Over the years as I have traveled to many states and driven thousands of miles, I have visited so many interesting sites that I have even seen fit to pay a second and even a third visit to some of them – places such as the battlefields of Shiloh and Spotsylvania Courthouse.
In the last several travel articles I have been recounting a trip I took this past August to southern Tennessee and southeastern Missouri. As I began heading back toward South Carolina I decided to revisit a few places that I first visited 12 years earlier, on a trip I took in 1997.
One of those places was the small town of Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro), Illinois, which is located at the southernmost tip of the long state of Illinois.
As is the case in so many small towns, the speed limit changes from 55 mph down to as slow as 25 over a rather short distance. Cairo is no different. While driving through the main section of town, out of the corner of my eye I saw a police car make a quick U-turn, lights flashing.
“Oh, no,” I thought, as I experienced that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then, to my relief, the policeman drove past me and pulled over the only other vehicle on the road that early in the morning, a small pick-up truck.
Relief, relief, relief. I continued on my way a mile or two to a spot I had visited 12 years earlier – Fort Defiance Park. It is at this spot where two great rivers of American history, the Mississippi and the Ohio, join forces.
During the War Between the States, this point of land served as a Union supply base. Ulysses S. Grant served here during the early months of the war. Fort Defiance was used during the war as a stop for Union regiments en route to battlefields farther south and for Confederate prisoners bound for confinement in the North.
I pulled into the park and drove to the end of the empty parking lot. Except for a lone jogger, the park was deserted. Most of the vast parking lot was in disrepair and weeds had already gained a foothold among the asphalt. No water flowed from the water fountain from which I tried to get a drink. Fortunately, I had some water with me.
I walked a few dozen yards to the actual point of land where the rivers meet. As I stooped down to gather a vial of water, my feet sank a few inches into the soft river mud. I filled my vial and backed away to firmer ground.
Looking to my left I could see Kentucky. To my right, Missouri. U.S. 60 crossed both rivers on two separate bridges, thus joining the three states. There are not many spots where you can access where three states meet, and only one, the Four Corners area in the Southwest, where you can see four states joining together.
River traffic was not heavy that morning, although several barges were moored on the Illinois side of the Ohio. I walked around for a few more minutes to take some photos and then got back into the car and drove across the bridge into Missouri.
I stopped as soon as I could find a convenient and safe spot to do so and then made a U-turn to head back across. I wanted to see how quickly I could be in three states – Missouri, Illinois and then Kentucky. I started counting time when I reached the bridge. I crossed back over the Mississippi River into Illinois, passed the park on the right, then turned right and drove over the other bridge across the Ohio River and into Kentucky. It took three minutes to be in three states.
Just a couple of miles into Kentucky I passed by another place of interest that I had visited 12 years earlier – Wickliffe Mounds, which is one of many Indian mound complexes scattered across the mid-eastern and southern United States.
The one thing that stands out to me about my earlier visit was touring an enclosed excavated mound, plastic skeletons lying around in the same spots where real ones had been excavated. I also remember being told that, at one time, the real skeletons had been on display but had been replaced by the plastic ones in deference to Indian sensibilities.
Another nearby place of interest that I visited on my 1997 trip that I did not visit on this most recent trip is the Columbus-Belmont State Park, the site of the first battle of the western theater of operations of the War Between the States.
The bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River were occupied by Confederate forces under the command of General Leonidas Polk. Polk fortified the area to such an extent that he dubbed it the “Gibraltar of the West.” With its earthworks and 140 siege guns, including the 15,000-pound “Lady Polk” gun, it was deemed unassailable by many.
In addition, he had a massive chain stretched across the 2000-foot Mississippi from the Belmont, Missouri side to the Columbus, Kentucky side. It was an anchored on the Columbus side by an equally massive anchor, which is on display at the park.
A relatively small battle, the Battle of Belmont, was fought here and across the river on the Missouri side on November 7, 1861. It was Grant’s first battle of the war. Basically, a small force of Federals attacked a small force of Confederates in the area and were then beaten back. Each side suffered around 600 casualties apiece.
A few days after the battle a Confederate captain offered to give Polk a demonstration of the firepower of the Lady Polk, which had been named after his wife, Frances. A 128-pound projectile had been inserted a few days prior but had not been fired. When the captain gave the order to fire, the massive gun blew apart, killing 18 men and wounding Polk. The remains of the Lady Polk are also on display.
After passing the Wickliffe Mounds I continued on my to Paducah, where I joined up with I-24 and drove back into Illinois, this time near the town of Metropolis.
Next Installment – Where’s the Phone Booth?