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Big Muddy Blues: True Tales and Twisted Politics Along Lewis and Clark's Missouri River

Big Muddy Blues: True Tales and Twisted Politics Along Lewis and Clark's Missouri River

by Bill Lambrecht

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America's Missouri River may be the nation's longest and most historically significant river, encompassing many of America's natural wonders between Missouri and Montana, draining almost 600,000 square miles in ten states and part of Canada, and, after Lewis and Clark's expedition 200 years ago, opening the West to a frenzied rush of expansion.

But the


America's Missouri River may be the nation's longest and most historically significant river, encompassing many of America's natural wonders between Missouri and Montana, draining almost 600,000 square miles in ten states and part of Canada, and, after Lewis and Clark's expedition 200 years ago, opening the West to a frenzied rush of expansion.

But the Missouri is also the site of a vast, politically driven drama. It tops a list of emerging big-stakes river wars around the country that pit conservation, development, farm, barge, American Indian, and government interests against one another in clashes made even more complicated by the scarcity of water in many river basin states.

In Big Muddy Blues, veteran journalist Bill Lambrecht uses the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's epic adventure west as a lens to show the other side of the story: what's been lost over 200 years. And the losses, on top of the 120 miles cut off the river by Army Corps stabilization efforts, aren't slight. Dependent on every word uttered in courtrooms and legislatures for their futures are more than 80 rare and endangered species, the family farms that require a stabilized river, the barges of shippers that require a heavier flow, and dozens if not hundreds of sacred Native American burial grounds.

Running through it all is the water--more than 2,300 miles of it--that slakes the thirst of people in one-sixth of the nation and has, in the last few hundred years, been home to Native Americans, explorers, and settlers; river pirates, shipwrecks, and steamboats; and farmers, conservationists, and the Army. This is the story of "Big Muddy," of its influence on the formation and stability of our nation and of its place in the center of an escalating river war that will set the stage for water wars in the decades to come.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While the Missouri is not as muddy as it was before it was dammed, straightened, channelized and turned into what environmentalists call the world's biggest barge ditch, the political wranglings surrounding it are murky indeed. Journalist Lambrecht (Dinner at the New Gene Cafe) deftly untangles the confrontation between an alliance of farmers, barge operators and real estate developers who want the river managed for industrial convenience, and environmentalists and recreation and tourist interests who want to restore some of its meanderings and seasonal flows and revive floodplain ecosystems. The controversy also pits the Army Corps of Engineers, custodian of dams and canals, against the Fish and Wildlife Service, guardian of endangered species. Meanwhile, the upriver Dakotans and downriver Missourians squabble over divvying up the river's waters. Lambrecht tells the story through vivid, evenhanded profiles of the individuals-farmers, resort owners, biologists, tribal leaders, politicians-caught up in it, while chronicling the battle over the river's fate from the flood-control projects of the 1930s to the congressional and court battles of recent years. Along the way, he sprinkles in engaging sidebars on Missouri river lore and legend. The result is a probing, highly readable account of "an enslaved river impatient to be free." Photos. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A poignant chronicle of an emblematic American river, mistreated and abused over the generations but never worse than today. The Missouri River drains the largest expanse of land of any river in the United States, embracing 5,761 miles across eight states-a full sixth of the nation. Yet, writes St. Louis Post-Dispatch correspondent Lambrecht (Dinner at the New Gene Cafe, 2001), the nation seems to have forgotten all about it. And not with benign neglect: The Missouri begins, tainted by E. coli, in a Montana valley whose principal industry has recently applied to "burn scrap tires-75 per hour, 1,800 per day, 657,000 per year." Things are no better, Lambrecht records, at the river's terminus near St. Louis, where the Lewis and Clark expedition had its start; its camp was recently reconstructed to honor the bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery, located "just across the highway from a Superfund toxic waste pile leaching heavy metal." So it is, Lambrecht dourly notes, that America's great river road to the west has its beginning and ending in pollution, a situation not likely to improve during what he unhesitatingly depicts as an environment-destroying presidential administration headed by men who somehow turned Missouri from blue state to red over a mere four years-but four years marked by increasing controversy over how to maintain and restore the river, and by lawsuits protecting species that, it seems, many Missourians were glad to do without. Lambrecht offers a strong if somewhat depressing account of the losses sustained not only by the river but also by the environmentalists committed to protecting it, and he hints that darker times may be ahead as states within the drainage wageever-harder battles for control of ever-larger shares of water, North Dakota being a case in point. A lucid, welcome work of environmental investigation and-though Lambrecht, ever the journalist, protests otherwise-advocacy, worthy of a place alongside Philip Fradkin's A River No More, Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert and other modern treatises on the destruction of America's waters.

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Big Muddy Blues

True Tales and Twisted Politics Along Lewis and Clark's Missouri River

By Bill Lambrecht

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2005 Bill Lambrecht
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7997-3



The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal streams of it, as, by it's course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.

— Thomas Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803


Oh, we are pilgrims here below Down by the river Oh, soon to glory we will go Down by the riverside.



WHEN YOU TAKE A RIDE on the Missouri River, history is all around you sure as water. The Missouri is America's river west. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark pulled and polled their 55-foot keelboat 2,500 miles upstream, against the river's most determined efforts to dissuade them, they made America a bicoastal nation. From thirteen bumptious and inexperienced Atlantic seaboard states whose frontier was the Allegheny Mountains, America soon stretched from the Atlantic past the Alleghenies and the Rockies and all the Sierras of California to the Pacific Ocean.

Thomas Jefferson's America followed its destiny west on the Missouri. No sooner had Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery returned, in 1806, than the Missouri became the lifeline between the mother nation and the new territory. For the next seventy years, there was no better route west than the Missouri.


A ride on the twenty-first-century Missouri River is nothing like a journey on Chesapeake Bay or Lake Michigan or Puget Sound. I saw so little life along the river during that towboat ride because there was little to see. This Kansas City stretch — like much of the 732 miles of river from St. Louis to Sioux City, Iowa — was long ago reformed by the Army Corps of Engineers into a barge canal, by bank stabilization starting in the nineteenth century and by dam-nation starting in the 1930s. Today's Missouri is a study in subjugation, its range, speed, and flow controlled and every mile monitored by Army engineers.

Even in captivity, the Missouri retains beauty and power. Still standing in Montana are the bluffs whose "picturesque and beautiful shapes and colors" inspired the American West's first painter, George Catlin, in 1832, as three decades earlier their "High butifull Situation" had inspired the Corps of Discovery. Where today tiny segments of the river in Missouri and Nebraska have been released by trial restoration projects from their tightly engineered course, the river is reverting to the braids of channels and wetlands. Catlin described that river as having "formed a bed or valley for its course, varying in width from two to twenty miles."

In nature, the river is no sharply defined highway but a bed of watercourses and wetlands, the lands cycling from flood to marsh to fields. Now the stretch of Missouri River where the vast majority of its population lives runs swiftly and in chains. Even when the water is at its lowest, the channelized river moves so swiftly that a canoeist can relive the perils the Discovery Corps faced in their white and red pirogues.

More than the river itself has changed. Along its banks, the "mighty forests of stately cottonwood" painted by Catlin are all but gone, their regenerative magic mostly lost. I have sought and enjoyed their shade, but today you are lucky to find a grove or a tree of the species that once spread out along the river's banks, their unruly boughs indifferent to white men's authority.

For centuries, cottonwood trees sustained the Indians of the Missouri, offering them shelter, fuel, transport, ritual, and feed for the horses that sped them to the buffalo. Cottonwoods supplied Corps of Discovery with masts and dugout canoes. Cottonwoods fueled the steamboats that climbed the river and opened the West for settlement. Cottonwood lumber built river towns.

In the floodplain where the cottonwoods stood, the backwaters and oxbows nurtured birds and fish. Now the floodplains are dried up and filled in, sprouting corn and beans on farms planted right up to the riverbanks. Gone, in consequence, is most of the wildlife that made Missouri country the American Serengeti. "The writingest explorers ever," as the late historian Donald Jackson called Lewis and Clark, chronicled buffalo, deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, wolves, coyotes, foxes, badgers, beavers, and prairie dogs. In the river, the explorers marveled at catfish as big as men.

If the explorers were writing a sequel to their journals two hundred years later, there would be far fewer notations: of sixty-seven fish native to the river, fifty-one now are rare. And that great catfishery? A decade ago, the size of the average catfish in the Lower Missouri was thirteen inches. Take of the whiskered bottom dwellers grew so meager that five states — Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota — banned commercial harvest of the fish about which Clark wrote, "those Cats are So plentiful they may be cought in any part of this river."

* * *

I PADDLE IN THE WAKE of Stephen Ambrose. Author of the best-selling Undaunted Courage (1996), which relived Lewis and Clark's exploits, Ambrose had made his reputation with books on World War II; he was the antithesis of the liberal environmentalist scorned by the river's farm-and-barge alliance that benefits from status quo in Missouri River management.

I spoke with Ambrose over the phone on several occasions and later lunched with him and other journalists in Washington. He once had confessed to me a secret of his success: He needed water to write, whether it was in Montana, where he had owned a cabin in Missouri River country near Helena; at his home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; or, earlier in life, in his cabin in Wisconsin overlooking a still lake. He had lost his heart to the Missouri River and had pledged more than a million dollars in book royalties toward its restoration. "It's just a disgrace," Ambrose said of its misuse over two hundred years.

As historians will do, Ambrose spoke in broad stretches of time. The three best things accomplished over the last sixty years for the United States, he said, were winning World War II, winning the Cold War, and ushering in the civil rights revolution. Ahead, he saw a fourth challenge that he described as a shift toward environmental awareness. "From when I was a kid, we've evolved to the point where we have conquered nature," said Ambrose, who was sixty-six when he died, in 2002.

The last time I saw Ambrose, he was just back from giving Vice President Dick Cheney an earful about the river. It was the beginning of an administration that would move quickly in the opposite direction. Downriver in the company of mere reporters, Ambrose wasn't about to mince words:

"If Lewis and Clark looked down on the river today, they'd say, 'Man, have they fucked this thing up.'"


My Kansas City journey on the river was the first of many. I have traversed all of its length, one way or another, many places more than once. I traveled the Missouri by tugboat, canoe, kayak, johnboat, towboat, fly-fishing tub, pontoon boat, and several more motorized species.

I got closest to the old Missouri on a three-day canoe voyage along a nearly pristine stretch of Montana river known as the White Cliffs. These soaring formations rising above the river's banks have changed little but by slow-time erosion since the Corps of Discovery passed by. On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis described the scene:

The water in the course of time in descending from those hills and plains from either side of the river had trickled down the soft sand cliffs and woarn it into a thousand grotesque figures ... so perfect indeed ... that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work.

As in Lewis and Clark's day, the mind stretches out over this section of the river. You can feel your way back to the dawn of the nineteenth century when the Corps of Discovery — sons of the enlightened generation that had created a new nation and conceived the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — imagined the treasures that could be harvested by diligent hands from this rich wilderness. How the future called to them! Meriwether Lewis was the handpicked emissary of Thomas Jefferson, who was not only president of this young nation but also its chief seer and flush with confidence in the achievement of independence.

Those dreams have come true. The riches opened by the Missouri River have been mined, yielding vast wealth and opportunity. Seldom was it easy coming. From dragging keelboats up this unruly river to breaking the land to the manipulations of the Army Corps of Engineers, it was won by toil, daring, and perseverance.

The old dreams have come true. They have flourished and declined. Now, the mind is free to stretch out again, and many minds are dreaming new dreams that balance the old — and are just as likely to leave the next century a new legacy of mistakes to correct. In those dreams, the Missouri River's chains are loosened — even broken — and it runs free again, restoring a vanquished ecosystem.

It may be dreaming, too, to call this Bicentennial the Age of Reconciliation, as some have. Yet there may never be a better time if we want to get right with the Missouri River, its original settlers, and the creatures of its waters and its banks.



When it ran free, the Missouri River triggered floods of prose. Writers reveled in personifying the wild Missouri, imbuing it with mischievous, if not mystical, motives. In the early twentieth century, George Fitch wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:

The Missouri River was located in the United States at last report. It cuts corners, runs around at night, lunches on levees, and swallows islands and small villages for dessert. Its perpetual dissatisfaction with its bed is the greatest peculiarity of the Missouri. Time after time it has gotten out of its bed in the middle of the night with no apparent provocation, and has hunted a new bed, all littered with forests, cornfields, brick houses, railroad ties, and telegraph poles. Later it has suddenly taken a fancy to its old bed, which by this time has been filled with suburban architecture, and back it has gone with a whoop and a rush as if it had found something worthwhile. It makes farming as fascinating as gambling. You never know whether you are going to harvest corn or catfish.

A half century later — in an era of Promethean and sometimes reckless public works projects — Americans turned their warmaking powers to manipulations of the environment. Writers like Stanley Vestal fed the impulse to control a river that ran wild, often menacingly so, at the very heart of a world power:

It is the hungriest river ever created [he wrote in The Missouri]. It is eating all the time — eating yellow clay banks and cornfields, eighty acres at a mouthful; winding up its banquet with a truck garden and picking its teeth with the timbers of a big red barn. Its yearly menu is ten thousand acres of good rich farming land, several miles of railroads, a few hundred houses, a forest or two and uncounted miles of sandbars.

Sadly for literature, as well as for the tribes and the native species along its shores, the Missouri River offers far less inspiration since it has been humbled by the Army Corps of Engineers.



... I think that the river Is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable, Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier; Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce; Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges. The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten By the dwellers in cities — ever, however, implacable, Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting ...

— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages, 1941


Some people say the Missouri River blues ain't bad Then it musta not been the Missouri River blues I had.



A 45-DEGREE, 250-FOOT CLIMB up the Missouri bluffs toward a legendary rattlesnake den on the Lewis and Clark Trail is like a stroll on the University of Missouri campus to Jim Harlan, who carries Kool Lights as his elixir for stressed lungs. It's no different from his days training Army troops; he'd run with them five or six miles, and when the boys would drop to their knees sucking for air, the man among them would fire up a butt.

"You knew you were doing a good job if they said of you, 'He was one tough sonofabitch,'" Harlan says.

That is roughly the description that locals along the Missouri River and a few on the Mississippi have bestowed on Harlan, the puffing, debunking ruination of 2004–06 Bicentennial plans. The centerpiece of Harlan's work is his university-backed Lewis and Clark Historic Landscape Project. By documenting how the river has changed over the past two centuries, it disrupted commemorative planning along the Missouri.

In the river town of Glasgow in central Missouri, locals had laid plans for a $300,000 riverside trail near Stump Island Park, formally designated by the state three decades ago as a Lewis and Clark campsite. Then along came Harlan, pinpointing the campsite five miles west. The news did not sit well with citizens, who accused Harlan of sabotaging their celebration.

Harlan's work was especially irritating on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, where the state erected an elaborate monument near Wood River commemorating the campsite where the explorers waited out the winter of 1803–04 before heading off along the Missouri in May. Bulldozing forward in his project, Harlan put the exclamation point on a generally known but hushed truth: Because the Mississippi River had shifted about a mile in the nineteenth century, Lewis and Clark's Camp Dubois actually was situated in Missouri, in the town of West Alton.

* * *

YOU NEED A MAP to travel the Missouri River. In search of one, I have tracked Jim Harlan to his office in Stewart Hall at the University of Missouri in Columbia to learn his method of locating Camp Dubois. He'd consulted early U.S. land surveys, along with French and Spanish maps that showed the configuration of the old River Dubois and the mouth of the Missouri River. Old maps by French engineer Nicholas DeFiniels brought more evidence to the table. And, of course, the Lewis and Clark journals contributed strong clues by putting the explorers on the south side of the River Dubois, looking at the Mississippi. "Every day in the winter at Camp Dubois they were sitting there looking across the Missouri at the Mississippi River and making notes," Harlan says.

A later journal entry noted that the expedition traveled four and a half miles on that first day out, May 14, 1804, to the upper point of the first island in the Missouri River, which is situated directly opposite Coldwater Creek. But when you measure from that point back to Illinois, as Harlan did, the distance is five and three-fourths miles.

"Realistically speaking, geographic truth just gets in the way. They just want tourists to come up there; that's the bottom line. A lot of people are doing a service to John Q. Public. But I'm not going to get in their arguments anymore," Harlan says.

"Stuff has passed down like a great game of To Tell the Truth; someone will say, 'Well, Uncle Joe said this.' If you're going to pick the best site where people can come and commemorate where Lewis and Clark were, that's fine. But don't put up a damn sign and say they camped at such-and-such a site on such-and-such a date."

Harlan cackles as much as speaks, scurrying about grabbing maps. He's wearing an MU Meridians baseball jersey, number 25 emblazoned on the back (he was a fine shortstop in his day). On his desk is a photo of himself in camouflage and aviators snapped during the Gulf War in Bahrain aboard the Love Boat, an oasis where a soldier could get a real beer in a Muslim land.

Nor has the government escaped Harlan's revisionism. "They're off, and pretty drastically," he fairly shouts while cradling an 1890s leather-bound Missouri River Commission map that miscalculated distance along the river. He is talking of a spot not far from where William Clark noted the first signs of buffalo.

"When he said this was the first buffalo sign, it probably meant that he had stepped in it," Harlan says.


Excerpted from Big Muddy Blues by Bill Lambrecht. Copyright © 2005 Bill Lambrecht. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bill Lambrecht has been a Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 1984. His journalism prizes include the Sigma Delta Chi Award and three Raymond Clapper Awards. He is the author of Dinner at the New Gene Café, and he lives near Annapolis, Maryland.

Bill Lambrecht, author of Big Muddy Blues and Dinner at the New Gene Café, writes about environment and natural resource issues for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His journalism prizes include three Raymond Clapper Awards for Washington Reporting, one of them in 1999 for his articles on genetic engineering around the world. He lives in Fairhaven, Maryland.

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