|Karl Bodmer's Snags on the Missouri graphic restoration by Al Barrus
On 12 July 1867, Captain Charles W. Howell of the Corps of Engineers boarded the steamboat Miner at Sioux City. Bound far up the Missouri for Fort Benton, Montana, on a Government survey of the river, the Civil War veteran already had some idea of the river's power and caprice. Only 2 weeks earlier, high water had kept him from reaching Omaha, Nebraska, in time to meet another vessel. The Miner had also experienced a near miss. Just below Sioux City, a violent eddy caught the steamer, spun it around, and swept the deck clean. Two men drowned.
Several military explorers had preceded Howell on the river. First came Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark-Jeffersons's men-on their trek to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. After them came the Engineers. In 1819, Stephen H. Long and an expedition chugged up the river in a sternwheeler as far as Council Bluffs, Iowa. Lieutenant John C. Fremont and his French mentor, Joseph Nicollet, went upstream 20 years later. In the 1850's, Lieutenant Gouverneur K. Warren examined parts of the Missouri, and parties of railroad surveyors walked its banks, noted the good crossings, and recorded the gentle slopes as the plains rose to meet the mountains.
Although a long line of explorers had preceded Howell, the circumstances of his journey set it apart from those of his predecessors. Gold had been discovered in Montana during the Civil War, and the rush was on. The Missouri, once the main artery of the fur trade, became a bonanza trail. Fort Benton changed almost overnight from a sleepy outpost at the head of navigation to the commercial hub of the new EI Dorado. While only six steamboats had fought their way up to Fort Benton in 1864, 70 did so three years later, and steam-boating on the upper Missouri became a million-dollar business.
The boost provided to Missouri River commerce by the gold rush was sustained into the 1870's by the expanding military activity along the upper Missouri. The War Department built a number of forts along the river, and the Army conducted significant military operations against the northern plains tribes for several years. So, although river traffic in the trans-Mississippi West as a whole continued a decline begun during the Civil War, the level of activity on the Missouri remaind high. The great increase in traffic on the upper river fired interest in improvement of navigation and brought Howell to Sioux City. He spent nearly three months on the Miner, whose name called to mind the gold rush but whose captain represented the Northwestern Fur Company, examining the variety of obstructions to navigation-bars, rapids, snags, and rocks. His report, which recommended removal of obstacles and deepening of the channel, marked the beginning of Government efforts to facilitate transportation on the upper Missouri.
The Missouri would give those who sought to ease the way for commerce quite a lot to do. The Nation's longest river, it stretches almost 2,500 miles from its source in western Montana at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gall atin Rivers, a place now called Three Forks. The Missouri flows northeastward through Montana for about 150 miles, turns east, and crosses the State to North Dakota and its junction with the Yellowstone. Along the way the Missouri picks up the waters of the Marias, Musselshell, Milk, and Teton Rivers. Eastward it runs until midway through North Dakota, where it turns south to meet the Knife River. The rest of the way through the Dakotas is southeastward, augmented by a series of streams that run west to east, among them the Heart, Cannonball, Cheyenne, White, and Niobrara. At present-day Sioux City, the course becomes more southerly. The river becomes the border between Nebraska and Iowa, then separates Kansas and Missouri. Finally, it turns east, splits the State of Missouri, and empties into the Mississippi at St. Louis.
By the time that Captain Howell came to the Missouri, the Corps of Engineers had at least an acquaintance with the lower reaches of the river. As the agency charged by Congress wjth improvement of navigable waterways, the Corps had made intermittent efforts to remove snags as early as 1832. These efforts resumed after the Civil War. In 1868, Colonel John N. Macomb assumed responsibility for the work as Superintendent of Western Rivers and successors, Captains William F Raynolds and James H. Simpson, continued the effort into the 1870's.
Major Charles R. Suter, who followed Simpson to the western rivers job in 1873, picked up where Captain Howell had left off on the Missouri. Suter faced an immense task. His office in St. Louis dealt with obstructions on the lower Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers as well as the Missouri. His work on the Missouri, which extended over a decade in various capacities, involved several specific improvements as well as a general investigation of the river up to Sioux City and development of a long-range program to aid navigation. Most of the improvements carried out by Suter concentrated on the lower reach of the river between Kansas City and St. Louis. He did devote some of his efforts to upstream projects, among them stabilization works opposite Nebraska City, Nebraska, and farther upstream at Sioux City and Vermillion, Dakota Territory, as well as snagging at a few locations. Suter learned a great deal about the Missouri during his tenure. He overestimated its length at "something over 3,000 miles" but understood the significance of his work. "The importance of the subject," he wrote in his 1881 summary of his work on the river, 'can hardly be overestimated as this
river is the longest of any in the United States." Suter attributed the large discharge of the river to the vast area of the basin and the snows and ice near its headwaters. The river's most salient features
included "the remarkable impetuosity of its current" and its slope of about 1.5 feet per mile, which Suter thought considerable for so large a stream. The rapid current-as fast as 10 miles per hour-and unstable banks made the river unusually turbid and earned it the name of Big Muddy: " It is, in fact, the greatest silt-carrier in the country, and the enormous mass of sediment which it brings forward forms the great bulk of that received by the Mississippi from its tributaries ."
According to Suter, the river flooded twice annually. The April flood, " extremely violent" and brief, lasted no more than 7 to 10 days and resulted from the snowmelt. The second flood, in June, rose higher and stayed longer. Local rains played a large role in it. "Both," Suter noted, " had sufficient power to produce tremendous effects and bring about the most astonishing changes. "
|Major Stephen H. Long's Western Engineer sketch by Titian R. Peale: American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia.
He concluded that the difficulties of navigation resulted from the lack of sufficient scouring power at specific locations. As a remedy, he suggested a system of channel improvements to concentrate the
flow of water at these places. Although he thought this approach the most economical, he recognized the problems, among them the fluctuations of the river and particularly the floods which might render any construction useless. Nevertheless, he hoped to use the river to deepen and maintain its own channel while cleaning itself of snags. Through such a program, Suter expected to maintain a uniform navigation depth of 12 feet all the way to Sioux City.
|Major Charles R. Suter, photo courtesy of the U.S. Military Academy Archives, West Point, New York.
Suter thought the program would cost about $10,000 per mile or $8 million for the entire river to Sioux City. He wanted to start at the mouth of the river and work upstream, ideally with appropriations that covered reaches of at least 50 miles at a time. Above all , he wished to avoid a piecemeal approach: " If the money is to be frittered away at isolated points, and the improvement carried on in a disjointed and arbitrary manner, no estimate of the ultimate cost is possible. " While Suter still worked on the river downstream of Sioux City, the Chief of Engineers sent Lieutenant Edward Maguire far upstream to Fort Benton. Starting in 1877, Maguire removed obstacles to navigation along a 300-mile stretch between the head of navigation and the mouth of the Yellowstone. A military escort protected the workers against the tribes that had surprised and annihilated Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and his column of the 7th Cavalry. Maguire's men built wing dams and removed boulders at the three greatest obstructions, Cow Island, Two Calf Island, and Dauphin's Rapids . Maguire and Suter were both still at work during the high-water year of 1881 . The flood began with the early melt of snow in Montana and the Dakotas. The river opened up above Fort Buford, Montana, and ice flowed downstream. Below Yankton, Dakota Territory, no January thaw occurred. The ground remained frozen solid and the ice in the river became 50 inches thick. The melted snow accumulated behind ice dams in the reaches between Fort Pierre, Dakota Territory, and Sioux City. One such
obstruction extended for 15 miles.
When the weather warmed on March 27, a massive ice gorge broke, and the worst of the flooding followed. High water rolled down the Missouri and poured over the town of Niobrara, Nebraska. At
Omaha, the river went out of its banks when the gauge reached 18 feet. The snow continued to melt, the rains came, and the river continued to rise. On April 26 the Omaha gage read 23.75 feet, the worst flood on record. The whole river valley between Pierre and Sioux City was under water. In some places, the river dumped 5 feet of sand. The flood destroyed all of the Engineers' work at Nebraska City. The sections of Brownville, Nebraska, built on the flood plain just washed away. The flood swept away the Engineers ' ill-conceived works, left their better efforts standing, and demonstrated the power of the river. The Engineers had concluded that privately built bank protection works failed because they were either poorly designed or too small to withstand the river 's forces .
They also knew that massive levees or dikes would sink of their own weight into the soft soil. The river had to be met with light, yielding structures which allowed it to flow along the length of the works. Suter also established a principle of river improvement when he wrote that "by utilizing the natural forces at work, we hope to avoid any direct conflict with the river, as in such a conflict we would in all probability be worsted ." The river had a navigable depth of 3 to 9 feet, eroded its banks as much as 2,000 feet a year in some places, and was a prodigious silt carrier, Suter explained. The silt was the river's essential problem. He estimated that 11 billion cubic feet of silt could have been carried past St. Charles, Missouri, during 1879-enough to cover a square mile of ground to a depth of 200 feet.
Silt caused great difficulties for navigators. The sediment that collected on bars forced the main channel to change its location or diverted the current through many small channels. Vessels passing over these bars between deep-water pools frequently ran aground. The channel changes caused by the bars increased erosion, added more silt to the river, and caused a silt accretion on the downstream bars. These changes occurred in continuous cycles. The changes became most pronounced during high water stages and endangered vessels and farmland. In the 3 years after Suter submitted his 1881 report, the Engineers continued to experiment in the river with such simple procedures as peeling the bark from piles to lessen friction when the piles were driven. At Omaha, they tried cottonwood piles, but later replaced them with Norway fir and other more durable woods. Samuel H. Yonge, one of Suter's assistants, used a steam-powered pile-driver equipped with a water-jet nozzle at Sioux City. The water jet broke the gumbo clay of the bottom and allowed the piles to penetrate the riverbed quickly and easily. In Nebraska at Plattsmouth and Brownville, Suter's assistants, W. H. McKnew and C. S. Pease, mounted wire screens on pile tripods to slow the river and make it drop its silt. Driftwood destroyed Pease's screen in Sonora Bend, near Brownville.
|Covington Revetment, continuous woven mattress from Annual Report of the Cheif of Engineers, 1880
Congress appropriated $850,000 in 1882 to begin the systematic improvement of the river. Suter allocated $400,000 of the appropriation to build new floating plant. His 188-vessel fleet included barges, mattress boats, hydraulic graders, hydraulic piledrivers, quarter boats, yawls, skiffs, and a floating machine shop. The general survey of the Missouri advanced under assistant Engineer D. W. Wellman, who bought the steamer Missouri to transport and house his surveying parties. The River and Harbor Bill of 1883 failed and Wellman had to discharge his men. Three of them stayed on the job anyway and worked 42 days without pay to continue the survey. A new money bill then passed so payment could be made.
To simplify the administration and management of the improvements, Suter divided the work area from Sioux City to the mouth into three divisions. The divisions were headquartered at St. Joseph and
Kansas City, Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas. The reach of the river from Charleston, Kansas, to Lexington, Missouri, was scheduled for systematic improvement. Nebraska City, Omaha, and Sioux City received individual attention . While Suter and his assistants developed their organization and methods, Maguire continued his work in Montana. On the uppermost navigable portion of the Missouri between Fort Benton and Carroll, Montana-sometimes known as the "Rocky River" in contrast to the lower "Sandy River" on which Suter worked-Maguire relied on conventional blasting and rock wing dams both above Great Falls and below Fort Benton. He expected more or less dependable behavior from the river, his structures, and his work.
Difficulties did attend the work on the Rocky River. Building materials were scarce so the Engineers opened quarries and used the steamer Emily to haul the stone. The Emily's inability to reach the
quarries during periods of low water delayed the work. Maguire found secure places where his work boats would be protected from ice during the winter. Crews had to be hired in far-off St. Paul, Minnesota. Only after appropriations came could the workers make the journey from St. Paul to the jobsite by railroad and steamer. Despite these difficulties, Maguire's successor, Captain James B. Quinn, reported that the Engineers lengthened the navigable river by 84 miles and added 2 months to the navigation season by deepening the channel.
|Steamboat Colorado at Omaha's Farnam Street dock in 1865. One of six steamboats exclusively employed by the Union Pacific Railroad for carrying provisions up the Missouri River, Union Pacific Railroad Historical photo.
Despite the efforts to increase commerce and the influence of the gold rush, navigation gradually declined on the western rivers after the Civil War. During the 1860's, shallow-draft barges that carried
their cargoes above the waterline appeared on the lower river. The barges allowed a strong towboat to do more work than a conventional steamer. The editor of the Kansas City Journal attempted to bring such a bargeline to Kansas City in 1872. His reasoning was simple: barges hauled grain cheaper than railroad cars. The 1872 attempt failed as did another in 1877. In 1880, the Kansas City Board of Trade established a river service with a steamer and five barges. This line also eventually folded.
The expanding network of trans-Mississippi railroads was making its presence felt. River interests did not give up easily. Navigation conventions met in St. Louis in 1867, in Kansas City in 1880, and again in St. Louis in 1881 . At a similar but better organized convention in St. Joseph later in 1881, delegates from Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri urged Congress to finance improvement
of the river. They also asked for the establishment of a Missouri River Commission to oversee that improvement.
Congress responded favorably. In 1882, the lawmakers appropriated $850,000 for the Missouri. Two years later, they also yielded to pressure from basin residents for a single, comprehensive agency to manage improvements of the river. The House of representatives Committee on Commerce favorably reported on the establishment of a Missouri River Commission, modeled on the 5-year-old Mississippi River Commission, to devise "the most effective and economical method of using the annual appropriation for this waterway." The Committee insisted that "great natural advantages possessed by this waterway" made the river superior to the railroads for bulk freight. With the establishment of a river commission, a Government agency would view the Missouri as an integrated whole for the first time.
Congress accepted the Committee on Commerce's reasoning and created the five-member Missouri River Commission during the same year. Major Suter became the Commission's first president and
Majors Alexander MacKenzie and Oswald H. Ernst its other Corps of Engineers members. The Commission's civilian members were Garland C. Broadhead of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, and William Broatch of Omaha. First Lieutenant Walter L. Fisk of the Corps of Engineers served as its secretary. The Commission carried out improvements on the river from its mouth to Fort Benton. The work included snagging operations on the main stem above Sioux City and on the Yellowstone and a survey of the river above Great Falls.
The Commission continued to divide the river into two administrative districts, one below Sioux City under Suter and the upstream one in Quinn's charge. In its initial report, the Commission claimed that five acts of Congress had appropriated money for work at 43 locations on the river with no useful results. The commissioners also explained the competing philosophies that sought to direct their work. Local interests wanted the Commission to protect private, corporate, and municipal property on the riverbank. The Commission itself held that appropriations for the river were a capital investment. The money should be used to develop the river, make it a transportation route, and eventually return greatly increased revenues to the Treasury of the United States. These views were never reconciled. Congress consistently directed the Missouri River Commission to build works that responded to both but never appropriated enough money.
During 1890, when the Commission had to suspend operations for 4 months because of a lack of funds, responsibility for the upper river was transferred to the newly formed Sioux City District of the Northwest Division of the Corps of Engineers. When the new District took jurisdiction over the upper river, it assumed projects at locations where the Omaha District would later work. One at Sioux City ran from Elk Point, South Dakota, to South Sioux City, Nebraska, and protected the town front, the riverbank at the confluence of the Missouri and Floyd
Rivers, two bridges, and an old channel of the Missouri. Twenty dikes and 20,724 feet of mattresses went in to protect Sioux City. Another project at Yankton, South Dakota, sought to stabilize the riverbank at a bridge construction site.
Meanwhile, the Missouri River Commission faced continual difficulties with appropriations and conflicting views of the principle of systematic improvement of the river. After 23 years of association with the Missouri and feast and famine appropriations, Suter stepped down as President of the Commission on 14 January 1896.
|Wrecked steamboat on the Missouri from "History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River" by Hiram Martin Chittenden - Ross & Haines Old Books Company
In 1900, three separate appropriation bills gave the Commission only $600,000, of which $340,000 went to 13 isolated projects for repair work and snagging. This left just over a quarter of a million dollars for the first reach and systematic improvement of the river. In 1901 , Lieutenant Colonel Amos Stickney, who succeeded Suter, wrote that the Commission had received inadequate funds, achieved few useful results, and made few significant improvements. The money, spent on sites scattered along the river, proved insufficient to construct permanent and enduring works. Consequently, many structures were swept away by high waters. Stickney also pointed out that other rivers had special appropriations for snagging. The Missouri did not. The Commission had to spend already limited funds for that work.
There existed, Stickney emphasized, no viable commerce on the river because the Commission's work had not rendered it safe. Consequently, insurance rates proved exorbitant. Stickney urged that adequate money be given so that the first reach could be completed. Much money, he repeated, had been spent in 17 years but the results were few. By 1902, the Commission's efforts yielded a 6-foot channel for 45 miles and added 5,500 acres of reclaimed bottom land, worth $915,000, to the tax rolls. The Commission could do no better because much of the money had been diverted to flood control, even though the Corps had no legislative mandate to engage in such work.
As the Commission carefully put it, "A very large proportion of the total appropriations ... has been allotted by Congress to localities for the protection of private and corporate interest not wholly connected with navigation." In its final report, the Commission also recapitulated its financial stewardship. The Commission had been given $7,150,000 over 18 years, but only $3,280,201 of the money became available for the systematic improvement of the Missouri River.
The results were a far cry from the $8 million and 8 years which Major Suter thought would yield a 12-foot channel. Noting that the wrecks of some three hundred steamboats lay embedded in the Missouri's sand, the Commission wrote its final words on the Missouri: "And the Commission desires to state that it makes no recommendation for any appropriation ... unless it can be made in a manner to permit its application to a thorough systematic improvement of the river. 'The Commission understood the logic behind its demise. Essentially, there was no need for the agency without a program. The 1902 report noted that 'as Congress has not deemed it advisable to continue the work upon a scale and in a manner to make an effective general improvement, there is, of course, no longer necessity for the existence of the commission."
Even so, the report insisted, the Missouri merited a comprehensive program: "There are perhaps not many projects upon which the General Government is now engaged more certain to produce large returns than would result from the proper improvement of the Missouri River." After abolition of the Commission, Captain Hiram M. Chittenden in the United States Engineer Office at
Sioux City assumed responsibility for the improvement of the river. Like his predecessors, Chittenden managed upper and lower river projects, with the arbitrary dividing line at Sioux City. He recommended elimination of the division. He also sought lump sum appropriations, based on estimates for specific projects but disbursed as a whole. Only such a system, he argued, would permit flexible responses to the surprises sprung by the river.
A basin-wide improvement program, carried out in the interest of navigation, would benefit the region in a wide variety of ways. The control of floodsdone in the interest of navigation, of course could also protect lives and property. Moreover, as the Missouri River Commission had noted in its final report, flood protection would bring security to riverfronts of towns and cities, increase the number of reclaimed acres, raise and stabilize land values, and generally add substantially to the overall development and prosperity of the basin.
Chittenden supported his request for a comprehensive program with the standard argument. He echoed businessmen throughout the region, who believed that the availability of a navigable
waterway controlled railroad freight rates. This was particularly so, he claimed, for the lower river between St. Louis and Kansas City, although actual commerce on even that stretch was too slight to support regular packet service. On the upper river, he counted only 13 vessels all year.
|Capt. Hiram Chittenden - Courtesy of the U.S. Military Academy ARchives, West Point, New York.
Chittenden recommended pursuit of these improvements by a variety of means. He advised snagging and dredging of the river, bank stabilization, and wing dams on some tributaries as well as on the main stem. Chittenden sent his report to the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, which Congress had established in 1902 to examine proposals for navigation improvements. The Board was not impressed by the commercial possibilities of the Missouri and recommended only snagging to maintain the small trade that plied the river.
At that time, Chittenden himself realized that the days of steamboating on the Big Muddy were over. He thought the Missouri River Commission represented a "stupid attempt to reverse the decrees of destiny and accomplish the impossible." The millions spent by the Commission had no impact on regional commerce. In fact, he sarcastically claimed, the funds could have been as well spent on a railroad through Greenland. On the other hand, Government efforts on the river had brought great benefits in the form of protected riverfront property and reclaimed farmland. Future public expenditures, he predicted, would concentrate on downstream protection against floods and upstream irrigation .
The three Engineers of the enlarged Sioux City District, Chittenden, Colonel James B. Quinn, and Major Edward H. Schulz, served as caretakers and custodians of the Missouri during the short life of their District. With responsibility for the entire river, Chittenden saw it as a hydrological unit. He was given few projects and no chance to treat the river as an entity. According to Quinn, the land stretching 100 miles on either side of the river encompassed 300,000 square miles and equaled in size the eastern seaboard states from Maine to North Carolina.
Quinn also had few projects in that vast tract.
In 1907, a new Kansas City District under Major Schulz replaced the Sioux City office. The new headquarters managed a slowly increasing number of jobs, mostly between Kansas City and the mouth of the river. Before 1915, figures for commerce carried on the river were given for the reaches above and below Sioux City. The best year for cargo carried on the lower river was 1907, the year Schulz arrived. This freight amounted to 843,000 tons, but over 90 percent consisted of short-haul loads of rock, sand, and gravel. The best year above Sioux City came 6
years later. Again the cargo consisted mainly of rock, sand, and gravel. Below Sioux City, these items remained overwhelmingly the major cargo.
This local traffic in construction materials contributed nothing to long-distance commerce. Overall, interest in regulating the river for navigation reached a low ebb at the beginning of the century. The indexes of the annual reports of the Chief of Engineers and the New York Times show that the Mississippi River received overwhelming public and Federal attention when compared with the Missouri. This was understandable. The bulk of the Nation's waterborne raw materials reached the Mississippi from the Ohio River. In contrast, the Missouri's mineral
resources lay hidden along its farthermost reaches, and its basin farmlands were sparsely populated.
In 1906, backers of a ship canal from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico organized a National Rivers and Harbors Congress in Washington, D.C., and a deep waterways convention in St. Louis. They wanted a 14-foot channel to permit seagoing vessels to use the St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes, and Mississippi as a great national canal. Missouri basin politicians and river interests supported the grand canal at a Missouri River Navigation Congress in Sioux City. The politicians and river interests believed the Missouri should be made navigable and the Lakes-to-Gulf scheme would help. The congressional representatives of the basin states knew their votes would be vital to the Lakes-to-Gulf project which might bring something for the Missouri.
President Theodore Roosevelt appointed an Inland Waterways Commission to deal with the Lakes-to-Gulf waterway and the larger issue of a national water transportation policy. This larger concern coincided with national scrutiny of the railroads. A series of congressional hearings revealed the shortcomings of the railroads as freight carriers. The railroads charged all the traffic would bear, while they provided less than satisfactory service. The waterway advocates used these hearings to make a case for their plan and offered a unique method to pay for it.
They advocated the sale of electric power to be produced at the waterway's dams to pay for the channel. Although unacceptable at the time, the idea eventually bore fruit in the Missouri River basin. Partially as a result of the Commission's actions, Congress authorized $450,000 for maintenance of the battered remainder of the Missouri's navigation channel. With this 1907 appropriation came directions to the Engineers to survey the river from Sioux City downstream to determine its navigability.
Two surveys and reports resulted, one signed by Quinn in June 1907 and one signed by Schulz in April 1908. Quinn's perfunctory report became one of the last acts of the Sioux City District; Schulz' comprehensive analysis dealt with the economic importance of restoring navigation on the Missouri. In 1910, Congress appropriated $1 million to start a new a navigation channel from Kansas City to the mouth. The channel would be 6 feet in depth, which may have disappointed Schulz, who had argued for twice that depth in his 1908 survey. He had also shown how the 6-foot channel could extend to Sioux City. The waterways politics of the day, however, supported only the shallow channel below Kansas City.
Congress also appointed an engineering board of three officers to report "upon the most economical and desirable plan of obtaining such channel." The board, which included Colonel Frederic V. Abbot, Colonel C. McDonald Townsend, and Major Charles Keller, met in Kansas City in September 1910 and held public hearings on the proposition in November. The hearings were well attended by vigorous navigation interests, and the three officers advised Congress to choose Suter's original concept of systematic improvement to obtain the channel.
The lawmakers appropriated another $800,000 in 1912 for the work. Congress expressed sanguine expectations in the River and Harbor Act of 1913. The lawmakers appropriated $2 million and required completion of the 6-foot channel within 10 years. As often happened, however, the money dwindled, the construction pace slackened, and Congress ordered the project restudied in 1915.
The new look came during a time of flooding. The river rose and stayed high from 25 March to 25 October 1915, sending eight distinct flood crests down its valley and halting the Corps' work. The new Kansas City District Engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Deakyne, made the restudy of the river's navigation possibilities. He stated that potential commerce would not justify the expense of the project. Deakyne advised that work on the 6-foot channel be ended and that the Missouri be kept open only by snagging. Local interests, the Board of
Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, the Chief of Engineers, and Congress disagreed with him. More money was appropriated, and the upstream limit of the project was extended to Quindaro Bend, 10 miles above Kansas City.
Congressional indifference to the river between Kansas City and Sioux City, as well as the lack of modern terminal facilities, retarded commerce on that reach of the river. Labor-intensive hand methods of transshipment across open gangways became obsolete. "To improve commerce," Schulz said, "river towns needed accessible wharves, solid docks for transferred goods, and rail connections and cranes for moving cargo." Deakyne agreed and emphasized that local interests should build their own terminal areas and not ask the Government to do so.
Schulz' study of the reach above Sioux City made its way to Congress. His report concluded that completion of a navigable channel clear to Fort Benton was economically impractical. Instead he recommended annual appropriations to improve the segments of the river that were used for local commerce. Based on the study, the Corps asked for five yearly appropriations of from 75,000 to $150,000 a year.
In 1912, Congress provided the money and the opportunity to redevelop the mountain trade. In contrast with the inactivity between Kansas City and Sioux City, local interests above Sioux City vigorously constructed terminal facilities, especially after World War I. Bismarck and other Dakota towns had riverfront warehouses and rail connections. In 1927, Kansas City District Engineer Major Cleveland C. Gee reported that some North Dakota towns had built grain elevators along the river and that Pierre and Running Water, South Dakota, had put their stock pens on its banks.
Very little navigation occurred on the Missouri from 1915 to 1932. Cargoes carried between Kansas City and the mouth were almost entirely rock, sand, and gravel, much of it for Corps projects. Commerce on the middle reach reflected the cargoes needed for increased bank protection work carried on by private parties. An attempt to carry general cargo failed immediately after the war. Snagging was neglected on the reach, but when five towboats sailed upstream to carry bank stabilization materials, the Corps re-instituted limited snagging. The Kansas City to Omaha reach had its greatest carrying year in 1931 when it moved 379,000 tons, almost all rock, sand, and gravel for Corps projects.
The upriver men moved 32,000 tons in their best year and only 273 tons in 1932. The entire basin's trade was moribund. During these years of declining commerce, various pieces of legislation required local interests to help pay for special installations. These brought private and Government efforts together. While there was a struggle to obtain funds for the 6-foot channel below Kansas City, the Missouri Engineers found that they could get money to build projects in cooperation with local interests. Because of the cost-sharing provisions, the Engineers entered into a partnership with the railroads for bank protection and erosion prevention at several locations.
Local communities sometimes balked at the cost when told they would have to pay for portions of Corps projects that would protect them. Towns such as St. Joseph quickly raised $50,000 to obtain protection, as required in the River and Harbor Act of 1905, but the towns of Niobrara, Vermillion, and Yankton refused to participate in Corps projects later in the period. The Engineers extensively repaired Yankton's dike and extended it 1,020 feet before the war. Yankton citizens still would not pay for any further work.
On 28 January 1911 , Major Schulz and 30 prominent politicians and engineers of the Omaha Council Bluffs area discussed a 20-mile bank protection plan for the riverfront. Schulz stated that the project would cost over $1 million and that Nebraska and Iowa should contribute $547,000 of the cost. The local interests adjourned, reconvened 5 days later, and decided not to share the cost; the river was an artery of interstate commerce and therefore a Federal responsibility.
The Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors reviewed the project and asked for public comment on the proposal. After receiving only two replies, the Board recommended against the plan for three reasons . The commerce it would foster would be insignificant, general navigation would receive few benefits, and cooperation could not be secured. In spite of an apparent decline of interest in cooperative improvements, the Great Lakes-to-Gulf plan still had advocates, among them Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. To obtain the support of the midwestern congressional delegation, Hoover included the Missouri in his 1926 scheme when he presented it to Congress. The lawmakers authorized the Corps to extend the Missouri's 6-foot channel
past Omaha to Sioux City.
The Missouri River Navigation Association also lobbied successfully for a requirement to determine if the channel should be deepened to 9 feet. At the start of the 1930's, Kansas City District Engineer Major Gordon R. Young advocated the 9-foot channel. He advocated additional regulation of the river with dikes and revetments rather than flow-regulating dams to obtain the 9-foot channel. Nevertheless, he correctly understood the nature of the braided, sinuous river with its many channels. "The first task," he wrote, "is not so much to 'regulate' the river in the Continental sense as to obtain a river to regulate."
In the 50 years after Suter first advocated systematic improvement of the river in 1881, substantial progress occurred only on the lower river. From Kansas City to the mouth, a "completely controlled and regulated six-foot channel was almost a reality." Ninety-two percent of the work, authorized by the River and Harbor Act of 1912, was done. Farther upstream, on the middle river between Kansas City and Sioux City, a similar project was just 5 years old and had achieved only a 3-foot navigation depth.
On the upper river, from Sioux City to Fort Benton, the work conducted for 20 years resulted in protected banks near landings, towns, and railroad crossings. The channel was "little different from an unimproved stream" with a practicable depth of 2.5 feet.