Great River City: The Ice Gorge
Decades ago during the very coldest winters, St. Louisans waited anxiously for that special moment when the Mississippi River would disappear. The river didn’t technically go anywhere—it was just hidden beneath a solid surface of ice that could measure up to 3 feet thick. St. Louisans took to the ice in droves, delighting at the peculiar sensation of walking on the water. But although the frozen Mississippi amounted to curious entertainment for some, for others it spelled disaster. ENTERTAINMENT FOR SOME . When the river froze over during the bitterly cold month of December 1855, newspapers nicknamed it the ice gorge. An expansive ice sheet fused St. Louis to the Illinois shore, and just like every other time the river froze, city officials begged St. Louisans to stay off of it. Unsurprisingly, their pleas were ignored: Thrilled St. Louisans came out by the hundreds for ice parades, midriver bonfires, and carriage rides. They set up makeshift businesses on the new frozen real estate, including bowling alleys, skating rinks, pop-up saloons, and gambling houses. Farther from the levee, brewery workers chopped away large chunks of river ice to pack into their beer cellars. The Mississippi still freezes occasionally at St. Louis today, but a century’s worth of river controls have made the river much narrower, deeper, and faster than it was in the late 1800s. Back then the ice was thick enough for St. Louisans to walk across the river in at least eight of the years between 1870 and 1885.