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The Origins of the River des Peres

When most of us think of the River des Peres we think of the (mostly) waterless ditch that runs near St. Louis’ limits, just South of I-44 (map).  It runs out to the Mississippi and seldom has much visible water.  Last night it was as full as I’ve seen it save for a few flood events.

Above: the River des Peres at Gravois on 5/19/2009
Above: the River des Peres at Gravois on 5/19/2009

Of course all waterways have both a history and a point of origin and the River des Peres is no exception:

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.

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.  (Source: River des Peres Watershed Coalition)

So our once natural waterway became an engineered & buried system until it reached the open air channel we all know.  Even there the river is still buried beneath the open channel.  But what about the origins?  For that we need to travel to the St. Louis suburb of Overland, MO to a subdivision of mostly ranch homes built around a lake (map).  Seriously.

Above: Lake Sherman in Overland Missouri
Above: Lake Sherman in Overland Missouri

This lake is not a naturally formed lake.  Here, I’ll let the historic marker explain:

Historical marker at Lake Sherwood
Historical marker at Lake Sherwood

It is just over 6.5 miles from this spring fed lake to where the River des Peres opens up near I-44 — in a straight line shot.  As creeks & rivers do the River des Peres took a much longer winding course. It is open in places and covered in others.

All water runs downhill, every bit of land is in a watershed.  How we treat these watersheds are important — especially to those downstream.

Back to the River des Peres Watershed Coalition:

Unfortunately, channelizing and straightening the River channel has had undesirable side effects. The River now travels much faster and the banks are much steeper. What this means is greater erosion of the banks, which threatens trees and structures and increases the sediment in the River. Repairing riverbanks and structures along the River des Peres is challenging and expensive. 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’s a river. This unfavorable attitude toward the River allows some to mistreat it, by dumping or allowing pollutants and debris into the River. There are some very important reasons to take better care of the River des Peres. The open stretches of the River des Peres are still home to wildlife such as fish, turtles, dragonflies, and birds. The microbes in the River perform the valuable task of helping to purify the water. The River also provides aesthetic value in areas like Ruth Park Woods in University City, where it flows in a more natural state. And 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.

The River des Peres is at the same time part of the region’s sewer infrastructure as well as part of our natural landscape.  It connects the City of St. Louis to inner-ring suburbs.

  • Tony Palazzolo

    I’ve heard/read about a plan years ago by the core of engineers to backfill the River to make it a recreational boating/swimming waterway. No doubt it looks best when it has a fair amount of water in it.

  • http://bopparchitecture.com Dustin Bopp

    ^I wish they would. I was just in KC and Brush Creek (formerly known as “Flush Creek”) is now a beautiful (if somewhat underused) amenity. Granted it’s adjacent to the Plaza, one the most successful commercial and residential areas in the midwest. With the trails and parks it connects, I think the RD could be a regional asset if they just maintained the water at a reasonable and constant level. I know millions (billions?) of upgrades have been done in the last decade or so and I don’t know if they preclude such an idea but I’d love to hear from someone who knows. I ride my bike on the trail frequently and use the boulevard as a quick way to get to the Webster area from my S. City home.

  • Brittany Barton

    You should check out the documentary, A Sewer Runs Through It: A History of the River Des Peres. The MO Coalition for the Environment hosted its premiered at the Tivoli late last year. Its shocking to see the stark contrast of the historical photos and what the river is today.
    http://hectv.org/epvideos.aspx?action=frompgms&ProgramID=371&EpisodeID=857&VideoGrpID=56&VideoSeqID=745

  • Justin

    I have had the same thoughts comparing this to Brush Creek in KC. I wish there was an active plan to keep a balance of water in the river at all times, using some form or aeration system to control odors. Even if boating was not safe, I would like to see a full river rather than the often dry bottom.

  • Adam

    OVERLAND has historic markers? why can’t STL get some historic markers?

  • http://www.bus-plunge.blogspot.com Bus Plunge

    My brothers and I used to ride our bikes in the river near Murdoch cut off in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

    My Dad and his friend (Bob Wehner) used to brag about belonging to the “River Des Peres Yacht Club.” My younger brother has one of the stickers still.

    It ain’t no Tablerock, but I have a sweet spot in my heart for the River Des Peres.

  • Thor Randelphson

    If someone wants to know what River des Peres could have been (and idealy could become again some day with lots of time and money), think of Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnehaha_Falls

  • Jimmy Z

    The biggest challenge with bringing back River Des Peres to a more natural state is simply location – it’s not downtown or (except for St. Louis Hills) in a wealthy area, so there’s no huge constituency to push the issue, including the development community, who doesn’t see any development opportunities adjacent to it, like they have in KC.

  • http://ecoabsence.blogspot.com Michael Allen

    Adam,

    Walk down Cherokee Street and see some excellent historic markers. The ones east of Jefferson are especially cool, because they are arranged in sequence to form a narrative. Others can be found here and there. We do need more, though.

  • http://www.thedivepoets.com jeff

    I couldn’t find a nice map of the river (historical and current, underground and above) anywhere on the Watershed Coalition website. If someone could direct me to one, that would be great.

  • dennis

    One of my favorite quirks about St. Louis. I participated in an engineering study of the RDP in the early 80s. I had the opportunity to walk the entire length of the “river” from Kingshighway, where it emerges from huge storm outfall pipes, all the way to the Mississippi. I also helped with the MSD crawl crew on the that walked the large drainage pipes below the river from around Lansdowne down to the Alabama St. overpass. Creepy, but quite a remarkable engineering and construction feat.

    As I recollect from the history we were told, the river originated somewhere in Forest Park where several creeks joined to form a large lake and the source of the river. The runoff from the creeks and streams was channeled below ground and the lake was back filled in. The ‘twin tubes’, as they are called, just west of Kingshighway and south of Manchester are about 20 feet tall and wide enough to drive a truck through. They carry the runoff from much of central and north county. The upper part of the river, upstream of I-44, is completely paved both bottom and sides for most of it’s reach. Just north of I-44 it is joined by Deer Creek. There are numerous large creeks and storm lines that empty into the river from 44 to the Mississippi. The only time the river holds water is from back up from the Mississippi and high flow from the tributaries along the way. Normal water level is nil except for what comes from the drain lines the empty in from all over the city and county.

    While better than it was back then, I doubt that the river will ever be much more than what it is, a large drainage ditch. Hopefully the tributaries can be cleaned up and someday the sanitary sewage will be completely isolated from the storm runoff. At least that would relieve it from being the sewer that it is today.

  • http://Www.freewebs.com/ccbaker Chuck

    The watershed coalition’s document just said that the river’s origin is in Overland, not anywhere along highway 44. Perhaps it meets up with other creeks in the park?

  • Tim E

    However, their in lies the potential and why much much more needs to be done in terms of the greenway corridor plans. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on trails (I make use of the River Des Peres Greenway trail from Lawnedowne to Gravios on a regular basis – At that point it is truly a man made drainage ditch built with bricks where a creek once was and completely lacks what a creek is capable of supporting), greenways should be look as an opportunity to expand upon the foot print of green space for urban forests/natural flood plains as well as provide a basis to relocate structures pratically on the edges of these creeks. Structures that are in harms way of urban flash flooding (think University City last year – I have friends you still haven’t moved back into their flooded house) and contain businesses that can easily find usable space, most times within very close proximity to their existing business. Trails will come in due time.

    A good point to start will be MSD. They are about to embark on major capital improvement projects as mandated by EPA and the state. Incorporating a more active role MSD in the greenways, purchasing property to close to existing creeks and promoting projects that actually reduce runoff before they get to the feeder creeks would be a great plus. As noted above, it will be time and money consuming venture but a long term gain with ever increasing quality of life gains and decreasing flash flood risks. Maybe, just maybe, my son will have a chance to take his bike down to the river and go fishing.

  • Jimmy Z

    Apparently plans are in the works to restore parts of the Los Angeles River basin back to a more natural state: http://www.lariverrmp.org/

  • http://www.snorkie.com/2008/9.22-Canoeing_River_des_Peres/ Hogan

    The website listed above is a photo album of my wife and I taking the River Des Peres from Morgan Ford out to the Mississippi and back when it was backed up. I would also like to see some development of this resource.

    Hogan

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  • Earl B

    It’s interesting that people speak of the River des Peres as a single channel, without considering the drainage area that goes so much further than just the lake in Overland. Some of the references speak of the North and South branches, the South Branch being what today is called “Deer Creek”. I’ve often wondered when people started using that name. Point is that any consideration of the RdP has to include both North and South branches, as well as Gravois Creek, to make any sense – they’re all part of what is truly a single system.

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    great water side…

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  • D923

    The lake in Overland is Lake Sherwood, or Sherwood Lake, not Sherman as stated in the article.

  • D923

    The lake in Overland is Lake Sherwood, or Sherwood Lake, not Sherman as stated in the article.

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