Record low levels on the Mississippi River have people flocking to the island of Tower Rock in east Perry County, Missouri. Usually inaccessible, people can now walk directly to the island without so much as getting their feet wet.
Realizing that this type of event doesn’t happen often, I decided to drive up and experience the site for myself. I made the drive on Friday October 21’st. Recent social media posts reported the site was very crowded on the weekends, but technically Friday was a weekday so I was not expecting the site to be crowded. I would soon found out I was wrong.
Before going into the details of my visit to Tower Rock I will share some brief historical facts about the site.
“The earliest mention by Europeans of this island is by French missionary Jacques Marquette in 1673:
…we found ourselves at a river called ouaboukigou, The mouth of which is at the 36th degree of latitude. Before reaching it, we passed by a Place that is dreaded by the Savages, because they believe that a manitou is there, — that is to say, a demon, — that devours travelers; and The savages, who wished to divert us from our undertaking, warned us against it. This is the demon: there is a small cove, surrounded by rocks 20 feet high, into which The whole Current of the river rushes; and, being pushed back against the waters following It, and checked by an Island near by, the Current is Compelled to pass through a narrow Channel. This is not done without a violent Struggle between all these waters, which force one another back, or without a great din, which inspires terror in the savages….
Another early mention of the rock was by French-Canadian seminarian priests, Fathers Montigny, Davion, and St. Cosme, who planted a cross on the rock in 1698.
A ridge directly across the river from the island is named Devil’s Backbone.
The earliest European inhabitants on the island were a band of river pirates, who settled here after being driven off Spanish soil west of the Mississippi River, using the location as a pirate ambush spot. This outlaw haven was destroyed in 1803 by the United States Army dragoons, most likely sent from the army post upriver at Fort Kaskaskia.
Meriwether Lewis mentions the island in his journals, stating that rivermen who passed the rock would celebrate in a way similar to sailors crossing the equator, by raising a drink of spirits.
Lutherans from Germany considered this island their Plymouth Rock, because they landed near here after seeking a place where they could practice religious freedom.Although the rock is normally inaccessible by foot, Mike Keeley, then manager of the 32-acre (13 ha) Tower Rock National Historic Site for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said in 2003 that there is usually a time every year when people can walk out to it due to low water conditions. Due to severe drought in October 2022, it was reported that “you can walk over to Tower Rock and not get your feet wet or muddy”
Turning from highway A on to Perry County road 460, I soon realized that despite the fact that it was a weekday, the site was obviously going to be crowded. County road 460 is narrow and the dry conditions made the road extremely dusty. The traffic was heavy and the visibility was low. I did not have to drive far before parked cars soon lined both sides of the road. I found an empty spot, pulled over and parked the car.
I found myself walking in with a column of visitors and we began to make small talk. “I didn’t think it would be this crowded on a weekday”, I said to one visitor to which she replied, “The St. Louis Post-Dispatch just published an article about this place.”
Over all the mood was cheerful and the people were friendly but as I took a look around I thought of the woman’s comment to me and it was evident, most of the visitors that day were from St. Louis. You could tell by the cars they drove, the clothes they wore and by overhearing bits and pieces of their conversations as they walked by. They were urbanites but just as curious as the rest of us about the site and as I previously stated everyone seemed to be friendly and in good spirits.
As a dog lover I was pleased to see many people brought theirs, which led to many conversations with strangers ending by patting their dog on the head and stating, “That’s a pretty pup. Y’all have a nice day.”
As I was walking across the normally submerged limestone path to the island I watched a woman helping her toddler jump over a crack in the limestone in which a trickle of river water ran through. I looked down at him and said , “You just jumped over the Mississippi River” he looked up smiling at his mother suddenly realizing what he technically had just accomplished.
I spent well over an hour talking to visitors, taking pictures and documenting the event before deciding to leave.
As I was leaving I heard, “Yeaaah…Kentucky!” I had forgotten I was wearing my University of Kentucky hat. I turned around noticing two fellow Kentucky fans stating, “I meet Kentucky fans everywhere I go.”
“We’re from Paducah”, one said as we shook hands before moving on (WPSD-TV , Paducah, Kentucky had recently reported on Tower Rock as well).
As I was walking up the path leading up the river bank I saw an elderly lady being helped up it by her daughter. One woman walking toward the island asked if she needed help. The elderly lady replied, “No I just wish everyone would stop asking me that.”
I would soon find out that getting into Tower Rock is much easier than getting out of the area. As I walked the road to get to my car (about 1/4 mile away) more and more people were arriving. I saw one local man engaged in a futile attempt to direct traffic, “Pick a side and park!”, he exclaimed, “I’ve lived near this county road all my life and have never seen anything like this.”
Finally making it back to my car I got lucky and caught a break in the traffic, which enabled me to turn the car around. Perry County road 460 is narrow and with so much traffic it becomes gridlocked. It took about 20 minutes to make the short trek back to Highway A , which has one lane closed due to roadwork. Expect delays there as well.
Despite the crowds and the inconvenience of navigating the narrow road, I have to say it was well worth the trip. It was a beautiful day and it’s not everyday one can walk to Tower Rock and experience this historical event.