“Set out from the Kansas river ½ past 4 oClock, proceeded on passed a Small run on the L. S. at ½ Mile a Island on the S. S. at 1½ me. Hills above the upr. pt of Isd. L. S. a large Sand bar in the middle. Passed a verry bad place of water, the Sturn of the Boat Struck a moveing Sand & turned within 6 Inches of a large Sawyer, if the Boat had Struck the Sawyer, her Bow must have been Knocked off & in Course She must hav Sunk in the Deep water below.”
—William Clark, June 29, 1804
The untamed Missouri formed a minefield of sawyers or snags, dead trees anchored to the bottom. Colliding with a sawyer could have sunk the keelboat and ended the Lewis and Clark Expedition at any point on the Missouri. The rise of steamboat technology soon led to a commercial boom up the Missouri River, but it remained a treacherous journey. Between boiler explosions and sawyers, steamboats rarely survived for five years. An estimated 400 steamboats sunk on the Missouri before railroads provided a safe and economical alternative in the late 1800s.
Navigating today’s channelized river is vastly easier, although it does have its own challenges. We hoped to camp in the middle of Kansas City for easy access to town. Helpful folks on the Missouri River Paddlers Group on Facebook offered eighty comments with pros and cons regarding safety and legal issues for potential camping options near the city. With the forecast calling for a good day followed by a windy day, we opted to paddle through the city and catch a ride back. Wendy Maupin joined us for half a day, exiting the river to work in town.
Kansas City is technically two separate cities, one in Kansas, the other in Missouri, separated by the Kansas River that marks the boundary between the two states. We stopped briefly at the confluence at Kaw Point Park where Lewis and Clark camped June 26 – 28, 1804 for respite and to repair their boats.
River angel Bill Fessler graciously invited us to camp at his recreation cabin downstream at Orrick, in spite of extensive flood damage there. During the height of the flood, Bill kayaked through his own cabin. Now the water was down, and the grass was green, yet mucking out the house remained a daunting project. Nevertheless, Bill fired up the barbecue grill and greeted us with hamburgers. We enjoyed a lovely evening around the campfire with Bill and friend John.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum was a must-see in Kansas City as we toured the town with Bill. The Arabia was headed upstream in September of 1856 with 130 passengers and 220 tons of cargo when it hit a sawyer and sank. Fortunately, the upper decks remained above water, allowing rescue of all passengers. Whiskey kegs and other cargo on the lower deck were swept away with the river, but everything in the cargo hold was preserved in a watery time capsule. The boat continued sinking deeper into the muddy riverbed for years, until the river shifted course, leaving the Arabia forty-five feet below ground in what later became a cornfield.
The approximate location was retained over time, but accessing the ship below ground and below the water table stymied early recovery efforts. In 1988, amateur treasure hunters Bob Hawley and sons obtained landowner permission to excavate the Arabia, partnering with friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell on the enterprise. The ship itself was largely beyond salvage, the upper decks having been ravaged by the river, but they recovered the engine, boilers and paddlewheel core. The real treasure was the merchandise in the cargo hold, originally destined for resale in frontier towns.
The team salvaged the world’s largest collection of pre-civil war artifacts, totaling hundreds of thousands of items, including saws, axe heads, hinges, dishes, silverware, beads, and clothing. Vegetable fibers, such as cotton, degraded over time, but animal proteins, such as leather and wool, survived in like-new condition. Although the team intended to sell the artifacts, they were inspired by the treasure trove to create the Arabia Steamboat Museum and keep the collection together. Thirty years after excavation, the family-run operation is still cleaning and preserving artifacts for display.
Driving through Kansas City, we stopped in a forest park to shake some wild persimmon trees, easily identified by their dark, cubical bark. Four small persimmons fell to the ground; three were still firm and astringent tasting, the fourth mushy and sweet.
Rolling back the wheel of time, we toured Fort Osage National Historic Landmark downriver at Sibley, Missouri. William Clark noted the bluff overlooking the river in 1804, returned from the Pacific Ocean in 1806, then led a team back to establish Fort Osage as a trading post in 1808.
The U.S. government ran a series of trading posts like Fort Osage to undersell private traders who charged Indians extortive prices and often sold alcohol, inflaming relations on the frontier. The town of Sibley was named after George C. Sibley who ran the profitable operation for the government.
Fort Osage was abandoned in 1822 as the Osage Indians ceded land and migrated west ahead of white settlement. The site was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1940s and subsequently rebuilt based on the foundations aided by surveys and drawings produced by William Clark.
Back at Bill Fessler’s house, we were joined by Bill Nichols of the Sierra Club, who brought barbecue dinner with him. Bill recently led a group on a week-long canoe trip down the Jefferson River Canoe Trail in Montana, one of the three rivers that come together to form the Missouri. Bill provided a detailed break-down of their experiences and challenges and an estimate of the tourist dollars the group contributed to the Montana economy. From Lewis and Clark to the Steamboat Arabia to newfound friends around the campfire, we are all connected by the great Missouri River.
Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and author of Participating in Nature and numerous other books about wilderness survival, botany, and sustainable living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the expedition fundraiser for the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.