The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Interpreting the American Bottom


5155 The CLUI Field Unit open in Granite City, Illinois. CLUI photo

THE REMARKABLE LANDSCAPE OF THE Mississippi River across from St. Louis, known as the American Bottom, was the subject of an exhibit that opened to the public in December 2017, inside an on-site CLUI interpretive trailer. The exhibit was produced by a group led by Matthew Fluharty and Jesse Vogler of the Sam Fox School at Washington University, and was developed from a long- term and ongoing research and documentation program about the region, aided by the CLUI.
If St. Louis, with its soaring Saarenin arch, is the gateway to the west, then East St. Louis, across the river from the arch, must be, in some obverse way, the gateway to the east. These bottom lands are a remarkable mix of older versions of America—more about its origins than its westward aspirations. 
With a name that refers to its fundaments, and location in the heart of the nation, the American Bottom is the landscape of oxbows, horseshoe lakes and lowlands of the Mississippi River, extending from Alton, Illinois in the north (just upstream of the confluence of the Missouri River) to the Kaskaskia River to the south (across from St. Genevieve). 
The long southern reach of the Bottom is monolithic, a three-mile-wide strip of agricultural land on the Illinois bank of the river, between the levee and the bluff, extending for 50 miles south of St. Louis. The northern part of the Bottom is more diversely developed, a flat space of overlooked industry and history, as if in an urban shadow spreading eastward, cast by the great gateway American city of St. Louis, as the sun sinks into the beckoning west.
This American Bottom is a mixture of open lands, islands of small, half-emptied old towns, elevated highways, chemical plants, drainage ditches, treatment plants, and residential grids of industrial suburbs, built by the likes of Standard Oil, Alcoa, US Steel, and Monsanto.

5156 One of the few remaining houses from a development that was slowly bought out to create a park around the center of the Cahokia Mound complex, part of which had been turned into a pornographic drive-in theater. CLUI photo
Many of these towns are deflated versions of themselves, like East St. Louis itself, as industries change, and close, tumbling from their peaks in the 1950s. Among them is Brooklyn, Illinois, whose sign declares it to be the oldest town in the United States incorporated by African Americans, and National City, a company town built by the St. Louis National Stockyards Company, which thrived through the 1950s, then declined, finally evicting its last residents in 1996, before disincorporating the following year.
The greatest gone city in the Bottoms, though, is Cahokia, where a thousand years ago, as many as 30,000 people lived in a six-square mile city. More than a hundred mounds, some several stories tall, rose above the flat plains here, arranged around a central plaza and Monks Mound, the largest pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas. Though its residents were gone by 1400, the mounds remained. 
When the Europeans arrived, some mounds were flattened to fill marshes, build levees, and make for easier agricultural use, but most of the mounds were simply ignored, and merged with suburban and industrial development. New mounds began to rise among them, slag heaps, ash piles, municipal landfills, capped industrial sites, and heaps of coal brought in to fuel power plants and factories. Mound building is a continuous human process, especially on the American Bottom. ♦

5157 The CLUI exhibit trailer is currently at the corner of 19th and State Street. It’s open to visitors, who can get access information to it, as well as other CLUI exhibit facilities, by calling the CLUI Information Line at 310 839-5722. The trailer may move around a bit, and will eventually be deployed elsewhere, so check in before you go. CLUI photo