In 1904, St. Louis bested Chicago to host the World’s Fair. For the location of the Fair, St. Louis civic and political leaders chose Forest Park–a quarter-century old park on the city’s western edge that was always destined to be the city’s chief park.

Of course, the city could not stand for a smelly bog of a river greeting hundreds of thousands of international guests in Forest Park, through which River des Peres winded. A quickfire plan was drafted that covered the river beneath a wooden lid. It was the only cost effective way to disperse the odor and unsightliness of the River des Peres. After the Fair, in 1910, then Mayor Fredrick Kreissman proposed a $4 million project to permanently reroute a section of the river underground. It was denounced as preposterously expensive.

In 1915, everything changed. Read below, again from Michael Allen’s succinct and informative essay on the River:

In August 1915, the river dramatically asserted itself after a chance tropical gulf storm hit the city, overflowing the river’s banks throughout St. Louis. The impact was felt widely, as 400 local and 15 long distance telephone lines went dead, three Forest Park bridges were swept away, houses in suburban Maplewood were flooded to the second floor, and sewers backed up everywhere. Eleven people died, about 1,025 homes were destroyed, and the city experienced an additional $1 million worth of property damage (MSD 4). Kreismann’s plan would have prevented much of this damage, as his successor realized: “Mayor Henry Kiel stated that the only way to prevent similar disasters was to expend about $10 million to implement the plans which had been drafted in 1910” (MSD 4). Of course, no plan other than completely filling in the river’s channel would offer complete security against large-scale floods. Even after engineers completed their work on the river, it twice overflowed its banks.

The city now had to act. It didn’t take voters much convincing this time around. A proposal by W.W. Horner, chief of the Board of Public Service, called for completely realigning the 18 miles of the River des Peres channel. Most of the channel would be covered, away from public view forever. The $11 million project was approved by voters in 1923. At that time, Horner divided the river into 10 sections, labeled A through J, roughly running north from closer to the headwaters to south near the mouth of the river. The “J” section was completed in 1933. The massive civil engineering project drained and diverted the entire river, including the section through Forest Park [Allen]. The project morphed gentle S-curves of the natural river into straight, riverine highways that carried the water much more quickly to the mouth. It would not make sense to have a drainage ditch that was so windy and indirect. The misfit stream was now deformed and mangled, fitting of its now-ironic ecological designation.

An unidentified scene during the 1915 Flood. Here, the River des Peres has topped its banks and has flooded surrounding vegetation.

An unidentified scene during the 1915 Flood. Here, the River des Peres has topped its banks and has flooded surrounding vegetation.

Another Flood of 1915 scene. Here, volunteers attempt to rescue a bridge from the engorged River des Peres at Broadway, just blocks from the confluence with the Mississippi.

Another Flood of 1915 scene. Here, volunteers attempt to rescue a bridge from the engorged River des Peres at Broadway, just blocks from the confluence with the Mississippi.

River des Peres was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1988.

The mood was just as celebratory after the completion of Horner’s ambitious task in the early 1930s. The subjugation of River des Peres garnered national attention. City Beautiful Magazine ran an article entitled “St. Louis Puts the River des Peres in its Place” in 1929 [Allen]. The channelized river was now a storm drain. Pipes separated storm runoff from sewage–except during large storm events, when the pipes overflowed into the oversized drainage ditch. On the surface, the problem of sewage containment in St. Louis seemed solved.

But the River rather quickly developed a rightful reputation as an unwanted neighbor. Its sewage-infested waters and Depression-era concrete and limestone lining concealed the river’s original and true identity. Most St. Louisans would forget that River des Peres was even a real, potentially functioning stream.

In the 1970s, then-Mayor Alphonso Cervantes planned to re-harness the river, flooding it in a three mile portion between Lansdowne and Morganford and opening the river to recreational use, including a marina. Just as in 1910, citizens balked at the price tag–$14 million. Some residents nearby feared noise pollution from boaters. Others worried flooding would be a major concern once more. The proposal was subsequently shelved [Allen].

[Explain Forest Park Forever]

[Explain the beautification study with MSD in 2002]

The River des Peres lives. This artificially reconstructed river running through Forest Park is not the original river, and does not use the waters of the RDP still channelized underground. Nevertheless, planners traced the course of the natural river in their redesign scheme. The manmade river shows, in a cleaner form, what the River des Peres might have once looked like as it rambles lazily through Forest Park.

The River des Peres lives. This artificially reconstructed river running through Forest Park is not the original river, and does not use the waters of the RDP still channelized underground. Nevertheless, planners traced the course of the natural river in their redesign scheme. The manmade river shows, in a cleaner form, what the River des Peres might have once looked like as it rambles lazily through Forest Park.

Another RDP reconstruction. Although not seen in this photograph, one may rent a boat and traverse a large section of the new river.

Another RDP reconstruction. Although not evidenced in this photograph, one may rent a boat and traverse a large section of the new river.

A map of Forest Park. The blue trail on the map is the new River des Peres.

A map of Forest Park. The blue trail on the map is the new River des Peres.

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