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Ted Stillwell: The river has a mind of its own

Jeff Fox
The Examiner

It is roughly 2,500 miles down the Missouri River from Three Forks, Montana to the mouth of the river north of St. Louis. You could float in a canoe from its source over 4,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri winds back and forth across the valley floor as it makes its way downstream.

The straight sections of the river are called reaches, and the curved sections are called bends, each of which bears a name. The name generally comes from a noted person or place, or an incident that took place in that particular area.

The deepest water, or where the flow is least obstructed, is called the navigation channel. That channel winds back and forth across the river – much the same as the river does across the valley floor. As the channel approaches a bend, the flow will cut into the bank on the outside of the bend; and the channel will have to cross the river as the water moves downstream to the next bend, that will most likely twist in the other direction. This is called a crossover, or river crossing, where the channel changes from near one bank, to the other side of the river.

Personally I think it foolish to build a city in the Missouri River bottoms. Old Man River is not exactly known for cooperating and staying within its assigned riverbanks. Mark my word, one of these days the Missouri will swell up and move Kansas City on downstream, maybe even as far as Missouri City. At least maybe then it will end the confusion over which state the city is in. Speaking of Missouri City, let me tell you an interesting little story.

Missouri City is on the north side of the river, downstream a ways from Missouri 291. It was originally known as Williams Landing. That’s where Shrewbury Williams established a ferry at the mouth of Rose Creek in 1834. A settlement grew up around the ferry crossing and was called Richfield.

The river went on a rampage and flooded, leaving a huge sandbar where the landing was and washed Richfield on downstream. A hotel was then built on top of the bluff and a new town was born on higher ground. The settlers named it St. Bernard, after the famous St. Bernard hospice in the Alps. Downstream a rival town was laid out and called New Richfield. Just below New Richfield, at the foot of the bluff, yet another town was established and named Atchison.

On March 14, 1859, the Missouri legislature incorporated all three towns into one and renamed it Missouri City.

In its early years, Missouri City was the area’s largest hemp market and also shipped enormous quantities of tobacco downriver.

In May of 1863, “Bushwhackers” raided the town and in January 1864, a band of “Jayhawkers” captured the city from a small force of the Missouri Militia. The two raids practically destroyed Missouri City, but with the coming of the Wabash Railroad it was revived and rebuilt.

As you would expect, the river maps show the bend at Missouri City as the “Missouri City Bend.” However the river rats refer to it by a different name – “Whirling Jones Bend.” The men who work on the riverboats are known as river rats. At one time there was a shack on the riverbank where a couple named Jones lived. Mr. Jones told his wife that if he died and she was ever unfaithful to his memory, he would turn over in his grave. Well sure enough, Jones did die, and she was soon quite unfaithful to his memory. The neighbors and the river rats started calling her “Whirling Jones Widow.”

Reference: “Missouri River, the River Rats Guide,” Cecil R. Griffith.

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

Ted Stillwell