A drought led me to a railroad bridge, which led me to a brick, which led me to an 18th century French fur trader, which led me to the establishment of a major city, which led me back to the railroad bridge. The world is an unlikely place
We’ve had a bit of a drought in the central plains of the United States. River levels have dropped dramatically. This is troubling and problematic in any number of very obvious ways. It does, however, create an opportunity for curious people to explore areas that are usually under several feet of water.
Once you start exploring anything, you never know what you’ll find.
A couple weeks ago my brother Roger Lee and I found ourselves wandering along the river bed near a defunct railroad bridge on the Des Moines River. I explored along the riverbank, where erosion had exposed all manner of odd stuff—included many dozens of old bricks. A lot of those bricks displayed the names of the brick-makers. Among them were several bricks from the Leclede Brick Company of St. Louis, Missouri.
I was curious enough to Google the company. And again, once you start exploring, you never know what you’ll find.
Among the things I found was this: Pierre Laclède was born in 1729 in Bedous, France—a small village in the Pyranees (even today the village’s population is less than a thousand). Laclède must have been an adventurous youth. For reasons we don’t know, he made his way to New Orleans, arriving in 1755. He was 26 years old. Laclède became a fur trader, traveling up the Mississippi River and exploring its tributaries in search of native tribes with whom he could exchange goods for the pelts of beaver, ermine, mink and skunk.
By all accounts, he was a poor businessman, but a very good trader. In 1763, Laclède’s trading company was commissioned to establish a trading post far upriver, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. He led a party of thirty men up the Mississippi until he found a gently sloping site with nearby limestone outcroppings. He hoped the limestone would eventually provide the material for stone buildings. Laclède ambitiously laid out a map consisting of three streets and named the trading post after King Louis IX, the only French king ever to be canonized. Saint Louis.
Laclède’s company established a monopoly on furs trapped by the Osage tribe, who inhabited that part of the Missouri River. The fur trade, of course, eventually died. Happily for Laclède’s ancestors (the children he begat with another man’s wife), around the same time the fur trade ended a new brick manufacturing process was being perfected. That process required a certain type of clay (called ‘fireclay’). The best type of fireclay was found near limestone deposits. The presence of limestone, of course, was one of the factors that determined the location of Laclède’s trading post. Laclède’s children owned much of the property where the best fireclay was to be found.
By the end of the 19th century, the Laclède family abandoned the grave over the first ‘e’ in their name and founded the Laclede Fire Brick Company, which covered more than 120 acres on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri, and made untold millions of bricks, some of which can be found on the dry riverbed beneath a defunct railroad bridge on the Des Moines River.
The world is an unlikely place, and once you start exploring it you never know what you’re going to find.