I am standing on the southern-most point of Illinois looking out over the churning water that marks the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Native Americans, whose villages and mounds dotted the banks of the rivers, came to the point to camp, fish and fight, say the archeologists.
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery camped here for a few days before heading up the Mississippi to St. Louis and the Missouri River and west. One of the men caught a 180-pound catfish here.
Fort Defiance was built at the point during the Civil War. It was a strategic supply and training base for union soldiers and was commanded by Gen. Ulysses Grant.
I think about why I’m here.
We in WATR know the course of our Tuckasegee’s waters – into the Little Tennessee, into the Tennessee, into the Ohio, into the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico. Many of our neighbors forget that our river’s water travels northward before turning south to skirt Ohio and Illinois.
I have decided to visit each of these points of confluence and see what there is to see. It’s as good a reason for travel as any, and I can look for other opportunities for adventure along the way. I don’t think many people do this, however. There are no signs that point to this confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi. But there are signs to Fort Defiance State Park, and those I followed.
I came across an information kiosk, got out and read it and looked down an unmarked road that turned into a grove of trees. Could this be the way? I looked around and saw a human figure watching me from a hundred or so yards away. It made me a little uneasy. Was I not supposed to be here? I drove down the little road anyway, came to a sandy parking lot and saw a two-story observation tower (aha!) and got out to walk.
Now I’m at the point, an arc that when bisected divides the Ohio River shore from the Mississippi shore. Looking up the Ohio, I can see a parked barge and the bridge from Illinois to Kentucky. Up the Mississippi, I see another barge close to the bank and two men working on it. Out in the intersection of the rivers a long coal barge has turned left from the Mississippi and into the Ohio, and then it stops. Has it taken a wrong turn? Or maybe it has run up against a feisty little current of our Tuckasegee water.
Beyond the barge, the Mississippi flows on. At any confluence, streams clash. In this case, even though it seems wider here, the Ohio loses out in name and gives up its water to the Mighty Mississippi.
After an hour or so, I head back to the car and drive back up through the trees. That man is still looking my way! So I drive over there, and see that it’s a statue with binoculars in hand and leaning as if he is gazing downriver. It’s on no pedestal – built on a ground-level pad – and there’s no name carved into the concrete. But I know that face. It’s Grant.
Must have known I was a Lee.
— By Bill Lee
Next: The Tennessee and the Ohio.