Unruly River: Two Centuries of Change along the Missouri

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Over the course of two centuries, Americans have tried to tame the Missouri River. First explored by Lewis and Clark, this once-free-flowing river has in modern times been dammed, dredged, and channelized until it now barely resembles its former self. Yet, the Missouri remains beyond complete human control.

Writing in a new tradition of environmental history, Robert Kelley Schneiders takes a long historical view to reconstruct the Missouri Valley environment before Euro-American settlement and then trace the environmental transformations resulting from the development projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He tells how the Mighty Missouri has been transformed from a shallow, meandering stream to an engineered waterway with over a dozen dams, thousands of stone pile dikes, and seemingly endless miles of rock bank line—and how the river has reacted to the disruption of its original hydrologic and ecological processes.

Schneiders explores the reciprocal relationship between people and the natural world as he examines the political origins of Missouri River development plans. Bringing together much of the previously fragmented history of the river, he describes the environmental changes caused by the construction of a barge channel below Sioux City and by dam and reservoir construction in Montana and the Dakotas. Contrary to the conclusions of several other water historians, Schneiders argues that the development of the river was guided by neither federal elites nor local interest groups acting alone but by the two working in cooperation; while the Corps of Engineers built dams and channelization structures, private citizens cleared the lower Missouri Valley for agriculture, industry, and housing.

Although Schneiders claims that Missouri River development was undertaken primarily to benefit agriculture, he holds that in the long run the river has foiled these management attempts—and that despite the investment of technology and money, the public may have been better off if the Missouri had been left alone. Rich in geographical and topographical information and featuring both historic and contemporary photos, Unruly River shows that despite humanity's herculean efforts, the Missouri continues to be the principal actor in its own life story.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Schneiders (history, Texas Tech) analyzes various social, political, and economic forces that have influenced the environmental history of the Missouri River. This is a well-written narrative of how the Missouri has changed since the coming of white civilization from a broad, meandering river to a partially regulated stream consisting of dams, reservoirs, and numerous channelized structures. Schneiders's study concentrates on the lower Missouri River valley area and, unlike previous scientific studies or polemical works such as Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire (LJ 2/1/86), this is a chronologically arranged history of how environmental changes relate to events in the river's development. Schneiders is critical of efforts, especially those of the Corps of Engineers during this century, to develop the river without sufficient information on how the changes would affect the environment. The monograph carefully analyzes the conflicting forces of human self-interest at play in the river's development. Numerous photographs and maps, an extensive bibliography, and an excellent introductory historiographical essay enhance the work. Written for a broad readership, it is recommended for both a general and specialized audience.--Charles C. Hay, Eastern Kentucky Univ. Archives, Richmond
Writing in a new tradition of environmental history, the author takes a long historical view to reconstruct the Missouri Valley environment before Euro-American settlement. He tells how the mighty Missouri has been transformed from a shallow meandering stream to an engineered waterway with over a dozen dams, thousands of stone pile dikes, and seemingly endless miles of rock bank line, and he examines how the river has reacted to the disruption of its original hydrolic and ecological processes. Illustrated with 57 b&w photographs and 17 maps. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700611881
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 332
  • Sales rank: 1,347,989
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Maps


1. Introduction

2. The Modern Missouri

3. The Missouri River Yesterday

4. The Missouri Valley and American Settlement, 1803-1880

5. The River Abandoned

6. The River Rediscovered

7. The Dry Years, 1927-1942

8. South Dakota Attempts to Develop the River

9. The Wet Years, 1943-1951

10. The Mighty Missouri and the Final Quest for Control

11. The Untamable Missouri

12. Conclusion




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