the Dred Scott trials were held. Therefore, the actual courtroom no longer exists in its original form. It would have looked very much like this room, directly above it. This was the Court of Common Pleas. The semicircular bar here dates to 1883, and the wall colors match paint samples from 1844.
The widow of Scott's original owner appealed the case, and the Missouri Supreme Court overturned it in 1852. This decision sparked a series of events that eventually led to the American Civil War.
1809 June 14. Some straggling Ioway Indians are infesting the country stealing the pigs, etc., crawling on all fours and imitating the notes of the mud-lark....
1812 February 1. Missouri Fur Co. Capital $50,000. 50 shares of $1000. Silvestre, Labbadie, Wm. Clark and Manuel Lisa. The old Co. has $27,000 in goods &c. up the Missouri River. Subscriptions desired for the remaining $23,000.
1813 August 8. There are at present at this post about 100 U.S. Regular Soldiers and 150 more looked for. This, with our 300 partisans would enable us to give a warm reception to the British and Indians, should they come this way.
1815 October 12. August Choteau notifies the public that he will not permit his land adjoining the Courthouse in the town of St. Louis to be made use of as a place of burial.
Its strategic location near the Missouri-Mississippi confluence always made St. Louis important, whether to ancient Indians or to European settlers and their descendants pushing their way to the Pacific Ocean.
Despite the museum that now fills the place, you never forget the fundamental purpose of the Old Courthouse.
William Zorach, 1962
I found a comment on a blog by a woman who says that her husband was the model for this statue. She said that running eventually wrecked his knees, so he turned to cycling.
If you don't want to take the time to see the waterfront from on the water, find this little dock (see the windsock?) and take a $29 helicopter ride. You'll be up and down in about ten minutes. While you're flying, this is what that dock looks like from the top of the arch. There's a lot of debris still there, that floated downstream with this year's flood.
Our last day on the road was a long one. We took off from St. Louis Downtown airport at 9:30 AM, and flew all day. We stopped for fuel at Muncie, Indiana; and Butler, Pennsylvania. ATIS at Muncie reported a thunderstorm in progress, but it cleared out before we got there. This is nearby Albany, showing the kind of weather we had for most of the trip – but we had to work for it. By flying at 9500 feet, we managed to avoid thunderstorms that were along or near our route all day.
We landed at Bridgeport just before 8 PM, not quite half an hour before sunset. Just in time to unpack the plane, drink a toast to the adventure we had just completed, and start thinking about the next one. This photo is from our first night on the road, back in Saugatuck. Was it really only two weeks ago?