Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Boy is Back in Town

Fort des Chartres - Cindy and the gatehouse.
Cindy and I spent the afternoon of Labor Day touring a couple of French-Indian War sites over in southern Illinois. The first was Fort des Chartres, built by the French in 1720 to guard their possessions in North America. It was constructed first of wood, then rebuilt in stone in 1752, making it one of the most formidable colonial fortifications of its day. Fort des Chartres was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, although the French occupied the fort until it was formally taken over by the British army in 1765. Renamed Fort Cavendish it was held by Britain until 1772, when it was abandoned and destroyed. The site is now a venue for re-enactment events.
The above photo shows the reconstructed gatehouse to the fort, located on the north wall. Only this wall and two bastions have been reconstructed, none of which have parapets, although it is possible to enter one of the sentry "pepperpot" turrets via a very narrow handrail-free stair. Cindy thinks the gatehouse may originally have been on the south side of the fort facing the Mississippi - the highway of the day - but was "flipped" to the other side when reconstruction was done for the sake of access to the modern road. I've several photos of the walls and interior buildings which I'll post another time.
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Our other visit that afternoon was to the site of Fort Kaskaskia, some miles south along the river from des Chartres. Only the earthworks from the walls and bastions remain and the site is surrounded by trees, so it's not really possible to picture the place as it once was. The fort was another French construction, built to protect the important settlement of Kaskaskia on the other side of the Kaskasia River, which then ran at the foot of the bluff.
Occupied by the British following the Treaty of Paris, Fort Kaskaskia was held until July 4th 1778 when it was successfully stormed by US troops led by one George Clark. The US army garrisoned the fort and it was a source of twelve recruits for the Lewis and Clark expedition when it stopped here in 1803. Deserted for a while soon thereafter Fort Kaskaskia was reoccupied and garrisoned during the War of 1812, after which it was abandoned for good.
The settlement of Kaskaskia itself, briefly the state capital of Illinois, no longer exists. In the late 1800's a flood surge broke through the narrow strip of land dividing the Mississippi from the Kaskaskia River, overwhelming the latter channel and directly menacing the town. The citizens were determined the bodies of former inhabitants lying in the town graveyards would not be left to the river. In a rather frantic and macabre operation the remains were taken up and re-interred in a new cemetery further up the bluff and the town was then abandoned to the waters. The Mississippi now flows over the site of the town and the old course of the river dried up. A curious souvenir of that long-ago crisis remains in the large loop of Illinois that lies on the Missouri shore.
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Before this we had a nice couple of days in Hannibal, Missouri. The Mark Twain caves and the nearby Cameron caves are well worth a visit. Sam Clements explored the Mark Twain caves as a boy and used them as the model for those Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher were lost in during the school picnic. The town museum has a nice selection of original Norman Rockwell illustrations showing scenes from the books, along with lots of other memorabilia, and Twain's boyhood home is open to the public.
One of the highlights of our stay came at the Planters Barn Theater where actor Richard Garey put on a superb performance as Mark Twain, delivering homilies and anecdotes taken directly from the great man's life and writings. I've always wished I could meet Mark Twain. After that afternoon I can almost believe I have!
I would also recommend Lulubelle's Restaurant-cum-B&B. Based in a former purpose-built brothel (!) it has a very nice selection of delicious food for a reasonable price, and good service.
We stayed at the "Heaven Sent" B&B on Fifth St. It's an interesting Victorian-era house and a relic of the town's "Millionaires' Row," but as a B&B it's not recommended, I'm afraid. Although it has period charm, the bed in our room was too small, there were no tea & coffee facilities in the room itself, instead refreshments were stored in a rather grubby refrigerator down two flights of stairs. The breakfast food was indifferent and the less said about the coffee, the better...
Beware of staying in Hannibal overnight - the main railroad to St. Louis is just the other side of the levee and loops around the south edge of the town. Coal trains rumble through day and night, and they sound their horns at all of the many crossing points, no matter the hour! Those trains can be heard all over town, as I found to my cost on Saturday night and Sunday morning...
But all in all, it was a good weekend, and I found several ideas for a new novel, a little something in the Steampunk line. =)

One great writer meets another... Me with "Mark Twain" (actor Richard Garey).


Bluebear Jeff said...

I suspect that Cindy is correct regarding the original location of the gatehouse.

-- Jeff

Martin said...

Hi A.J.!

I guess that you no longer have to wonder where the music group Earth, Wind, and Fire got their inspiration for the refrain for one of their songs: "The Illinois Central and the Southern Central Freight got to keep on pushing Mamma, 'cause they know they're running late..."

All in all, it sounds like a good time. If you like Mark Twain stuff, the actor Hal Holbrook used to do a theater show called, "An Evening With Mark Twain" that was very good. There might be some copies on Amazon, since PBS used to show it.

I'm looking forward to Saturday the 19th at Koh-koh-mah!

Frankfurter said...

Glad to see that you're really discovering America!
Like many folks, I had relatives with the American force which took Kaskasia ...
May you all laugh together always ... and love longer than you laugh!