The Wild Missouri

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

instance it was with much difficulty they could get her off..., tho' the barge was several minutes in eminent danger." It was a rare day for the Corps of Discovery not to experience hardship and danger from an extremely violent and unpredictable river.

Looking at the Missouri River today, it is hard to imagine its being so tempestuous and dangerous. That's because the Missouri River today bears little resemblance to the river of the early 19th century. For the past two centuries, we have steadily worked to mold or engineer the Missouri River into a more predictable stream that would serve the needs of commerce, transportation, agriculture and recreation.

The differences between the river then and the river now are evident in hard statistics from the mouth of the Missouri River to the northwest corner of our state.

The early river statistics were calculated from the compiled data of the U.S. General Land Office surveyors who measured down to the survey link (7.92 inches) the locations of the Missouri River banks, as well as the banks of most of the large islands, that existed in the early 19th century. The present river statistics were calculated from digitized representations of the river from contemporary aerial photography.

The old lower Missouri River was about the same length as it is today, but contemporary research has concluded that it should have been as much as 50 miles longer. The bank, or water edge, that is so important to both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife was more than 400 miles greater then. The actual water area then was more than 2.5 times larger than that of today. The immense area that the old river actually occupied, including the many big islands, was more than 3.5 times greater than today. On average, the river was more than three times as wide as today.

In addition, information from the old surveyor data and the notes and journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition indicate that the old Missouri River was quite often higher in elevation than the adjacent bottomland. Indeed, most of the tributary streams show evidence of this by traveling downstream and parallel to the Big Muddy for miles, thus forming many old lakes, ponds, sloughs, and swamps.

For example, the Little Platte River (in present Platte County) flowed parallel to the Missouri River for more than 10 miles, leaving a narrow strip of bottomland that

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