Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


As European American settlement moved onto the edges of the Great Plains in the 1840s and 1850s, American entrepreneurs from St. Louis transformed the fur-trading network of forts and outposts along the upper Missouri River into a system of river towns that served both as outfitting centers at the termini of the major overland trails that crossed the Plains and trading centers that connected settlers to the national market. In the 1830s, while regular St. Louis boats ran only out to the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail at Westport, Missouri, other St. Louis boats traded as far north as Forts Lisa, Pierre, Mandan, and Union. Increased tra.c along the overland routes to the west in the 1840s and the opening of Kansas and Nebraska Territories in 1854 triggered the development of the river towns of Kansas City, Missouri; Kansas City, Atchison, and Leavenworth, Kansas Territory; and Brownville, Nebraska City, and Omaha, Nebraska Territory. After Dakota Territory was opened in 1861, Yankton, Chamberlain, and Pierre and later Mandan (Bismarck) and Williston (near Fort Union) all emerged as river towns in the 1860s. The navigability of the Yellowstone River in Montana reinvigorated Fort Benton and led to the establishment of Miles City, Coulson City (and later nearby Billings), and Bozeman as river towns in the late 1860s and 1870s.

The history of each river town varied with the timing of the arrival of the steamboat and the arrival of the railroad there or at towns farther north. With the arrival of steamboats, Kansas City, Atchison, Leavenworth, Nebraska City, and Omaha and later Yankton and Bismarck each became a terminus and outfitting center for a major overland route to the West. In each case, the discovery of gold, whether in Colorado in 1858, Montana in the 1860s, or the Black Hills in the 1870s, deepened the town's outfitting function. In the 1850s St. Joseph, Missouri, and Atchison and Leavenworth, Kansas, became the headquarters for major freight and mail companies providing shipping services to the West. Both Omaha, the territorial capital located at the terminus of the Platte River route, and its rival, Nebraska City, after 1858 the outpost of a freighting company from Leavenworth at the terminus of the northern route to the Rockies, enjoyed a decade of prosperity as river towns. Farther north, freight companies at Sioux City, Iowa, and Yankton and Bismarck, Dakota Territory, vied with each other for the Montana and Black Hills gold trade in the 1860s and 1870s. As settlement increased around each place, the town became a depot for shipments between St. Louis merchants and farmers and landlocked towns in the hinterlands.

At each river town, however, the heyday of the steamboat trade was short-lived. The arrival of the railroad at Kansas City in 1854, St. Joseph in 1858, Council Bluff's in 1867, and Omaha and Sioux City in 1868 intersected and truncated the St. Louis.controlled urban system extending up the river. As St. Louisans were cut out of their river trade, the new railroad terminus replaced St. Louis as the steamboating entrepot to the north until it too had its trade cut off by a railroad arriving at some town upriver. For example, when the railroad reached Sioux City, Iowa, in 1868 it became the upriver steamboat entrepot until the railroads reached Yankton and Bismarck in 1873. They in turn enjoyed their heydays as entrepots only until the railroad reached Pierre and Chamberlain and later Fort Benton in the 1880s. On the river below, steamboating declined into local or secondary freight service, thus ending its significance in each river town's economy.

The history of most of these river town outposts followed a similar scenario, varying only in the timing of their development as river towns and the arrival of the railroads. A river town was a particular kind of urban trading center along one of the great interior rivers of North America or their tributaries to and from which steamboats transported goods, services, and passengers. The river and the steamboat were the lifeblood of the classic river town. Its economy was defined by the seasonal rise and fall of the river. During the brief spring navigation season on the Missouri, steamboats delivered and picked up tons of produce at the wharf or adjacent warehouses or factories. The river was the Main Street and the levee was the front door of the typical river town. Near the wharf stood mills and factories to process the products of the hinterland. In larger towns, hotels, saloons, and taverns adjacent to the levee became the focal point of a vibrant river-town culture. Nearby, lower-income workers and transients and, especially in towns from Kansas City to Omaha, African American residents usually crowded into cramped living quarters. Farther back from the river, merchants and professionals, the social elite, lived in elaborate row buildings and houses, often built in a steamboat architectural style, interspersed with churches.

This spatial differentiation was often reflected by a hierarchical society. In most river towns a small booster elite ruled as a political and social oligarchy over a diverse local population. Though some river towns developed a reputation for tolerating deviant social behavior, the social elite usually ruled indirectly through a working-class boss who controlled the local political machine and the police to protect and support the city's wide-open vice business. By the later nineteenth century, some river towns such as Kansas City and Omaha developed into railroad and manufacturing gateway cities and entrepots of the Great Plains. Most stagnated and settled for slower growth as secondary or local railroad and manufacturing centers. Riverfronts once crowded by steamboats and then railroads evolved in the early twentieth century into warehouse and industrial districts that cut the river off from the city. Periodic floods and shifting economic conditions caused many manufacturers to relocate and railroads to shut their lines, gradually leaving most river fronts underused or vacant. Only since the 1980s have some former river towns and cities tried to reclaim riverside lands as industrial or corporate parks, public parks, or sites for gambling casinos (and their adjacent parking lots), but in both Omaha and Kansas City the riverfront remains an underused industrial district and railroad right-of-way, inaccessible to most residents, who have long since turned their backs on the river to live and work farther and farther out in the suburban and fringe city hinterland.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Warehouse Districts.

Timothy R. Mahoney University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Larsen, Lawrence H. The Urban West at the End of the Frontier. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.

Lass, William E. A History of Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

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