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by Michael R. Allen
It’s late in January and I find myself slipping on the ice. I am walking down a deserted city street that runs near an abandoned industrial complex. Few cars travel this street, but luckily one has driven here recently, or I wouldn’t have the fortune of walking in the tire tracks that save me from a fall. Still, I can’t avoid slipping every few minutes.
Why am I enduring this desolate and dangerous walk on one of the coldest winter days of this season? I am looking for access to the Mississippi River in the city of Saint Louis. Such a search requires patience even when one knows where to go, as I do. Beyond the public and dirty river access provided at the levee parking lot at the foot of the Arch grounds, all other access points require a little bit of walking.
There is an almost-inaccessible short promenade at the foot of Bellerive Park, but the last time that I tried to go there I found construction equipment in my way. Technically, that promenade is the only park in the city that offers access to Old Man River. It’s odd that the city doesn’t even post any signs in upper Bellerive Park pointing out how to get to the riverside.
Yet its even more odd that a city with a riverboat on its city seal, that was a pivotal seat in the river-based exploration of the Western United States and that was once a prosperous inland port does almost nothing to point out that the Mississippi River is more than just an iconic legend around here. Even Downtown Now’s new signs, which readily point out places where people can spend money, do not point out how to get to a place where one can sit by the peaceful flow of muddy water that was so important to the city’s founding and commercial development.
Signs really wouldn’t help much, though, because they could only point to access that doesn’t exist. Much of the riverfront in the city consists of concrete floor walls or industrial tracts such as my favorite river-watching spot. And the ostensibly grand civic riverfront of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has been host to burger barges and a shabby surface parking lot in the last twenty years. City planners have gradually cleared the riverfront of moored vessels, but they have never studies moving the parking lot.
South of the Arch grounds, one can walk though the usually-open gates on the flood wall and get to the river, but then the whole sense of the urban world disappears as one stands between a tall wall and a river. This is a bit more intimate spot than the access offered in front of the Arch grounds and Laclede’s Landing. There are no cars. But then again, there aren’t likely to be any people and hence the experience is rather cold. Engineering thwarts the potential for an urban river outlook.
Elsewhere in the city, people don’t have many choices. The north riverfront trail offers many good vantage points and in a few places provides points of access. These points, however, entail walking down banks and even trespassing. They aren’t fully public. Around the Chain of Rocks Bridge, once can get fairly close to the thicket of trees and foliage growing near the riverbank, but without a machete won’t get too far.
Then there is my favorite place, which I want to keep a secret. This place is not easy to get to, but it provides a clear vantage point far from automobiles and flood walls. I can see the city behind me and the river in front of me, and I can sit down and listen to the river. I don’t feel good about having to keep this place private, but it’s not my choice. Like 96% of the rest of the city’s riverfront, it is not a public space in the eyes of the law. Of course, all of the riverfront is natural public space. The Mississippi is the city’s greatest natural resource, despite its forces removal from the lives of Saint Louisans.
We have turned our backs on the Mississippi River because it no longer is the backbone of our commerce. Like the railroads, the river is a commercial casualty of the interstate highway. But that’s fine, because the river is a natural force that would much rather beckon weary city dwellers to its peaceful banks on a cold January day than be clogged with steamboats and barges. It’s time for us to cooperate.
by Michael R. Allen
LOCATION: 526 East Catalan Street; Patch/Carondelet; Saint Louis, Missouri
NAMES: Laclede Gas and Light Coal Gassification Plant (1902-1950); Great Lakes Carbon Coke Plant (1950-1980); Carondelet Coke Plant (1980-present)
DATES OF CONSTRUCTION: Earlier smaller buildings, 1902; large buildings, 1915; various structures, 1916-1980
DATES OF ABANDONMENT: 1987 – present
OWNERS: Laclede Gas and Light Company (1902-1950); SG Carbon (1950-82); Carondelet Coke Corporation (1982-1989); Land Reutilization Authority (since 1989)
Aerial view from around 1950.
Around 1858, the Vulcan Iron Works opened on the eastern part of the site now known as the Carondelet Coke Plant. This site was bounded by Catalan Street on the north, the Mississippi River on the east, the River Des Peres on the south and railroad tracks on the west. This plant produced iron from ore, and was one of the first such concerns on the south riverfront of St. Louis. The plant was served by the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad, whose line remains in use today by Union Pacific. North of Vulcan Iron Works, on the site recently home to St. Louis Ship, stood the works of the Carondelet Marine Railway. The marine railway conveyed boats out of the river via rail cars that went under the keels while the boats were in the river and then brought them onto dry land for repairs. The works existed from the 1850s onward. During the Civil War, the Marine Railway became home to a new use: construction of gunboats for the Union war effort. Engineer James Buchanan Eads leased the works, which became known as Eads’ Union Marine Works or the Union Iron-Works. His company became St. Louis Ship-Federal Barge, which closed around 2001.
The 1883 Hopkins fire insurance map shows the Vulcan Iron Works site occupied by the St. Louis Ore and Steel Company, owned by Western Steel Company. The map shows blast furnaces, a converting mill, a rail mill and a bloomery and bar mill on the site. The Western Iron Boat Building Company had a facility just north of there and south of the Carondelet Marine Railway Site. Early on, iron ore from southeast Missouri was a valuable thing, but when better deposits were found around Lake Superior, the Missouri iron industry shrank. Laclede Gas and Light Company purchased the site in 1902 for the purposes of building a coal gasification plant. Coal gasification breaks down coal into various gaseous components, which at that time were needed for the household gas much of the city used for lighting and cooking.
Coal gasification produces many other valuable byproducts, including coke, and utility companies engaging in early gasification efforts began creating co-generation facilities that would produce both gas needed for household use and coke needed for steel production. In 1915, Laclede Gas and Light built new buildings designed by the noted firm Mauran, Russell & Crowell and installed new equipment at their plant on Catalan Street. This expansion created gave the plant coke production abilities on par with major coke ovens in other cities. The operation continued after natural gas became a much cheaper source for household gas than gasification. In 1950, Laclede Gas and Light sold the plant to the Great Lakes Carbon Company, which concentrated on coke production. The company operated the plant for thirty years before selling to local owners organized as the Carondelet Coke Corporation.
In 1987, Carondelet Coke Corporation closed the coke works, which had been mentioned in a US Environmental Protection Agency report that asserted that coke works were the most carcinogenic type of American industrial facility. By 1989, unpaid taxes led to the property’s being acquired by the city of St. Louis’ Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). At forty acres, the plant became the largest property owned by the LRA. LRA solicited sales from time to time, but with contamination levels high, could not find a responsible buyer. The flood of 1993 washed across the grounds, spreading slag and coke piles across the eastern part of the site and knocking down a few structures.
Over the years, the site of robust industry returned to first nature as vegetation and animals took over the site. Youth found the site a good place for exploration and rabble-rousing. Some brave squatters moved in. Yet almost twenty years after the plant closed, in 2006, the city of St. Louis finally found a developer willing to remake the site. The plan calls for demolition of all structures and construction of light industrial buildings.