Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fort Defiance, Lewis & Clark: The Confluence of the Ohio & Mississippi Rivers

After the family returned from Germany and moved to Indianapolis, Indiana there were primarily three routes to make the trip from Grandpa John’s house (East Prairie, Missouri):

  1. The most common route was to take highway 62 (two lanes) and cross the Mississippi River into Cairo, Illinois using the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge and then take the Cairo Ohio River Bridge (highway 51 bridge over the Ohio River to Wickliffe, Kentucky) following two lane highways and roads through many small towns in Kentucky and Indiana.
  2. Before the building of the above bridges the primary route would be similar except the crossing would be by river ferry. Today there are at least two river ferries operating across the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee and St. Louis Missouri: The Dorena Hickman Ferry and the St. Genevieve Ferry.

    By Chris Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,


    The height of the bridges, the long approach, occasional state of disrepair, the very narrow two-lane deck, and the sight of heavy barge traffic passing underneath the bridge can all contribute to an eerie sense of trepidation as you approach the bridge. This can quickly turn to a scary ride when you encounter tractor trailers coming from the other side. Tractor-trailers account for 1/4 of the 3500 vehicles that cross the bridge daily. At different times in their history the two bridges have been on several most ‘scariest’ or ‘dangerous’ in America bridge list.

    In the years since the construction of the two bridges, the town of Cairo has experienced an 81% population decline (1930 to 2010), the most dramatic decrease of any principal city in the United States.[3]The bridges initially played a part in the town's demise as the ferry and railroad industries were severely impacted


  3. In 1978, the multi-lane Cairo I-57 Bridge was completed less than five miles upstream, bypassing Cairo (contributing to its further decline). Using the new bridge and the the interstate system involving Interstate 57 north to Effingham, Illinois and then taking Interstate 70 east to Indianapolis. This quickly became the most common and quickest route.

The Interstate route was originally a big time saver, but with the increase in connecting Interstates, the Kentucky Parkway system and efforts to extend Interstate 69 from Indianapolis southward, pretty soon I-57/I-70 will be neither the quickest or most scenic. I tend to mix my routes up using both ferries and bridges on occasion.

All three routes have their appeal; the ferry for its charm, I-57/I-70 for its quickness and abundant amenities, and the Highway 62/51 for the scare and Ft. Defiance.

Cairo is located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. With the confluence Cairo is situated on the southernmost tip of Illinois on a peninsula formed by the two rivers. On the very tip of this ‘peninsula’ you can stand between the two rivers, in Illinois and see Missouri and Kentucky. Also on this tip is Fort Defiance Park.



Here you can witness the awesome coming together of two great rivers, the Mississippi and Ohio, and the beginning of the lower portion of the mighty Mississippi River. The park contains a 2 story observation deck and you can go right down to the point of confluence at the rivers edge2

"On November 14th 1803 at the Confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers the corps of Discovery stayed for 6 days. One of the longest stops made by the expedition. Here they saw the Mississippi for the first time, noted the mistletoe on the large Timber and to their surprise caught a 128 lb blue catfish. They're staying allowed Captain Lewis to teach Captain Clark the use of the navigation equipment (compass and sextant). Because of the third principal Meridian begins at the mouth of the Ohio astronomical observations at this point were crucial."1

"…Many of the men who enlisted in the journey were from Illinois, and the group spent five days in mid-November 1803 at the confluence, gathering data and beginning the process of mapping the river route to the Pacific Ocean.”

At that time, the confluence was the furthest location in the west that had been accurately mapped and for which longitude and latitude were known.”

"Because the geographic location near present-day Cairo was such an important landmark, and because Lewis and Clark had just joined together several weeks earlier, the confluence became the place where they trained each other in their respective skills – Lewis with celestial navigation and Clark with land surveying," Swenson said.

“In addition, international politics at the beginning of the 19th century centered on the area, as the new states, England, France and Spain competed for land, resources, trade and military advantage.”

“The confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers today is actually about two miles south of its 1803 location. Project leaders agreed that placing the sculpture at the current confluence is most appropriate as it matches the scene described in William Clark's first map of the entire expedition…."2

1 on site marker

2 From November 8, 2005 SIUC & Cairo remember the past:Lewis & Clark sculpture dedication set for Nov. By TOM WOOLF <>

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*There is a story floating around about a student pilot that flew a loop around the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge in 1956. While the story is not confirmed, many people who were stationed at nearby Malden Air Base at the time have recounted these events. A student pilot flying a T-28 trainer was obsessed with the idea of flying a loop around the Cairo highway bridge. Once day, after spending many hours studying the problem, he found himself flying in the area alone. He decided that today was the day. After taking a pass to make sure that there was no barge traffic in the area, he flew out a few miles to line up his flight and gain some speed. Unfortunately, he picked up a little too much speed. He flew under the bridge OK, but by the time he pulled up into the loop, he was well beyond the bridge. As he went inverted, he could see that he would come down right about where the bridge was. If he tried to tighten up the loop, he might have hit the bridge. If he tried to lengthen the loop, he might stall and crash into the river. As it happens, he just cleared the bridge, so he pulled back hard to start to pull up under the bridge to finish the loop. By the time the airplane started to climb, he had hit the water, damaging the skin on the wings and about 12 inches of the outer tips of the propeller. He flew back to the air base, parked the airplane, and wrote it up as having a rough engine. Officials at the base figured out what had happened, and the cadet was ejected from the flight training program.
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