Illinois, Alexander County, Cairo
“It’s a crime,” said one member of the research team “that this is not a national park!” The research team was talking on this sunny October Sunday afternoon with two couples from far away who came to see this site. One — a couple in their 50’s from Indianapolis — was completing the last leg of a motorcycle trip around the lower Mississippi. The other — a couple in their thirties — stopped by here on a drive from their home in Arkansas to a visit with family near Chicago. Both were impressed with the Convergence, but disappointed that so little is made of it. Lots of people on Tripadvisor feel the same way.
The thing is — this WAS a park. Fort Defiance State Park, operated by the Department of Natural Resources of the State of Illinois. It is no longer on the DNR’s list of parks but it persists on many maps and many websites. The only written evidence at the park itself is the IDNR label on a trash can.
But the material evidence is great: the trees in line, sliced by narrow roads, bordered by an abandoned swing set — surely the marks of an abandoned campground. The parking lot next to the boat launch, the concrete shards where the boat launch has been broken up. (In retrospect, the turbulent waters of the Confluence may not be the best place to launch.) An odd concrete overlook in the form of a steamboat. Now it has been straightened up enough that one can walk up to the first and second floors, but the doors to the restrooms and concession stand are welded shut. The mysterious concrete platform. The closed up building at the bridges. The numerous informational signs of various condition and vintage describing Lewis and Clark, Fort Defiance, the Civil War, the Great River Road, the location of the third meridian, the public art project, and the WPA-built bridge. (Thank you, fellow citizens, for providing work temporarily for those who had no work when the economy was in such a great recession, and for building infrastructure that still serves us when those who built it are long deceased.)
The existence of this park is made more difficult by the treacherous condition of downtown Cairo. Historic preservationists talk about how, when one or two buildings of a block are lost, it no longer shows the friendly smile of a complete a set of teeth. So many buildings have been demolished or abandoned that downtown Cairo looks like a mouth with only two or three rotten teeth left. With a population in 2010 of 2800 and a median household income of $16,500 (versus about $50,000 for the US as a whole), there is not much hope here. (One neighborhood, and many surrounding towns, are much more prosperous.) With only a few dismal-looking bars, no place to eat, and a forlorn inexpensive motel out by the Interstate, driving through or thinking of staying are daunting prospects. Probably a thriving park could do much to revive it.
But it should not be a city park or a county park or a state park: it should be a national park. Restore the overlook! Restore the campground! Restore the signs! A national park overseen by the three states that border it: Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri. (Illinois has only one national park; Kentucky has Mammoth Cave and Missouri the Arch at St. Louis, along with a handful of others.) But it will get inundated, you object. Yes — it WILL get inundated — and that is the point of it. This is not a park about some Civil War battle or some local important man — the appropriate subject for many local riverside parks. This is a park about WATER! The Ohio River drains — what, most of the eastern third of the United States? The Upper Mississippi and the Missouri drain from Minnesota to Montana to Saskatchewan to Alberta to Colorado to Kansas. And all this water flows into the Gulf of Mexico at the Mississippi Delta. Here — as at Niagara Falls, as at the Grand Canyon, water is the power and the glory and the motivating force. To see this park now — late summer, low water, then to come back in January for some ice, and April and May when only the information building and the bridge would be above an enormous pool — that would tell all of us something of the environment and ecology of these great rivers. Get on it!