Sky ride opening nears despite concerns over burial ground 5-23-07

- Bill McMurtry leans over a fence and takes in the Mighty Mississippi at the highest bluff along the river.

At 66, McMurtry is a busy man, always on the go. He's late for an out-of-town meeting with contractors. Still, he can't help but pause as he gazes at the postcard view below him.

“Spectacular,” he says, almost to himself. “My God, I love it up here.”

For years, McMurtry, 66, has been trying to revitalize the Clarksville Sky Ride, a quirky small-town attraction that in its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s drew 100,000 annually to this picturesque village 70 miles north of St. Louis.

Unfortunately for McMurtry, the original developers built the main platform on an American Indian burial ground. Now, even as McMurtry puts the finishing touches on the project with plans to reopen this summer, the Sac and Fox Nation is still fighting to keep it closed.

“They've already desecrated it - they've already ruined it,” said Sandra Massey, who oversees efforts to restore and maintain burial sites for the Oklahoma-based Sac and Fox Nation. “On top of that, it's against the law. I don't know what's wrong with these people that they can't understand they're breaking the law.”

Not so, McMurtry said, noting he has taken special care to protect what's left of the burial site - covering it, even building a retaining wall to protect it and keep it from eroding. He also plans educational displays so visitors will be able to learn about the region's heritage, including its American Indian roots.

“It's just something I'm proud of,” McMurtry said. “We don't want to be ridiculed for what we're doing. We're just doing something we believe can be good.”

Sac and Fox tribes populated eastern Missouri and western Illinois in the 18th and early 19th centuries. They buried their dead in unmarked graves on the bluffs so high they overlook roughly 800 square miles of both states.

In 1804, a treaty was signed giving the land to the U.S. government. The tribe contended the treaty was illegal, prompting years of wrangling. The government eventually prevailed, and by the 1830s, the Sac and Fox left the region for Kansas before splitting into Iowa and Oklahoma.

The Missouri burial site sat untouched until the early 1960s, when developers first built the sky ride. In fact, in the days before laws protected American Indian burial sites, the remains became part of a tawdry display - encased in plexiglass and displayed as a tourist attraction that was mixed in with a replica Western town and petting zoo. The deck of the ride itself was anchored directly to the burial mound.

It was a popular attraction, especially for families from St. Louis who would ride the ski lift-type ride, feet dangling from benches, as a cable pulled them to a spot called Lookout Point.

The sky ride eventually fell into disrepair and closed in 1996. In 2002, McMurtry bought it and began restoring it.

Meanwhile, the Sac and Fox Nation has been determined to keep the ride from reopening, aided by a state law that made it a felony to knowingly disturb an American Indian burial ground. In fact, McMurtry was charged in 2005 after allegedly clearing vegetation and doing other work at the site. The charges were later dropped.

Massey said she will consult with the tribe's attorneys about seeking an injunction, or pursuing criminal or civil means to stop the ride from opening. She also planned to ask Gov. Matt Blunt and Attorney General Jay Nixon to intervene, though she doubted the state would help.

“Nothing is being done on the part of the state of Missouri,” Massey said.

McMurtry calls the rift with the Sac and Fox Nation old news.

“It's over,” he said. “That just rehashing stuff that's just not there.”

The sky ride itself is a piece of Americana, people in Clarksville say.

Rarely does a day go by that Mayor Jo Anne Smiley doesn't get a call, letter or e-mail from someone inquiring about when the sky ride will open, she said. McMurtry hasn't set an opening date.

“We have grandparents saying they want to bring their grandkids to the sky ride they rode as children,” Smiley said.

Townspeople are eager for the ride to open, too, believing it will help lure more visitors to Clarksville, with a downtown featuring century-old brick buildings housing artists, antique shops, furniture makers and restaurants.

“When you are in a community of 490 people living on Highway 79, you have less than you need in terms of tourist traffic to support the artists who live here if you don't have a megaphone to shout to the world, 'hey, Clarksville is here,”' Smiley said. “The sky ride can be that kind of megaphone for Clarksville.”

The attraction's name is misleading. The “ride” lasts only 1,500 feet and a few minutes, taking visitors, two to a bench, on a slow ascent from the village up a steep hill to Lookout Point. There, a concession stand will be built in the next several weeks, along with a picnic area and other attractions.

McMurtry said he has spent more than $600,000 to ensure the sky ride is in good working order. In fact, essentially all of the old ride has been replaced. So has the deck at the top, and McMurtry has added a five-story tower reaching to a point offering that spectacular view of the Mississippi.

“This should be enjoyed by all of America,” McMurtry said.