Red House site analysis starts with records

Monday, July 29, 2002

James McNerney's company conducts archaeological research all over the Midwest, often for companies preparing for construction or for highway projects. This time the company is looking for signs of the man who started Cape Girardeau more than 200 years ago.

McNerney's Carbondale, Ill.-based company is creating a historical land-use map for the property where Old St. Vincent's Church sits on the riverfront. The land is believed to have been the location of Cape Girardeau founder Don Louis Lorimier's trading post, known at the Red House. The project is part of plans next year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the day Meriwether Lewis and George Clark stopped here on their way up the Mississippi River to begin their famous exploration of the West.

Across the street from the church, a museum designed to look much like the Red House is under construction.

Insurance map

McNerney has used the Cape Girardeau County Archives Center extensively in putting together the map. One source of data was the 1893 Sanborn fire insurance map. Documents itemizing the Lorimier estate will be invaluable if the search for the Red House ever proceeds to an actual archaeological dig. At this point, most of the work is being done on paper.

That is all McNerney has been authorized to do, but he needed to make the map whether he digs or not. "We have to do a history of the property first before we can do any excavating," he said.

He does hope to evaluate some soil at the site once the Nip Kelley Construction Co. begins work on a city project to widen the eastern end of William Street and lay a water line. William Street runs adjacent to the church.

Much of the soil on the church property and east of the church is fill, McNerney says. A soil profile could tell him where the surface of the original ground lies.

"What archaeology is all about is reading the soil," he said.

The landscape looked much different during Lorimier's time, McNerney says, pointing to a flat spot just north and east of the rise the church sits on. "That's not natural," he said.

The original church built in 1838 was destroyed by a tornado in 1850. The current one was erected on the same site in 1853.

Friday, Tony Weatherby of Utility Resources Inc. walked the church grounds with radio detection equipment that enabled him to locate utility lines. McNerney also wanted lines located under the parking lot.

"It's possible Louis' house is under there," McNerney said.

From an 1808 plat, he has determined there was a building at the southeast corner of the church property. Another building once located on the northeast end of the property at the close of the 19th century housed the Cape Stave and Head Co., which made barrels. One-hundred-fifty years before the floodwall was built, the building was connected to a pier where riverboats loaded the barrels.

The idea that the Red House was both Lorimier's residence and trading post is based on little more than local tradition, McNerney says.

"Louis may have had as many as three houses," he said. "Who knows?"

The report on the site, now nearing completion, is being paid for with a $5,000 Federal Transportation Enhancement Program grant. The full dig would cost between $30,000 and $35,000, McNerney has told the Cape Girardeau Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission.

"If they find evidence of the Red House, then we may do a full-blown dig," says Jane Randol Jackson, the commission's chairwoman.

Administered by MoDOT

The money for the archaeological work is part of a $77,000 Federal Transportation Enhancement Program grant administered by the Missouri Department of Transportation. The federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) provides states with funds to be used for projects that are "over and above" the usual highway maintenance and construction.

Ten percent of the federal transportation money each state receives must be used for enhancement projects. These projects must fall within 11 categories. Among those are hiking and biking paths, mitigation of water pollution caused by highway runoff, archaeological planning and research or historic preservation.

The Red House Interpretive Center qualifies under the historic preservation category, according to Scott Meyer, the MoDOT district engineer.

Missouri has about $14 million in enhancement funds available annually through 2003.

The remaining $72,000 of the TEA-21 grant will become available to the commission once the final design is approved by the MoDOT office in Sikeston, Mo.

Across Aquamsi Street at the construction site of the Red House Interpretive Center, volunteers who have been doing weeks of preparatory work have erected the first vertical logs. They were donated from a dismantled 150-year-old cabin.

"Philosophically, it's better to be going up than just sawing," said Steve Strom, who is in charge of the project's construction.

335-6611, extension 182

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