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Kaskaskia Island retains remnants of frontier years

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2010 - Several floods have scarred the Kaskaskia Island, the most recent being the Great Flood of 1993. After that, Illinois prohibited residents from moving back unless more than 51 percent of their home remained standing. And current building codes virtually prohibit new construction.

Kaskaskia Island was created by flooding. Originally not an island at all and on the east bank of the Mississippi River, the town was settled by French fur traders in 1686 just south of Ste. Genevieve. It was an administrative center for the area and became the first capital of Illinois.

After the capital moved to Vandalia in 1820, the town faded to that point that few returned after a destructive flood in 1844. Thirty-seven years later, during another flood, the Mississippi carved out a new channel effectively burying the old town. This makes Kaskaskia the only Illinois township west of the Mississippi. Its location offers pleasant scenery, American history and colorful personality.

At its peak, the island was home to more than 700 residents. Now only nine remain. A bridge at St. Mary, Mo., links Kaskaskia to the mainland.

The island still has items that are important remnants of the area's settlement: The Church of the Immaculate Conception and the "Liberty Bell of the West."

The Kaskaskia Bell is older than the better-known one in Philadelphia. As the center of French colonial activity in the area during the 18th century, Kaskaskia was sent the 650-pound bell by King Louis XV of France. On the bell is inscribed Pour Leglise des Illinois par les Soins du Roi D'outre L'eau. (For the Church of the Illinois, by gift of the King across the water).

Its claim as a Liberty Bell stems from the capture by George Rogers Clark of Fort Gage, the fortifications the British had built at Kaskaskia when the Redcoats took over the region. When the "Long Knives" liberated the town on July 4, 1778, the bell rang out in celebration.

The state built a separate building to house the bell in 1948 and, for years, visitors could touch the bell and hear its peal. Now it's viewed through a barred doorway.

The Liberty Bell of the West has a crack - as does the one in Philadelphia. This one grew worse when it was tossed about in flood waters in 1973 and again in 1993. Until '93, it was rung every 4th of July, but the crack is now too wide.

The Immaculate Conception Church, which has been restored and is only open for Saturday mass and special holidays, traces many items in it back to mission days. The altar was built around 1736. And legend has it that the altar stone was brought to Kaskaskia by Father Marquette.

Drew Canning, of Webster University, was a Beacon intern this summer.