The Mississippi River is the borderline between the states of Illinois and Missouri and has been so since Missouri's origin as the Missouri Territory in 1812. For the most part this remains true for the entire length of the river along the border, but very rarely nature has played a trick on the geographers and moved the river after the lines were drawn on the maps.
Kaskaskia, Illinois, is one of these curious anomalies. In 1884, a great flood created a new river channel, converting what had been land contiguous with the western region of Illinois into an island. In due course, the Mississippi decided that it preferred this new eastern channel and the old western course of the great river dwindled into a small channel, effectively binding Kaskasia to the land of the State of Missouri.
This was an unfortunate fate for Kaskasia, for from 1809 to 1818, this town was the capital of the Illinois Territory and from 1818 to 1820, capital of the newly formed State of Illinois. Defiantly, it maintained its allegiance to Illinois, making it, and the surrounding farmland, a curious little incursion into Missouri.
Today it is practically a ghost town, a handful of houses surrounding a beautiful church. Only the street names, now long straight roads running through the corn and soybean fields, give a clue as to the former importance of this town. Isolation, repeated flood damage, and the relocation of the capital of Illinois, first to Vandalia and then in 1839 to Springfield doomed the town to decline.
According to the 2000 census, there are only nine people living today in Kaskaskia. I saw one, an aged farmer, sitting on his front yard eying me with an steady indifference that seemed to define my impression of this town. There was no tourist industry here, despite the clear historical importance of the town. Instead, the land was ruled by the wide corn fields enclosed by a high levee, growing tall and vibrant on the fertile, flood-enriched, land.
With agriculture as the only viable means of making a living, everything except faith had departed. Somehow, I felt this was enough. Did this town need to be resurrected with tacky souvenir and antique shops and coffee houses catering to the city folk out for a weekend? People much like me, in truth. There are enough of those. Despite its decline – or perhaps because of it – I came away from Kaskaskia with sense of rich, real life.