Out of America: Pioneering town steeped in history and Ol' Man River

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HERCULANEUM - No one calls this place by its proper name any more. Old Moses Austin, who founded the settlement on the banks of the Mississippi in 1808 as a place to smelt and ship lead from local mines, might have imagined similarities with the Roman town wiped out with Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius one summer's day in AD79. Official stationery may proclaim 'City of Herculaneum', but for the 2,293 who live here, in a fold in the limestone bluffs overlooking the river south of St Louis, it's 'Herky'.

Dozens of little towns like Herculaneum strung out along the middle reaches of the river date from the pioneering times when the Mississippi and Missouri opened a continent. Only vestiges are left, but history drips from their every pore. Herky was the site of the first freemasons' lodge west of the Mississippi. Once it was celebrated throughout the US for its musket shot. With its perpendicular cliffs, the site was ideal. You made shot with a shot-tower. Molten lead was poured through a perforated container at the top of the cliff into a pool at its base. When the driblets of lead reached the bottom, they had cooled into perfect pellets. But in 1816 lead prices collapsed, the plant closed and Austin went bankrupt.

Herky died. But by 1892 a new factory was opened, with a railway line linking it to the mines. A city was reborn. Even today a lead refinery, Doe Run, is Herky's main employer. But before the Mississippi started to wreak its mischief this spring, economic recession was causing problems. After a wage dispute, Doe Run sacked most of its workers last year and replaced them with cheaper contract labour. Forlorn groups still picket the gates, in vain. But if the strikers couldn't close the plant, Mother Nature has. Now Herculaneans (or should they be Herculeans, Herkeans or Herkies?) must cope with the worst flooding of the century.

Along the Mississippi, the living isn't easy, and the fish are jumping in strange places. Such as in the pond, green with algae, which was once the lower part of Joachim (pronounced 'Swashin') Avenue, Herky's main thoroughfare. The Joachim Creek, which runs through the town, burst its banks when the bloated Mississippi oozed into every cranny. Herky was split into two, while Route 61, the main road along the Missouri side of the river, was cut in a dozen places. Two-mile commutes became 15-mile odysseys. There is an infestation of snakes and a threatened plague of mosquitoes.

At the Doe Run plant the flood's effects are most visible. A brown sea has submerged the railway lines and pale green tanks of sulphuric acid, used in the smelting process, stand in five feet of water. Rituals of small-town America have vanished too. The local Little League baseball season has been washed away, along with Herky's trailer park and laundromat. Worst of all, locals feel neglected amid the more telegenic dramas up and down the river.

'We've been forgotten in all of this,' said Theresa Alexander, who works the odd afternoon in the police office in Herky's City Hall, down a gravel road from the lead plant. 'We're too small, not populated and well-known like St Louis.' Compared with the spectacular pictures of farmlands turned into inland ocean, tracts of swamped suburbs and shattered levees from Des Moines to South St Louis, and damage totalling perhaps dollars 10bn, Herky's plight is peanuts: fewer than a dozen houses under water, no one injured. But for a small town, the flood was the last thing it needed.

On Monday afternoon the Mississippi crested at Herculaneum, some 45 feet above its normal level. Where Ferry Road disappears into the brown primeval expanses, the water level has fallen back a few inches, removing lingering fears that the river might do to Herky what volcanic ash did to its ancient namesake. 'But,'warns Ms Alexander, who lived through the last inundation in 1973, 'the clean-up is going to be awful; I've seen whole front porches floating in the water.' Even when the porches are rebuilt, Ol' Man River will keep rolling along until the next time.