Romance of Omaha, Chapter XVII

From the earliest times long before the coming of the white man, the Missouri river was the great highway of the west.

On its turbulent an murky tide were borne the canoes of the Indian tribes that inhabited what is now the great Missouri valley.

When the "paleface" first invaded the west he came up the great river in canoes, pirogues and keelboats and established trading posts and camps along its banks.

The roving Indians, wondering at the invasion of the white men, passed the posts and houses springing up on each shore of the mighty river and perhaps visioned the day when they would have to fight a losing battle for their heritage.

The keelboats, each 60 to 70 feet in length and drawn by ropes held by men walking along the banks, were the slow and cumbersome first freight-carrying craft used in ascending the Missouri.

Slow Boat Trips

They consumed as much as five months coming from St. Louis to Omaha. When the wind blew in the right direction a large sail helped the progress of the boat.

For down-river voyages mackinaws, propelled by four carsmen, were the favorite craft.

Merchandise for trading with the Indians, for outfitting trappers and hunters, and supplies for military posts, formed the up-river cargoes in the pre-steamboat days.

Down river went fortunes in furs to far-away St. Louis, then, as now, one of the great fur markets of the world.

Passengers went up and down the river in increasing numbers.

First Steamboat

On September 16, 1819, the first steamboat passed the site of Omaha on its way upstream. It was the Western Engineer, carrying a military expedition into the wilds.

Not until 1830 was regular steamboat service established on the Missouri. The American Fur company, of which John Jacob Astor was the head, began steamer service in the spring of 1831, when the Yellowstone came up the river as far as the present site of Pierre, S.D.

From that time until the railroads reached the Missouri river, the traffic up and down the "Big Muddy" grew steadily. In the year 1858 there were 59 steamboats on the "upper Missouri" and that year 28 boats docked at the village of Sioux City before July 1.

Golden Boating Era

From 1855 to 1865 was the golden era of the steamboats and the river. Vast supplies of every kind were brought up from St. Louis and St. Joseph.

Omaha became the headquarters for the great plains trade.

Gold and buffalo hides, furs and other products of the west poured into the city on great freighting wagon trainns to be shipped down stream.

From the south came food, clothing, furniture, lumber, iron, wagons and everything that was needed in this western region.

Palatial steamers piled the Missouri. Large sidewheelers, with fine cabins, catered to the passenger trade and each steamship company sought to build the fastest boats.

The steamboat Denver of the St. Joe Packet line, was considered the finest boat on the river.

Famous Packets

Other famous boats were the West Wind, Kate Kinney, Star of the West, Polar Star, Watossa, Omaha, Sultan, Fontenelle and Fannie Tatum. At times arrivals at the Omaha levee averaged one steamer a day.

Coming of the first steamboat in the spring always called for great jubilation. Shut off from communication with the outside world during the winter, Omaha people welcomed with roaring cannon and cheers the arrival of the first boat. Everyone stopped work and trooped to the levee to "see the boat come in."

Omaha wharfs in the summer were piled high with merchandise of all kinds. Seven or eight boats would be tied up at one time loading or unloading cargoes.

Steamboat dances, at which the gallant and picturesque river captains were the hosts, were features of the time.

Railroads Oust Boats

Great as were those days they were forced to give way to greater, even if less romantic times. The railroads reached and spanned the Missouri river. The steamboat and the river traffic vanished, never to be recalled even to this day.

Through the years, up to the present time, there have been men who have kept alive the dream of again utilizing the Missouri river as a great highway of commerce. Several times efforts were made to reopen the river traffic, but they all failed.

Not until the last couple of years have the prospects of river navigation seemed to grow brighter.

Energetic work on the part of the united forces of the Missouri valley have finally impressed upon congress the need of developing the Missouri river and making it navigable.

Hoover and River

Army engineers have declared the project feasible. President-elect Herbert Hoover has declared himself in full accord with those who urge the improvement of the Missouri. Opposition in the east has been overcome to a great extent.

The Missouri River Navigation association, formed in 1925, won recognition of the upper Missouri project in the last congress, which passed a bill authorizing a 6-foot channel from Kansas City to Sioux City. The fight is now on to secure appropriations to improve this part of the river within the next five years. Only $600,000 was set aside for the river above Kansas City for this year. The 1929 appropriation is $1,000,000.

The improvement of the Missouri from Kansas City to its mouth will be finished in 1930.

Need More Money

The Missouri River Navigation association and all the business and farming organizations of the Missouri valley are now urging appropriation of from $6,000,000 to $10,000,000 yearly to improve the river from Kansas city north.

If that is done the river will be made navigable for barges and towboats within five years at the longest.

All doubt that traffic on the Missouri will pay was removed by a careful estimate of available shipments made recently by C.E. Childe, head of the traffic bureau of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Childe's survey shows that the potential up-river tonnage would total 6,000,000 tons a year and the down-river tonnage 8,500,000 tons a year, a grand total of 14,500,000 tons.

Potential tonnage from Omaha alone, Mr. Childe estimates at 3,000,000 tons a year down river and 2,000,000 tons a year upstream.

Aid to Farmers

Savings to the farmers and business men of the Missouri valley would amount to more than $30,000,000 annually, according to conservative estimates, or almost enough to pay the entire cost of the project in one season.

Grain, hay, livestock, hides, packing house products and manufactured articles would move downstream. Coal, cement, lumber, salt, ore, coffee, rice, farm implements, machinery, manufactured products of all kinds would come up the river.

River barges could carry grain from Omaha to St. Louis at a saving of approximately 4 cents a bushel over present all-rail rates, according to Mr. Childe.

The benefits to Omaha and the entire valley that would accrue from river navigation would be tremendous. A new era of prosperity on farms and in the cities would be ushered in and new enterprises would spring up on every hand.

The halcyon days of 1855-65 would be as nothing compared to the greater days of the 20th century if the Missouri river were restored to its full usefulness.

Chapter XVIII
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