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(Foot)Notes on Iowa - Day 10 - Pleasant Hill to Downtown Des Moines

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Continuing the walk across Iowa from the previous day's stopping point at Yellow Banks Park (for more on Yellow Banks Park, see Part 2, Day 1 article or video: ), and continued on the rollercoaster of moderately sized hills headed leading the path toward Des Moines. The shortest day of the 2021 expedition, Part 2, Day 2, promised to put on full-display the rural to urban dynamics typical of Iowa's fastest growing metro area. As I neared the top of each hill, I continued to strain my eyes for the Principal Building, the most prominent structure in what constitutes the skyline of Des Moines. Finally, near a palatial country estate complete with statues, I caught a glimpse of the city in the distance.

My mind wandered as I descended the hill to a picture of a similar country home on the edge of Des Moines enshrined in the 1875 A.T. Andreas "Atlas of Iowa." The Andreas atlas contains a wealth of knowledge related to Iowa's earliest American history, and the illustrating maps and pictures create a snapshot of the state during the earliest years following creation. The State Historical Society of Iowa reprinted the Andreas Atlas in the last twentieth century, and I have now collected two copies in order to keep one in my office and the other at home.

Passing several Iowa Department of Transportation 'Dragoon Trail' signs, I ambled down the final hill and arrived at the final canoe access on the Des Moines River prior to entering the massively industrial southeast quadrant of Des Moines. Thundering traffic roared over the river a few feet away, and a pungent cacophony of smells wafted from the nearby chemical facilities to the northwest. As I prepared to fly capture some images by drone, several pickup trucks with chemical storage containers arrived. They formed a line starting at the canoe access, one by one packing down the riverbank to discharge the contents of the storage containers. Unsure of the contents, and cautiously optimistic the consistent traffic of dumpers signaled a lack of nefarious intention I proceeded on into toward the city.

No sidewalks or pathways greet the weary traveler headed into the southeastern portion of Des Moines, just rumbling trucks making their way to the variety of chemical, ag-science, and other companies currently calling the shores of the Des Moines River home at the edge of the capitol city. Iowans often boast of agricultural prowess, especially in the rural counties, however, big agricultural companies also make up a significant portion of Iowa's economy. Only 4 to 8 percent of Iowa's personal income collected by individuals derives from agriculture, according to the state government. Iowa grows roughly 18% of the corn, soy beans, and pork annually raised in the United States, respectively, as well as about 8% of all eggs, and 4% of grain-fed beef. Agriculture matters in Iowa. Roughly 86,000 farms averaging 355 individual acres cover 85% of Iowa's 36 million acres. Over the past decade, the number of farms in Iowa slowly decreased, by about 3%, while average farm size crept up at the same rate.

Transitioning from a primarily agricultural landscape to the Des Moines industrial sector created quite a contrast in sights and smells. Discharge stacks created a smaller skyline to contrast the distant downtown, while the olfactory obstacles of the walk proved daunting. Kemin, a $1.3 billion company employing almost 3,000 people in the state and represents how agricultural industries extend beyond Iowa's fields. According to the company's website, "Kemin provides shelf-life extension, microbial protection and yield enhancement solutions for a variety of foods. Whether you need to delay lipid oxidation in meat and poultry products of inhibit mold in baked goods, Kemin Food Technologies has the solutions, services and products you need to delay food oxidation, extend shelf life, protect color, enhance yield and control and inhibit mold."

Helena, another looming presence on Vandalia Road in southeastern Des Moines, continues to expand their footprint in the area. In 2019, the company announced a 103,550-square foot formulation and packaging facility to the current Des Moines facility. The chemical manufacturing company formulates over 500 different proprietary products for their Helena Agri-Enterprises branch. Magellan Pipeline, Heska, and Cargill, among others, all have large footprints on the edge of Des Moines. The deconstruction of a large grain-storage area at the Cargill facility proved a significant point of interest while I passed through the area.

Turning from Vandalia Road onto Martin Luther King, Jr. Parkway, I encountered the first significant walking path available since leaving the Lake Red Rock area. The Des Moines Trail System, a well-developed network running throughout much of the city, offers outdoor enthusiasts many opportunities to traverse the city with ease. The East MLK pathway proved well-maintained, if less than ideally shaded as the day's temperature reached nearly 100. The area adjacent to downtown to the southeast hosts a variety of non-residential interests: meat packing plants, more chemical companies, and several other smaller businesses. I trudged away, eventually arriving back at the Des Moines River near the confluence with the Racoon River.

Like the Dragoons in 1835, the confluence caught my attention for a variety of reasons. Not only does the site host Hilde DeBruyne's wonderful 'Birthplace of Des Moines Mural', a rebuilt log cabin at the state of Second Fort Des Moines, a DAR Dragoon Trail Marker, and another plaque commemorating the brief life of the fort.

The Dragoons in 1835 do not represent the earliest people to find significance in the confluence of the Des Moines and Racoon, humans have gathered at the river junction for thousands of years. Archeological work, oral tradition, and other evidence help to illuminate the past of the Des Moines area prior to American colonization.

The fort itself, built in May of 1843 under the supervision of 1835 expedition member Captain James Allen, only served the government until 1846. Controlling the Sauk and Meskwaki, as well as providing an intimidating presence to the slighly more northerly Dakota, served as the primary purpose of the fort. When government moved the Sauk and Meskwaki further west in 1846, the military abandoned the fort before eventually constructing Fort Dodge.

Designated as the seat of Polk County in 1846, the city continued to grow. A massive flood in 1851 checked the city's early expansion, as well as washed away much of the fort left behind by the military. By 1866, the railroad reached Des Moines leading the city into an era of growth and continued significance. The Des Moines Coal Company led the way industrially as mining served as the primary early industry for the area. By 1880, the population of Des Moines eclipsed all other cities in the state.

Following the exhaustion of coal reserves in the surrounding area, Des Moines embarked on a period of beautification anchored by what became the Civic Center Historic District along near the confluence. Ornate buildings sprouted as public improvement projects worked to safeguard the city from the unpredictability of the Des Moines River. Paired with the newfound ability to control water levels presented by the completion of the Saylorville Dam in the late twentieth century, the development of the riverfront allowed the city to continue to develop outward from the confluence of the rivers.

The Great Flood of 1993 reasserted the dominance of the river over man-made fortifications. The clouds poured forth incredible rains throughout June and early July throughout the watershed in 1993, leading to catastrophic consequences. The Racoon River rose as tributaries poured in excess water, eventually leading to the closing of an important levee on the river on July 9. By the early morning of July 11, the Raccoon's waters cascaded over the 25-foot tall levee as the river reached the historic level of 26.75 feet. At 3:02 a.m. on July 11, the rapidly rising flood-waters forced the Des Moines Water Works to shut down operations. At least 250,000 people suffered as running water throughout the city failed for twelve days. Many residents did not regain access to clean drinking water for nearly three weeks. In the aftermath, the city continues to work to mitigate the potential for disaster provided by the geographic location at the confluence.

Sitting on the wall adorned by DeBruyne's "Birthplace of Des Moines" mural, I contemplated the past, present, and future of Des Moines. The close interrelation of the city to the waters of the Des Moines, as well as the staggering representations of the industrial side of Iowa agriculture I witnessed during the day, gave me a lot to consider as the setting sun reflected off the gilded Capitol Dome in the distance. I had walked from the Mississippi River to Des Moines, an interesting start to my journey. The Dragoons sat at the same spot nearly 200 years prior, and I got lost in thought as I considered how astounding my observations would seem to Kearney, Lea, and Allen.


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