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Missouri River West of Boonvillle Bridge

Wayne Lammers Collection

Before the white man traveled up the Missouri River, the Indians had paddled their canoes on it for centuries. Later came the French trappers and explorers in their pirogues, canoes, mackinaws, bateaus and keelboats. At this time, these types of boats were the only means of river transportation. When the first settlers arrived, the main routes of commerce and travel were still the water courses. Neither steamboats nor railroads were available yet. Because transportation was so important, the main settlements were made on the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.


Hannah Cole and others

During the first court on July 8, 1816, at Cole’s Fort, Hannah Cole’s sons were granted a license to run a ferry on the Missouri River between Boonville and Franklin. At the same time B.W. Levens, Ward and Potter, and George W. Cary were also granted a license to keep a ferry across the Missouri at the present site of Overton. The rates charged at the Levens’ ferry were as follows:

For man and horse $0.50

For either separately $0.25

For 4 horses and 4-wheeled wagon $2.00

For 2 horses and 4-wheeled carriage $1.00

For horned cattle $0.04 each

For polled cattle $.02 each

No one seems to remember what the cost to cross the River on the Dorothy was. Later, other ferries were licensed to help travelers cross the “Wide Missouri” River.

Until 1924, when the first Boonville Bridge connecting New Franklin to Boonville was built, one had to take a motorized ferry across the Missouri River to get to Boonville from New Franklin, or go to Howard County from Boonville. The last Ferry to operate was the “Dorothy,” which ceased operating when the Route 40 bridge was finished in 1924.

The Dorothy ferry on the Missouri at Boonville. ca 1890's. 

Dorothy Ferry Boat circa 1918.

Source: "Discover Cooper County" by Ann Betteridge.


From the Wayne Lammers collection

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Joseph L. Stephens ferry boat in the 1890s, in front of Boonville

In operation until 1924

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Front of Stephens Ferry Boat


Rocheport Ferry - Cooper County in the background, notice 3 covered wagons and horses. Steam engine moved the paddle wheel.

Lamine Ferry 1930's, from the Jim Higbie collection (colorized).

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Corps of Discovery near Boonville (Keel boat) - a reproduction of the Lewis and Clark boat. The reproduction burned, but was rebuilt 1/2 scale and is in the

River, Rails and Trails Museum.

Photo by Wayne Lammers

The pirogue was a small type of canoe. The canoe was the most commonly used type of boat, and was the simplest of all river crafts. It was usually made from a cottonwood log, hollowed out, and was usually from 15 to 18 feet long. It was generally manned by three men: one to steer and two to paddle. It was used mostly for short trips, though occasionally was employed for long trips.


The mackinaw was a flatboat, pointed at both ends, and was from 40 to 50 feet long. It usually had a crew of five men: one steersman and four oarsmen.


The bullboat was usually used on shallow streams because of its light draft. It was made of buffalo bull hides sewn together and stretched over a frame of poles, and needed two men to handle it.

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Keel Boat

Jolly Flat Boatsmen by George Caleb Bingham

The keelboat was considered the best and largest craft for transportation before the steamboat. It was 60 to 70 feet long, with the keel running from bow to stern. It could carry a larger cargo than any of the other boats mentioned. It was usually poled. Several men at a time pushed long poles into the river bed, and literally pushed the boat upstream. In deep, fast, or rough water, or if other problems caused poling not to work well, the keelboat was then propelled by means of a cordelle. The cordelle was a line practically 1,000 feet long, one end of which was fastened to the top of the 30-foot mast in the center of the boat. It was well-braced from the mast and the rope extended to the shore. At the shore end of the line, some twenty or thirty men walked along the river bank and pulled the boat upstream. Cordelling was extremely difficult and exhausting work, especially when the edge of the river was full of brush, or the banks so soft that they gave way under foot. Sails were used at times, when the wind was right. Many years after the steamboat made its appearance, people continued to use the keelboat.

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Flatboat and Steam boats on the Missouri River

The First Steamboat at Franklin was on May 29, 1819. The trip of the Independence from St. Louis to Franklin took 13 days (six of which they were grounded on sandbars). Captain John Nelson had charge of the steamboat. The day after the arrival of the Independence a dinner was given by the citizens of Franklin in honor of the occasion.


The trip of the Independence from St. Louis to Franklin was the beginning of steamboat traffic upon the Missouri. The development of the steamboat changed the whole process of river transportation, making it possible to travel much faster than previously, and with much larger cargoes, and was one of the chief factors in the development of Boonville and Cooper County.


The second steamboat to arrive at Franklin was the Western Engine, one of several steamboats that came up the river in 1819 as part of Major Stephen Long’s “Yellowstone Expedition.” The boat reached Franklin on June 13, 1819. The design of the Western Engineer was startling. The prow was upturned and carved into the shape of a serpent’s head. By means of a flue, steam could be directed to come out the hinged jaws. It was intended to frighten the Indians, and it did.


The real beginning point of commercially feasible steam boating began about 1830. Because of the rush of immigration at that time, boats could not be built fast enough.

Packets on the Missouri River

A Packet, or packet boat, is identified by its function rather than by any distinctive vessel type. Historically, packets originated as vessels under contract with the government to carry mail. With this official duty as their primary purpose, packets could be distinguished from any other vessels by their speed and regularity of service on a fixed route, between designated ports. Steam driven packets were used extensively in the 19th century on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, supplying and bringing personnel to forts and trading posts and carrying freight and passengers.


Today, while steamboats are but a distant memory, the Missouri River is alive and well in Missouri.

Sources: Elizabeth Davis "Historically Yours", Ann Betteridge "Discover Cooper County"


Steamboat "Plow Boy" at Boonville unloading wheat at Boonville Mill. From the Wayne Lammers collection.



Steamboat pulled by a tugboat with the Katy bridge in the background. From the Wayne Lammers collection.


In 1838, the government began to clear the Missouri River of snags, and river travel became somewhat less hazardous. As the steamboat trade increased, boats became bigger and fancier, changing from the appearance of a floating shack to a floating palace.


The Boonville Register of May 20, 1841, stated “the first boat built in the city of Boonville, is to be launched on Monday, the 24th.” The boat was built under the superintendence of Captain Courtney and was to be called the Warsaw.


The “Golden Era” of the Missouri River steam boating was between 1850 and 1860, and reached its highest prosperity in the year 1858. There were then not less than sixty packets on the river, besides 30 to 40 transient boats called tramps, which came on the river from other streams and made one or two trips during the season. The packets had regular schedules and carried the United States mail, express, freight, newspapers (both daily and semi-weekly). Their arrival was booked forward to along the Missouri River with a great deal of interest. The discovery of gold in California, and later gold in Montana, caused many people to ride the steamboats on their way west and north. People flocked to the wharves whenever a steamboat arrived.


There were so many boats on the lower river during this period that it was a common sight to see as many as five or six lying at the Boonville landing at the same time. These were prosperous days for the river towns. During the boating season, which continued from March to November, there was never a time when a boat wasn’t visible. The Missouri River freezing solid made it impossible to travel by boat during the winter months.


The Missouri River was one of the most difficult streams in the United States to navigate because of its shifting channel, its swift current, and its many bends, which, with the many snags, made a continual menace to river traffic. No pilot approached a snag, especially at night, without fear and caution. The average life of a Missouri River steamboat was less than five years. Other problems, such as fires, boiler explosions, and floods as well as low water, also made traveling by steamboat hazardous. A major disaster in this area was the sinking of the El Paso after it hit a snag below Boonville in 1855.


Another period of prosperity were the years 1866, 1867, and 1868. Captain C.H. Kinney, made the sum of $45,000 in profits from one trip.


A number of residents in the Boonville area were involved in river trade as owners, captains, or pilots of steamboats. Many made their fortunes on the river. Perhaps the best known was Captain Joseph Kinney, who lived in Boonville from 1850 to 1860. He built Riverscene mansion across the river from Boonville in 1869. It was said that Captain Kinney picked out the lumber for his elegant home along the banks as he traveled the river and had it cut and delivered to the building area.


Today the river is still important to the county’s economy. Barges are used to transport grain and other products.

Brief History of Steam boating on the Missouri River

By Bob Dyer

References: Steamboats on the Missouri River

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Steamboat unloading wheat for the Sombart Mill in Boonville

Nadine Excursion Boat near Boonville

The St. Jacobs Oil steamboat at Boonville 1870's-Macurdy. Boonville Mill in the background


Why does the Missouri flood more now than much earlier? The only bad flood in the 1800’s (#4) was in 1844. The next bad one did not come until 1944 (#8), one hundred years later. There is a lot of finger pointing that the river has been changed by straightening, and building reservoirs and levees.  However, heavy snow falls and late spring rains upstream also are big contributing factors. The flooding in 2019 was believed to have been triggered by record snowfall in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and Wyoming along with near-record spring rainfall in central and eastern Montana. All six major dams along the Missouri River released record amounts of water to prevent overflow which led to flooding threatening several towns and cities downstream.

Missouri also had record rain in late May in 2013 and 2019. All six major dams along the Missouri River released record amounts of water to prevent overflow, which led to flooding downstream, which flooded several towns and cities.


The result - buildings and homes were severely damaged, and some washed away. Roads and bridges were underwater, as were the just emerging spring crops. Precious topsoil helped to make the Muddy MO even muddier. Cars, buildings and machinery were badly damaged, or also washed away by the force of the rushing water. Countless animals drowned and the number of human deaths from the flooding is unknown.


Historic Flood Crests of Missouri River at Boonville

(1) 37.10 ft on 07/29/1993
(2) 33.73 ft on 05/31/2019 
(3) 33.14 ft on 05/19/1995
(4) 32.70 ft on 06/21/1844
(5) 32.62 ft on 07/17/1951
(6) 32.02 ft on 06/27/1947
(7) 31.85 ft on 10/05/1986
(8) 30.93 ft on 04/27/1944
(9) 30.74 ft on 04/07/1983
(10) 30.72 ft on 06/02/2013

Source: Historical Crests for Missouri River at Boonville US Weather Service

Scroll to read the story about the Flood of 1993

Bob Dyer’s poem for a friend who lost his home to the flood of 1993


Poem by Bob Dyer, courtesy of Sharon Dyer

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Highway 40 during the 1951 Flood just across the river from Boonville.
From the Wayne Lammers collection.

Video of 2019 Missouri River at Boonville Flood

Videos by Tracy and Ashley Friedrich 

@FarmAlarm. Boonville YouTubers



























Map of the Missouri River and it's tributaries.

Source: Wikipedia

The Missouri River is North America's longest river, beginning in western Montana and ending 2,341 miles away, north of St. Louis, Missouri, where it enters the Mississippi River. The name 'Missouri' is derived from the Missouria tribe name, meaning 'people with wooden canoes'. The Missouri River and its tributaries have been important to people for more than 12,000 years, for many reasons including transportation, fishing, irrigation, and as a water source for animals which in turn helped to feed the people in the region. During the westward expansion of the United States the Missouri River played an important role. Because of industrial and agricultural use in the 20th century, the water quality, and animal and fish populations have been greatly impacted.

Other Interesting Missouri River Facts

It is believed that the Missouri River formed about 30 million years ago, but because it changes its course over time, the current course of the Missouri is estimated at 115,000 years old.

Major tributaries to the Missouri River include Yellowstone River, Platte River, and the Kansas River.


The Missouri River flows through several states including Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It flows past Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas.


The first explorers to lay their eyes on the Missouri River were Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette. These Frenchmen were floating along the Mississippi River in 1673 when they spotted it.

Lewis and Clark were the first to travel the entire length of the Missouri River, which they accomplished in 1804.


The Missouri River flows from Montana's Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson Rivers for 2,341 miles to the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, Missouri.


The Missouri River is the world's 15th longest river.


The Missouri River basin (area of land drained by the river) is 529,350 square miles in size.

Approximately 10 million people live in the Missouri River basin. This includes people from 10 states, from a small region in Canada, and from 28 different Native American tribes.


The dams that have been built along the Missouri River have changed its ability to flow freely. Although this stops flooding in many regions, it changes the natural environment as well.


The Missouri River has been called "Big Muddy" and "Muddy Mo" because of its ability to relocate large amounts of soil on occasion.

There are approximately 150 fish species in the Missouri River, and about 300 species of birds live in the Missouri River's region.


The Lewis and Clark Historic Trail follows the Missouri River, making it possible for people to follow. Along the trail are roughly 100 historical sites to explore.

Many National Parks in the United States are located in the Missouri River's watershed, including Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Badlands National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park.


Snoddy's Store by boat

Flyover by drone of the Missouri River at Boonville

Flood flyover in airplane

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