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  • October 25th, 2017

LOST RIVER

By Joel M. Vance

Long before President Eisenhower became the father of the interstate highway system, the country was traversed by rivers. The earliest explorers probed up the upper Mississippi River in the 1600s and were frightened by the tumultuous rush of the Missouri River at its mouth. Then Lewis and Clark braved the Missouri River en route to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-5. Later explorers included the naturalist John James Audubon, and George Catlin a painter who documented Indian tribes that the white man callously exterminated by infecting them with smallpox against which they had no immunity.
Most settlers and pioneers who invaded what now is the United States relied on rivers to get from here to there. The Chariton River once threaded its way halfway through Missouri from Iowa to the Missouri River, a serpentine waterway that even as it quarters the top half of the state, also bisects the history of the Vance family. Almost all pioneers in Missouri and elsewhere owe some of their heritage to a river of some size, but the Chariton River is woven inextricably through the fabric of the Vance family’s history.
The Chariton belongs almost equally to Iowa and Missouri— with 106 miles of its length in Iowa and the remaining hundred and 12 miles in Missouri, before it is swallowed by the Missouri, South of Keytesville where I went to high school. That 218 mile length is misleading. Once the river coursed hundreds of miles until man got his grubby fingers involved, aided by the play toys of development gone mad.
The Chariton has been the victim of river rape that encapsulates all the bad things that can happen to once pristine watercourses. It’s dammed (read that damned) in Iowa and channelized in Missouri. It has been contaminated over the years by every agricultural chemical yet devised by man, muddied by erosive run off from the rich agricultural lands of southern Iowa and northern Missouri. The trade-off is that what once was a wooded and pristine small river became drainpipe for the evils of agriculture— erosion and chemical contamination.
In 1969, the Corps of Engineers, ever vigilant for a chance to alter the landscape, usually with disastrous results for the environment, began construction of 11,000 acre Rathbun reservoir in southern Iowa which drowned a considerable mileage of the upper Chariton River. According to Corps self praise the lake which spans 21,000 acres at flood stage, provides a virtual paradise for recreationists, alleviates floods, and does all kinds of good for the bureaucratic universe. This miracle Lake was dedicated in 1970 by none other than President Richard Nixon. Nixon and his tarnished legacy are gone, but the lake lingers on.
About 30 miles downstream from Rathbun dam, the Chariton slips into Missouri and heads downstream toward my territory, Chariton County, named for the river, or vice versa, where I lived for a decade in the late 1940s and most of the 1950s. The Chariton River threaded its way through my history, mostly in a good way.
The Chariton gained its name about 1804 when John Charaton established a trading post near the mouth of the then-unnamed tributary of the Missouri River and named the watercourse after himself. The little river was a godsend to Missouri, Sac, and Iowa Indians, who depended on it for fish and wild game. It was so insignificant to the early explorers that Lewis and Clark passed it by without comment. Then a fellow named James Loe explored upstream almost to Callao, where my parents would live in the 1960s.
The river continued to be a river for a century after John Charaton established his little settlement, but in 1904, a farmer named Peter Vitt started talking up the idea of pulling the kinks out of the Chariton and turning it into a straight ditch the faster to shepherd floodwaters downstream to the Missouri. In Chariton County, where my grandfather built and tended fish traps and where my father would own a farm, the Chariton River wound through an estimated 300 miles of streambed. From the Iowa line to the Missouri the historic length was about 900 miles. After the Corps of Engineers finished its lethal assault on the twisting stream, less than 100 miles remained, a straight ditch, as inviting to outdoor enthusiasts as a sewage lagoon. Gone were the bordering trees, the wildlife, and most of the fish that once provided bounty to settlers, replaced by bordering corn and bean fields.
My father was not immune to the pressure and so-called progress either. He was a partner in a 640 acre farm near Bynumville, through which once ran the original Chariton River. By the time we moved to Dalton in 1948, the Chariton had been straightened and the new ditch ran by it outside the property line. The old channel remained within the farm as a twisting watercourse, slowly growing stagnant.
In the 1840s, probably on our farm and a century before the river was straightened, there was a fish trap in the Chariton, that for many years provided a bounty of fish for individual and community fish fries. The ruins of this old fish trap are documented today in yellow photographs, although the trap itself is long gone.
Two memories stick out, concerning that old channel. One is of what we called the Bend, a crook in the river that isolated a five-acre patch of woods, that frequently was flooded. In the fall when mallards sailed down from the North country, this woods of water-tolerant old oaks was a magnet for them, and we would hunt there sloshing through the shallow water where my father had distributed a dozen decoys. The Bend was a microcosm of the flooded oak marshes of the Southland, legendary for duck hunting. It was, for us, a sometime thing where, when conditions were just right, our shabby decoys would trick a small band of migrating mallards into helicoptering down to where we would shoot, and more often than not miss, since neither of us was a particularly good shot. The excitement, for a teenage kid, and for that matter, his middle-aged father, was almost unbearable.
One morning we got to the Bend to discover that a neighbor had sneaked into the flooded marsh and, mistaking our decoys for living ducks, potshot them full of holes so that about half of them had a list, reminiscent of the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. My father, caught up in the postwar mania for bigger and better farms, arranged to have the Bend cleared and drained and it became five acres of corn and beans, no longer our duck hunting spot, only a fond memory, tinged with sadness.
Another morning on another crook in the old channel my father and I walked up pair of ducks that flushed ahead of us in the early morning sunlight. I was carrying a model 12 Winchester pump with a 32 inch barrel, the quintessential old timers duck gun, which my father had gotten in a trade of some sort, and I shouldered it as if I knew what I was doing, and dropped one of the two ducks at 40 yards splashing it into the muddy water. My father’s pride in my shooting knew no bounds, and neither did mine. It was a rare moment, not shared nearly often enough.
In the 1940s we could travel a rough gravel road from the Finnell farm to our home in Dalton, crossing the Chariton at what was called Rockford, a grouping of houses which also included a hardware store where I got my first gun, an authentic Red Ryder BB gun (“you’ll shoot your eye out kid!”). The river was spanned by a rickety wooden bridge which vanished when the new channel cut through and the shortcut route from the Finnell farm to Dalton vanished along with it. Once, I had seen a brief flash of feminine flesh when a Guilford girl ran across the yard in her underwear, just up the hill from Rockford. That was every bit as exciting as getting my first BB gun.
Grandpa Joseph Oliver Vance was born just after the Civil War ended,in 1866, a son of a Union militiaman whose military career had lasted all of a couple hours before he was captured by General Sterling Price’s army and sent home to quit pestering the Confederates. My grandfather lived for 87 years, taking up carpentering as a trade, which helped him immeasurably in building fish traps. He also built a two room addition to the Finnell farm house where he lived with his daughter and her husband from 1937 until his death in 1953.
I would spend several summers on the Finnell farm, not learning to be a farm boy, but learning that I didn’t want to be a farm boy. I would watch my grandfather head across the hill in the morning to tend to his fish trap, often carrying a single shot 22 caliber rifle with which he would shoot squirrels for the family pot
As far as I know, the old man walked cross country from the family farm to the Chariton River, through the woods and across gullies, of which there were many in the pitted hills of southern Chariton County. At the river he tended his fish trap, a device cleverly constructed to capture catfish and other denizens of the murky river, which became his contribution to the family’s larder. It was about a mile hike to the old Chariton and it wouldn’t have been easy because in those days there was no cropland other than the occasional tobacco patch and the countryside was creased with gullies and ravines, the legacy of a century or more of trying to scratch a farm living from unfriendly and infertile dirt.
Little did the old man know, but when he was laid low by a stroke at 87, his day was over as was that of the lower Chariton River. By the time my folks and I moved from Chicago to Dalton in 1948, the Chariton River had been ousted from its original channel into a carefully engineered drainage ditch and the point of tending a fish trap was pointless.
My fellow worker at the Conservation Department, Kenny Hicks, once wrote a history of the Chariton, titled “The River That Went Straight” where he said this, “Where are the old fishing holes, the tree-lined banks, and the valuable otter? They helped feed, house, and clothe our last century kin, only to be swallowed up in the iron jaws of mammoth shovels or washed into oblivion by a modern method devised to rid ourselves of unmanaged water.”
Kenny closed his piece with this observation, “When will the conflict end? Will it be only when there are no more rivers or no more men?” Those are both questions that have yet to be answered, but I can answer them partially— gone is the Chariton, at least as my grandfather knew it, and so is my grandfather. Gone also is the Bend and the father with whom I shared misty mornings and shot-holed decoys. They say, “progress brings change.”
Please, define “progress” for me. I’m confused.

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