The Wild Missouri

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

Clark called "Slaik'y" (swampy, miry, or muddy).

Lewis also prominently noted this phenomenon when he rode out to the Nishnabotna River on July 16, 1804 (in northwest Missouri) and concluded that he was "at least 16 feet lower" than the Missouri and only about "300 yards" away. At that time, the Nishnabotna flowed almost 20 miles farther south than its current course before it entered the Missouri in a swampy, delta-like configuration.

  THEN NOW
Centerline Length 547.264 miles 543.832 miles
Bank/Water Edge 1,673.255 miles 1,230.395 miles
Water Area 180,793.906 acres 68,380.227 acres
Total Area 230,279.015 acres 70,025.939 acres
Average Width .6575 miles .2011 miles

The current of the old Missouri River and all its swirling sandbars, caving banks, snags, embarras (floating-debris islands), and sawyers (bobbing trees embedded in the river) were formidable obstacles to any river traveler at that time. Only after the Corps of Discovery had passed the mouth of the Platte River (in present day Nebraska) did the river assume a more placid nature.

There, they noticed a significant change in the velocity of the Missouri River. Lewis wrote that the Missouri was moving at 5.5 miles per hour below the Platte and decreased to 3.5 miles per hour above it. The tempestuous Platte River was measured to be flowing at 8 miles per hour (twice his measurements of the Mississippi River) pushing great quantities of sand and debris all the way across the wide Missouri. Lewis estimated that the speed of the old Missouri current increased to 6.5 to 7 miles per hour at the Kansas River and flowed at 5.5 to 6 miles per hour from the Osage River to the Mississippi confluence.

William Clark had also previously recorded several measurements of river velocity up to that point. At their campsite of July 16-17, 1804, Clark measured the "common current" using the logline near what is known as McKissick Island in Atchison County. Clark called it "Bald Island."

He found that the Missouri River ran at 50 fathoms (300 feet) in 40 seconds at one spot. In other places, the log took only 30 seconds and, at times, even 20 seconds, to run the same 50-fathom distance. Assuming that Clark's fathom was equal to about six feet, the current was flowing at speeds of 5.11, 6.82, and 10.23 miles per hour at his respective locations.

More dramatic are the river velocity readings that Clark took on June 17, 1804, just northwest of and across the river from the present town of Waverly (named "Rope Walk Camp" by the Corps). Using his survey equipment and a stick to measure the speed of the water, Clark found that the most rapid part of the river would float a stick at 48 survey-poles and 6 feet (798 feet) in 23 seconds. That is equal to 34.7 feet per second or 23.66 miles per hour. That figure is seemingly incredible since it approximates the velocity of water at the edge of a waterfall. Nevertheless, it is illuminating and somewhat ironic that three days later, Clark observed and wrote down that the Missouri River "riffleed and roered like a great fall."

These days, the swiftest parts of our present Missouri River are found at the ends of the river dikes, where the water breaks over and around these structures. There, recorded water velocities are often about 3 meters per second (9.84 feet per second or 6.7 miles per hour). The overall velocity of the present river current, of course, is much less than that.

Comparing the velocity of the Missouri River now to that of the river in the 19th century is by its nature inexact. For example, we now measure the river's velocity at differing horizons within the river's depth, not by floating a log or stick downstream. Moreover, the old Missouri River most probably was a much more complex stream than what it is today. Quite likely, water flowed at different speeds at any given location, whereas today, water speed is more uniform.

Nevertheless, the historical records indicate that the early 19th century Missouri River should definitely not be considered as a slower river than the one we have today. In fact, most evidence points to its flowing much faster. Possible explanations for increased velocity would be that the river was carrying more water then than now.

It surely must have been invigorating to experience a journey on the old Missouri River. Our modern society, however, would not tolerate such a wild and temperamental river. However, you can relive how the Missouri River used to be by reading the timeless journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

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