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Heavy rains reminder of when Mighty ‘Mo changed course in 1915

This photo shows a home in East Camden at the river’s edge before epic flooding in 1915 caused the river to change course and forge a new, more direct channel. The photo originally was printed on a glass plate. It (Submitted photo)

This photo shows a home in East Camden at the river’s edge before epic flooding in 1915 caused the river to change course and forge a new, more direct channel. The photo originally was printed on a glass plate. It (Submitted photo)

By Linda Emley

I know we are all tired of all this rain, but it could always be worse. I did a little research to find out what was our wettest year on the record books and we aren’t there yet. But I did find something else very interesting. On June 22, 1947, the small town of Holt had an intense rainstorm. It rained 12 inches in 42 minutes and gave Holt the world record for the most rain at one time. As soon as I get a little extra time, I’m going to see if our local newspaper ran a story then about the Clay County  town of Holt and I will let you know.

One hundred years ago, Ray County was having a rainy season much like this year. One of my favorite local stories happened due to the record-breaking rains.

In 1915, a riverboat entered the mouth of the Missouri River on its way to Kansas City. Much like it is right now, the river water was high and it took one of the best riverboat pilots to guide his ship up the river. Raymond Thorn was on this riverboat with Captain “Curly” and gave the following account some time later to The Kansas City Star newspaper.

“The pilot was busy day and night. There were floating things to contend with – houses, barns, pigpens, trees, beams and other debris rushing and tumbling in the swift current. Captain W.D. ‘Curly’ Young was the master of the A.M. Scott.

“We entered the mouth of the river at St. Louis early in the evening of 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 received more pay 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 compromise some of the richest land in the world, but now they were 10-20 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 it’s 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 its 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 eddies 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 the good people of Camden went to sleep on July 2, they lived on the banks of the Missouri River. When they awoke the next morning, the river was several miles away. All they saw was mud and water standing in what had been a riverbed.

In our modern world, this event would have been on the morning news and everyone would have known all about it before noon. But in 1915, it took a while before it even hit the Richmond newspapers. Everyone in Richmond was busy arguing about whether they should get rid of the hitch racks at the courthouse, so there were no major headlines about the river change. (In case you missed the story about the hitching rails of Richmond, they were removed in the middle of the night. No one knew for sure who took them out, but that ended the arguing.)  Horses were gone from the square at Richmond and riverboats were gone from Camden forever. The Kansas City Star found the riverboat crew and interviewed them, so we now have a 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 now belong to Ray County? With visions of tax dollars dancing in their heads, people started getting excited. Lafayette County won out in a court action and the new land north of the river no longer belongs to Ray County.

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

I have lots of friends from Camden and this affected many of their families. Junior Slade was not around yet when the river moved, but he heard all about it from his family. They lost 160 acres to the river. Frank Stonner lived on the south side of the river, but when school time rolled around, he was living on the north side of the river and his children had to change schools. Bud Thompson, a rural mail carrier from Wellington was unhappy because his mail route changed overnight and suddenly his route was shorter. This did not set well with him because his salary was cut when his work-load was less.

Another one of my favorite stories was told by Virginia (King) McBee. In the good ol’ days, the riverboats docked at Camden and everyone would buy a ticket and go on the boat to see a show. Her dad had gotten tickets and her mother, Blanche, was excited about going to the show. Well, Blanche was expecting and Virginia’s sister, Rilla, decided it was time for her grand entrance and the King family missed the show that night. Virginia said her mother never got to see another riverboat show because that was the last time a riverboat came to Camden.

The Missouri River route was now 10 miles shorter between St Louis and Kansas City, so the riverboat captains were happy. But, it was a sad day in Camden when you could no longer look out over the Missouri River. There is one other good thing that came out of the change of 100 years ago, Ray County got Sunshine Lake. It was formed from the old riverbed that had been the Missouri River. When you look at Sunshine Lake, it’s hard to believe that riverboats once went past those shores. If the river had not changed, we might not have gotten to know J.J. Pryor. And some other county would be telling their grandchildren all the tales we share about Pryor Lodge and the early days of Sunshine Lake.

I’m going to check with all my Camden friends and see if we can have a little party next month on the 100th Anniversary of the Missouri River leaving Camden high and dry.

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