NARRATIVES of the OSAGE RIVER
By Dwight Weaver
The mighty Osage River, often called the “Hudson of the West” in earlier decades, has
a watershed covering a rural area of 15,300 square miles that includes a portion of eastern Kansas, and a large portion of west central and central Missouri. It empties into the Missouri River about 15 miles downstream from Jefferson City, Missouri.
The main channel contains the combined waters of three streams – the Little Osage, the Marmaton and the Marais des Cygnes (mar-uh-duh-seen), all of which originate in eastern Kansas. These three streams merge about 20 miles northwest of Nevada, Missouri, on the Bates-Vernon county line to form the Osage River. The river also receives water from other significant tributaries in its meandering through the prairies and hills of Missouri, such as the Sac, Grand, Pomme de Terre and Niangua. The river has 360 miles of waterways in Missouri and a total length of nearly 500 miles when the Kansas streams are included.
Named for the Osage Nation, the indigenous people of the region when Europeans and Americans began to settle along its banks in the early 1800s, the river presented significant navigation difficulties for the settlers due to its frequent flooding, its torturous meanders, and its abundant shoals and islands. But there were exceptions.
THE LITTLE STEAMER AND ITS LOAD OF SALT
One daring river-man who navigated the Osage in the days before the Civil War, gave the following account of a remarkable trip from the mouth of the Osage to Suns Point in Bourbon County, Kansas. It is probably the farthest point upstream ever reached by a steamboat. The tale was told by Richard Fugus, who was the boats carpenter on the trip.
“The steamer was itself named the Osage. The hull was laid and launched at Linn Creek in the winter of 1856-57 by the owners who were residents of Linn Creek. The hull was towed to St. Louis where the boat was finished. It drew nearly three feet of water with a cabin capacity of 75 passengers, double engines, double boilers, and side wheels.
“Major Melton placed Elijah Melton, his brother, in charge as clerk and the Osage made regular trips for eight months in the year from St. Louis up the Osage River, often as far as Papinsville in Bates County, Mo., but more frequently going only to Osceola in St. Clair County. Those were boating days on the beautiful Osage River and as many as eleven boats have been tied up at Warsaw, Mo., at one time.
“Before the war the freight and passenger service made a profit to the owner of the boat and $1,500 was not an unusual amount for the round trip. The crowning feat in navigation was in taking a cargo of two hundred tons of salt to Suns Point in Bourbon County, Kansas.
“The Civil War had destroyed the boating service on the Osage River, and salt was so scarce that a pound would sell at times for one dollar. They knew if they could get it to the western counties of Missouri, the people would pay a handsome profit for it. With George Crawford, an Osage River pilot, the boat was loaded to its capacity with salt in barrels and sacks and the voyage began.
“At Osceola the news came that heavy rains for a week at the headwaters of the Osage in Kansas would keep the river at high water marks and Crawford, the daring Osage River pilot said he would try for Suns Point, or failing, he could stop at Bell View, a few miles below. Suns Point was reached at 4 o’clock on the afternoon of the following day, and the river bank was full but very narrow. It was so full that the presence of the boat forced the water out of its banks on to the low land. In an hour the water began to fall and all hands rolled off the salt. Everybody who would work was hired for help. The unloading continued all night without interruption until 4 o’clock in the morning.
It was then observed that the narrow stream was not wide enough by ten feet to turn the boat around. Every available tool was put to use by deckhands and the bank of the river was dug down low enough to allow the stern of the boat to back into it; and by the aid of ropes and capstan the turn was made. The unloading was completed and at 5 o’clock the race for deep water began. The wood supply was running low when a woodyard (sic) was seen in the distance on the bank some thirty miles below Suns Point. No time was lost in tying up and appropriating all the wood in the yard, and the little steamer was on her way to escape the shallow water. The mouth of the Osage below Jefferson City was reached before noon the following day.(The Daily Post, Jefferson City, Sept. 7, 1912)
(Illustration: The Nellda, an Osage River boat that worked the Osage in the early 1900s. It was owned and piloted by Sam and Nellda Salsman. The boat was powered by a kerosene engine and provided some living quarters for the Salsmans; circa 1917; photographer unknown; courtesy Camden County Historical Society.)