Changed By the Hands of Man
By Brett Dufur
Excerpted from his book
& Clark's Missouri, available from
The river has evolved both naturally and more
dramatically by the hands of man. In a world that
covets control, order and progress, the Missouri was a
wild card. It was moody, erratic and unpredictable. It crept out of its
banks and served no purpose for commercial navigation. So the Corps of
Engineers built a new river where the Pekitanoui once flowed.
The Corps of Engineers began snag removal as early as 1824, with Congress
appropriating funds specifically for Missouri River improvement beginning in
1881. But it was the Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation
Project, authorized by Congress in 1912, that established the beginning of a
century-long project to create a permanent channel for navigation from St.
Louis to Sioux City, Iowa.
The Corps started by removing snags—hundreds upon hundreds of them. Then
they found that they could draw a straighter line on a map than a meandering
river could cut. The Corps removed oxbows and straightened out the river,
shortening the river by 57 miles just within the state of Missouri and a
total of more than 125 miles before reaching Sioux City.
One of the most effective ways of channelizing the river was the building
of wing dikes and piers into the river to divert the current away from the
eroding shoreline. These structures increased the river’s velocity, loosened
sediment and deepened the channel. The Corps of Engineers shored up the
banks with rock and they dredged. They built an amazingly efficient channel
nine feet deep and 300 feet wide that now scours itself.
Yet, our country’s progress quickly outpaced the slow transport offered
by water. We moved on, building highways and creating cities away from
waterways. With railroads and 18-wheelers, commerce on the river is now
limited primarily to grain and fertilizer. Although river traffic never
reached even a fraction of the projected amount, more than 1.5 million tons
of commodities are moved by barge annually on the Missouri River—a drop in
the bucket compared to the bustle found on the Mississippi River.
It seems that now more people are paying attention
again to that silent blue ribbon that wraps across the middle of the state.
Many travelers are hoping to travel in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark, to
envision a river as the explorers first saw it.
There is much to be enjoyed there even today and the bicentennial also
allows us a moment to reflect on how much has changed. It has been written
that more than 90-percent of the biodiversity once found in and along the
Missouri River is gone. In large part, this is due to the fact that the
river had essentially been separated from the floodplain. Nature loves muck
as much as does a boy in his Sunday best. As slower moving backwaters were
removed, important spawning grounds were destroyed. When the river was
bottlenecked in, confined to a third of its historic floodplain, yearly
flooding ceased. Flooding was largely controlled, turning swampy wetlands,
which are great for fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects, into topsoil
suitable for farming.
As the Corps of Discovery sojourned across 1804 Missouri, they noted deer
in great numbers along the banks "skipping in every derection." Many of the
diverse mammals noted in their journals in Missouri, such as the elk,
buffalo and most of the black bear, are gone. The bright green and yellow
Carolina Parakeets noted in Clark’s journal, which once ranged from the
Canadian border to the Gulf and from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains,
are now extinct.
But much of the nature they observed and many of the panoramic views they
beheld can still be appreciated today. The Corps of Discovery immediately
fell in love with the lush green valleys, which certainly reminded the
Kentuckians and Virginians of their own green rolling homeland. They
recorded that wild roses hugged the banks, along with ripening berries and
grapes. Paw paws were to be found in great abundance.
Journal entries read
"…land verry good…butifull a peas of land as ever
I saw…one of the most beatifull and picteresk seens that I ever beheld…"
The area north of Kansas City was noted in Clark’s journal, dated
Wednesday, July 4, 1804. It offers a good example of how awestruck the
Captain was by the area’s beauty:
..The Plains of this countrey are covered with a Leek Green Grass,
well calculated for the sweetest and most norushing hay—interspersed with
Cops of trees, Spreding ther lofty branchs over Pools Springs or Brooks of
fine water. Groops of Shrubs covered with the most delicious froot is to be
seen in every direction, and nature appears to have exerted herself to
butify the Senery by the variety of flours raiseing Delicately… above the
Grass, which Strikes & profumes the Sensation, and amuses the mind… throws
it into Conjecturing the cause of So magnificent a Senery in a Country thus
Situated far removed from the Sivilised world to be enjoyed by nothing but
the Buffalo Elk Deer & Bear in which it abounds...
On the western edge of Missouri on July 3, 1804, the party reported for
the first time seeing the North American beaver. As their trip continued
west, they would see unimaginable numbers of beavers. The insatiable fashion
craze for beaver hats triggered increased exploration and settlement over
the next 30 years, often called the "Golden Age of the American Fur Trade."
The fur trade also jumpstarted the growth of a small village called St.
The bottlenecked Missouri River devastated many
communities and destroyed thousands of acres of
farmland in the Great Flood of 1993—the worst flood
in recorded history. Another major flood in 1995 caused further devastation.
As a result, many state and federal agencies made it a top priority to
reopen some areas of the historic floodplain to the Missouri River. These
agencies include the National Fish and Wildlife Service of the Big Muddy
Wildlife Area, the Corps of Engineers, the Missouri Department of
Conservation and others.
In the past two decades, more than 88,000 acres of bottomland have been
purchased by these agencies to allow the river room to breathe once again:
to prevent communities from being flooded, to protect farms, to preserve
habitat and to restore habitat for fish and wildlife that have been lost
during a century of channelization efforts. Wetlands have slowly begun to be
restored and bottomland timber has been planted. The Corps of Engineers has
also allowed an historically active, shallow side chute to reopen. The
channel has already become a spawning ground for the endangered pallid
So through history, policy changes, politics and progress, the Missouri
River still flows. A river once entrusted to rivermen and explorers seeking
to fill in gaps on the map is now largely a silent place where poets and
painters keep watch. After practically turning our backs on it for a hundred
years in our pursuit of progress, it has become, according to the Missouri
Department of Conservation, Missouri’s number one underused natural
resource. Somehow, the longest river system in the United States—one of the
greatest rivers in the world—manages to meander largely unnoticed across our
state day in and day out. It’s a feat that no magician could match.
Daily it slips unnoticed by more than 4.5 million Missourians who live
within a few minutes drive of it, from St. Joseph to Kansas City to Columbia
and on to St. Charles and St. Louis. And yet in this information age, we
know so little about it. Generally the only time it makes the news is when
it’s at floodstage and it has stretched beyond where we think its banks
Perhaps the river is largely forgotten because the beauty of the Missouri
River valley is so sublime. It rewards idle moments of contemplation as the
sun crashes into the horizon in a fiery blaze, trailing stripped skies of
vivid blue hues and subtle pinks. But the river doesn’t take your breath
away in an instant like the first time you see the Rocky Mountains. The
beauty of the Missouri comes on slowly as the light shifts and the geese
alight. The beauty here lies in its perfect painter’s palette of saturated
blues and greens. The beauty lies in the silence. Thousands of cubic feet of
river and sediment plow by every minute with the force of a thousand freight
trains, yet the river is quieter than a sleeping infant.
In addition to beauty, the other thing the Missouri River offers our
frontierless age is solace. The Missouri is a place where we can reconnect
with nature, with our own wildness, with the revering gaze of yesterday’s
explorers, and with our country’s prodigious past. The river gives the soul
a place to breathe. It is a place for imaginations to expand. A place where
nature still reigns supreme, with horizons undisturbed by structures and
banks unencumbered by our suburban endurance race of materialism.
On the Big Muddy, whether you look upstream or down, the river appears to
stretch to infinity. It reaches all the way to the horizon. Some days it is
as gray as a city park pigeon on an overcast day. Other days the river is
bluer than a newborn baby’s eyes. And on many days, if you strain your eyes
to that distant point on the horizon, where the line blurs between river and
sky, the river stretches right up to the limits of land until it kisses the
sky and they dissolve into one.
And I think that’s what draws the poets, the paddlers, the bird watchers,
the hunters and the fisherman. In a measured world, the river is one of
those things that seem to go on forever. It’s wild. Relentless. Never
ending. And it intends to stay that way.
So despite being channelized, bottlenecked and largely forgotten, the
Missouri River has a future that looks bright. Although the debate about the
future of the Missouri River rages on, I like the river flowing past my
door. Sometimes it moves grain, which helps the farmers and reduces traffic
on the highway. Some of the bottomlands are tilled—a veritable black
gold—generating America’s breadbasket. Some of the bottoms near my home have
been purchased by various agencies to allow that important interchange
between land and water—the wetlands—to take hold once again. There I see
reason to hope for fewer floods and perhaps the return of a river more like
what Lewis & Clark experienced. A wilder Missouri River.
Like Thoreau once said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
With that return to wildness has come the resurgence of several endangered
species, such as the national symbol of strength, the bald eagle. And as
those wetlands become more overgrown and wild, those places will beckon to
me. They will need to be explored, I am sure, with my young son.