The Meramec River---Water Highway to the Ozarks

by Jo Schaper


The Meramec River winds along the northern border of the Ozarks, draining 3980 square miles in its 220 mile northeastern journey from its origin. Year round navigability begins at the confluence of Dry Fork and the Maramec Spring branch just south of St. James, and continues until the river enters the Mississippi at Arnold, Missouri.

The river goes through Dent, Phelps, Crawford, Franklin, Jefferson, and St. Louis Counties. Tributaries extend to include Maries, Gasconade, Iron, Washington, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve and Texas Counties, and the river drops 313 feet in elevation in its journey. Important tributaries are Brazil, Crooked, Indian, Huzzah and Courtois Creeks, the Blue Spring Branch near Bourbon, the Little Meramec, Bourbeuse and Big Rivers and numerous smaller creeks and branches.

The river drains the north and eastern slopes of the Ozarks, and is one of the longest free-flowing streams in the state. Long home and hunting ground to Illinois and Osage Indians in prehistory, the basin is blessed with springs, caves, and mineral resources, amongst them lead, zinc, iron, glass sand, construction quality sandstone, limestone and dolomite, the latter two used for chat gravel. Bedrock is most often dolomite and sandstone in along the upper Meramec, and limestone and a different sandstone in the lower reaches. Hilltops typically have thin, woodland soil, whereas the valley soil, often prone to flooding is deep and good for farming.

The Meramec valley was originally a mix of oak-hickory forest, upland and river-valley woodland, savanna, with occasional breaks leading to tallgrass prairie and tallgrass glades. Being neither deep forest nor extensive grassland, animal life was originally plentiful, hence its destination as a hunting ground. The Meramec is also home to a very diverse fish population, and is world famous for its variety of freshwater mussels. The river is incised, resulting in sometimes spectacular bluffs.


Outline of the Meramec River and major tributaries

So what is a "Meramec" anyway? According to H. R. Schoolcraft, in "A View of the Lead Mines of Missouri," (1819), the "Miaramigoua River" was discovered to Europeans by a French priest, Father Gravier, in a journey down the Mississippi in 1699-1700.

The story is that he simply transliterated (put into French spelling) the sounds by which the Natives called the stream. Now, the story begins to twist and turn, (almost as much as the river). Fr. Gravier's journal translates this as "the river of ugly fish." Fair enough, as probably only a mother catfish could describe bullhead, channel or blue catfish slowly lazing along the river bottom, as anything but ugly. (Good eating, though!)

For the first mapmakers, Miaramigoua was a handful to spell. Early hand-drawn maps of eastern Missouri often show this stream labeled as "Maramig" or "Mirameg"or some variation. The niceties of spelling on the frontier were often left to chance, because as long as people knew which squiggle was being indicated, that sufficed.

Many of our Indian place names, written down by the French explorers, were shortly thereafter mangled beyond recognition by English speakers. Miaramigoua was one of those names. People from the US eastern seaboard, already familiar with the Algonquian word "Merrimack" soon corrupted our local name. It was only a short jump from Marameg to Meramec, although, as we all know, locals actually pronounce it as if it were actually spelled Meremac.

To my knowledge, only two places along the river still retain any hint of the original name: Maramec Spring, the headwaters of the river at St. James, and the Miramigoua Park subdivision in Sullivan.


Maramec Spring

Travels upstream first on the Black Fork (Big River) and its Mineral Fork brought early settlers to the lead riches of the Old Mines-Potosi area, and provided an alternative to the overland route from Ste. Genevieve. About 100 years later (circa 1820) Thomas James of Ohio followed reports of rich hematite (iron ore) deposits near a huge spring to found the Maramec Iron Works (1826-1876) in Phelps County.

These industries established deep upstream helped to open up the Meramec valley to settlement along early established trade routes. Although possibly hard to imagine now, the Meramec became an important shipping route for pig iron, timber, and other goods, through the use of flatboats and even shallow draft steamboats in lower reaches.

Because of spring flooding followed by low water levels during late summer and early fall, rail and wagon roads were established early on. The Pacific Railroad ran a southwest branch along the valley from Pacific towards Rolla, reaching Rolla before 1860. The Springfield Wire Road roughly paralleled this line. This corridor followed the Meramec valley for most of its length a path later followed by the SLSF Railway (Frisco) and U.S. 66.

Small towns arose because of the river, the rails and the roads, settled by a mix of Germans, Scotch-Irish and English small farmers and businessmen, as well as settlers moved west from Appalachia, Tennessee and Kentucky. The towns tended to be Unionist during the Civil War, with the countryside more sympathetic to the South, in accordance with the settlement patterns. Numerous skirmishes occurred, with only those fought over mills and control of the rail line amounting to anything approaching an organized battle. Several significant altercations occurred near Rolla.

Perhaps one of the strangest encounters in the valley was the battle of Leasburg in late 1864. General Thomas Ewing and northern forces had been routed from the garrison at Pilot Knob by General Sterling Price. After demolishing the fort, Ewing and his men moved northward under the cover of darkness, hoping to reach the rail line at Leasburg to retreat to St. Louis. They did so, with Price in hot pursuit. Price caught up with them at the rail line, and had them surrounded. He demanded Ewing's surrender, which was not given, and for reasons still unclear, Price then retreated to the south without captives. Ewing and his men had a change of plans as well–they ended up taking the train to Rolla, as the rail line into St. Louis had been cut in the meantime.

THE NEXT 100 YEARS (1865-1965)

The ruins of the Hamilton Iron Works (1873-1878), Meramec State Park

The mid to late 1800s saw the development of trade from the region. It became apparent that the mineral resources, while sufficient for local use, were not extensive enough to support a growing economy. Small quantities of copper were discovered near Sullivan, but iron smelting, which reached its peak in the years after the War, declined as the Minnesota Iron Range prospered, the Bessemer steel process developed elsewhere, and a financial panic in the 1870s trickled its way to the region. The only exception is a magnetite deposit at Pea Ridge which manufactured iron pellets until 2002, when shut down due to declining iron prices, not to lack of supply. Several other magnetic anomalies exist at great depth in the region, and which may be commercially minable in the future.

Cheap transportation continued to be a problem. The region divided roughly at Sullivan, with the region to the northeast becoming increasingly St. Louis-centric, while from Sullivan southwest looked to Rolla for markets. The lower Meramec developed an extensive truck garden and farmer's market trade with St. Louis merchants. Strawberries and fruit trees which prospered on poorer soil became the rage. Riverbottom farmers planted wheat and corn, and more recently, soybeans. The glass sand industry grew in Pacific, as did general sand and gravel extraction for projects in St. Louis, shipped to rail points by barge, and then hopper car to places beyond.

As mining declined, timbering and tie-hacking became important cash sources. From Stanton southward clearing the steep hillsides of lumber, skidding trees to the river with mules and floating logs in tie-rafts downstream was common. Charcoaling the remnants turned a profit from the lumbering leavings. Small town economies thrived, bringing churches, clapboard houses, and civilization as increased local wealth permitted.

Once graveled all weather roads reached into the region, visitors arrived from St. Louis. Some built summerhouses near to St. Louis in Valley Park, Times Beach, Eureka and Pacific. Others took advantage of the (mostly passable) railroads and roads to explore the interior. Bicyclists rode from St. Louis on expeditions. Riverside hotels, and even a primitive form of bed and breakfast sprang up by the early 1900s to cater to these guests.

The arrival of the automobile and the "motorist" was crucial in the establishment of the Meramec valley as a recreation destination putting most of the area within a day or two day excursion of St. Louis. Although early tourists could leave the 1904 World's Fair for a two day excursion via rail and wagon to Onondaga Cave, it wasn't until the coming of U.S. 66--the "Mother Road"-- that made such attractions such as Meramec Caverns, and Meramec State Park possible. Secondary Missouri roads received pavement about the same time, providing accessibility to riverside picnicking, stilted riverside cabins and other fishing and hunting escapes from the hot, sultry city.

Two world wars called many young men beyond the region, never to return, either through death or because they had "seen the elephant", and an 80 acre hardscrabble plot and a team seemed less lucrative than a factory job in St. Louis or its suburbs. By the 1950s, many of the small towns were in decline, and tourism was gaining on agriculture as the driving economic force.


The story of the Meramec valley has always been a tussle between man, the river, and movement. As U.S. 66 and its storied, but leisurely way of travel along snaky roads and uniquely appointed restaurants, accommodation and attractions gave way to I-44, franchised fast food, and an ever increased pace of life, a group of businessmen and government planners came up with a scheme to capitalize on the Meramec valley. As St. Louis suburbia expanded into the river valley, flood control along the Meramec and its tributaries became an important issue.

Beginning with a disastrous flood in 1915, plans for dams along the Meramec surfaced periodically, but work on a flood control reservoir system began in earnest in the 1960s. The plan went through several incarnations as to where to place such dams, and for what purpose.

They were sold as a win-win solution to flood control and economic development in the watershed--by permanently inundating a portion of the upper valley, the dams would protect the lower valley from spring floods. Concurrently, the reservoir would furnish flat-water recreation within an hour or two of St. Louis, and bring prosperity to towns beginning to fade away. Land purchase and dam construction began on the "Meramec Park Lake" at Sullivan in the late 1960s.

This notion ran bang smack into the environmental movement of the early 1970s, coupled with skeptical residents, some of whom had land taken under condemnation for the project, and who believed the only people benefitting from the project would be the "city people." For nearly ten years, from 1968 to 1978, scarcely a week went by in the St. Louis metropolitan region (which now extended quite a ways up the valley, thanks to easy commuting along I-44) when this topic was not the subject of the press.

Trapped in a bitter fight between pro and anti-dam constituents, both sides agreed to a non-binding referendum on the issue in the 12 county area most affected by the project, to be held in August, 1978. When the issue was defeated, a combination of projected cost-overruns and the lack of political will to continue pushing Congressional funding resulted in the dam project being deauthorized in 1981.

With the dam idea dead in the water, several schemes for "greenways" along the Meramec from Sullivan to St. Louis were hatched. None were ever wholly realized, though more sections of the river were preserved from development by conversion to parkland and the use of conservation easements. The canoe rental business, always part of the river, took flight, until now it is a rare summer Saturday when the upper to middle sections of the Meramec isn't clogged with canoes, mostly day-trippers or overnight campers from St. Louis.

In lieu of the dams, zoning and land use changes have been put in place along the lower Meramec to minimize the dangers of flooding to human structures. Where once there were farmer's fields and poorly kept cabins, are now city parks, golf courses, or other flood-friendly uses, as well as levees in commercial areas. Even where existing structures still stand, zoning now requires mitigation to account for the river. The Meramec is considered a recreational river all the way to its mouth, as evidenced by places such as George Winter Park--a former sand and gravel mining operation turned speedboat paradise, and numerous Missouri Dept. of Conservation managed fishing accesses like those at The Palisades near Pacific. Municipalities along the river must meet higher sewage standards than those on an industrial river, and though it is unlikely the lower Meramec will ever return to its pristine beauty, we can still preserve restore and cherish what we have.


Although not growing as fast as some parts of the St. Louis region, the Meramec valley, especially those portions in Jefferson and Franklin Counties, continues to add residents. It is our sincere hope, as we become more urbanized, that the river always retains an important place in our planning, our heritage and our hearts.

(Portions of this first published in the Meramec Valley Current, 2003)

2003 Blue Pentacle Press--a division of Geo Communications Services. Furnished for educational purposes only. For reprinting, please contact Jo Schaper at the link below.

Back to the Missouri World Home Page.