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The Missouri River Then & Now

By Brett Dufur

Join Us in 2010! Celebrating our 7th season of offering safe, professional and fun guided Missouri River canoe & kayak tours. Perfect for beginners, families and couples. Make memories of a lifetime! Float through Life... Paddle through History!

Excerpted with permission from his book Exploring Lewis & Clark's Missouri, available from Pebble Publishing, Inc.

The Missouri River of 1804 was nothing like it is now. Lewis & Clark would probably not recognize the Missouri as the river they traversed 200 years ago.

Today, we have a river with a main channel that is 300 yards wide and nine feet deep. It has been called America’s fastest navigable river, rushing by at speeds of four to five miles an hour. That’s fast. The river is more like a fast-moving drainage ditch than a biologically diverse river. Its primary role today is dwindling but still important river barge use.

The Missouri River of 1804 was a maze of dangerous snags, sandbars and collapsing banks. A wide, shallow, slow-moving wetland buffered the edges of its unpredictable and meandering main channel. It was a vast series of interconnected, braided streams, stretching more than a mile wide at places.

And the river was peppered with the stuff of a river captain’s nightmares: collapsing riverbanks, shifting sandbars and menacing snags—downed trees with rootballs still intact, which had a nasty habit of lying submerged right below the water’s surface. In Karl Bodmer’s painting Snags (Sunken Trees) on the Missouri, the snags loom large and in chaotic multitudes, ready to thwart any attempts at navigation.

Clark wrote of one such snag near present-day Arrow Rock, "Stern Struck a log under Water & She Swung round on the Snag, with her broad Side to the Current," causing, "a disagreeable and Dangerous Situation, particularly as immense large trees were Drifting down and we lay imediately in their Course."

In other words, the expedition had to be ready for anything. Traveling such a river required various forms of propulsion. Poling and rowing were by far the most common ways of getting the boats upriver. Sails were used to a limited degree. Poling—pushing poles into the muck and pushing the boat upriver—was often employed when rapids threatened the unwieldy boats. Cordelling was also used. In cordelling, a sturdy rope is tied to the bow and the crew get in the river or on the bank and start pulling the boat upriver. Although this may sound extremely inefficient to modern readers, this was cutting edge military technology 200 years ago.

However, it wasn’t long after the Voyage of Discovery that new technologies took hold on the Missouri. By 1819, the first steamboat was plying the Big Muddy. Steamboat traffic was vital to the opening of the West, reaching its peak in 1880. Steamboats shipped flour, salt, corn, tobacco and hemp downriver to the markets in St. Louis and beyond and returned laden with molasses, sugar, coffee and manufactured items.

For example, Rocheport, a Mid-Missouri rivertown, saw 57 steamboats make 500 landings in 1849 alone. The paddle wheeler’s shallow draft eventually allowed rivermen to navigate their way upriver 2,285 miles from the mouth to Fort Benton, Montana.

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Refer to our Learn More page to find out more about our trip. If you don't find the answer to your question on the website, please email us at pebblepublishing@gmail.com. We answer emails much faster than phone calls since our office is not staffed full-time due to the recession. However, if you need us, please don't hesitate to call us at (573) 698-3903.


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Publishers of The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook &

Exploring Lewis & Clark's Missouri