Are you standing at the Piasa Creek Riehlife Kiosk, part of the Mississippi River Water Trail? It runs from the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to Louisiana.
My father Erwin A. Thompson, treasure trove of local history, opened his archives for the local history panel at the Piasa Creek kiosk.
Six generations of the Riehl Family have lived atop the bluffs above the Mississippi River since the 1860s. E. A. Riehl, one of the eight foremost horticulturalists in his time founded Evergreen Heights. Change over almost 150 years traces the history of each era.
TO THE READER: A message from Erwin A. Thompson, grandson of E. A. Riehl
There are two types of people who will read this message:
1.The serious historian, interested in the written history and the legends behind the history.
2. The casual observer, interested in an over view of the area and a brief outline of some of the historic events that have occurred in this area during the passing of the centuries.
Congratulations, whichever group you feel that you belong in. I have been both, at different times as I traveled the United States and some of the rest of the world as a sight seer and student of their local history.
For the first group, I would refer them to the Illinois Room of our local Alton Library. There are several books there, with pictures and text concerning the Riehl family and their accomplishments and contributions to society: local, national, and international. I am proud of those accomplishments, and have done everything I know to preserve the record of them.
For the second group:
My Grandfather, Emil A. Riehl, settled here on this property in August of 1863. It has been said, and properly, that he was: “A man of few words.” Idle talk was, to him, like whittling shavings off of a stick just to pass the time. He did not indulge in either one.
On March 20, 1866, he married Mathilda Roesch. The interesting story of a friendship, to romance, to a marriage that lasted until death is chronicled in his day books. They had nine children, all of them making their mark in the history of the neighborhoods that they settled in.
Education was a difficult thing to achieve. Some of the older girls did not get much “book learning,” but one would never know it by talking to them or reading letters that they wrote. They were indeed, to use a modern term, “self educated.” They always used good grammar in their speech, and read what was considered “good literature” of that day. Reading aloud to each other and to me as I grew up in their household was traditional way to spend a Sunday afternoon or an evening. I never heard one of them use a swear word except for a quotation that was really the cornerstone of their philosophy: “Get all of the advice you can, and then do as you damn please!”
You have now met the Riehl family, short version. I grew up in their home, and I believe that I knew them as well as anyone could. I am proud to have known them, and have done my best to preserve their heritage.
WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE
In this beautiful video Erwin A. Thompson reads his poem “Water Under the Bridge” and reflects on the sometimes bittersweet but inevitable passing of time for WTTW Arts Across Illinois.
Inspired by looking down at the water as we walked across the
railroad bridge over Piasa Creek at Lock Haven in my school
When we were young and went to school
(We walked two miles, each way)
We sometimes dallied, goin’ home
At the closing of our day
Stood on the bridge, and looking down
We watched the water, ever flowing.
Far beneath, and murky brown,
We wondered where it might be going?
More than half a century ago,
The world seemed bright and fair
Little could we children know
Where we might go from there!
A lot of water’s flowed since then,
And changes tore our world apart.
The school’s been closed, the bridge is gone.
The past still lingers in my heart!
But there can be no turning backward,
No use to say what “might have been”.
Like the water, ever flowing,
Life goes onward, to the end.
INTRODUCTION TO “OUR HERITAGE,” by Erwin A. Thompson
Journey back in time to 1863 when my great grandfather, E. A. Riehl, settled on the bluffs above the Mississippi River and found a way to work with the hills and ravines to make something practical and beautiful.
I heard someone say of a Kentucky farm that one of the advantages of a hill farm was that you “could farm both sides of it.” Meaning, that due to the hills there was actually more surface in a hill farm of a certain acreage than in a level farm. This was, of course, a joke, for the disadvantages of hill farming are rather easy for nearly anyone to understand.
My great grandfather was long on work and ingenuity, and short on money. The combination of ingenuity and the work were the reasons he was able to raise nine children, and achieve an international reputation as a horticulturist. He had his own steamboat landing, “Riehl’s Landing” and in later years his own railroad station, “Riehl’s Station.”
I came to this place in 1916, when I was nine months old. I recall seeing a good deal of this hill acreage being farmed or pastured under the chestnut trees that bore a crop each fall. The hillside plows mentioned in the poem were real. They were made so that the dirt was always thrown downhill. The cutting part of the plow was hinged, and rotated at the end of each “pass” across the hillside. My grandfather farmed “around the hill” instead of up and down it many years before the modern concept of “terracing.”
I have seen the time when we had three steady hired men with their families working here and living on the place. I have seen the whole neighborhood “turn out” and help with a peony harvest or chestnut harvest.
Changing fortunes, changing times. Changing national and international conditions. Time was that the first of any “truck crop” could be sold for a premium price. Today we eat fresh tomatoes and carrots the year around from the grocery store and accept the luxury as a fact.
Today the fields are mostly grown up in the native trees and brush that inhabited it before it was cleared for farming. It is perhaps fitting; sort of like the Indians’ conception of the “Happy Hunting Ground” that the land be returned to its original condition and use.
We have deer and wild turkeys roaming the trees and brush that has taken over since we do not farm the ground.
by Erwin A. Thompson
Persimmon, sassafras, and ash
Reclaim the land that once was theirs.
“Sub marginal”, the experts say.
Once, hillside plows were used to turn
The fertile ground.
It nurtured, and produced the crops,
Sustained, with money crops, and food
They didn’t have a guarantee of annual wage.
Their maps, drawn out with pointed sticks
In sand, or smoothed out dirt.
The farmers now—
A different breed,
No time to milk a cow!
The streets of older towns,
The Indian trails, and wagon roads,
Grown up with old time mansions
On their winding path.
Us younger fellers ask:
“What makes this street so crooked?”
“Well, you see—Old Ab Prentiss’ barn stood there.
Couldn’t put a street through a man’s barn!”
The wharves where river boats tied up are gone.
The River, still a master highway, carries on.
No more, the steamboat, fired with coal or wood,
The safety valve tied down.
The diesel tug chugs on,
The coal, the wheat, the oil—
The lifeblood of our nation!
THE OLD BLUFFLINE
by Erwin A. Thompson
Dedicated to those people who had the vision and the courage to build a railroad along the foot of a bluff where sometimes the only way to get a roadbed was to blast the solid rock of the river bluffs! Also to all of the trainmen who so faithfully served our community for over seventy years!
Many railroads in our country, take any that you choose,
Jimmie Rodgers made them famous with his “Yeodelin’ Brakeman’s Blues” Then there’s that piece of music that’s “Known quite well by all”,
You could go ‘most anywhere on the Wabash Cannonball!
There’s the “Wreck of 97”, and the “Wreck of Number Nine”,
But let me tell you the story ’bout the old “Bluffline”.
From Alton up to Grafton, along the river’s shore
For needed transportation it did it’s share and more!
A “Y” there at Lock Haven, joined by the Springfield line,
From there on in to Alton they had to watch each other’s time!
Dispatchers give the orders, the brakemen set the brakes;
Engineers and firemen make the runs, and pay for the mistakes!
‘Twas back before my lifetime, in days that are long gone,
That blind curve above Riehl’s station, two locomotives met head on!
The injured to Riehl’s “River house”, on beds and on the floor.
Tore the bedsheets up for bandages, the neighbors brought in more.
In my own lifetime I recall, the thrill it was to me
To ride along the river bank, and see the things we’d see.
Houseboats and river shanties, log rafts a floatin’ down,
We saw another way of life, from home on into town!
Sometimes a mudslide blocked the tracks in a torrential rain
No need to ask in those days: “Daddy, what’s a train?”
Coal and water at Lock Haven, four houses made the town.
Pulled in a burning coal car, and burned those coal chutes down!
Mister Woods was the conductor, in my early life
From Lock Haven unto Alton He found himself a wife!
Gavin at the throttle Made those drivers roll!
And little Willie Sherman sometimes shoveled in the coal.
They tore the tracks up years ago, the engine’s melted down
To Buicks, Fords, and Chevvies, drivin ’round the town
Can’t stop the changes time may bring, no matter how we’d please
With aching heart, my teardrops start. Thanks for the memories!
These kiosks are part of the Mississippi River Water Trail developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with many local communities as well as state and national organizations. It runs from the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to Louisiana. Eventually it will include sites on the Illinois River as well.
Along this water trail for paddlers you’ll find maps, suggested trips, campsites, safety information, river-related stories. These kiosks at the main put-in locations give you a sense of the past and present of each place…such as Piasa Creek.
Mary Seelhorst, an independent exhibit developer and writer working on the project, has become part of our extended family of musicians-historians who care about the legacy of place.
1) West Bottom of Evergreen Heights with corn shocks (with the tree-lined Piasa Creek in the background)
2) Riehl Station with two women
3) The postcard advertisement for Evergreen Heights
4) Two women and a man padding in a skiff in front of Scotch Jimmie’s Island on the Mississippi.