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When we formally became Cole County on Nov. 16, 1820, the Missouri River was the only way to get to our county seat at Marion. Highways 70, 50, 54 and 179 didn't exist. Jefferson City was created by the Missouri Legislature meeting in St. Charles to be the site of the state capital. They decried the new capital must be on the Missouri River within 40 miles of the Osage River. Jefferson City would not exist today if it hadn't been on the Missouri River!

Marion was the first Cole County seat of government because of its location on the Missouri River and its proximity to Boonville and Franklin. The first taxes collected by our new county government were yearly fees for ferries and taverns — boats and booze!

Early riverboats were canoes, flatboats, keelboats and barges. These were the only means of moving people and goods across the state. Keelboats and barges were the only way for the settlers of Central Missouri to get their produce and products to the markets in St. Louis.

The first steamboat to arrive in St. Louis was the Zebulon M. Pike in August 1817. She was a very underpowered sidewheeler that traveled only during the day. It took six weeks to travel from Louisville to St. Louis.

The Independence was the first steamboat to travel the Missouri River. She carried passengers and a cargo of sugar, flour, whiskey and iron from St. Louis to Franklin in 13 days in May 1819. This was before we were Cole County and six years before Jefferson City was platted as the state capital. Cole County's population in 1820 was 1,028, while Franklin had more than 3,000 citizens. Franklin was the largest town west of St. Louis, but unfortunately, the floods of 1826 completely wiped it away.

Follow the Independence, the United States government planned the Yellowstone Expedition up the Missouri River following Lewis and Clark's route to create safe travel to the mouth of the Yellowstone. In 1819, five steamboats were selected for this expedition carrying military, engineers and biologists to explore and map the Missouri River. Only three boats made it to St. Louis, and only one boat made it as far as Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Yellowstone Expedition was not a success.

Another early important Missouri River community was Osage City. Hoping to be the site of the Missouri capital, it was laid out in 1819 by land spectators. It did not become the capital, but it did serve as a valuable port for the farmers of Cole and Osage counties to ship their agricultural products east. It also was an ideal port for boats coming down the 600 miles of the navigable Osage River to the mouth of the Missouri River. At one time there were 28 boats operating on the Osage. Osage City operated a shipyard that built boats, a railroad depot and a port for riverboats. As late as 1871, seven steamboats were homeported at Osage City. Today, she is just a memory of what she once was.

Riverports served St. Charles, Washington, Osage City, Boonville, Glasgow, Lexington, Independence and later St. Joseph, which was the start of the Santa Fe Trail.

Weekly packets stopped in these ports bringing settlers, passengers, fur, lumber and agricultural goods. In 1830, St. Louis collected $1,764.30 in fees for 278 steamboats and 91 keelboats tying up at her levee.

The most famous packet in Cole County was the Iatan, which adorns the seal of Jefferson City. In the 1840s, the Iatan ran 24 trips each week from St. Louis to Glasgow, stopping at ports alone the river, including Jefferson City. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Iatan also transported General Lyons and federal troops to Jefferson City to save it for the Union. They landed at the Penitentiary pier and marched to the Capitol.

Our rivers were the main source of commerce and travel until the arrival of the railroads in 1850s.

Our local merchants continue to use the Missouri River to transport their merchandise to their stores. My great-grandfather William Morlock had his Morlock Mercantile Store at the corner of Dunklin and Jefferson streets. He had his own riverboat, as did other Jefferson City merchants. They would telegraph their orders to St. Louis and then steam to St. Louis and pick up their goods on the levee. Wears Creek was navigable off the Missouri River and they would bring their boats as close as they could to Dunklin and unload. He continued to do this into the start of the 20th century.

Our rivers were the main source of commerce and transportation until the arrival of the railroads and the improvements of our roads. Today, barge traffic is the most economical means of moving goods — eight times less expensive than shipping by truck.

In the 21st century, we are once again looking at our maritime highways as a means of moving product throughout the United States.

The Heartland River Port situated between the Ike Skelton Center and the penitentiary can and will be an important center for transporting and receiving goods. New container ships can operate out of this port and transport tractor-trailers to St. Louis, New Orleans and all over the world. The Hong Kong Trade Delegation has visited Jefferson City twice in the last three years. They told our farmers they want all the soybeans, corn and all the other crops we grow in Mid-Missouri. Shipping these agricultural goods by river is the most economical and efficient way to get these products to these markets. Other goods such as pet food, windows, printed publications and military ordinance can be shipped by river. During Dessert Storm, National Guard equipment was shipped by barge down the Missouri River.

The Missouri River has played an integral part of the history and settlement of Cole County, and today it can once again play an important role in our prosperity. We are seeking members to join our Heartland Port Yacht Club!


"Walks in Water: The Impact of Steamboating on the Lower Missouri River," by Lawrence Giffen

"History of Jefferson City 1821-1938," by James Ford

"Heartland History: Volume 3," by Gary Kremer

"Steamboat Disasters of the Lower Missouri River," By Vicki Berger Erwin and James Erwin

Sam Bushman is the presiding commissioner on the Cole County Commission. He shares his perspective each month on county issues. He can be reached at [email protected]

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