Metro-East News

Wary Southern Illinoisans brave more rain and watch in awe as waters rise

Southern Illinoisans deal with rising water

A lot of people visited the Welcome Center in Chester, Ill., to watch the river rise on Wednesday, says Jim Beers, who volunteers there.
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A lot of people visited the Welcome Center in Chester, Ill., to watch the river rise on Wednesday, says Jim Beers, who volunteers there.

As Southern Illinoisans and Missourians turned the other cheek for a second slap of rain, dozens of people dropped by the Welcome Center in Chester to see how badly they stung.

The Mississippi River in Chester reached major flood stage at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service, which measured the water at just above the 40-foot threshold at the time.

Despite the rising water, 75 to 100 people visited the Chester Welcome Center, which is perched on the bluff overlooking the river, said Jim and Vicky Beers, who volunteer there.

“Today, all day, most of the business has not been coming inside to talk about Popeye,” Jim Beers said about the town’s cartoon hero. “They are stopping here at the bridge to see the flooding that’s going on.”

Wednesday may have been the last time for some visitors to see the flooding, as the authorities were planning to close the Chester Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River and connects Illinois with Missouri, Beers said.

The only question was when.

It was expected to happen at noon Thursday.

Passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers streamed Wednesday afternoon across the high ground in Illinois before descending into the low farmland near Perryville, Missouri, some of which was already flooded in the distance. Water lapped just a foot or two below the road that was almost certainly going to be soon under water. The National Weather Service expected Wednesday evening that the Mississippi River would crest at 44.7 feet Saturday.

While some Chester Welcome Center visitors showed up to check on the bridge themselves, others called the Welcome Center to find out, Beers said. The next bridge into Missouri was either an hour north, in St. Louis, or an hour south, near Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Phyllis Mueller knew what that drive was like.

She was working in Missouri when the flood of ’93 hit, she said mid-afternoon Wednesday. When water closed the Chester Bridge, she took a ferry across the Mississippi River. The trip was rocky, and she was afraid. Then, the next day, some shrink-wrap from a factory upriver had strangled the boat’s propellers, so she was forced to drive — one hour to the next bridge and another one to her job.

“For an eight-hour day, you had 12,” she said.

Today, Mueller works at the Ruma Mill, a small bar on high ground in Ruma, between Red Bud and Evansville. But her daughter, who lives in Perryville, works at the Menard Correctional Center, which is in Chester.

Her daughter planned to stay the night with Mueller, she said, but during an earlier flooding, her daughter was in the opposite situation. Her job was in Missouri, and she was living in Illinois.

“‘Mom, I’m always on the wrong side of the river,’” Mueller said her daughter told her.

Farther north and a few hours earlier, Gaylynn Kruse, the owner of Red Bud Winery, was serving drinks and lunch to some customers around 1 p.m.

After the winery opened in 1999, Kruse began working there in 2006, and she bought the place in 2014, she said.

After she took over, she expanded the menu beyond local wines, which were often sweet, to appeal to a wider audience and started ordering dry reds and whites from California.

So what was the best wine to pair with the rain Wednesday?

“Anything that Red Bud Winery sells,” she said tongue-in-cheek.

Casey Bischel: 618-239-2655, @CaseyBischel