In 1915, Camden left high and dry

By Linda Emley

In 1915, a riverboat entered the mouth of the Missouri River on its way to Kansas City. The river was overflowing its banks so it took one of the best pilots to guide his ship up river. Raymond Thorn was on board with Captain ‘Curly” and later gave this account to the newspaper.

“The pilot was busy day and night. There were floating things to contend with – houses, barns, pigpens, trees, beams and other debris rushing in the swift current. Captain W.D. “Curly” Young was master of the A.M. Scott. We entered the mouth of the river at St. Louis early in the evening June 30, 1915. 

“Only a Missouri river pilot would recognize it. There were no landmarks, only a vast ocean. We were 10 miles up river before I could distinguish any landmarks, and for the first time appreciated why pilots of early steamboats to the Rocky Mountains were paid more than the Mississippi pilots per month than the latter earned in a year. It was simply the difference between ‘boys’ and ‘men’. 

“The right bank was composed of high bluffs. For some reason the river has always clung to these bluffs instead of switching sides and running down the other bluffs, which has allowed the farmers to settle in the lowlands on the left side. These bottoms comprise some of the richest land in the world, but now they were 10 to 20 feet under water. We pushed onward by night and by day, and beheld many sights. The waters had done the most damage on the left bank of the river.

“I was on watch late in the day on July 3 as we came out into Miami Bend. The Carroll County bottoms were all under water, the river extended to the Wabash tracks, several miles away. A large mass of green trees floated past us, the branches turning and flapping. Before darkness came on, other big trees swirled past. They appeared to have been in a tornado, with huge branches split and torn. I noticed that Curly was standing by the pilothouse, tense to every change in the river. 

“Then I went off watch. I lay down on a coil of rope in the deck room and went to sleep. Some hours later, about 3 o’clock in the morning, I awoke and as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I could see we were approaching Wellington and I knew that we would soon be turning into Camden Bend. Camden was the ‘toe’ in a 10-mile horseshoe bend on the bank, about 54 miles east of Kansas City. This had been its location since the beginning of navigation. The A.M. Scott now was making its turn into the Camden Bend and above the thunder of the river I heard another sound, a deep tearing ‘boom’ coming from the left along the Wellington bluffs. It was a sinister sound. I looked to our right and saw our sister towboat, the Advance, standing in the river seemingly anchored. To the left I saw the source of the deafening roar, after hundreds of years running the Great Bend, the Missouri had now changed course. The river was chewing out the silt in a raging, broadening millirace, and at the head of the new chute there was a sort of waterfall; at least a 10-foot drop in the first hundred feet of water. Downstream from this were several great eddied with the brown waters whirling like the funnels of tornadoes. The chute had cut narrow and deep and was no wider than a boat, but it was there to stay and suddenly part of Lafayette County was north of the river.”

When Camden went to sleep on July 2, residents lived on the banks of the Missouri River. When they woke up the next day, the river was several miles away. All they saw was mud and water standing in what had been a river bed.

In our modern world, this event would have been on the morning news. But in 1915, it took awhile before it even hit the Richmond newspapers. The Kansas City Star found the river boat crew and interviewed them, so we now have this first-hand account for future generations to read. The Richmond News picked up this article from The Star and ran it a few days later.

It was estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 acres of Lafayette County land was now on the north side of the river. Did this land belong to Ray County? With visions of tax dollars dancing in their heads, people started getting excited. Lafayette County won in a court action and the new land north of the river will never belong to Ray County.

An unnamed Wellington man wrote to The Star and said, “a week ago Henry Finch owned 20 acres of bottom land. Now he holds title to 20 acres of muddy, rushing water.”

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