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Monday, August 17, 2015

MoDOT investigates history at base of PSB ramps

MoDOT preservation specialists participate in a study of an area in downtown St. Louis

ST. LOUIS --He’s not Indiana Jones, but he’s MoDOT’s closest thing to it.

     Instead of the distinctive fedora and leather jacket, he jauntily sports a bright yellow hard hat and florescent work vest.
     And fortunately, the most dangerous thing around him is the noise from the nearby trains and the occasional passing tractor trailer truck.
     But like the famed fictional archeologist, Michael Meyer found himself intrigued and excited by history at a young age.
     “I have never grown up – this is something I wanted to do as a kid. I have a job that fascinates and intrigues me. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.
     Meyer leads a team of preservation specialists for the department who are currently investigating a portion of cleared land between several elevated railroad tracks and the Poplar Street Bridge.  They are preserving a portion of St. Louis history that may be impacted by next year’s construction to widen the ramp from northbound I-55 to the eastbound bridge.
    “What we do is more than archeology – we are tasked to consider how our projects may impact the history the general public wishes to preserve,” said Meyer.
     That “tasking” is due to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.  The act instructs organizations involved in construction to consider the impact that work may have on historic areas, such as the downtown St. Louis area.
     In many cases, MoDOT’s historic preservation office works with the design team to adjust projects to avoid an impact to a historic site.  In others, such as this one, where it is impossible to move the bridge or the ramps, the office sets out to investigate and document historical areas to ensure the information is preserved for future  generations and for additional study.
     In the specific area where Meyer and his four person team are investigating – a mid-19th century settler’s home constructed over a mid-18th century French settler.
      “We were able to determine through a records search that a French soldier built a home here in about 1765. Then, about the mid-1860s an American settler built a three story home in about the same location.  We wanted to see what we could find of both homes. This was a very significant historical site and potentially a fragile one. Most of the earth over the site was about one to two feet deep. So, there was a distinct possibility that historical features could be damaged by something as simple as a loaded truck driving over the area,” said Meyer.
      Finding the home from the 1860s was easy, Meyer said. They were able to find clear evidence of the 18th century French soldier’s home as well. French construction at the time used a process called “post-in-earth,” where the builder digs and trench and places vertical walls in that trench – somewhat like a log cabin with vertical logs instead of horizontal. The preservation team was able to locate and identify the distinctive footprint of the “post-in-earth” trenches, despite the challenges the terrain and time have taken.
      Meyer reads the patterns and lines of earth in the dig site like most people read a map. He points out features of the two homes based on a different shade or type of earth that has been uncovered. Most of the time, he is excited about the history that those shades or types of earth represent. That is, until he points to several thick, darker lines of earth that cut across the area that he identifies as looter’s trenches. 
     “That was where collectors dug up the area about six or seven years ago looking for bottles to ‘preserve’ them. About the same time, a historical building was demolished in the area and they probably decided to come here and look for bottles.  They may be preserving history, but are disturbing a much more important historical site to find something commonplace. In doing so, they make it harder to interpret what happened in the past,” Meyer said.
     The team has also found some evidence of prehistoric cultures – mostly chert flakes from tools. Meyer believes that the tools may have been discarded as the hunter-gatherers moved from their settlements in the north to a creek entering the Mississippi River in the south.
     This work complements work done before around the area.  Meyer says the team is creating a database of property around the St. Louis area from the French Colonial time.
     “We have contributed to creating a small picture of the colonial era in St. Louis. We’ve looked at houses, outbuildings and other buildings that give us a broader view of life in colonial St. Louis. Different buildings, different status – merchants, solders and the like which give us a better understanding of life as St. Louis was colonized. This is important because we need to understand where we came from,” said Meyer.
     “Historically, people settle and travel around the area for the same reasons then as we do now.  It’s important to study how people dealt with the same problems in the past – infrastructure, bridges, sewer systems. We make a mistake if we don’t take a look at how people in the past solved the same problems we face.”
     In this case, Meyer hopes that the work that he does will be part of a greater study of the area.
     “It’s a challenge to find something new to build on what we’ve learned before – and it’s exhilarating to find something new that challenges what we thought we knew before.”