Episode Six

Artists and Craftsmen of the Great River Road – Andrew Wanko

Andrew Wanko wrote a book on how the Mississippi River shaped St. Louis, Missouri. The history of racial and ethnic conflict, the city’s infrastructure, even how the Mississippi helped settle arguments among the affluent in the 1800’s.

Read the Podcast Transcript
Interviewer: Talking with Andrew Wanko wrote the book Great River City: How the Mississippi Shaped St. Louis. I haven’t had the chance to page through the book like I like to page through a book, but I did have a chance to see it digitally. Andrew, I’m looking forward to this book coming out.  So it looks like it will be a great coffee table book

Andrew:  Yeah, it’s been a thrilling project to work on. Usually when you see a book about the Mississippi river. It tends to look at the river across its entire length. You have 2200 miles of river and it’ll pull stories from all up and down that length.  That’s a really cool way to think about the river, but we wanted to flip that on its head. We wanted to look at how the river has interacted with one single city across its life. So the book is called Great River City: How the Mississippi Shaped St. Louis and it looks at just that.  We’re looking at the big moments from St. Louis’ history. The stuff you’d expect to find. But then we get all the way down into topics like sanitation, and racial and ethnic conflict, entertainment. All these different ways the river has made a mark on the city of St. Louis. The goal was to show people that even if you don’t spend nearly as much time as people did on the river back in 1800’s. Or you might think it’s just water flowing past, it still tied your life in a lot of ways you might not realize.

Interviewer:  You know I live on the Mississippi River as well, but I’m up north I’m in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  It’s pretty cool to be here, but it’s also weird to hear that people that live here haven’t been on the Mississippi River and I’m assuming that even there, there are many people, thousands of people, that have never even had the chance to be on the Mississippi River.

Andrew:  Yeah, I mean St. Louis has 1/2 dozen bridges across the Mississippi river and I timed it the last time I was driving home. It takes about 30 seconds to drive across one of them, if there’s no traffic.  That’s, for a lot of people, that’s about the extent of their experience at the river. You know maybe they’ll go down to see the arch once a year with their family and look out on the river.  For the most part we don’t really spend much time pondering how it seeps into our daily lives. But when we look a lot closer. There’s a lot of really interesting ways that the river is still very vitally important. It’s still a lifeblood of our economy and still touches our lives in a lot of ways.

Interviewer:  Let me ask this, how so?

Andrew:  So, going all the way back to when St. Louis was first founded, the Mississippi River has always been our source of drinking water and it still is. And the book has a pretty interesting chapter about what drinking the water in 1800, St. Louis, used to look like. It was horrific, be glad you’re alive today. But you know is our source of drinking water. It’s our source of sanitation. It’s, again economy is huge. St. Louis still ships a ton of different things on the river, but it’s the whole reason that our city was here in the first place. But then you have other things you know like segregation and division. St. Louis is certainly a city that has always struggled with these sorts of issues. East St. Louis sits on the other side of the Mississippi River. Mississippi formed a very clean boundary line for all of the industry and all the things nobody in St. Louis wanted to deal with. They could push it across the river into Illinois.  East St. Louis today is commonly talked about as one of the most distressed small cities in America and that has historic precedent that goes back years and years ago, when St. Louis was first interacting with East St. Louis. The river is part of that story and that’s how this book looks at these different stories, the river has some different ways it creeps into history

Interviewer:  So I am sure that you probably found a lot of really cool stories, and a lot of really interesting things that piqued your interest. You have a story or perhaps that you know keeps real in the end and you wanted to find out more about it afterwards.

Andrew:  My absolute favorite story in the book is is the story of Bloody Island.  Back in the 1820’s it was common for St. Louis’ gentlemen, the sort of  wealthy socialites of town, if they felt they had been offended. It was common to challenge another man to a duel, possibly to the death, and the place where this happened, was a little island in the middle of the river called Bloody Island. And since it kind of popped up in the middle of the river, since it wasn’t controlled by Illinois or Missouri. It was sort of considered free game where you could go do whatever you want to. These wealthy St. Louisans would get into fights over the silliest smallest things. One of the most famous duels that happen on Bloody Island was between Thomas Hart Benton, who later became a Missouri senator and his rival attorney Charles Lucas.  Benton had called Lucas a puppy in the newspaper, which those are fighting words there, and Charles Lucas challenged him to a duel. They actually went to Bloody Island twice, and after their first dual nobody was killed. They went back out to the island and battled again, and Charles Lucas was killed on Bloody Island. This really bizarre story, and it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when that was a normal thing that would happen, all of St. Louis citizens would go out on the river front and watch these duels. It was the entertainment of the day.  Pretty incredible.

Interviewer:  The book is called Great River City: How the Mississippi Shaped St. Louis how do we find your book Andrew?

Andrew:  Amazon, or if you happen to be in St. Louis, this book is coming out along side an exhibit were opening about the Mississippi River.  The exhibit is free to the public. So if you happen to come down to St. Louis you should stop by and see the exhibit and grab one of the books in the gift shop on the way out.