The Benton Hills

Just as I crested the hill near the 82.8 mile marker southbound on I-55 Monday, I grabbed my camera off the center divider to photograph the Benton Hills. I read a novel once that said that just south of Cape Girardeau you go down a hill that marks the end of civilization before entering the Bootheel and The Old South.

The Benton Hills are part of Crowley’s ridge that begins just below Cape Girardeau and extends south to Helena, Arkansas.

Most prominent feature in Mississippi Valley

Although it averages only three to twelve miles across, its height, up to 300 feet above the flat lowland, makes it the most prominent feature of the landscape of the Mississippi Valley from Cape Girardeau to the Gulf of Mexico, per SEMO’s Center for Regional History. Until the ridge was broken at the Thebes Gap, the Mississippi River used to run down the lowlands through Advance and Arkansas, with the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers being as far south as Natchez, MS, instead of Cairo, IL.

The Hills could play a part in The Next Big One, an earthquake like the New Madrid Earthquake that sent the Mississippi running backward and rang church bells in Boston.

25 Replies to “The Benton Hills”

  1. Ken, It is my understanding that the Benton Hills are actually part of the Illinois landscape that were cut off by a catastrophic event on the Mississippi River. If I remember correctly, possibly an ice dam similar to the Palouse area of Washington state. The geologic formation is different than Crowley’s Ridge. I can find my info if you’d like and share a hard copy. Just let me know.

  2. Wow, this is a part of my everyday view and definitely has given me a new way of ‘looking’ at it. Special! Thanks, Ken.

  3. “End of civilization?” Ouch! Glad you’re paraphrasing/quoting there, mister!

    I find Crowley’s Ridge fascinating.

    Being a Dexter gal, one of my fave sights to see is Crowley’s Ridge near Dexter. I love seeing it at the end of a long trip as I go west on Highway 60. I know that at that point I am seeing “home” just ahead.

    1. All I can remember is that one line from an otherwise forgettable novel. The travelers are passing through SE Missouri and they talk about Cape Girardeau being the last vestige of civilization.

      I must have read it between 1965 and 1967, because I remember showing the sentence to Judy Crow, The Missourian’s librarian.

      While I might not entirely agree that civilization stopped at Cape, I WILL agree that the Old South starts there, both in the crops grown and the attitudes exhibited by many of the folks who lived there.

  4. I lived on one of those Benton Hills until I was 10 years old! As far as I was concerned as a child that was where civilization began! Now I live in Poplar Bluff get to see Crowley’s Ridge often.
    I do not now who Crowley was either.

    1. Benton Hills are an extension of a fault line that extends into present day Helena,Arkansas even to this day. If and hwen the NMSZ does rattle so will the Benton hills. I had a brother-in-law that lived there Jerold Seyer and him and his wife Lorey and kids love it there. Crowley was the man that investigated the Crowley’s ridge and established the fact that it is a fault line that is and will be affected via NMSZ!

  5. Wow, you folks amaze me. I put this up last night because I had been out with reader Madeline DeJournette and J.D. Braswell for an enjoyable dinner and didn’t get home until late.

    I was looking for something that wouldn’t take much time to write. It never dawned on me that there would be this much interest in the topic.

    Hint: if J.D. offers you a piece of his homemade blackberry pie, don’t be polite and take a small piece. Mother and I kicked ourselves all the way from Dexter to Cape for being polite.

    Anyway, here are some quick answers that may or not be right.

    1. From Wikipedia: Crowley’s Ridge is named after Benjamin Crowley (1758–1842), the first settler of the Ridge near Paragould, Arkansas. Crowley is buried in the Shiloh Cemetery in Greene County, Arkansas, and a monument marks the spot. The cemetery is part of Crowley’s Ridge State Park; next to Crowley’s grave other early settlers of the ridge are buried in unmarked graves.

    2. I may have made an assumption that Crowley’s Ridge tied into Illinois until the Thebes Gap opened. On the map I was looking at, there appeared to be a commonality.

    From Wikipedia, again: The formation is generally thought to have originally been an island between the Mississippi River and Ohio River that became a long low hilly ridge after the rivers changed course millions of years ago. Recent research, however, questions the fluvial origin. There is evidence that the area’s elevation has increased over the years, suggesting that uplift took place and is still taking place. This alternative explanation posits a link between the ridge and the nearby New Madrid Seismic Zone.

    3. Here’s a link that has lots of good info about New Madrid once having a seashore. It supports the theory that heavy seismic activity cut through the rock between Thebes and Commerce about 10,000 years ago.

    4. Because Crowley’s Ridge was high ground, it was a major transportation route used to get around the swampy area that existed before the Little River Drainage District transformed the landscape.

    5. James Baughn, Missourian blogger, advocates making the Thebes Gap area a state park. In it, he quotes Mark Twain’s description of the Grand Chain, a “chain of sunken rocks admirably arranged to capture and kill steamboats on bad nights.”

    6. I’ve been spelling it Thebe’s Gap. It should be Thebes Gap.

  6. As a Trooper, I spent 28 years working north and south of the hills. The sudden topographical change is obvious. What may not be so obvious to the casual observer is, what you see in the above picture also denotes a sudden change in culture and lifestyle. The heritage of the flatland is cotton and the heritage of the hills is commercial and industrial. The speech dialect is still noticeable. Many times when I had casual conversation with southbound travelers, I would tell them; “When you reach the bottom of this hill, you’ll be in Dixie”.

    1. Van,

      I’m sure those motorists really appreciated you getting lonely enough to single them out for a chat along the side of the highway.

      Did you give them an autograph to take with them on their trip?

  7. I am from Cape. When going to school in Memphis and I was coming home when I headed up the first hill I felt like I was home.
    And I agree with Vanwinkle about being in Dixie ..

  8. Ken, I’m sure that the spelling of Thebes was just a lapse in memory due to living away from the area so long. Thebes is just one of a number of southern Illinois towns that were named after places in Egypt, including Karnak, and Cairo.

    According to the Egyptian Area Agency on Aging, “Sometime in the 1830s, Southern Illinois became known as Egypt or Little Egypt. The most likely reason this region is known as Little Egypt is because settlers from northern Illinois came south to buy grain during years when they had poor harvests in the 1830s just as ancient people had traveled to Egypt to buy grain (Genesis 41:57 and 42:1-3). Later, towns in Southern Illinois were named Cairo, Thebes, and Karnak, just as in the country of Egypt.”

    1. I was thinking the gap belonged to Thebes, so I typed Thebe’s Gap without thinking. The only solace I can take is that it would have been equally wrong to have made it Thebes’ Gap.

      It’s a name, not a possession, so it becomes Thebes Gap.

      Glad we cleared that up.

  9. Ken, you rascal–you could fall in a vat of proverbial excrement and come out smelling like a rose! I can’t believe you shot a photo of highway 55 from your dash and improvised an immediately popular blog!
    Some observations: According to Dr. Frank Nickell, who has spoken to our Stoddard County Historical Society several times, the Ridge is pronounced “Crow-ley.”
    And, no, the Benton Hills are not a part of the Ridge–though they are a very interesting geographical feature of the local landscape.
    I don’t have my notes in front of me, but I believe Crowley is given credit as the first explorer to make a documented trip down the Ridge, which furnished a path south above the swamps. It was an Indian trail long before it was known as the Cape to Bloomfield Road, and–yes–the Ridge extends to Helena Arkansas.
    As for JD’s blackberry pie, we’ll be glad to have you and your mom back for coffee and pie anytime! It was wonderful to look through your photograph albums of Missouriana! Let us know when they go on sale!

  10. I have thought that the bottom of that hill was the start of the Mississippi Delta land. Do any of the geologists reading this blog have an expert opinion on that?

    Also, with regard to early exploration of Crowley’s Ridge and who was the first European to see it, I believe that Houck in one of his histories says that he found reference to what we now call Crowley’s Ridge land formation in the records of the explorer Desoto which would make him the earliest — although it was not with certainty that Houck identified the writings as about Crowley’s Ridge. Further, if memory serves me, Houck was also not sure that Desoto got as far north as Missouri — perhaps saw the ridge only in what is now Arkansas.

  11. Thanks for the compliment on the blackberry pie, I must give due credit to the wonderful Mennonite ladies that toiled over the stove and provided me with the filling. The crust was a purchase from Wallyworld but the lattice design was my own hands.
    As far as mile marker 82 concerns I was born and raised in Gods country some 60 miles south of the drop off. Life was great until we traveled north and ran into those damned Yankees. Life was never the same after that.
    I hope your dear mom inspires and continues to travel with her little boy to distant adventures. Enjoy your posts greatly.

    1. I saw that this morning and thought to myself, “That doesn’t sound like that dear man J.D. Braswell. That’s the kind of thing I’d expect from ‘Mad Dog’ DeJournett.”

      Better log out when you step away from the computer.

  12. Isn’t if funny how each of us has our respective “God’s Country”? Mine was the rolling hills of Cape County, and when I married and relocated to Malden, the flat lands were very foreign and unappealing. I have spent more years on flat sandy ground than in the rolling hills, but I have never made a change of heart.

  13. You know I was raised in Cape County in the hills along the Mississippi River near Trail of Tears and I catch hell up here in Rolla for having an accent. The people who guess usually say Tennessee or Kentucky.

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