Thursday, January 17, 2019

“The Missouri River. Its habits and eccentricities described by a personal friend.”

This is one of the most quoted essays about the old, natural Missouri River there is out there. Just about every book or article that refers to the natural historic river uses at least one quote from this article. But everywhere I looked, in old books and compilations or new websites, I could never find the whole piece. 

After searching around, I found this entry in a Kansas City Public Library archive web posting. I sent them a request for a print of the article along with a few bucks for printing and postage. 

Then a photocopy of this article arrived in the mail. 

I typed it up for you. - steve

“The Missouri River. Its habits and eccentricities described by a personal friend.”

By George Fitch

American Magazine (63:6), April 1907

There are rivers of all lengths and sizes and of all degrees of wetness. There are rivers with all sorts of peculiarities and with widely varying claims to fame. But there is only one river with a personality, habits, dissipations, a sense of humor and a woman’s caprice; a river that goes traveling sidewise, that interferes in politics, rearranges geography and dabbles in real estate; a river that plays hide and seek with you today and tomorrow follows you around like a pet dog with a dynamite cracker tied to its tail. That river is the Missouri.

The Missouri River was located in the United States at last reports. It rises in the southwestern part of Montana and tumbles, slides, meanders,, sidesteps and plays leapfrog for forty-two hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. There are people who maintain that the Missouri flows into the Mississippi and becomes absorbed by that noble stream just above St. Louis. I suppose these same people, if they had a friend who had met a lion in Central Africa and had been merged into the hungry beast, would say, with tears in their eyes, that he had come to his death by swallowing the lion. There would be just as much reason in the one remark as in the other.

There isn’t any Mississippi left to view after it meets the Missouri. The Mississippi is a beautiful, majestic stream which minds its own business and flows placidly along the course laid out for it by nature ages ago. It is as stable as a brick house. You can always count on finding the Mississippi just where you left it last year. But the Mississippi-Missouri is a tawny, restless, brawling flood. It cuts corners, runs around at nights, fills itself with snags and traveling sandbars, lunches on levees, and swallows islands and small villages for dessert. This description fits the Missouri to a T, just as the description of the man and the lion who formed a combination fits the lion and hasn’t any likeness to a man.

German painter Karl Bodmer was a passenger on The Yellowstone, one of the first steamboats to ply the upper Missouri River. He captured moments like this, where the Yellowstone meandered its way through a forest of snags in a Missouri River Chute at the mouth of the Fox River. 

It is a perpetual dissatisfaction with its bed that is the greatest peculiarity of the Missouri. It is harder to suit in the matter of beds than a traveling man. Time after time it has gotten out of its bed in the middle of the night, with no apparent provocation, and has hunted up a new bed, all littered with forests, cornfields, brick houses, railroad ties and telegraph poles. It has flopped into this prickly mess with a gurgle of content and has flowed along, placidly for years, gradually assimilating the foreign substances and wearing down the bumps in its alluvial mattress. Then it has suddenly taken a fancy to its old bed, which by this time has been filled with suburban architecture, and back it has gone with a whoop and a rush, as happy as if it had really found something worthwhile.

Quite naturally, this makes life along the Missouri a little bit uncertain. Ask the citizen of a Missouri River town on which side of the river he lives, and he will look worried and will say: “On the east side when I came away.” Then, he will go home to look the matter up and, like as not, will find the river on the other side of his humble home and a government steamboat pulling snags out of this erstwhile cabbage patch.

It makes farming as fascinating as gambling too. You never know whether you are going to harvest corn or catfish. The farmer may go blithley forth of a morning with a twine binder to cut his wheat only to come back at noon for a trot line, his wheat having gone down the river the night before.

These facts lead us naturally to the subject of the Missouri’s appetite. It is the hungriest river ever created. It is eating all the time, eating yellow clay banks and cornfields, eighty acres at a mouthful; winding up its banquet with a truck garden and picking its teeth with the timbers of a big red barn. Its yearly menu is ten thousand acres of good, rich farming land, several miles of railroad, a few hundred houses, a forest or two and uncounted miles of sandbars.

This sort of thing makes the Missouri valley farmer philosophical in the extreme. The river may take away half his farm this year, but he feels sure that next year it will give him the whole farm of the fellow above him. But he must not be too certain. At this point the law steps in and does a more remarkable thing than the river itself may hope to accomplish. It decrees that so long as there is a single yard of an owner’s land left ---nay, even so long as there is a strip wide enough to balance a calf upon, he is entitled to all the land that the river may deposit in front of it. But when that last yard is eaten up, even though the river may repent and replace the farm in as good order as when it took it, the land belongs to the owner of the land behind it. There is no way of getting around this decision. All the despoiled owner can do is to buy the farm back the farm back of his erstwhile farm and wait patiently for the river to eat up to his land. Then, if it recedes, he may not only get his old farm back, but the one between his old one and his new one and possibly a few more for good measure. Roulette is child’s play compared with it.

This thing happened in Kansas City not many years ago. A party of men owned a strip of land along the Missouri River bank. It was not handsome land, but it was valuable for factory purposes. They were offered portly prices for it, but held on. One day they noticed that the strip was getting emaciated. They held a hurried diagnosis with a surveyor’s tape and found that half of it had wasted away. The next year half of the remainder had gone.

The men wanted to sell then, but the market seemed remarkably sluggish. The next year the river ate so vigorously that only a tiny strip about as wide as a piece of baby ribbon was left. The men were much depressed.

Suddenly the land began to increase. The Missouri had chosen the late manufacturing spot for a place to deposit a fine 160 acre farm upon which it had foreclosed up the river. Inside of six months that strip of land contained 200 acres. The men were jubilant, but still they would not sell. They wanted another 100 acres, they said. They strolled along the bank each day and urged the river, in proprietary tones, to build faster.

Then the river changed its mind once more and not only wiped out the extra 100 acres but the original 100 acres, every foot of it. The next year it built up 500 acres in the same spot, but they all belonged to the man who owned the groud behind the original plot. They have stayed there ever since ---that is, up to last reports. For high financing and property juggling the Missouri River makes a crooked lawyer look like a child I hate to think what it would do for a man if it had a personal friendship for him.

Sometimes you'd have to boat into the general store in New Haven.
photo courtesy of the New Haven Schoolhouse Museum.

The Missouri is the original loop-the-loop artist. The river for most of its length flows in giant loops with which it is forever performing circus marvels, leaping nimbly from one loop to another in a single night. It is these loops which are the cause of such hideous confusion in the boundary affairs of Nebraska and Iowa. The river, loops and all, is supposed to do duty as a boundary line between the two States. A lot of thoughtless legislators, years ago, made the grave mistake of nailing down the boundary line, making it immovable, where the river happened to be at the time.

Now the loops of the Missouri are about as fixed and immovable as a two-year-old colt. A dozen times in a decade the river goes tearing across some narrow neck of land, leaving a 30 mile loop of its old course to dry up and become farming country or city lots with that foolish boundary line still anchored firmly in its midst. The result is that the State boundary line to-day is wherever the river isn’t. Little tongues, scallops and slivers of Iowa stick across the river into Nebraska in a score of places, and little wedges,, triangles and promontories of Nebraska can be found all over the western edge of Iowa. Each of these invaders on both sides marks the location of a loop of the river fifty years ago. The river itself has retired, leaving the boundary line behind it.

The result is confusion immeasurable. You may live on the east side of the river and yet be in Nebraska. You may live on the west side, and still be under the control of a party boss in Iowa, cut off from his benign influence by a foaming, unbridged river. You may live on the south side of the river, but according to the law you may be either on the east side in Nebraska or on the west side in Iowa, or squarely in the middle of the stream, yelling for help. It’s enough to make a man lose his faith in geography.

Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Ia., are separated from each other by the river and three miles of bottom land. Yet, up in the north part of Omaha, there is a semicircular slice of Council Bluffs entirely surrounded by Omaha. The river once extended up there in a huge loop and Council Bluffs built into the loop. Then the river cut across the neck of the loop and transferred that ward of Council Bluffs to the Nebraska side. It is now filled with Omaha factories and pleasure resorts which Council Bluffs cheerfully works into its census returns, thus increasing the sisterly love which exists between the two cities.

On the Iowa side of the river a few miles away the Burlington railroad runs up the valley into Council Bluffs. Years ago the river began to show a liking for the railroad. It edged up closer and closer and finally swallowed a few rods of it. The company took the hint and moved back half a mile. The river followed after like an affectionate Newfoundland pup.

The company attempted dissuasionary measures. It carted a hundred trainloads of stone to the river bank and dropped them in. The river smacked its lips and swallowed the stone along with another acre of land for good measure. A thousand loads were dumped in. Not a trace of stone could be found the next day. Then the railroad company drove immense piles deep into the ground and anchored them with steel chains, big enough to hold a battleship in leash. The river didn’t waste time with the bulwark, but just swallowed the whole field in which it was located and leaped joyfully on toward the railroad track.

Then the railroad company gave up and moved back among the foothills. After this was done, the Missouri moved too. It went over to the other side of the valley, leaving another of its spectacular loops which today is beautiful Lake Manawa, one of the finest pleasure spots in the Central West. Lone fishermen, angling for bass in its placid waters, frequently hook sections of iron rails and chains by mistake and play them for several minutes in a vain attempt to bring them to the gaff.

It is estimated that in the last one hundred years the Missouri has shortened itself over two thousand miles by cutting out these great loops. This sounds interesting. It sounds as if the river had almost cut itself out altogether ---that Helena, Montana, ought, by this time, to be pretty close to Kansas City. As a matter of fact, however, for every loop that the river cuts out it makes another of equal size on somebody’s farm land where it isn’t needed. So there is no danger that the Missouri’s mouth will ever swallow its head.

Corn. From the 1993 Flood. Source Unknown.  

Because the river is always busy dissolving farms and shifting sand bars it is the muddiest stream in the world. It is so thick that it cracks, sometimes, in working its way around the bends. At certain seasons of the year there is scarcely enough water to keep the mud moist, and it has to be drunk with a fork. Throw a man into the Missouri and he will not often drown. It is more likely that he will break his leg. In every glass of good, ripe Missouri River water there is at least a peck of sediment. Old residents claim to have made grindstones in the early days by running Missouri River through a big pipe and cutting it into flat disks with handsaws as it came out.

In the old days the Missouri teemed with steamboats. They plied the river in flocks, schools and droves, doing an enormous business and making such profits that the owner paid for his boat in two trips and watched it sink on the third trip, $25,000 ahead. Of course there were awkward little circumstances occasionally. Sometimes a boat would have a big passenger list ofr a town and wouldn’t be able to find it – the river having either removed it or run away from it over night. And sometimes the river would sneak away from a fine steamer that had been tied up over night. But, on the whole, the business prospered until the railroads came. Then the steamers vanished. Today the river is as lonely as a school room in vacation. From St. Louis to Sioux City, its tawny bosom is unscarred by a single paddle-wheel except when a government packet noses its way upsteam or the calliope of a venturesome excursion steamer awakes the echoes of the past for a few brief weeks in summer. Occasionally a farmer, plowing his field, runs the point of his plow into the buried pilot house of one of the old fleet of steamers and swears, thought not as fluently as the one-time mate of the steamer. Then he knows that the river once ran where he is plowing and that the proud boat that has driven his plow handle into his ribs once breasted the current where now he raises the lowly potato.

All these facts have given rise to the statement that the Missouri is no longer navigable. This is a very foolish statement. Of course the Missouri is navigable. The trouble is that those who have tried it have spent too much time trying to change river to conform to the steamboats when they should have been making over the steamboats to conform to the river. The Missouri River steamboat should be shallow, lithe, deep chested and exceedingly strong in the stern wheel. It should be hinged in the middle and should be fitted with a suction dredge so that hen it cannot climb over a sandbar it can assimilate it. The Missouri River steamboat should be able to make use of a channel, but should not have to depend on it. A steamer that cannot, on occasion, climb a steep clay bank, go across a cornfield and corner a river that is trying to get away, has little excuse for trying to navigate the Missouri.

Scientists tell us that the Missouri’s peculiarities are due to the loose alluvial soil through which it flows --- a soil so soluble that the least flirt of current will dig a hole into the bank which in time widens to a bay, then to a horseshoe curve and finally to a loop thirty miles around. This explanation may be satisfactory to scientists, but it is thin and unpalatable to those who know the river and have sat up nights with it. “Alluvial soil” sounds plausible, but does it explain that mysterious force beneath the freckled and turbulent surface of the river that digs vast wells one hundred feet deep one day and fills them up the next with sandbars for steamboats to run aground on? Does it explain the force that laughs at abutments, fascines, willow mattresses, ripraps, wing dams, stone dams, state lines and cuss words, and that snatches the work of months away in a single night? Does it explain why a river will run ten miles an hour due south over a level sand flat one year and five miles an hour due north not half a mile away the next? Does it explain the thousand mysterious eddies, the turbulence that boils out of the river like an eruption or the giant hand that clutches the fisher boats from below and draws them down? Does it explain what makes the river a mighty flood in South Dakota and a miserable trickle at Omaha? Can it diagnose that Queer, eerie half murmur, half cuckle with which the water goes about its work of destruction? Does it account for the innate deviltry of a stream that will sleep quietly while a railroad builds a million dollar bridge over it and will then move over and flow around one end of the bridge; and then when another million dollar bridge has been built to please it, gets quietly up and moves back to its old channel in perfect content?

“Alluvial soil” is a pretty fair sort of amateur explanation, but it would grow humpbacked and decrepit trying to carry all the blame of the Missouri’s record. More things than alluvial soil are ailing the Missouri. Blessed be the man who shall first find a way to chain it down and pull its teeth.