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Rolling On a River

The riverboat Becky Thatcher as seen from the deck of its companion boat Tom Sawyer during a guided tour along the Mississippi River.

A visit to St. Louis is not complete without a riverboat ride on the Mississippi. So on a bright, steamy Sunday afternoon, hundreds of convention delegates and their families made their way to the piers down the hill from the Gateway Arch. From there, two rear-equipped, paddle-wheel boats befittingly named for Mark Twain characters Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher took passengers on a lazy, hour-long trip up and down the river, with a tour guide pointing out attractions and recounting some of the area’s past.

The early history of the river is French, Spanish and decidedly Catholic, including 16th-century conquistador Hernando de Soto, the first European to sail the southern portion of the Mississippi, and continuing nearly a century later with French Jesuit Jacques Marquette, who explored the northern and central portions, passing what is now St. Louis. The foundation of the city occurred in the 18th century, when Pierre Laclede, with a grant from the French crown, chose to found a fur trading post on a high point along the river in 1764, naming it for 13th-century King Louis IX. The site traded hands from French to Spanish and back to French before being bought by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

Signs of the river’s past and present were evident during the tour, which passed under a rusted 19th-century railroad bridge and the ultramodern Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, opened in 2014 and named for the late St. Louis Cardinals baseball player and Hall of Famer.

Sturdy tugboats pushing large barges carrying tons of cargo plied the waters, indicating the river’s continuing commercial value that is often hidden in a world of highway and air travel.

On this afternoon, one got a sense of Mississippi lore, as told by Mark Twain or sang of as Old Man River. Yet one also saw the river as a living body of water that rolls on, changing and adapting to change as the years go by.