National Geographic : 1945 Nov
Taming the Outlaw Missouri River BY FREDERICK SIMPICH 'P AME the Missouri River. Put this runaway stream to work hauling boats, - watering fields, and generating electric power. Stop floods, check soil erosion and dust storms!" That's the big order Uncle Sam has issued to his Army Engineers, Reclamation Bureau, and soil experts. Already these agencies have agreed on a unified plan to conserve, control, and use the waters of the vast Missouri River Basin. This plan has been approved by Congress, and the initial stage has been authorized for construction. There is even some talk of cre ating here a monster "MVA," or Missouri Valley Authority, to be modeled after the TVA, or Tennessee Valley Authority. On the map (pages 576-7), you see what a tremendous project the building of these 105 dams, with reservoirs, dikes, and levees, is to be (pages 583, 588). Fort Peck Dam, in Montana, already com pleted, is one of the largest piles of earth ever moved by men. Of it, more later (page 583). With NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC cameraman Robert Sisson I traced the Missouri from Three Forks in Montana to where it spills its sticky stream into the Mississippi just north of St. Louis-a trip of 2,475 miles (pages 573, 579). Basin Covers a Sixth of 48 States' Area With its many tributaries, such as the Yel lowstone, Platte, and Kansas, the Big Muddy draws rainfall and melted snow water from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, and Canada. Covering about a sixth of the area of con tinental United States, this river's vast Basin holds the homes of millions of farm, town, and city dwellers. It also forms a fat market basket of meat, wheat, and corn from which comes a big share of the Nation's food, as well as considerable oil and coal (page 582). "Improvement" of the Missouri River is nothing new. In the past 40 years 88 small storage reservoirs have been built in the upper Basin, mostly on main-stem tributaries, some of which develop electric power. But so far most work has been piecemeal, for local reasons, such as irrigating a Montana valley, confining the stream in a fixed channel from Kansas City down to St. Louis, or trying with levees to keep floods from inundating farms in Missouri. Lessons learned in these hard years of trial and error finally prove that the only way to make wisest use of this reckless river is to treat the Basin as a whole. This means using water in the stream's upper reaches for irri gation and power; using it farther downstream for navigation; and-wherever necessary in its whole length-building dams and levees to obtain flood control. There's also the fact that all along the river scores of towns and cities depend on it for drinking water, use it in sanitation, in fac tories, and as a place to fish, swim, shoot ducks, and run their motorboats. The Havoc of Floods Ever since pioneer whites first struggled up its treacherous currents and built their fur trading posts on its crumbling banks, the Missouri has been notorious for the havoc of its floods. Losses from high water increased in proportion as farms multiplied and cities grew up along the stream. "The river is rising!" Ominous words those were in my boyhood days on this Big Muddy. In "high-water times" we saw uprooted trees, driftwood, railroad ties, lumber, runaway skiffs and flatboats, sections of fences and washed out bridges, barns, outhouses, and drowned horses, hogs, and cattle riding sadly down toward the Gulf of Mexico on this tawny, stinking mixture of mud and water. Old pilots told me in my youth that they had seen people and animals riding, helpless, on tops of floating houses and haystacks. There is an old saying along the muddy Mis souri that its water is too thick to drink and too thin to plow. Quitting its bed and cutting a new one else where is an old trick of this river (page 594). Brunswick, Missouri, was built on the river front, but is now two miles inland. The original town of Franklin, Missouri, where Kit Carson lived as a boy and from which ox teams stretched out for the Santa Fe Trail,* has been completely washed away (page 580). Digging a well near the mouth of Grand River, Missouri, a farmer uncovered an old Bible with the word "Naomi" on its cover. Old-timers remembered a steamer of this name had been wrecked here when the river ran through what is now the farmer's cornfield; later, taking another course, the quondam * See "Santa Fe Trail, Path to Empire," by Fred erick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1929.