Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rethinking the Osage River book

We are interested in things, the common denominator of which is the Osage River – for 35 + years exploring prairies, small towns, the Ozark-prairie border, doing some snake hunting in the middle part. Leland has fished the lower Osage since he was a child.
That the river and its denizens had literary potential was not initially obvious. Leland’s father was an engineer for the state of Missouri, inspecting the water systems of small towns. Some days, young Leland would join him on his visits. He’d let the boy out to explore while he made his rounds. At Osceola one day, Leland got a Coke at the cafĂ© by the low dam on the Osage and wandered down to the river. He found the carcass of a huge catfish, 5 feet long, floating belly up at the base of the dam.  

The next year he read Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea when Life magazine ran it as a series. In the end scene tourists look at the carcass of the great marlin and misunderstand the explanation of a local who says ‘sharks’ – meaning that’s what killed the marlin. They take his words to mean that the carcass is a shark. Flashback to the big, dead catfish. The Osage River became a literary river then – associated with words and stories. It was more literary than the clearer, scenic, Ozark rivers, which are art rivers, visual places, with smaller literary components. The Osage River is murky, with a more Shakespearian history, a more robust historical aspect. Clear rivers are rightly called scenic. Nature is more dominant there. Nothing like paddlefish or big blue catfish there. More artistic.
We started on The Osage River: paddlefish, prairies, farms & villages, dams & reservoirs, imperial Indians, explorers, slickers, sportsmen, tourists & various violent, litigious & noteworthy events in the history of the Osage River Valley and at about the 500th page realized  it  had gone beyond affordable as we wanted an all color book to sell for less than $100.  It was our own form of cultural geography, an exploration of life along the river through generations, with a vaguely Carl Sandburg-1920’s-1930’s-Americana feel to it. We knew we didn’t want it to resemble William Least Heat Moon’s mooney stuff.
We also realized that the real untold story is the machinations behind the building of Lake of the Ozarks and Bagnell Dam and Truman Dam and Reservoir. These are water resource crimes and misdemeanors on the order of Polanski’s Chinatown.  Lots of bitter court battles; two of three of the most important developers of Lake of the Ozarks went to federal prison; Environmental Defense Fund’s 1972 lawsuit against Truman Dam took years, was very contentious and has mysteriously disappeared from public record.

Mug shot of Walter Cravens, President of the Land Bank of Kansas City. Cravens was the prime mover behind the development of Bagnell Dam and Lake of the Ozarks in the mid-1920s. He served time in Leavenworth for financial shenanigans that included his efforts to swap Osage Valley farms for bankrupt, dusty Kansas farms (on which his bank held the paper).

No mug shot available for Louis Egan, high-flying president of Union Electric during the construction of Bagnell Dam, who would up in a federal facility in Florida.

We’ve left in a considerable amount on the imperial Osage Indians whose military power, some think, altered the development history of the central United States. And we’ve kept iconic crumbling small towns that pepper the prairie watershed of western Missouri and eastern Kansas.
Previous to the dam-building era (the serious, high dams) of the 1920s, numerous efforts were made to improve steamboat travel by planning a series of locks and dams (only one of which was built). 

Lock and Dam #1 about 20 miles up the Osage from its confluence with the Missouri River in Gasconade County.
More than 150 years of efforts to develop the river industrially that were unrealistic, sometimes criminally motivated, with lots of corruption and sloppy engineering have rarely produced the utopian benefits promised in whatever era.  Dammed as it is, resilient American culture on the lakes, tributaries, and watershed of the Osage is still interesting and Twainian in its vigor, variety.
We’re ending up with 304 pages, 600 color illustrations (maps, old and new photographs).  Hope to send it to the printer in late spring; hope to send it to bookstores in fall, 2012; $35 retail – a huge bargain for such a book.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Schell City Truss Bridge on the Osage River

Rivers both provide and obstruct transportation routes. A book about a river requires attention to and consideration of the ways the river has been spanned.
In Vernon County, northwest of Schell City, down a gravel, then a dirt road (aka Rockville Road/Old River Road) is the Schell City iron bridge over the Osage.  This once well-traveled road is treacherous now, even when dry. Spring rains make deep mud of the river’s bottomlands; tractor ruts made in spring harden to ragged ridges that threaten to snag our rented KIA. We hike the last half-mile with cameras and tripod.
Since our last trek, the approach from the south end has collapsed.  Stone support pillars, the main span and the north approach are still straight and (apparently) sturdy. The stone pillar on the north side is almost completely swallowed up by sedimentation on that bank.  Not far upstream the ill-conceived and appropriately name Bates County Ditch joins the Osage. Dug in the early 1900s, the Ditch probably destabilized the hydrology of the Osage, swinging the sediment load to the north bank, slowly building it up and burying the pillar. 

You can find more information on this and other historic bridges at
We’ve been roaming and photographing the upper Osage for more than 30 years. Old buildings and old bridges – if you want to see them, make haste,

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Osage River: Research trip to Heritage Days in Warsaw, Missouri.

Research, for this writer, is almost the best part of a book project. For in our case that often means – road trip!  Many trips to the Ozarks tracking Father Hogan’s horseback reconnaissance for a settlement for Famine immigrants were de rigueur for Mystery of the Irish Wilderness. Last fall, The Osage River book (now in the works) dictated a photo safari to Heritage Days at Truman Dam and Reservoir.

As with most American ‘pioneer/forefathers’ celebrations, Heritage Days in Warsaw, Missouri provides a venue for demonstrations of atavistic skills and arcane crafts with, of course, opportunities to purchase many handmade or locally crafted articles. Heritage Days is no exception. Lining the shady pathways one could find lye soap making, candles, sorghum, wood carving, dying and weaving, and candle making. From the stage of Trailside Theater the sound of old-time music emanated.

The wooded hilltop surrounding the government-moderne, concrete Visitors Center was populated with buckskin- or calico-clad frontiersmen and women; the cleared lawn overlooking the mammoth dam on the Osage hosted Civil War and mountain-man reenactors. They brought displays of long rifles and cannon, tanned hides and bows, powder horns and and Bowie knives.

"Irony" is an overused concept but it was not lost on me in the firing of a Civil War cannon over the fought-over Corps of Engineers project.  Colorful subject matter and near-perfect October weather called for many snapshots

“Harry Truman” himself (Dr. Carter Kinkead of the Benton County Historical Society) strolled the grounds, chatting with visitors and giving out bits of history of the eponymous project. Originally named Kaysinger Bluff Dam and Reservoir after the high bluff over the Osage to which the dam is anchored, the name was changed in 1970 to honor Missouri’s own favorite son – and to reinforce its worthiness as a major infrastructure project.  There were questions (and a lawsuit) over its cost/benefit – both economically and environmentally. More – much more - on that in The Osage River book.

Congressionally authorized, and Corps of Engineers-built, Truman is an interesting contrast to the first major dam/lake project on the Osage River. Bagnell, a privately funded and operated dam/reservoir was slow to develop, but its shoreline is now crammed with marinas, condo developments and recurrent water-quality concerns.  Shenanigans in its 1920s funding landed one developer in Leavenworth Penitentiary (of course, his major problems had to do with Land Banks, foreclosed Kansas farmland and his effort to make Osage Valley farmland cover the shortfalls).

Truman (a.k.a. Kaysinger Bluff) on the other hand was slow to take off.  Authorized in 1954, construction didn't begin until 1964. Funding was frequently slowed by the costs of the Vietnam War.  When Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1968, the door was opened to challenge the project for the inadequacy of its environmental impact statement. NEPA went into effect in 1969; early in 1972 the lawsuit was filed. Interestingly enough .... there seems to be no mention of that lawsuit in official public accounts of the project's history.

But I digress.You'll just have to read the book!

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