The Missouri: Habits & Eccentricities

The Missouri River today is what it is because of what it was in Lewis and Clark's day, what it had been for eons, and was to be until the middle of the 20th century. Back in 1907, just five years after the Missouri River Commission was abolished, a Midwestern newspaperman and humorist named George Fitch wrote a character sketch of the unruly river. The following excerpts will convey some of the highlights of Fitch's likeness.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, [and] a sense of humor; a river that goes traveling sidewise, that interferes in politics, rearranges geography and dabbles in real estate:1

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 worth while. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

In the old days the Missouri teemed with steamboats. . . . Business prospered until the railroads came. Then the steamers vanished. Today the river is as lonely as a school room in vacation.

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 a 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. . . . 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? . . . Can it diagnose that queer, eerie half murmur, half chuckle with which the water goes about its work of destruction?

"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.The most notable, if not blessed, of the candidates for that honor were Lieutenant General Lewis Pick, of the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Glenn Sloan, an engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation. Their ingenious but divergent plans were reconciled in the 1940s during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The surgery, carried out by the Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, was officially completed in 1981, but shortly thereafter the new and comparatively subservient river was diagnosed with heart trouble.

The "Big Muddy" gained its nickname not long after the French explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette first saw it in 1673, not only because of its color, but also its character.2 William Clark, in his "Slight View of the Missouri River," called it "a turbilant & muddey Stream," before proceeding to list the principal features and values—so far as he knew them then—of the land and the people within its reach.3

1. George Fitch, "The Missouri River: Its Habits and Eccentricities Described by a Personal Friend," American Magazine, Vol. 53, No. 6 (April 1907), 637-40.

2. Its "real" name is said to have come from the now-extinct Indians of the Siouan linguistic family, who were known as the Missouris–meaning "those who have dugout canoes," or "(people having) wooden canoes." John Reed Swanton, The Indian Tribes of North America, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1952), 269.

3. Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (12 vols., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-99), 3:480.