The river was frozen solid

Newspapers, journals, and stories passed through the generations tell of times in the dead of winter when the major rivers that flow along and through Missouri froze solid. We could see from the Capitol the other day that the Missouri River has a lot of ice chunks in it, which is not surprising the killing weather we had earlier in the week.
Missourinet managing editor Jessica Machetta found this picture from 1905 when the Mississippi was solid ice at the Eads Bridge in St. Louis.

Our Senate press table neighbor, Rudi Keller, wrote of one the times when the Missouri was frozen solid a century ago. Rudi does a daily piece in the Columbia Daily Tribune about life in Missouri, particularly mid-Missouri during the Civil War. Part of his entry for January 8 recalled how Union soldiers who controlled Jefferson City celebrated the 49th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British in New Orleans on January 8, 1815:
“Solid cannon shot bounced on the Missouri River, hard-frozen with ice 2 feet thick, during the cannon salute that opened Jackson Day observances of the 1815 victory over the British at New Orleans.
“The 34-shot salute for Andrew Jackson’s victory was followed by a 13-shot salute for Brig. Gen. Egbert Brown, who had been wounded severely a year earlier at Springfield while successfully defending the city against a Confederate assault.
“The temperature at sunrise was 8 below zero, the St. Louis Daily Missouri Republican reported.”
Rudi and I talked about whether we’d ever see a frozen-over river again.
Ice two feet thick? We’re not likely to see that ever again on the Missouri or the Mississippi Rivers.
The Army Corps of Engineers has resumed monthly briefing calls with the media and officials along the river in the Omaha and Kansas City districts. During our call last Thursday, we shared Rudi’s article with Jody Farhat, the Corps’ Chief of Water Management in the Omaha District. Our Q&A turned into quite a discussion, with others pitching in. Give a listen if you wish.
AUDIO: Conference call 9:48
The conversation brought to mind one of the most cherished books on the shelves in my loft.
One of my college professors, who was 81 when I knew him, published a book in 1910 about the Missouri River and its special spirit–and the spirits that are part of it. The forward of John G. Neihardt’s book, THE RIVER AND I, is some of the greatest writing ever about the Missouri. He writes of seeing the then-untamed Missouri as a little boy standing on a bluff at Kansas City and seeing it rush by in flood. And then he writes,
“And then again I saw it lying very quietly in the clutch of a bitter winter—an awful hush upon it, and the white cerement of the snow flung across its face. And yet, this did not seem like death; for still one felt in it the subtle influence of a tremendous personality. It slept, but sleeping it was still a giant. It seemed that at any moment the sleeper might turn over, toss the white cover aside and, yawning, saunter down the valley with its thunderous seven-league boots. And still, back and forth across this heavy sleeper went the pigmy wagons of the farmers taking corn to market!
“But one day in March the far-flung arrows of the geese went over. Honk! honk! A vague, prophetic sense crept into the world out of nowhere—part sound, part scent, and yet too vague for either. Sap seeped from the maples. Weird mist-things went moaning through the night. And then, for the first time, I saw my big brother win a fight!
“For days, strange premonitory noises had run across the shivering surface of the ice. Through the foggy nights, a muffled intermittent booming went on under the wild scurrying stars. Now and then a staccato crackling ran up the icy reaches of the river, like the sequent bickering of Krags down a firing line. Long seams opened in the disturbed surface, and from them came a harsh sibilance as of a line of cavalry unsheathing sabres.
“But all the while, no show of violence—only the awful quietness with deluge potential in it. The lion was crouching for the leap.
“Then one day under the warm sun a booming as of distant big guns began. Faster and louder came the dull shaking thunders, and passed swiftly up and down, drawling into the distance. Fissures yawned, and the sound of the grumbling black water beneath came up. Here and there the surface lifted—bent—broke with shriekings, groanings, thunderings. And then——
“The giant turned over, yawned and got to his feet, flinging his arms about him! Barriers formed before him. Confidently he set his massive shoulders against them—smashed them into little blocks, and went on singing, shouting, toward the sea. It was a glorious victory. It made me very proud of my big brother. And yet all the while I dreaded him—just as I dread the caged tiger that I long to caress because he is so strong and so beautiful.
“Since then I have changed somewhat, though I am hardly as tall, and certainly not so courageous as Alexander. But I have felt the sinews of the old yellow giant tighten about my naked body. I have been bent upon his hip. I have presumed to throw against his Titan strength the craft of man. I have often swum in what seemed liquid madness to my boyhood. And we have become acquainted through battle. No friends like fair foes reconciled!
“And I have been panting on his bars, while all about me went the lisping laughter of my brother. For he has the strength of a god, the headlong temper of a comet; but along with these he has the glad, mad, irresponsible spirit of a boy. Thus ever are the epic things.
“The Missouri is unique among rivers. I think God wished to teach the beauty of a virile soul fighting its way toward peace—and His precept was the Missouri. To me, the Amazon is a basking alligator; the Tiber is a dream of dead glory; the Rhine is a fantastic fairy-tale; the Nile a mummy, periodically resurrected; the Mississippi, a convenient geographical boundary line; the Hudson, an epicurean philosopher.
“But the Missouri—my brother—is the eternal Fighting Man!”
He called it “The River of an Unwritten Epic.” Several years later, Neihardt started writing a series of five epic poems, or “songs,” that captured that epic.
From time to time, most recently in 2011, the eternal fighting man reminded us that the Corps’ century-long effort to channel and control the river still cannot tame it. But we are not likely to see it ever again frozen with ice two feet thick.

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