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The Pilings of History Along the Old Muddy

Pilings along the Missouri River
Sioux City Public Museum
Sioux City Public Museum Archives
Pilings along the Missouri River

I know, I know—it hurts to go over what’s now most thankfully gone downstream.

The 2019 January-to-May period of our calendar earned its own title: the very wettest five month spread on record. One million acres of U.S. farmland, in nine major grain-producing states flooded. You may remember: the drive to Omaha was like boating through a dozen Okobojis.

But I’m here to say that 2019 was something of an anomaly. Ever since the Pick-Sloan Project first dammed up the Missouri in 1933, the river’s been mostly a pussy cat, curling down through South Dakota before ironing out and, right here, going east for a mile or two, then south, taking aim on Omaha.

Our magnificent Missouri is humbled greatly by human ingenuity, specifically, the Army Corps of Engineers. From our own Theophole and War Eagle, right up to the Great Depression, the Missouri River was a madcap, well-armed neighbor that had to be feared. But it was also an interstate, as it had been for centuries before, serving the Omaha and Yankton.

Missouri River Pilings on Shore
James C. Schaap
Old pilings along the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa.

Once upon a time our Missouri overflowed with life. Steamships came, gathered, then blew right through, spewing smoke from their stacks. It took a wizened captain, adept at his trade, to navigate fancy flatline 150-passenger cruisers into, around, and through an ever-changing maze of sandbars and cottonwood snares, each of them capable of crunching a steamboat like so much cardboard. Three years--three shipping seasons--was the average life span of the monsters that once chugged along up and down this very Missouri River.

The river was the means by which anyone who so desired could stay and live here. The river dutifully delivered goods; still, all too often Old Muddy was an abuser.

Sioux City honors its riverboat heritage with a wonderful riverside walkway. If you stroll along down there, you've seen time-worn posts that line the banks like so many balding gentlemen with unkept hair.

Once upon a time, before the dams, those posts were driven into the river as if awaiting the steam-belching river boat just around the bend. But then they were connected, given a thick skirt to become something of a wall, jammed into the mother earth.

Those old posts may date back to the 1890s, but most were driven into the river sometime between 1930 and 1950 and, sad to say, had nothing to do with the steamboat trade. Once in place, a dredge came up to dig out the channel and dump all that gushy river bottom behind the barriers created by those posts, so that river bottom turned into good earth, much as the Dutch took land back from the sea. What was left behind was a thick flood barrier, by which we avoided the rampages the Missouri River went on all too often.

Dredging the Pilings
Sioux City Public Museum
Sioux City Public Museum Archives
Working the pilings on the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers in Sioux City, IA

All that work was a deterrent to the river's eternal rowdiness of an outlaw river, far too given to violence.

Those posts do no one's bidding right now but create their own riverfront museum, artifacts of a time when the city--and the region—was still, well, more of the frontier it once was, the wild, wild west on a river that so regularly went on a tear that we could only fearfully call it ours.

Next time you take a wonderful walk along the river, don't miss those posts, one after another. They’re wonderful. They have their own story, and they're not leaving any time soon.

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