River Timeline

1700-1767 On the Banks

On October 6, 1700, a group of Kaskaskia Native Americans made camp at the mouth of a river. They named the river La Riviere des Peres, or The River of the Fathers, in honor of the two French priests who joined them.

WatershedFrench settlers and other Native Americans from just across the Mississippi River, where Cahokia, Illinois now sits, joined the camp founders. Soon a village came to life.

For three years the village grew. The settlers built a fort, a chapel, and several five-family lodges.

In 1703, nearby Sioux Native Americans accused the villagers of encroaching onto Sioux land. The village was forced to move down the Mississippi River to what is now known as Kaskaskia, Illinois.

In 1767, three years after the founding of St. Louis, the original River des Peres site was re-settled by French Canadians and Native Americans. The new settlement was named Carondelet and later was incorporated into the City of St. Louis.

Beyond the Banks

Both of the early settlements valued the River des Peres as a worthy place to begin a new life. Early St. Louisans visited the River des Peres settlement for recreation and aesthetic pleasure. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) traded with various Native American tribes along the River des Peres. And, the River des Peres watershed has been home to a United States president, Ulysses S. Grant.

Today the River des Peres is viewed very differently. Many St. Louisans don't know the River des Peres is part of their neighborhood. How did this happen?

1887-1998 Changing its Course

Perhaps the first sewage the River des Peres received was from St. Louis' Central West End chamberpots. In response to the volume of waste, the city wrote an ordinance in 1887 "to prevent discharge of sewerage or offensive matter of any kind into the River des Peres." If the city had funded the ordinance, then a separate sewer system would have been built and the River des Peres' history might have taken a different course. Instead, the government of St. Louis began a trend that has plagued the river for more than a century: St. Louis would support ideas to protect the River des Peres as a sewer more than as a river.Bridge

As St. Louis grew westward, so did the expanses of pavement. With less open ground to soak up the rains, the River swelled with runoff. The River des Peres flooded in 1897, 1905, 1912, and 1913. The flood of 1915 killed 11 people and forced 1025 families from their homes. Flooding - not sewage - prompted St. Louisans to action. Mayor Henry W. Kiel called for a hydrologic study, which was completed by W.W. Horner and presented to the St. Louis Board of Public Service in 1916. St. Louis voters chose to implement Horner's recommendations, which cost $11 million.

The project was called the River des Peres Sewerage and Drainage Works, and it took nine years to complete (from 1924 to 1933). Workers re-graded and paved the River's banks and straightened its bends. Elsewhere the River was directed below ground to join with the sewer. The engineering innovations brought national recognition for Horner (who was also the project engineer). Scientific American and Engineering News-Record featured the marvelous new River des Peres. In 1988, the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the project as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Today the Down(stream) Side

Channelizing and straightening the River channel has had some undesirable side effects. In many locations, the River now travels much faster and the banks are much steeper. River TodayThis leads to greater erosion of the banks, which threatens trees and structures, and increases sediment in the River. These side effects often go unchecked, because repairing riverbanks and structures along the River des Peres is challenging and expensive. As a result, many St. Louis area residents have a very negative perception of the River des Peres, viewing it as nothing more than an open sewer. Some don't even realize that it is a river. This unfavorable attitude toward the River increases the difficulties that face us as we try to repair it, and can lead to further mistreatment of the River by some who dump or allow pollutants and debris to enter the River.

There are many very important reasons to take better care of our River des Peres. The open stretches of the River des Peres are home to wildlife such as fish, turtles, dragonflies, and birds, and the microbes in the River perform the valuable task of helping to purify the water. The River currently provides cultural and aesthetic value in some areas, like Ruth Park Woods in University City, where it flows in a more natural setting. And as the challenges of sanitation are met, the more industrial stretches of the River can provide valuable new amenities to urban landscapes. Moreover, the River des Peres - and all the pollutants and waste it carries - empties into the Mississippi River, which is home to hundreds of species of aquatic life, including the federally endangered pallid sturgeon.