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By David Knopf/Richmond News
Those who drive through Camden today, a town with under 200 people, a Methodist church and no stores, could well be unaware that just over a hundred years ago it bustled with activity.
That’s why Charles McCorkendale, a Richmond man who grew up there, sees more than the aging relics of the past hidden among the homes of those who still live there.
“If you go through there today, you just can’t picture it,” said McCorkendale, 81. “There were businesses in a four-block area along Front Street,”
Since 1971, he has worked – often with the help of Don Rogers, a history-minded friend and fellow Camdenite – to collect materials documenting the town’s vibrant heyday. McCorkendale has some of the material at Ray County Museum, but even more in binders and boxes of papers, photos, newspaper clippings, maps and personal remembrances in his home.
McCorkendale brings some of the material with him when people with Camden ties hold a reunion every other year. The most recent was in August at the Shrine Club in Richmond.
While he understands that many who attend are as – or more – interested in renewing acquaintances than poring over historical artifacts, he wishes there was greater enthusiasm for compiling a clear picture of Camden’s rich past.
“I’m proud of my work, but I wish I could get more people interested in it,” McCorkendale said. “One of these days, this stuff will probably be boxed up and thrown away.”
But the help of others, he and Rogers – a specialist in the Camden area’s many coalmines – continue the historian’s often lonely quest to preserve accurate images of the past. Recently, a friend came across an interview a woman conducted with her uncle, William Hoffman. Hoffman lived on the Lafayette County on July 3-4, 1915, when flooding cut a new channel for the Missouri River, changing Camden’s place in the world literally overnight. The interview turned up in an archive in the town of Napoleon and is now part of McCorkendale’s collection.
In the interview, Hoffman described the noise the river made as it forged a more direct route through flooded bottomland. Though in different words, it was much in common with descriptions in an undated article in The Kansas City Star and a recollection by a McCorkendale relative.
“I had a great uncle who lived on the Lafayette County side who described all the noise, the falling of trees,” McCorkendale said. The river’s fresh-cut swatch took the relative’s barn with it, all in the hours before dawn on July 4.
In its “When the Missouri River Played a Trick on Camden,” the Star recounted the colorful recollections of a crewman on the A.M. Scott, a steamboat that pulled a tow loaded with freight.
“There were floating things to contend with,” the crewman said of the perilous river voyage from St. Louis to Kansas City, “houses, barns, pig-pens, trees and beams. The debris filled the river from shore to shore, rushing and tumbling in a swift current. Before darkness came on, big trees swirled past. They appeared to be in a tornado.”
Before its change in course, the Missouri formed an oxbow shape that passed Camden’s riverfront – four blocks of stores on Front Street and two sets of train tracks, both of which remain.