Monday, May 10, 2010

Graceland and Back North

Onwards to Graceland! As you already know, this is the 13.8 acre estate that was once home to Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis purchased Graceland in 1957 for approximately $100,000 and moved into home with his father and mother, Vernon and Gladys Presley. His fiance, Priscilla Beaulieu, lived at Graceland for five years before she and Elvis married in 1967. She then continued to live in Graceland five more years until she separated from Elvis in late 1972.

Graceland was Lisa Marie Presley's first official home, and residence after her birth in 1968. When her parents divorced, she primarily lived with her mother in California, but spent time at the estate with her father. Every year at Christmas, Lisa and her family go to Graceland to celebrate the holidays. On August 16, 1977, Elvis died in his bathroom at Graceland allegedly of a heart attack, which was probably instigated by drug use.

Today, the home is a museum, which opened to the public in 1982. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006. Only one other private home in the United States is visited more often - the White House. Graceland receives over 600,000 visitors per year.

The tour includes the main floor and basement of the home, with peeks at the Living Room and adjoining Music Room, Elvis' parents room, dining room, kitchen, and a large den called the Jungle Room. the basement features a media room and bar and billards room. To the rear of the house is a room which contains a large office, a horse stable and pasture, and a raquet ball court which now houses many of Elvis sequined stage costumes and other memorabelia.

To the side of the home are the swimming pool and the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his mother Gladys, his father Vernon and grandmother Minnie Mae Hood Presley lie buried. A separate building across the street houses a car collection and not far away, are his two airplanes.

Beyond Graceland, our plan was to travel east to see more of Tennesse; however, due to the flooding, we were forced to divert westward through Arkansas. Here, we also see some signs of flooding, but not nearly to the degree that Tennessee suffered. Before we know it, we're back in Missouri very briefly, before heading east again through the northwest corner of Tennessee and into Kentucky for a very brief spell.

Our first stop is at the site of old Fort Jefferson, near Wickliffe, Kentucky. Here, once stood a Revolutionary War stronghold at the intersection of confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. It was built in 1780 by George Rogers Clark to protect the area from British led Indian attacks. In 1781, The Chickasaw, led by a Scothman named Colbert, besieged the fort for five days, killing many settlers. When reinforcements arrived with supplies the Indians withdrew, but the fort was afterwards abandoned. Later the site was used by Lewis and Clark on their Corps of Discovery Expedition, and used again during the Civil War for a Union Supply Base. Though there is nothing left of the old fort today, historic markers tell its history, as a huge cross looms over them. The 90 foot Fort Jefferson Memorial Cross, financed by donations from individuals in Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri and many other states serves as a beacon for the hundreds of ships that supply the two rivers.

We then head through the town of Wickliffe and on to Wickliffe Mounds Historic Site, where an ancient city of Native Americans lived in about 1000-1300 A.D. Unfortunately, it is closed on the day we arrive. (Budget cuts, perhaps?)

We're then jogging back across the Mississippi River to the site of old Fort Defiance and the city of Cairo, Illinois -- one of the saddest and most interesting towns I've ever visited. More on that in the next post.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

New Madrid, Missouri and on to Tennessee

Continuing along the Mississippi River, our first stop is New Madrid, Missouri. Founded in 1788 by American frontiersmen and having a long history, the area is best known for being the site of a series of over 1,000 earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, which ranged up to magnitude 8, the most powerful earthquake recorded in the United States and was felt as far away as the East Coast.

The earthquakes began in December, 1811 and continued through February of 1812. The first earthquake caused only slight damage to man-made structures, mainly because the region was so sparsly populated. However, as the earthquakes continued, they began to open deep cracks in the ground, created landslides on the steeper bluffs and hillsides, large areas of land were uplifted, and sizable sink areas were created. The earthquake was so strong, it is said that the Mississippi River ran backwards. The original townsite of New Madrid now lies under the Mississippi River.

The city is also remembered as being the nearby location for the Mississippi River military engagement, the Battle of Island Number Ten, during the Civil War.

The town moved and rebuilt but the Mighty Mississippi steadily encroached upon the town and movement away from the water continued until the early 1890's when the bank was finally stabilized with mats and rock.

Today, this small town of about 3,500 souls is the county seat of New Madrid County. Now, its citizens can only wonder when the great New Madrid Fault will shake their world again. Though earthquakes cannot be predicted, if and when another occurs, it could result in the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States, spreading damage across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.

After touring the New Madrid Historical Museum and the Mississippi River Overlook, we begin to head south to Tennessee. I am very excited as I have not spent time in the "Volunteer State." Our first stop is at a Tennessee Welcome Center, where we get our first indication that this trip just might not be what I had in mind. As we pick up maps and brochures, the points us to a monitor that is showing area flooding and places to avoid. It doesn't look bad in the western part of the state, so we continue with our plans and head on down the highway.

Our first stop is the Fort Pillow State Park located in Lauderdale County on the Chickasaw Bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Alas, all we will see of the park is the overlook over the river, as the historic is closed due to flooding. Not a good sign for the rest of our journey. Fort Pillow was a Confederat fort built in 1861. Due to its strategic location, the fort was attacked and captured by the Union Army in May, 1862. Later, the site became the location for the terrible Fort Pillow Massacre on April 12, 1864. The Confederate victory resulted in the killing of 229 black and white Union soldiers out of 262 engaged in the battle, after they had already surrendered.

We then make our way back to the highway, heading south. It is beginning to rain very hard and the poor town of Millington, which was hit hard during the "1,000 year flood." It is already showing troublesome signs with parking lots filled with water. Before we get to our Memphis, northbound Highway 51 is under water and by the time we reach our hotel, both sides of the highway are closed to flooding. We were lucky to be ahead of the weather, or so we think at the time. Later that night, the tornado sirens are blaring. In the end, we, along with the rest of the Memphis area are safe. However, the weather in Tennessee changes our plans.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Cape Girardeau, the Great River Road, and Beyond

Our trip continues as we venture on to explore Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The city, situated along the Mississippi River, was first established as temporary trading post around 1733. Soon, many fur traders came to the area and the town was officially incorporated in 1808, prior to Missouri statehood. The advent of the steamboat in 1835 led it to become the biggest port on the Mississippi River between Saint Louis and Memphis. The Battle of Cape Girardeau during the Civil War took place here on April 26, 1863 when the Union and Confederate armies collided in a fierce, four-hour artillery barrage in which 23 Union and 30 Confederate soldiers were killed. Today, this historic city features 39 sites that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Of these, eight are historic districts, which include multiple contributing properties.

We start out at Fort D. It was constructed in 1861 by Union troops at the same time as three other Cape Girardeau forts. Construction began on August 6, 1861, under the direction of Lieutenant John W. Powell from Illinois. Reportedly, Fort D housed both 24 and 32-pound cannons, which would easily control any upriver movement on the Mississippi River. In order to keep warm during the winters, soldiers dug artificial caves in the hillside below the fort and stayed in these. In 1936, the site was purchased by the American Legion post, and the earthworks were restored to their original height, with some modifications. A stone building, constructed in the middle of the fort at the site of the original powder-house, was dedicated to the city and today is part of the City of Cape Girardeau Parks & Recreation Department. Fort D did not see action during the Battle of Cape Girardeau and probably never fired its guns in anger, serving mostly as a symbolic deterrent. The earthwork walls remain intact and historical signage throughout the fort's grounds bring its storied past to life.

We then head on down to the Mississippi River and the historic downtown district. Here, we check out the historic Common Pleas Courthouse, Port Cape Girardo, and the many other historic buildings.

We then begin our trek up the Great River Road, with our first stop at the Trail of Tears State Park. Though there is a great overlook of the Mississippi River and the the Bushyhead Memorial, which commemorates all the Cherokee who died on the trail, there is very little history of the Trail of Tears itself. The history is probably featured in the Visitor's Center, which was closed, but there are no interpretive signs in the park which show the trail or describe the harsh conditions that the Cherokee faced during their trek. Thousands lost their lives on the trail, including dozens on or near the park’s grounds. Though probably a campers' and hikers' paradise, the park offered little for a history buff like me.

We head north on the Great River Road until we are forced to detour back west due to road construction. But, that was definitely ok, when we run into another lil' semi-ghost town called Oak Ridge. This tiny village of less than 200 folks has a couple of antique stores and some very interesting historic buildings.

Back on track, I'm thrilled to enter Old Appleton, another semi-ghost town of about 80 souls. Here is the beautifully restored 1879 Old Appleton Bridge, as well as a couple of other historic buildings.

Heading north, we wind up in Illinois at the Kaskaskia Village. Confused as to how we crossed the Mississippi River without knowing it, we soon find out that the boundary between Missouri and Illinois here is not the river, as the "Big Muddy" shifted long ago due to flooding. Later, after doing a bit of research, I find that a curse goes along with old Kaskaskia. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about that on the website.

We then continue on our trek up to the very historic city of Ste. Genevieve, labeled "Missouri's Most Historic Town." This still small village today, Ste. Genevieve was established somewhere between 1722 and 1749. The first permanent European settlement in what now is the state of Missouri, the community was established as a trading outpost and was later settled by lead miners, farmers and fur traders. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the dominant architecture was French Creole with wooden homes built in several styles. Most of these homes feature galeries, or porches, surrounding the homes. Most of the earlier French structures are gone, but Ste. Genevieve holds the distinction of the having the largest concentration of French Colonial buildings in the country. Three of these buildings - the Amoureux, the Bolduc, and the Guibourd-Valle houses - are open to the public.

From here, we head westward to the Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Park Hills, Missouri. Momentarily, I feel as if I'm in Colorado, surrounded by mining equipment and ore tailings. Located in an area known as the Old Lead Belt, this region was the nation's major source of lead for more than 60 years. Serious small-scale mining for lead began in Southeast Missouri about 1720. A large demand for lead in the late 19th century brought major corporate enterprises to the Old Lead Belt, leaving behind more than 1,000 miles of abandoned multilevel mine tunnels and 300 miles of underground railroad tracks.

In 1975, the St. Joseph Lead Co. donated the 25 buildings of their largest mine-mill complex and the surrounding land to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. These properties became Missouri Mines State Historic Site and St. Joe State Park. The 19,000 square-foot mine-mill powerhouse has been developed into a large museum that interprets Missouri's mining history and displays old mining machinery and an outstanding mineral collection.

One last stop at Fort Davidson in Pilot Knob, Missouri. Here, was one of the largest and most hard-fought battles in Missouri -- the Battle of Pilot Knob. It occurred when Confederate Major General Sterling Price invaded Missouri from Arkansas, leading an army of 12,000 men. On September 26-27, 1864, while en route to the St. Louis area, Price attacked the weakly defended Union post. Though greatly outnumbered, the 1,450 Union soldiers at Fort Davidson defended the fort, killing some 1,000 Confederates. Today, a visitor center interprets the battle and the earthworks of the old fort can still be seen.

We then circle back to Cape Girardeau for a good night's sleep and continue on tomorrow.

Exploring Our New Home State and a Little More

Mostly settled in for the long term at the "Fort Alexander" compound in Warsaw, Missouri, it is definitely time to explore more of our new home state, with a few short trips into adjoining states. We head south on Highway 65 before scooting southeast toward a little town called Windyville. I had written about this small ghost town several years ago, as well as its many alleged ghosts. Alas, I had to take the story down as my article spawned too many crazy "ghost-hunters," who created vandalism and late night drunken runs through the small community. After having received a petition from every resident in this small burg, I gladly removed it from the website. However, I'll probably put it back up again, this time sans ghosts. A cool little stop and I'm glad to report that the Windyville Store is open once again.

We then venture down to another almost ghost town - Long Lane, which features the smallest ever bank in Missouri. Opened in 1910, it survived the Great Depression and a robbery in the 1930's, but was finally merged with the Bank of Buffalo in 1938. However, the tiny little building still stands. From there, we venture to Mansfield, Missouri and make a stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder home. The author of the Little House on the Prairie series, she wrote her books here and lived in this home until her death at the age of 90 in 1957.

Next stop -- Big Spring State Park. Tucked in the side of Conococheague Mountain, Big Spring State Park features Big Spring, whose waters form the scenic Shermans Creek. The first white man to report the spring was Pocahontas Randolph, who followed Indian reports of "a spring that roars" in 1803. Because of the rugged terrain, the site remained obscure until purchased by Henry Sawyer in 1913. Roads were not built until the spring became one of the first Missouri State Parks in 1925.

This is the largest spring in the state, and one of the largest in the world. On an average day, some 278 million gallons of water gush forth from subterranean passages, swelling the nearby Current River. Like all Ozark springs, Big Spring is busy dissolving away the walls of its underground passages. One researcher estimated that about 175 tons of calcium carbonate rock are carried away by Big Spring's water every day. Over the course of a year, this is enough rock to produce a cavern 30 feet high by 50 feet wide and one mile in length. The park is located near Van Buren, Missouri.

Heading eastward, I can't resist a detour to a town called Mill Spring, just two miles off the highway. Sure I'll find a mill or a spring, I find neither, but do discover another interesting little almost ghost town. This little place sports only a convenience store and an open post office with no other open businesses; however, it's got a lot of people, all of whom seemed to be outside in their yards or standing in front of the post office visiting. I always wonder what keeps these folks living in these small towns? I also wondered why none of them seemed to have jobs. It was a Wednesday. Hmmm?

We then continue onward to Bollinger Mill and the Bufordville Covered Bridge in tiny little Bufordville. Burfordville Covered Bridge is the oldest remaining covered bridge in Missouri. Joseph Lansmon began its construction in 1858, but it is unclear if the bridge was completed before or after the Civil War. The bridge was not mentioned in St. Louis newspaper accounts of the 1861 burning of Bollinger Mill, located next to the bridge. After the Civil War, the bridge became a vital link, especially to farmers driving wagonloads of grain destined for the mill. The road going through the bridge was part of the toll-road system between Burfordville, Jackson and Cape Girardeau. Today, the Burfordville Covered Bridge is open to pedestrian traffic only. Bollinger Mill also dates back to the Civil War period. Visitors can still observe corn being ground into meal by water power at the massive four-story stone and brick building. This was a great stop and you can just bet our photos will wind up on a postcard.

From here, we're on our way to Cape Girardo, where we will explore the town, along with parts of the Great River Road in Missouri and other area interests. Stay tuned.