Going Back On The Water

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At the river’s edge Dave told us that “in mining days the river was always black, except in flood, when it was brown.” Now, high from spring runoff and rains, it looked a healthy greenish brown where it wasn’t just foamy. Here were the first serious rapids; they felt like hitting the bottom in a water-flume ride two or three times in succession and bouncing and rollicking through. They were never scary for more than a second or two.

Later that day we tied up at Kaymoor, then climbed a very steep, slippery slope to find a clearing containing two monumental rows of 120 coke ovens built into the hillside. They were as high as a man and had doors big enough so that the more intrepid among us could climb inside and examine their oft-baked hemispherical inside walls, all brick with a hole at the top. Coal would arrive by larry railcar here, five tons of it to be poured into the opening at the top of an oven. It cooked down to a purified solid over the course of four days. “It was dirty work,” Dave said. “But then, almost all the work around here was dirty and dangerous. That’s one reason they had all those union wars. Mother Jones didn’t like what she saw when she came through here.”

A short way up from the coke ovens we came to the Kaymoor One Tipple, a corrugated steel shed hung twenty feet above the ground and stretching across over five railroad sidings, whose rails still lay in the high, weedy grass. A rusted conveyor rose behind the tipple up the slope toward where Kaymoor’s mines once reached into the hill. Beside the tipple a capacious, roofless, big-windowed enginehouse stood looking like a bombed-out brick cathedral. I smelled a whiff of burning coal and asked Dave about it. “There are people burning coal for heat in houses back in the woods up there,” he said. “It’s about free. You can still scratch it right off the mountain.”

Back down on the river we headed through its narrowest, most turbulent stretch and climactic rapids. We tossed and careered, but nobody ever left a boat; however, after an oarlock had snapped in the rugged water, I was pleased to be the person who grabbed the floating oar a quarter-mile downstream.

On the last, calmer stretch of the water, we rounded a wide bend and came upon a glorious sight: two bridges appeared in the distance, one soaring high above the other. The lower one, which we glided under first, was a lovely wrought-iron truss bridge from 1889. The next one—maybe fifteen times as high—was its 1977 replacement, the longest single-arch steel bridge in the world, almost threadlike in its fineness and balletic in its graceful leap across the very top of the entire gorge.

For a moment as we neared them, the two bridges framed our view down the gorge, and they framed the history of the gorge too. The older span had been built when settlement was first pushing into these steep hillsides, the newer one after almost everyone had moved up and out again. During most of the years between, this verdant terrain was mostly naked of trees and littered with industry. Below the bridges the river flows almost without age; in fact, they say it is old by any standard, one of the oldest rivers on earth, older than most of the mountains around it and older than the last ice age, before which it flowed into the Gulf of Mexico around St. Louis. On this stretch of this river, civilization was like an eddy that comes and goes in a moment, leaving something new but remarkably like what had been there before.

—Frederick Allen TO PLAN A TRIP