Queer American Rivers

by F. H. Spearman

I wonder if my readers realize what a story of the vast extent of our country is told by its rivers?

Every variety of river in the world seems to have a cousin in our collection. What other country on the face of the globe affords such an assortment of streams for fishing and boating and swimming and skating—besides having any number of streams on which you can do none of these things? One can hardly imagine rivers like that; but we have them, plenty of them, as you shall see.

As for fishing, the American boy may cast his flies for salmon in the Arctic circle, or angle for sharks under a tropical sun in Florida, without leaving the domain of the American flag. But the fishing-rivers are not the most curious, nor the most instructive as to diversity of climate, soil, and that sort of thing—physical geography, the teacher calls it.



For instance, if you want to get a good idea of what tropical heat and moisture will do for a country, slip your canoe from a Florida steamer into the Ocklawaha River. It is as odd as its name, and appears to be hopelessly undecided as to whether it had better continue in the fish and alligator and drainage business, or devote itself to raising live-oak and cypress-trees, with Spanish moss for mattresses as a side product.

In this fickle-minded state it does a little of all these things, so that when you are really on the river you think you are lost in the woods; and when you actually get lost in the woods, you are quite confident your canoe is at last on the river. This confusion is due to the low, flat country, and the luxuriance of a tropical vegetation.

To say that such a river overflows its banks would hardly be correct; for that would imply that it was not behaving itself; besides, it has n't any banks—or, at least, very few! The fact is, those peaceful Florida rivers seem to wander pretty much where they like over the pretty peninsula without giving offense; but if Jack Frost takes such a liberty—presto! you should see how the people get after him with weather-bulletins and danger-signals and formidable smudges. So the Ocklawaha River and a score of its kind roam through the woods,—or maybe it is the woods that roam through them,—and the moss sways from the live-oaks, and the cypress trees stick their knees up through the water in the oddest way imaginable.

In Florida one may have another odd experience: a river ride in an ox-cart. Florida rivers are usually shallow, and when the water is high you can travel for miles across country behind oxen, with more or less river under you all the way. There are ancient jokes about Florida steamboats that travel on heavy dews, and use spades for paddle-wheels.

But those of you who have been on its rivers know there is but one Florida, with its bearded oaks and fronded palms; its dusky woods, carpeted with glassy waters; its cypress bays, where lonely cranes pose, silently thoughtful (of stray polliwogs); and its birds of wondrous plumage that rise with startled splash when the noiseless canoe glides down upon their haunts.


Every strange fowl and every hideous reptile, every singular plant and every tangled jungle, will tell the American boy how far he is to the south. Florida is, in fact, his corner of the tropics; and the clear waters of its rivers, stained to brown and wine-color with the juices of a tropical vegetation, will tell him, if he reads nature's book, how different the sandy soil of the South is from the yellow mold of the great Western plains.

Such a boy hardly need ask the conductor how far west he is if he can catch a glimpse of one of the rivers. All the rivers of the plains are alike full of yellow mud, because the soil of the plains melts at the touch of water. These are our spendthrift rivers, full to the banks at times, but most of the year desperately in need of water. It is only with the greatest effort that they can keep their places in the summer: there is just a scanty thread of water strung along a great, rambling bed of sand, to restrain Dame Nature from revoking their licenses to run and turning them into cattle-ranches.

No wonder that fish refuse to have anything to do with such streams, and refuse tempting offers of free worms, free transportation, and protection from the fatal nets. Fancy trying to raise a family of little fish, and not knowing one day where water is coming from the next!

Not but what there is water enough at times; only, those rivers of the great plains, like the Platte and the Kansas and the Arkansas, are so wasteful of their supply in the spring that by July they are gasping for a shower. So, part of the year they revel in luxury, and during the rest they go shabby—like shiftless people.

But the irrigation engineers have lately discovered something wonderful about even these despised rivers. During the very driest seasons, when the stream is apparently quite dry, there is still a great body of water running in the sand. Like a vast sponge, the sand holds the water, yet it flows continually, just as if it were in plain sight, but more slowly of course. The volume may be estimated by the depth and breadth of the sand. One pint of it will hold three quarters of a pint of water. This is called the underground flow, and is peculiar to this class of rivers. By means of ditches this water may be brought to the surface for irrigation.

Scattered among the foot-hills of the Rockies are rivers still more wilful in their habits. Instead of keeping to their duties in a methodical way, they rush their annual work through in a month or two; then they take long vacations. For months together they carry no water at all; and one may plant and build and live and sleep in their deserted beds—but beware! Without warning, they resume active business. Maybe on a Sunday, or in the middle of the night, a storm-cloud visits the mountains. There is a roar, a tearing, a crashing, and down comes a terrible wall of water, sweeping away houses and barns and people. No fishing, no boating, no swimming, no skating on those treacherous rivers; only surprise and shock and disaster!

So different that they seem to belong in a different world are the great inter-mountain streams, like the Yellowstone and the Colorado.

They flow through landscapes of desolate grandeur, vast expanses compassed by endless mountain-ranges that chill the bright skies with never-melting snows. The countless peaks look down on the clouds, while far below the clouds wind valleys that the sunlight never reaches. Twisting in gloomy dusk through these valleys, a gaping cañon yawns. Peering fearfully into its black, forbidding depths, an echo reaches the ear. It is the fury of a mighty river, so far below that only a sullen roar rises to the light of day. With frightful velocity it rushes through a channel cut during centuries of patience deep into the stubborn rock. Now mad with whirlpools, now silently awful with stretches of green water, that wait to lure the boatman to death, the mighty river rushes darkly through the Grand Colorado Cañon.

No sport, no fun, no frolic there. Here are only awe-inspiring gloom and grandeur, and dangers so hideous that only a handful of men have ever braved them—fewer still survived.

Grandest of American rivers though it is, you will be glad to get away from it to a noble stream like the Columbia, to a headstrong flood like the Missouri, or an inland sea like the Mississippi; on them at least you can draw a full breath and speak aloud without a feeling that the silent mountains may fall on you or the raging river swallow you up.

In the vast territory lying between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean the rivers are fast being harnessed for a work that will one day make the most barren spots fertile. Irrigation is claiming every year more of the flow of Western rivers. Even the tricksy old Missouri is contributing somewhat to irrigation, but in the queerest possible way.

With all its other eccentricities, the Missouri River leaks badly; for you know there are leaky rivers as well as leaky boats. The government engineers once measured the flow of the Missouri away up in Montana, and again some hundred miles further down stream. To their surprise, they found that the Missouri, instead of growing bigger down stream, as every rational river should, was actually 20,000 second-feet smaller at the lower point.

Now, while 20,000 second-feet could be spared from such a tremendous river, that amount of water makes a considerable stream of itself. Many very celebrated rivers never had so much water in their lives. Hence there was great amazement when the discrepancy was discovered. But of late years Dakota farmers away to the south and east of those points on the Missouri, sinking artesian wells, found immense volumes of water where the geologists said there would n't be any. So it is believed that the farmers have tapped the water leaking from that big hole in the Missouri River away up in Montana; and from these wells they irrigate large tracts of land, and, naturally, they don't want the river-bed mended. Fancy what a blessing it is, when the weather is dry, to have a river boiling out of your well, ready to flow where you want it over the wheat-fields! For of all manner of work that a river can be put to, irrigation is, I think, the most useful. But isn't that a queer way for the Missouri to wander about underneath the ground?