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Beacon blog: Let's all make a 'Confluence' call

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 12, 2009 - My cell phone is my pal. I use it for the obvious stuff, such as calls for business and routine personal matters. I listen to music on it, check my email on it, check Facebook junk on it and call up maps on it. I take pictures with it, and play the ocarina on it. It is a marvelous instrument, the definition of versatility. What did we do without cell phones?

Last summer, I used it to find a couple of landmarks in Boston, but despite that, I’d never thought of its potential as a sort of babbling Baedekers. That situation changed last week when a group of officials of The Confluence organization scooped me up and ran me down to the Mississippi River to show off their new high-tech, cell-phone driven guide to important regional landmarks.

The Confluence organization takes its name from the confluence of America’s two mightiest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, a wedding of the waters that is consummated just north of the city of St. Louis. The name also speaks to the coming together of organizations dedicated to the preservation, cultivation and celebration of the rich natural environment of the region as well as its built heritage.

The Confluence participates in land acquisition programs, setting aside the land for the public. Its partners are a wide range of not-for-profit human services, conservationist and recreation organizations. It regularly plays the role of environmentalist and historic preservationist police officer and megaphone.

Just last week, for examples, an alarm was sounded and circulated regarding a proposal for a gambling and entertainment complex, consisting of casino, meeting center, restaurants, bars and so forth, and parking for 8,000 cars to accommodate the customers. The property, in Spanish Lake, is in a flood plain, a Confluence member says. The proposal is scheduled to be on the agenda for a public hearing of the St. Louis County Planning Commission on Monday, Aug. 10.

Confluence Partnership director Laura Cohen took the lead on our cell phone/river tour. A total of 27 Confluence Partnership agencies contributed to the project, along with the Mabel Dorn Reeder Foundation, which supported the endeavor with a financial grant.

Why create such a tour? It’s no secret that, while many landmarks and attractions – such as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial with its extraordinary Gateway Arch -- are justifiably famous, other sites get short shrift. While few of them weigh 17,246 pounds, as the Arch does, and although few are visible for miles around, as the Arch is, they are of genuine consequence and of interest to visitors and regional residents alike. The Confluence Cell Phone Audio Tour speaks, literally, to this situation.

Using the cell phone guide is delightfully simple. Go to www.confluencegreenway.org and download the audio tour and brochure. Numbers designates the sites themselves; there are three dozen located both in Missouri and Illinois.

After you have the brochure, call 1-877-767-0603, and after the introduction, punch in a number followed by the pound sign, and you’ll get a brief but well-researched audio description of the site you’ve chosen.

Let’s try this at the northernmost site, No. 36, Pere Marquette State Park, morth of Grafton, Ill. Longtime St. Louis broadcaster Donn Johnson (who recently retired from his communications director job at the Missouri History Museum) tells of the rich civilization Jacques Marquette and his companions found at the confluence of Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, and provides information about contemporary conditions there.

The other speakers on the tour are Ameren ambassador Karen Foss, also a former broadcaster, and Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historic Society. If you haven’t been introduced to the three-island Chouteau Island group, “smack dab in the center of the Mississippi River, just north of downtown," the cell phone is your conveyance. The description lets you know about the abundant and varied ecosystem that exists there, and lets you know that, if you hike the islands, you may see turkeys, coyotes, foxes and eagles. As it turns out, with permits of course, hunting and fishing are permitted on the islands.

In addition to natural resources, the cell phone can help to illuminate your visit to Cahokia, Ill., where you can visit the early 19th century Nicholas Jarrot house, a house rich in Midwestern lore and one that enjoys a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, along with the historic Holy Family Roman Catholic church and the Cahokia Courthouse.

Although a quick trip to the Confluence site via Internet is the easiest, fastest way to gain access to this information, copies of the brochure are available at the Confluence office at 1533 Washington Avenue. And although you can be an armchair tourist and visit the sites via telephone at home, nothing replaces standing in the company of the real thing, as we did the other day. And as we plan to do again soon.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.