Home‎ > ‎Explorers‎ > ‎

Tower Rock Riverboats


August 14, 1988
Author: Tom Uhlenbrock Of the Post-Dispatch Staff
Estimated printed pages: 3

GRAND TOWER, Ill. - The stately Grand Tower Rock, which gave a name to this tiny river town, has stood for eons in the Mississippi River, instilling fear in pilots and sometimes inspiring them to poetry by its beauty.

The 80-foot-tall block of galleon-shaped limestone, capped by scrub oak and cedar, is stirring renewed interest this summer because, for the first time in recorded history, it is accessible by land.

The drought that has humbled the once mighty Mississippi has sucked dry the strip of water that separated the island from the Missouri side of the river.

As a result, residents of both sides of the river who have heard of the legendary rock are flocking to Wittenburg, Mo. - ''Pop. 3,'' according to the road sign - to climb Grand Tower Rock. The site is 100 miles south of St. Louis.

''That rock was littered with people last weekend,'' said Charles F. Burdick, a lifelong resident of Grand Tower and a veteran of 35 years as a towboat pilot. ''I counted 200 cars down there.

''You can only walk to it now because the water is dead low, historically low. I'm 55 years old, and I've never seen it this low. The river is a little creek now compared to what it normally is.''

As a pilot for an oil company, Burdick is all too familiar with the rock.

''It's really too dangerous to mess around with when the river's up,'' he said. ''It gets to spinning in there - you know what a whirlpool is. It's just the sheer force of the water coming down and hitting that rock and shooting back behind it.

''There have been barges get in there from loose tows. That's happened a number of times over the years.''

Since November, Burdick has been busy chronicling the rich history of Grand Tower Rock for a book. He also has penned poetry in its honor, which he reads to his river mates. ''That's your critics, you know,'' he said.

The explorers Marquette and Joliet were warned by Indians of the ''monster of the Mississippi,'' and they erected a cross on top of Grand Tower Rock to protect them from the demons hiding at its base.

La Salle passed by in 1682, followed more than a decade later by three missionaries on their way to Quebec. ''In the writings of the missionaries, this is one of the most outstanding things they mention in their travelings up and down the river,'' Burdick said.

''Pirates did a lot of ravaging, looting and killing,'' he said. ''Keelboats had to get out and walk because of the rapids, and they'd get attacked.''

In 1839, John Davis and Penelope Pike were married on the rock. The wedding party of 10 was departing when their boat was caught in a whirlpool. Only a slave who clung to the boat survived.

''The rock is not like it was originally,'' Burdick said. ''There were a lot of pinnacles and rock formations sticking up around it.''

Because the formations presented too formidable an obstacle to river traffic, many of the pinnacles were blasted away in a quarrying operation in the mid-1800s. In fact, the company had its eye on Grand Tower Rock itself until stopped by local outcry.

And that's where Grand Tower Rock's most famous - and inaccurate - legend got its start.

According to several written histories, President Ulysses S. Grant himself stepped in to save Grand Tower Rock in 1871. ''President Grant made the quarter-acre Grand Tower Rock into a national park. It is the smallest national park in the world,'' says a 1965 document written by the Grand Tower Development Committee in cooperation with Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Not so, says Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian for the National Park Service in Washington. ''Grant had the distinction of signing the first national park legislation,'' Bearss said. ''But it was to create Yellowstone National Park in March of 1872.''

Bearss said that an act of Congress is required to designate a national park and that none was ever passed for Grand Tower Rock. Thus, the name is not listed among the nation's parks.

Burdick conceded that local pride might have obscured the facts.

''Grant had gone up and down the river here during the Civil War, and he was familiar with the rock,'' Burdick said. ''When they called his attention to the fact that they intended to blast it away, he issued a presidential decree to save it for public use.

''It's a little exaggeration to say it's the smallest national park. Still, there's a lot of history and sentiment to that rock.''

Copyright (c) 1988 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Record Number: 8803040586