North St. Louis Island is situated about 40 miles upstream from the
mouth of the Osage River in Miller County, Missouri. It was named for
the first boat to ascend the Osage. The voyage of the North
St. Louis began in St. Louis in July
of 1837 but was interrupted when the steamer grounded on the gravel
bar that bears its name. The water level dropped rapidly, and soon the
boat was sitting high and dry, six feet above the water's edge, where
it remained until spring rains brought enough water to float it once
again. Thus began the century-long adventure of steamboating on the
Osage River. Navigating the river's tight bends and numerous shoals
remains a challenge to this day. Recreational boaters on the Osage can
attest to the unpredictability of this stream whose water level can
fluctuate as much as two feet up or down in the course of a single afternoon.
Despite the obstacles, many Missourians find boating on the Osage irresistible.
Forested bluffs line the winding stream, and gravel bars along the clear
waters provide an ideal location for picnicking and swimming.
Today's river enthusiasts can scarcely imagine a 100-foot long sternwheeler
laden with cargo and passengers plying from landing to landing a century
ago. Nevertheless, all along the river one can see reminders of days
gone by when the commercial steamboat industry was thriving. Rock wing
dams, often lurking just below the water's surface, are reminiscent
of attempts to channelize the river and back up the water's flow enough
to keep steamboats afloat. The obsolete Osage River Lock and Dam No.
1 now serves only as testimony to man's determination to conquer the
forces of nature at considerable cost and to succeed in navigating the
unnavigable. The demand for goods and markets brought nineteenth century
residents of the Osage valley together with the shared mission of opening
the channel for navigation. Nearly a century of political debate and
the investment of more than 1.5 million dollars eventually resulted
in limited improvements to the Osage River between 1840 and 1926, making
the lower reaches navigable for commerce for a period of six to nine
months out of the year.
The Osage River, named for the Indian tribe inhabiting the region when
white settlers arrived, is the largest tributary of the Missouri River
in the state. It originates in eastern Kansas and empties into the Missouri
12 miles below Jefferson City. It flows easterly through the state for
over 300 miles and borders or crosses through the counties of Bates,
Vernon, St. Clair, Henry, Benton, Morgan, Camden, Miller, Cole, and
Osage. The river's channel is crooked and its flow of water is extremely
uneven, comprising a series of pools and shallow shoals, but mid-nineteenth
century settlers were determined to overcome these navigational obstacles
and to develop its potential as an artery of transportation.
The steamboat Adventure
had better luck than its forerunner, the North
St. Louis. It ascended the Osage in the spring of 1838,
ran a distance of 160 miles upstream, and returned to St. Louis with
little difficulty. This venture offered hope for commercial navigation,
but for the Osage River to provide a reliable transportation route,
navigational improvements were essential. Business leaders in the river
valley began pressing their representatives in the Missouri House and
Senate to take up the issue.
In February 1839, the first attempt was made to secure state funding
for improvements to the Osage River, but the proposed bill was rejected
by the State legislature. During the same legislative session, however,
the Board of Internal Improvements was established by an Act of the
Missouri General Assembly on February 11, 1839. The Board was charged
with the task of examining and surveying the state's waterways. Its
mission was to identify needs for deepening the channel, clearing the
bed and shores of obstructions, and erecting lock and dam systems for
creating slack-water navigation. According to the only report of this
board issued on December 20, 1840, 25 shoals and rapids were counted
in the 58-mile stretch between Osceola and Warsaw, 30 in the 63-mile
distance from Warsaw to the mouth of the Niangua, and 43 from there
to the mouth of the Osage 108 miles downstream.
These hazards were usually adjacent to islands where the channel
narrowed and the water level dropped to less than one foot in dry seasons.
The most economical method of improvement, as described by a civil
engineer familiar with the Osage, was the construction of wing dams
and training walls. Wing dams of brush and rock projecting from the
bank at an angle from the head of an island gave the river a gradual
turn toward the opposite bank and thereby encouraged a deeper channel.
Those rapids not divided by islands resulted from an extreme widening
of the river with the usual quantity of water being distributed over
a greater expanse of lesser depth. Training walls at those points, extending
transversely from both shores, reduced the width of the water's flow
and created greater depth in the center of the stream. Such structures,
according to proposed specifications, needed to be large enough to ensure
a minimum depth in the channel of four feet for seven months out of
the year. The challenge of navigating during the dry summer months and
icy winter months was considered insurmountable. William H. Morell,
the Chief Engineer of the Board of Internal Improvements, estimated
the cost of establishing and maintaining a four-foot channel for a distance
of 220 miles at $204,600.
Local political activity in the Osage valley reflected a strong emphasis
on improving the river for navigation. Residents of Warsaw in Benton
County held a meeting on August 22, 1840 for the purpose of selecting
a Democratic candidate to fill a vacancy in the State Senate. They resolved
that Thomas H. Harvey would be the choice from that district "provided
he is in favor of an appropriation being made by the State for the improvement
of the navigation of the Osage River." The resolution further stated
that Harvey had, while a member of the Lower House, supported and "sustained
with zeal" the bill for such appropriation. Throughout the Osage valley
petition drives were underway, with several signed documents being presented
to the legislature in November of 1840. At the urging of proponents
in the House, these petitions were referred to a Select Committee rather
than the Internal Improvement Committee, so that the members "might
throw every possible light on the subject which thorough friendly examination
might enable them to obtain." On December 17, 1840, a bill for the improvement
of the Osage River was introduced and referred to the Committee on Internal
The matter of improving the Osage River for navigation seemed to be
gaining support, but optimism soon gave way to discouragement and frustration.
The state had few resources to fund the recommended programs, and the
General Assembly abolished the Board of Internal Improvements on February
15, 1841. Later that year, Congress granted 500,000 acres of land within
the Missouri borders to the state with which to generate revenue for
internal improvements. Meanwhile, agitation for improvements to the
Osage continued. According to an 1843 report of the House Standing Committee
on Internal Improvements, the Osage valley required improvements for
navigation to develop a promising mining industry. The committee reported
that "numerous deposits of mineral wealth and extensive veins of the
richest coal fringe the margins of the Osage." The committee encouraged
the legislature to use land sale proceeds to provide funding for navigational
improvements and insisted that the resulting economic growth would soon
repay any expense incurred by the state. Subsequent measures to fund
the improvements, however, failed to pass during that legislative session.
Distraught citizens in the Osage River valley held a convention in
Warsaw on September 9, 1843 in response to the failure of the House
to pass the appropriation bill. Delegates from 13 counties attended
the meeting. Even Springfield was represented since southwest Missouri
markets could connect with shipping routes through Osceola and Roscoe.
The intent was primarily to garner support for pressing the General
Assembly to allocate funds from land sales. Additionally, organizers
addressed various misconceptions people had regarding the proposed work
on the river. Thomas B. Hudson refuted the far-fetched claim that "if
the bars should be removed from the river, the water would all run out
and leave the farm stock to perish of thirst." A
resolution was passed that called for a committee of five to
prepare an address to the people of the State on the importance of the
improvement of the Osage. They also decided that 5,000 copies of the
address would be printed and distributed, and that each member of the
Convention would contribute money to defray the expenses of printing.
Citizens of the valley were called on to furnish to the Legislature
and other interested parties "all the information in their power" to
support an appropriation. A resolution to "support no man for Governor,
Lt. Governor, member of Congress, or member of the General Assembly
of the State of Missouri who will not pledge himself to do all in his
power for the improvement of the Osage river" aroused strong opposition
from three counties. Jefferson City delegates from Cole County insisted
that this restrictive measure was undemocratic. The resolution passed,
never the less, after spirited debate. Furthermore, the members of the
convention pledged themselves to "use all honorable means in their power
to advance and carry out the contemplated objective." The text of the
address was soon printed in newspapers across the state.
Politicians generally agreed that the land sale funds should be used
to improve waterways, but the manner in which this would be done was
contested for four years. Despite strong initiatives to secure funding
for specific improvement projects, the General Assembly opted for a
compromise. An Act of the General Assembly on March 27, 1845 approved
a provision that the revenue generated from the sale of the land be
distributed equally among the counties of the state for use on internal
improvements as each deemed appropriate.
Failing to specifically authorize
funding for improvements to the Osage, the state legislature in 1847
authorized a bill, one first introduced in 1843 but "laid upon the table,"
to establish the Osage River Association. The bill gave its board of
directors, representing the dominant interested parties, authority to
raise funds from individual counties willing to invest in improvements.
Their charge was "To make navigable and improve navigation of the Osage
River from the mouth through Harmony Mission in the County of Bates."
Stock was sold at $100 per share, and $60,000 was raised with only eight
counties, including St. Louis but not Cole County, investing in the
Osage River Association. Some counties apparently refrained from investing
funds in a project that they thought could potentially benefit other
counties more than their own. The river was divided into five districts
from the mouth to Papinsville in Bates County with simultaneous improvements
targeted for each. Work began on all five: dredging shoals, clearing
snags, cutting overhanging limbs, and building wing dams and training
walls. Funds were inadequate and the overall benefits somewhat limited
by not starting at the mouth and working upstream. By 1849, it was obvious
these were only temporary measures and that a system of locks and dams
was needed to maintain slack water over shoals.
Cole County was actively engaged in the struggle to establish a railroad
hub in St. Louis amid competition from Chicago and Memphis. Though local
newspapers encouraged investment in improvements to the Osage to increase
trade through the county from the southwest, Jefferson City merchants
and developers resisted. They were concerned that the Osage trade might
divert local markets to St. Louis and that improved waterways could
be perceived as competition to the development of railroads. St. Louisans,
on the other hand, envisioned a complimentary railroad/waterway transportation
system connecting them with markets served by eastern and western railroads
as well as the Mississippi River. The prodigious Senator from Missouri,
Thomas Hart Benton, was also skeptical about the coexistence of railroads
and navigation. He eventually jumped on the bandwagon and supported
efforts to bring the railroad through his home state, but for years
he had opposed the idea, favoring instead his scheme to develop waterways
to create a "North American Road to India." In a speech to the Senate
in 1850, Benton insisted that the "labors of Lewis and Clark have demonstrated
the existence of a water communication with a few portages, through
the heart and center of the Republic, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The rivers Columbia, Missouri, and Ohio form this line and open a channel
to Asia, short, direct, safe, cheap, and exclusively American, which
invites the enterprise of American citizens, and promises to them a
splendid participation in the commerce of the East."
Those "few portages," amounting to hundreds of miles, were minor obstacles
to commercial navigation, according to Benton, but waning popularity
at home changed his mind about the railroad. On February 7, 1849, he
made one of the long speeches for which he was well known supporting
a bill to create the Pacific Railroad Company's charter in Missouri.
The media quickly recognized his tactics and seized the opportunity
to expose his suspected hypocrisy. A commentary in the Western Journal
in September of 1849 reported: "The proposition for a railway from St.
Louis to San Francisco was introduced into the Senate of the United
States by Colonel Benton of Missouri. It was gratifying to all the friends
of this great measure to find that Colonel Benton, who had so long cherished
his original scheme of 1818 for navigation of the Missouri and Columbia
rivers; and who had as late as the session of 1846 elaborately and ably
defended that scheme in his place in the Senate; had at last reconciled
it to his feelings to unite with those friends of a Pacific railroad
who had pressed the matter upon public consideration for the last fifteen
The Pacific Railroad terminus was eventually established
at St. Louis, and crews began laying track eastward. It bridged the
Osage River at its mouth and reached Jefferson City late in 1855. Fearing
competition with steamboats, the railroad was located away from the
Missouri River west of Jefferson City. However, the Pacific Railroad
operated its own fleet of 12 steamboats connecting with the trains at
Jefferson City to transport passengers and freight on up the Missouri
River to Kansas City and beyond. Passengers could step from the train
to a waiting steamboat, completing the journey from St. Louis to Kansas
City in just 50 hours. Osage City, on the western bank where the bridge
crossed, served as a transfer point for shipments of goods and passenger
service. Steamboats linked both to railroads and Missouri River traffic
from a single vantage point. Navigation was still unreliable, but communities
along the Osage River intended to further capitalize on this profitable
The development of railroads and navigation was interrelated
in other ways, as well. Due in part to the state's financial assistance
to the Pacific Railroad, promoters for improvements to the Osage River
were successful in demanding fair treatment of their economic concerns.
On February 14, 1855, the Missouri legislature passed the General Assistance
Act, providing $50,000 for improvements to the Osage, starting at the
mouth and extending to Osceola. The counties forming the Osage River
Association assigned their rights to the state. The legislature divided
the river into three districts and appropriated the funds to each District
Commissioner. With this funding and systematic approach, efforts were
increased in dredging, snagging, and constructing rock wing dams and
training walls to back water up over the shoals. As a result, Navigation
increased substantially, and by 1856, twelve
steamboats were operating exclusively on the Osage River between the
mouth and Osceola 200 miles upstream.
Because of the shoals and tight bends in the river, Osage River steamboats
were necessarily smaller and had shallower drafts than the steamboats
operating on the Missouri River. Some plied all the way to St. Louis
and back, and others transferred shipments to and from larger Missouri
River boats at the mouth of the Osage. Among those operating on the
Osage were the Osage
E. Tutt, Flora
L. Crawford, Maid
of Osage, and the Mansfield.
Both the Wave and Alliance sank in the treacherous waters,
and several other boats suffered severe damage. Cargo records document
the shipment of such commodities as venison hams, deerskins, otter furs,
lumber products, hemp, pork, and produce mainly to markets in St. Louis.
Upstream commodities included salt, groceries, nails, and iron.
Osage River navigation and improvement declined significantly during
the Civil War. Commerce was disrupted nationwide, and guerilla terrorism
on the Osage River interfered with local trade on the stream. During
the early years of the Civil War, a southern sympathizer known as "General
Crabtree" led a band of recruits in raids on towns and farmhouses in
the Osage valley. Operating primarily in the Cole and Miller County
areas, they moved their camps from place to place through the thickly
forested areas along the river. In June of 1864, Crabtree and his men
successfully infiltrated the town of Tuscumbia and held it hostage until
the arrival of a 60 man militia sent them retreating. Crabtree's hit
and run tactics proved successful until an irate landowner, whose wedding
suit Crabtree had stolen, managed to locate the guerillas' camp and
fire a lucky shot, dropping the notorious leader in his tracks. Further
endangering navigation during the Civil War was the river's proximity
to the railroad. On the morning of October 6, 1864, Confederate forces
attacked the Missouri Pacific railroad bridge at Osage City. They had
approached from the East early in the morning, forcing the Union Command
on the Osage County side of the river to surrender. The Union Company
on the western, Cole County side soon evacuated.
The end of the Civil War brought renewed interest in developing potential
commerce in the Osage River valley. Between 1855 and 1871 a total of
33 shoals were improved by the State of Missouri between Rainy Creek
140 miles from the mouth and Tuscumbia at the 60-mile mark at a cost
of approximately $175,000. The emphasis next shifted to Washington and
targeted federally funded programs. Congressman Barnett of Jefferson
City was successful in his efforts to obtain an order for the examination
of the Osage River. The U.S. Army Engineers initiated a survey of the
river in 1870. Lt. Col. S. F. Reynolds, stationed in St. Louis, was
the officer in charge of Western River Improvements. He dispatched Mr.
D. Fitzgerald to study the stream, and the results of Fitzgerald's survey
were published in the District's Annual Report of 1871, documenting
128 shoals and more than 100 wing dams. The engineer's conclusion was
that "the navigation of this stream can be so improved as to afford
priceless benefit upon the country through which it flows." He argued
that the investment of $200,000 in improvements would open a three foot
channel between the mouth of the Osage and Roscoe, 238 miles upstream,
and provide the means of shipping large amounts of produce that were
presently unable to reach markets. Again, the argument for exploiting
mineral deposits was used. Reynolds reported that the principal minerals
were lead and iron. "The lead deposits are very rich and, although mined
in a crude way by the farmers, already form quite an item of freight.
If there were any certain means of transporting the ore to market, there
is little doubt that it would form a leading source of wealth to the
valley and State."
Reynolds was persuasive, and fieldwork was ordered by an Act of Congress
on March 3, 1871. Work began in September of 1871, and for the first
time, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for snagging,
dredging, and construction on the Osage River. The training walls and
wing dams were constructed to confine the low water flow over each shoal
to a width of 80 feet, but according to some reports, navigation was
hindered rather than improved by these methods. Osage River pilots offered
the most vocal complaints. They were of the opinion that the Osage River,
at stages that partially or completely submerged the training walls
and wing dams, was impossible to navigate with a fair degree of safety.
Critics also argued that a wider though necessarily shallower channel
would minimize hazardous water flow velocity. Where the channel was
confined between training walls, materials in the bed of the river over
the shoal were scoured out and then deposited at the lower end of the
chute producing a bar or downstream extension of an old shoal in the
navigation channel. The natural depth over those riffles was one foot,
and the training walls increased this depth to just 2 feet, therefore,
it was still necessary to maintain a dredge to acquire the wanted depth
of 3 feet in the channel. Even if the methods were questionable, it
was a never-ending struggle to keep up with the planned improvements
and necessary maintenance. In addition to dredging crews, cranes were
in operation at all times removing snags from fallen trees. Overhanging
limbs also had to be cut to avoid hazards to smokestacks on the steamboats.
Three successive $25,000 appropriations in less than two years provided
barely enough money to fund the project.
Local businessmen recognized that the improvements being made were
only temporary and inadequate to sustain their growing commercial interests
in the Osage valley. No attempts had been made by the Engineers to sustain
a channel beyond Tuscumbia. On August 21, 1873, the people upstream
in Benton County held a meeting in Warsaw at which they resolved to
hold a convention at Jefferson City on October 7th and send
delegates with the purpose of adopting a strategy to secure funding
for permanent improvements. Their resolution reflected a belief that
the time was favorable for a vigorous and persistent effort: "The widespread
distresses and complaints of the great farming interest have secured
the attention of the nation to the neglect which the West has suffered
in the national legislation." They believed
that a disproportionate amount of money was spent on improvements in
the East and that the successive small grants appropriated to the Osage
River in previous years were evidence of slight attention to their significant
need. The late Congressman Burnett had brought national attention to
the issue, and the new Representative, Colonel Crittenden, pledged his
hearty support. The Jefferson City People's Tribune applauded
the results of the Warsaw meeting and encouraged the people of Cole,
Osage, Miller, Camden, Benton, Henry, St. Clair, Vernon, and Bates Counties
to send full delegations to the Jefferson City Convention.
On October 8, 1873, the Jefferson City People's Tribune reported
the proceedings of the Osage River Convention. The editorial of the
day condemned the State of Missouri for overindulging in the development
of railroads at the expense of Osage River improvements that would have,
the writer argued, "added more dollars to the treasury and more glory
to the State than half the railroads within her borders." But, the editorial
claimed, it was not too late to press Congress for recompense. Representatives
from each of the Osage valley counties, as well as representatives from
St. Louis, and the counties of Johnson, Maries, Phelps, Moniteau, Hickory,
Cedar, and Laclede attended the convention in Jefferson City. They appointed
Ex-Governor McClurg as head of the Memorial Committee whose task it
would be to present a convincing appeal to Congress and to prepare a
public address to assure the unified support of the people residing
in the Osage valley. The delegates were determined to settle for nothing
less than a system of locks and dams.
According to a letter sent to the convention by the Chief District
Engineer, J. H. Simpson, the 1870 estimate for improvement was far too
low for the amount of material that had to be removed and the time consumed
in preserving the channel. He claimed that the only means of maintaining
a depth greater than two feet was slack-water navigation and that the
only means to determine the cost of such improvements would be an exhaustive
survey at a cost of no less than $20,000.
On February 24, 1874, the Memorial Committee met and approved the draft
offered by Governor McClurg for presentation to Congress. It gave lengthy
reports from each contiguous county of the agricultural products, mineral
resources, and "inexhaustible coal fields" dependent on a lock and dam
system to reach potential markets. Governor McClurg, who owned and operated
a Linn Creek shipping business, agreed to present the memorial to Congress
himself if his expenses could be paid. Committee members agreed to solicit
donations for that purpose. A June 18 meeting of interested parties
at Tuscumbia resulted in the appointment of delegates from various counties
to raise the funds necessary to send J. W. McClurg to Washington.
The Osage River improvement initiative suffered a blow when Engineer
Simpson's Annual Report was published in February of 1875. Simpson failed
to see from the current or anticipated commerce the necessity of undertaking
so costly an improvement as slack-water navigation. Citing the necessity
of maintaining more than 125 shoals on less than 250 miles of river,
Simpson suggested that the cost outweighed the benefit: "From present
appearances I should say the cost of improving them will average not
less than $4,000 to each shoal, or not less than $500,000 in all, and
this, if done upon the present plan, will require frequent retouching.
The cost of locking and damming would be enormous. The present commerce
of the river amounts to almost nothing, although the people interested
claim that it will increase if the Government opens the river."
The Engineer's ongoing project on the Osage must have been substantially
underfunded because the State Legislature was called upon to pay for
work on Bolton Shoals in March 1877. A sum of $2,000 was needed to complete
the dredging and training wall construction. No satisfactory results
were gained from the citizen's initiative of 1874, but a new alliance
was forged with interests in Kansas where high freight rates were exacted
by the few railroads serving the population. Congressmen Plumb of Kansas
and Crittenden of Missouri vowed to convince their colleagues that the
Osage River was an interstate waterway of great importance and worthy
of significant appropriations. Unfortunately, the Missouri contingency
in Congress shared no such unifying mandate. In 1880, Judge H. Clay
Ewing wrote in the Jefferson City Daily Tribune a challenge to
Colonel Phillips, then Missouri's leading Congressman, to take up the
cause and persuade members from the Sixth, Eighth, and Eleventh Districts
to realize the magnitude and importance of slack-water navigation on
the Osage River to their constituents.
Among the steamboats plying the Osage River after the Civil War were
Hurlburt, Plattsmouth, John
R. Hugo, Frederick,
Thomas H. Benton, J.
R. Wells, Tuscumbia,
and the Homer
C. Wright. Some of these river packets towed barges, and some were
engaged to tow tie-rafts when backwater from a swollen Missouri River
caused them to float upstream. Wheat, livestock, lumber, railroad ties,
farm produce, merchandise, lead, and barytes, or "tiff," were the principal
commodities of commerce, but the steamboats also carried mail. Freight
rates varied and were determined by the length of the haul and the kind
of goods carried. Grain and minerals, for example, were carried for
a lower rate than merchandise. After the
establishment of railroad service through Missouri, navigation proponents
euphemistically took to calling steamboats "the great regulators of
the cost of transportation."
By 1884, a large-scale plan for the systematic improvement of the Missouri
River was initiated with a Congressional appropriation of $850,000.
Osage River interests feared that no major appropriations would be gained
for them until the main artery was cleared of all obstacles. They argued
that production in the Osage valley was growing at such a rapid rate
that a difference of fractions of a cent in the cost of transporting
a bushel of grain must be a matter of great concern to farmers and manufacturers.
Improvements to the Osage River, they insisted, must proceed without
delay and simultaneously with the Missouri River project.
In January of 1887, a group of merchants, landowners, and politicians
from Jefferson City drafted a resolution to impress upon Congress the
necessity of improving the Osage, and they planned a convention to be
held at a later date. The Osage River Improvement Convention of 1886
convened in Jefferson City on March 18 to plan an organized effort to
justify and secure funding from Congress for a system of locks and dams.
Judge Clay Ewing and C. G. Brooks, President of the Jefferson City Board
of Trade, spearheaded the campaign. The Tuscumbia delegation, the largest
in attendance, arrived on the steamboat Frederick
and made the trip in eight hours, averaging ten miles an hour.
The strategic outcome of the 1886 Convention was an appeal to both
Congress and the Corps of Engineers. In a letter dated October 29, 1889,
the Citizen's Committee presented to Major A. M. Miller, U. S. Engineer
in Charge of River Improvement, their justification for locks and dams
on the Osage River. The letter claimed that at least one-third of the
$36,000,000 in agricultural products from the Osage valley could be
transported on an improved waterway and the resulting development of
mineral and timber resources would soon quadruple production. They argued
that railways could never adequately serve the valley because of the
river's bluffs and curves. Major Miller responded favorably and in January
1890 submitted a report asking Congress to appropriate $220,000 for
the construction of a lock and dam on the Osage River at Shipley Shoal
10 miles from the mouth. Miller's endorsement enabled Congressman R.
P. Bland and Senators Cockrell and Vest to secure the long-awaited authorization
of a lock and dam project.
Funding was delayed, but finally appropriated in 1893. Still, no work
was begun until Congressman Bland appealed to the Secretary of War on
September 29, 1894. His letter struggled through the usual red tape
channels and was finally forwarded to Lieutenant Colonel Charles R.
Suter of the United States Engineers and President of the Missouri River
Commission. He returned it to the Chief of Engineers with the following
endorsement: "I am directed by the commission to state that work will
be begun as soon as the plans and specifications can be prepared."
In addition to constructing locks and dams, the engineers were directed
to open and maintain a three-foot channel for a distance of 238 miles
to Roscoe, the head of navigation. This proved to be an impossible task,
and the head was twice pushed back - first in 1902 to a point just above
the Grand River 185 miles from the mouth, then again in 1904 to the
171-mile mark below Warsaw. The people of St. Clair and Benton Counties
had given up hope of seeing improvements to the river and welcomed the
passage of measures that established the head below their region. Their
interest shifted to the economic benefit of building bridges, an endeavor
precluded by navigation.
Operations at Shipley Shoal were underway by September of 1895. A towboat
was stationed there and engaged in moving dredges, piledrivers and material
up from Osage City. The lock measured 220 feet by 40 feet and the dam
was nine feet high. Affixed to the dam were movable drums, or half-cylinders,
that could be rotated and raised on steam-powered wickets during low-water
stages. The lock was equipped with mitered gates at the upper and lower
ends. These were first made of timber, and then replaced with steel
gates. The dam stretched the full 850-foot width of the river, but it
had a navigation pass 60 feet in width through which boats and rafts
of ties and logs could pass during high-water stages.
Navigation was closed for six months during construction, creating
a serious backlog of shipments and cutting off trade between Osage City
and communities upstream. A Missouri Congressional contingency took
up the concern with the War Department and "pressed the matter so vigorously
as to obtain the necessary order for restoring the river to its natural
uses." The Secretary of War consequently instructed Chief Engineer Chittenden
to expedite operations at the lock and dam. The editors of the Jefferson
City Tribune not only praised the efforts of Senator Stone and
Congressman Shackleford, but said, "The people living in the valley
of the Osage are fortunate in having representatives at Washington who
are not only willing to look after their interests, but can accomplish
something when they start out to do so."
The results of the Congressional pressure on the lock and dam project
were quick and dramatic. Engineers hurried through the final phase of
construction and just two weeks later, on February 15, 1906, the first
test of the operation of the lock was conducted. When the gates on the
lock closed, the pressure created by the backed up water was too great
for the wall of the dam to withstand. About 30 feet of the center section
gave way carrying the third pier with it. Engineers attributed the failure
to heavy rains and frequent flooding conditions during construction.
Instead of waiting until the official March 1 opening date, boats and
rafts began passing through the breach immediately and continued to
do so until repairs were initiated during the dry summer months. The
dam was not fully operational until 1914, but the lock was functional
in the meantime.
Navigation on the Osage River was at its height during the last two
decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth
century, due largely to channel improvements, but there were still obstacles
to face. The memoirs of Captains Robert
M. Marshall, Henry
Castrop, and C. B. Wright document the day-to-day difficulties faced
by rivermen of the era. These pilots operated routes out of Osage City,
Linn Creek, and Tuscumbia to as many as sixteen communities and fifty
landings between the mouth and Roscoe, 238 miles upstream. They also
hauled shipments to and from ports as far away as St. Louis. Weather
was a constant concern, and it determined whether or not the boats could
run. Wright once observed: "The river is so low a duck can ford it."
He paid careful attention to the branches after a rainfall, and if they
were running well, chances of the river rising were good, so he would
once again be making pick-ups and deliveries aboard the Wells.
Wind was another concern. If the boats were hit broadside by strong
gusts, pilots could not keep them in the channel. When temperatures
dropped suddenly, pilots risked navigating in freezing water if they
tried to race home. They occasionally spent the winter months stranded
on bars or in ports far from home. When the river began dropping, boats
grounded periodically, and extreme exertion was required to re-float
them. Osage packets ranged in length from 60 to 140 feet and carried
up to 200 tons of freight. A towboat hauled one or two 60-foot barges.
Often, the cargo had to be removed to accomplish the task of re-floating.
Sometimes the effort was to no avail, and the voyage had to be halted
until the water rose again. Captain
Marshall had a bad experience one night at Osage City. It was customary
for a steamboat to whistle so that a section of the railroad bridge
could be raised to permit the boat's passage. The railroad men replied
that the passage was open and clear, but as the night was dark, Captain
Marshall had no way to be certain. He headed for what he believed was
the open section and plowed directly into the bridge. The smokestacks
of the John R. Hugo
were torn off, and the pilothouse was set afire. A pilot was often at
his watch for twenty-four hours straight. He might have crewmen splash
him with water or speak at intervals to keep him awake. Captain
Castrop and his crew occasionally went without sleep for two nights
in a row, and once this depravation resulted in quite a scare. On the
relatively straight homestretch, just above Osage City, the Captain
and crew succumbed to a brief nap, and the unguided Frederick
plowed headlong into the riverbank.
After 75 years of persuasion, Lock and Dam No.1 had finally created
a three-foot channel for a stretch of 20 miles above the structure,
but the labor-intensive work of improvement exceeded estimated costs.
In 1917, just three years after completion of the dam, the federal government
decided to halt plans to further develop slack-water navigation on the
Osage River. They reported spending $1,050,000, including $375,000 for
the lock and dam, and the estimated cost of completing the work as far
up as Lynn Creek was another $85,000 with $8,000 annually for maintenance,
and an additional $6,000 annually for the upkeep and operation of the
lock and dam. They believed the benefit to navigation had not proved
to be commensurate with the cost. The improvement project was modified
to provide only for the operation of the lock and dam and for snagging.
In 1922, developers took initial steps for the construction of one
of the largest hydroelectric plants in the state. The proposed site
was on the Osage River at Devil's Elbow, ten miles upstream from Tuscumbia.
The government had condemned the Osage River as a navigable stream above
the site of the proposed power dam, but the lower reaches were still
in need of maintenance. Congress granted $12,000 in 1926 for dredging
and snagging, and that appears to be the last such assistance to the
Osage River besides operation of the lock and dam.
Improved roads connecting markets to railroad service significantly
decreased the need for river shipment of farm products, and the anticipated
mineral wealth in the Osage valley never materialized.
Union Electric completed construction of Bagnell
Dam in 1931, effectively ending steamboat navigation on the Osage
River except for a small amount of trade from Tuscumbia to the mouth.
The lock and dam ceased operating in September 1951, and the property,
which included 12 residential, operational, and maintenance buildings,
was sold to a private concern on April 1, 1960 for $10,500.
Commerce on the Osage River is likely to remain confined to history
books and local museums, but if economic conditions present a compelling
need for a revival of commercial navigation, the Corps of Engineers
and Union Electric would be required to provide the means for boats
to pass over or around Bagnell
Dam. Two methods suggested in a 1933 Congressional report were the
installation of a rail transfer system and a traveling crane capable
of lifting up to 100 tons. This report also presented the results of
a study to determine the likelihood of such a development. The conclusions
regarding future prospects of large-scale commercial navigation were