“A Most Cantankerous River”: Taming the Missouri

Annalies Corbin and Bradley A. Rodgers

in The Steamboat Montana and the Opening of the West

Published by University Press of Florida

Published in print August 2008 | ISBN: 9780813032542
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780813039244 | DOI:
“A Most Cantankerous River”: Taming the Missouri

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Study of the Missouri River as a maritime highway opens a valuable window onto nineteenth-century views of business and technology. The steamboat Montana's builders and owners exhibited this tempered American tenacity despite the fact that the vessel came late in the steamboat era. When viewed as an artifact, the boat's technical innovation demonstrates both the tremendous will and cleverness brought to bear by business entrepreneurs in order to tame the untamable. The actual era of Missouri River steamboating began in May 1819 when Colonel Elias Rector decided to take the challenge of conquering the Missouri. Colonel Rector established a steamboat company for the sole purpose of seeing whether or not the Missouri was, indeed, navigable. On May 28, 1819, Rector's 98-ton Independence ascended 250 miles (402 km) above St. Louis, arriving at Franklin, Missouri. Navigating the Missouri River by steamer was incredibly hazardous and unpredictable. Few who traveled on the Missouri failed to notice two very important things. First, at times there was little water in the river. Second only to the erratic rise and fall of the Missouri's water level was the phenomenon of a shifting watercourse. By far the greatest obstacle the river presented was snags. The erosive powers of the river filled the channel with downed trees that eventually settled on the river bottom to become snags. As time passed, the constant action of the river stripped bark, leaves, and smaller branches away from the downed trees, leaving their white and lurking ghosts to lurch out of the water on foggy mornings. Snags were deadly to river steamers: some protruded out of the water, but many more were barely visible to even a superbly experienced pilot.

Keywords: Missouri River; steamboats; Colonel Elias Rector; navigation; water level; snags

Chapter.  9852 words. 

Subjects: History and Theory of Archaeology

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