The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 effectively doubled the size of the United States and the entire country turned and faced westward awaiting permission to move into this new untamed wilderness. There were only two so-called cities to speak of in the new territory, St. Louis and New Orleans. It was nearly impossible to travel west out of New Orleans, because if the alligators didn’t get you, you most likely would have gotten lost in the swamps, so everyone headed for St. Louis. However, Missouri and eastern Kansas were no bargain either because of the underbrush and tall grass – it was nearly impassable.

You know how fast the grass grows in your back yard, think of what it must have been like before the lawnmower. The grass on the Missouri and Kansas prairies was taller than a man’s head and so thick a man could not wade through it.

There were some 20,000 Indians living in our neighborhood at the time, so there were many shadowy Indian paths crisscrossing the territory. A man could walk down those Indian paths if you had enough nerve, or maybe ride a mule, but they were just that, a path, no way could you ever think of taking a wagon team down one. So, the Missouri River was the highway of the day. Wagons were loaded on boats and literally pulled up stream by a rope before the days of steam boating on the Missouri.

The river was a much different animal back in those days. Before it was straightened, channeled and levied, it flowed all over the Missouri River bottoms, the most champion bank carving, sediment-carrying, tree-toppling stream in the world, with the biggest appetite of all the American waterways. It was eating all the time – eating yellow clay banks and cornfields, 80 acres at a mouthful, winding up its banquet with a truck garden and picking its teeth with the timbers of a big, red barn. Each year it would eat 10,000 acres of rich farmland, several miles of railroad, a few houses, plus a forest or two and scads of sandbars.

Maybe there was a snow melt up in Montana, or a downpour in Nebraska, whatever the reason, it would flood at the drop of a hat. By the time those flood waters reached our neighborhood, the Big Muddy was a raging torrent – to say the least. It would yank those giant cottonwood trees out by their roots and send them whirling and tumbling down the river. The river was full of dead trees.

When steamboating began, they were sunk by the hundreds from collisions with dead trees. So the government established a fleet of boats specifically designed to remove those obstructions. Those snag boats, as they were called, had double hulls and double engines, with paddlewheels on each side of the boat. They carried an iron hook and heavy tackle mounted to a derrick that towered between the two hulls. A single snag boat would straddle the offending dead tree, hook on to it, and drag it out, like a dentist extracting a sore tooth. Then the crew members would saw it up into logs and let them drift harmlessly on down the river, or else deposit them on shore.

Snagging operations worked well, but there were never enough snag boats to go around. By the time a crew finished clearing their assigned district, a new invasion of dead trees had already filled in the river behind them. One good snag boat could out-root 30 snags per day, for a total of 1,700 dead trees in a season on the river.

Ref: “Wild River, Wooden Boats,” by Michael Gillespie

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send email to or call him at 816-896-3592.