The Missouri River

June 11, 2018

Written by Rachel McCoy | Photos by Jessica Stewart and Patrick Evenson


DEFINITION:  Causing or producing motion; changing, instigating, actuating; and, stirring strong emotions.

Comrade. Adversary. Sacred. Adventure. Mystery. Motion. A description of the Missouri River near St. Joseph, Mo., includes all of these words. It is intriguing, yet straightforward, much like the powerful body of water itself.

The Missouri River majestically frames St. Joseph, nestling the city within its banks and bluffs. The river creates a constantly changing backdrop of natural beauty, economic opportunity and recreation, woven together by a rich collection of shared stories and history.

Commerce and exploration mark the earliest documented journeys on the river by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who mapped the Missouri River by keelboat in 1804. Perhaps expedition founder President Thomas Jefferson said it best, “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” (From President Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to Meriwether Lewis.)

This famed journey was just the start of an ever-changing and evolving river story. Commerce opportunities are only one of many impacts the river would make on Northwest Missouri.

A Crossroads of Progress and Prosperity

Only a handful of decades after Lewis and Clark passed through what is now St. Joseph, another adventurer staked his claim to permanent St. Joseph river legend: Joseph Robidoux. As the founder of St. Joseph, Robidoux established the Blacksnake Hills trading post with the Native Americans living in the region in 1826. The post became a fur-trading mecca, and St. Joseph was platted out in 1843. Robidoux, like many others to come, was drawn to the living presence of the river and its scenic bluffs that provided a vantage point for miles in each direction.

This early use of the Missouri River at St. Joseph for economic promise remains a key part of its history and its promise for the future. By 1848, gold had been discovered in California and thousands of settlers arrived by steamboat to St. Joseph. They ferried across the river and purchased what they needed to outfit their journey. Known as the “St. Joseph Branch” of the Oregon Trail, thousands of pioneers embarked on the western leg of their travels by crossing the Missouri River at St. Joseph – and simultaneously kickstarted the city’s tremendous entrepreneurial and manufacturing boom of the mid to late 1800s.

By 1860, St. Joseph had been fully established as the main supply purchase point for the rest of the West, fueled by the rolling Missouri River waters. Soon the soaring architectural treasures of church spires, multi-story manufacturing buildings and mansion rooftops were echoing the area’s peaked river bluffs.

As a gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, the Missouri River continues to engage the region today in regional and national commerce. St. Joseph’s bend in the Missouri River is a central point for transportation of many kinds, including planes, trains, automobiles and boats. The St. Joseph Regional Port Authority, a public river port facility, offers businesses the opportunity for river barge transport. Train tracks run along the banks, hauling goods to, through and from St. Joseph. Trucks do the same along the north-south and east-west roadways of U.S. Interstate 29 and Missouri Highway 36. And, the French Bottom created by the changing path of the riverbed over the years features Rosecrans Memorial Airport. Pilots flying aircraft from general aviation single-engine taildraggers to large corporate jets enjoy use of this large airport while the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard and the Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Center all call Rosecrans home.

So Many Ways to be “Rollin’ on the River”

Another key aspect of commerce lies in river recreation, including tourism revenue through new trails, a softball complex, the Remington Nature Center, a casino and more.

On a typical sunny weekend, you’ll find visiting guests and locals alike biking and hiking the paved paths along the river banks. Interpretive signs dot the gently winding trails of the St. Joseph River Walk, drawing people close to the river, creating opportunities for spotting eagles and other wildlife throughout all four seasons. At Robidoux Landing, visitors can share the same view that inspired Joseph Robidoux, a moment that is especially dramatic and selfie-worthy at sunrise or sunset.

One of America’s favorite pastimes is played out at The Bill McKinney Softball Complex and Heritage Park that is uniquely positioned at the north side of the walking trail, drawing local sports teams and tournaments throughout the year.

You might see couples, families and friends having lunch or dinner overlooking the river at the St. Jo Frontier Casino, and families learning about the area’s cultural and natural history at the award-winning Remington Nature Center. The nature center is uniquely situated and built to complement the water, bluffs and landscape, drawing thousands of visitors from across the nation each year to its extensive Native American and cultural exhibits. Outdoor educational programs and indoor exhibits change at the nature center to reflect unique angles of the region’s river history and invite new generations into the story.

Located just off of U.S. Interstate 229’s Highland Avenue exit on MacArthur Drive in between Remington and the Casino’s large parking lots, the Missouri River’s French Bottom Access is the community’s boat ramp under the management of the Missouri Department of Conservation. Fishing enthusiasts and boaters – in crafts of many different sizes – spend morning to night hours enjoying the river up close and personal. Anglers reel in several types of catfish along this stretch of the river while bird watching and boating fun occupy the time of others.

Those who like to hike, geocache and explore nature can take in the conservation area north and south of the French Bottom area on both the east and west sides of the Missouri River.

The century-old and nationally acclaimed Boy Scout camp, Camp Geiger, affords some of the most coveted and secretive views of the Missouri River and bluffs – with certain vantage points open only to scouts of a particular rank and membership. The camp, located on the north side of the community, is known across the Midwest and the nation for its river bluff landscape, stone amphitheater, ropes course, climbing tower and shooting range – and it is a hallmark childhood memory for thousands of campers who return generation after generation.

Music, Events and Memories

At times, the sound of drums echoes across the riverfront area. But these are of a very different sort than early Native Americans who called the region home. These drums are the local and regional bands at events held at the French Bottom Access.

The historic Solar Eclipse of 2017’s band of totality center running straight through St. Joseph brought thousands of people to hang out along the river banks from all over the world. Additional events along the Missouri River in St. Joseph include 5K run/walks, bike races, car shows and more. Annual recycling events and special exhibits at the Remington Nature Center also serve to celebrate the river in St. Joseph while encouraging the community to come together in preserving and protecting it.

Flowing just under the surface are so many river memories shared by generations of St. Joseph residents. Some recall the jazz music and dinner cruises during the years when St. Joseph had an active riverboat entertainment venue. Others remember stunning waterfront fireworks at annual riverfront Fourth of July festivals. And others remember residents coming together to help sandbag or clean up after the Great Flood of 1993.

What the Missouri River meant to St. Joseph in the early 1800s and what it means to residents now really aren’t that different. Two centuries ago, it meant prosperity, opportunity and adventure for those moving to, through and from the area. On a given afternoon in St. Joseph, the Missouri River still means these things – and so much more, especially to those who have chosen to make St. Joseph their home and the Missouri River a part of their lives.


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