Visitors Guide to the
Meeting the Ohio River Region
After the Mississippi River passes St. Louis it begins to change character. The river north of St. Louis is punctuated with locks and dams that allow river boat traffic to navigate the steep slope that the river follows. South of St. Louis the slope becomes gentler. At Cape Girardeau, Missouri the river passes the northernmost point of the Crowley's Ridge. Crowley's Ridge delineates the western edge of the Mississippi River Valley through southeastern Missouri and western Arkansas. The Mississippi River Valley at this point is called the Mississippi Embayment and the Crowley's Ridge can be as far as 150 miles west from the current river channel. When the Mississippi River meets the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois it is halfway on its journey to the sea. It is here that the brown muddy water of the Mississippi begins to mingle with the clearer water of the Ohio. On a sunny day you can see the difference from Fort Defiance Park in Cairo or from Fort Jefferson Hill just south of Wickliffe, Kentucky. Without the locks and dams the Mississippi begins to wind and curve so much so that the distance by water from Cape Girardeau to the Gulf of Mexico is twice the distance as a crow flies. It is because of this meandering flow that it is here that the Mississippi begins to take on the moniker of “Old Man River.”
The region where the Mississippi River meets the Ohio River is an area of transition in several respects. With the river unconfined it began to create new channels and abandoned old ones. Over thousands of years this process created oxbow lakes and swamps. These features would eventually fill with silt during periods of flooding and cypress and tupelo forests would replace the oak and hickory forests that were predominate. Native Americans liked to settle along these oxbow lakes because the fishing, hunting, and water supply was good, but the threat of flooding was less than along the river. Horseshoe Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area in Illinois, Ballard Wildlife Management Area in Kentucky, and Big Oak Tree State Park in Missouri are great places to see the change in biodiversity. Culturally the region begins to take on the atmosphere of the South.
greatriverroad.com has divided this ten county region into three sections - Southeast Missouri, Southern Illinois, and Western Kentucky. The Southeast Missouri section consists of four counties. Perry and Cape Girardeau Counties lie north of Crowley’s Ridge and the topography is primarily uplands that consist of farms dotted with stands of hardwood forests. Perry County is especially colorful in the fall and the eastern portion retains the influence of the Germans who immigrated to the county in the 1830s, particularly in the small communities of Frohna and Altenburg. Cape Girardeau is the region’s largest and oldest town. The community started out as a trading post in the 1790s and has a large number of attractions that include historical and cultural museums as well as natural features. As the river reaches Scott County the Mississippi Embayment begins. Both Scott and Mississippi Counties were covered by swamps with cypress trees and virgin bottomland hardwood forest. At the beginning of the 20th century a group of businessmen set out to transform the swamp that was Southeast Missouri in the largest drainage project ever attempted at the time. The Little River Drainage District, a 15-year project, turned half a million acres of swampy cypress forests into some of the state's most fertile agricultural land. Cotton became a staple crop in the region and its influence on the region is celebrated annually at the Cotton Festival in Sikeston.
The Southern Illinois area of the Meeting the Ohio region is dominated by the Shawnee National Forest. Most of the land added to the Forest was exhausted farmland and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted pine trees to prevent erosion and help rebuild the soil. However, the Forest is also home to many hardwood trees and other plant and animal species characteristic of the region. There are numerous state parks and natural sites located within the Forest including Giant City State Park, Lake Murphysboro State Park, the Little Grand Canyon, and the Ponoma Natural Bridge. There are a few cities that lie on the riverbank. The city of Cairo is located the confluence of the two rivers and was an important community during the latter half of the 19th century. Its history can be explored at the Cairo Customs House and several historical homes. Grand Tower is more atypical as it lies directly on the banks of the river. Grand Tower provides an excellent view of Tower Rock, a landmark rock formation of the Mississippi. One of the most popular tourist attractions in the region is the Shawnee Hill Wine Trail which is a collection of approximately a dozen wineries that are nestled in the heart of the Shawnee Forest. This region of southern Illinois is particularly colorful in the fall and provides many interesting places to enjoy natures beauty. A drive up to Bald Knob, southern Illinois’ highest point, provides a colorful drive that culminates with a spectacular view of the countryside.
Most of western Kentucky lies on a series of bluffs which provide the sharp eastern boundary of the Mississippi River Valley past the confluence with the Ohio River. At this point in geological time the Mississippi River runs right up against the Kentucky bluffs rather than through a course through the alluvial plain of the Mississippi Embayment. Because the confluence of the two rivers doubles the volume of the Mississippi River towns south of Cairo no longer are located on the riverbank but are situated on high bluffs. A good example is the Kentucky town of Columbus which moved from the riverbank to the bluffs after the flood of 1927 destroyed the town. When looking for a new site for town along the bluffs the Red Cross agent came across the remains of the Confederate fortifications of Fort DeRussey which was referred to as the "Gibraltar of the West." Through Rust’s efforts the site became Columbus-Belmont State Park which interprets that turbulent period along the river and is host to a large Civil War reenactment each October. The Mississippian culture of the Native Americans can be explored at Wickliffe Mounds, a historical site with a museum interpreting life along the river 1,000 years ago.
The Meeting the Ohio region of the Middle Mississippi River Valley offers it visitors a wide variety of options of activities to do and sites to see. Whether you’re looking for historical or cultural sites or a place to enjoy nature you’ll find it in this part of the country. There are events held throughout the year ranging from the Dogwood-Azalea Festival in Charleston, Missouri in April that celebrates the springtime beauty of the town to the more unusual Vulture Fest in Makanda, Illinois in October that celebrates the black and turkey vultures that patrol the skies of the Shawnee National Forest. greatriverroad.com hopes that this regional guide will lead you on to travels of discovery that will bring you enjoyment and delight.