The Missouri River
From its mouth in St. Louis to its source in the Rocky Mountains, the Missouri River, America's longest, runs about 3,000 miles, although, because of bends, and channel changes over the course of time, it's difficult to be precise. (The authoritative Mitchell Atlases for both 1864 and 1872 said the Missouri was "around 3,000 miles long," while James' River Guide said in 1858 that its length was 3,096 miles.) The Missouri has been called the "Great Spiral Staircase to the Rockies" and the "great watercourse of the prairies." Settlers called the river "Old Misery;" they said its water was "too thick to drink and too thin to plow." Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first noted the Missouri in 1673 as they stood at its mouth watching its thick brownish water gurgle into the clearer blue water of the Mississippi River. Marquette said the confluence site was "an accumulation of large and entire trees, branches and floating islands." "We used to separate the men from the boys at the mouth of the Missouri," a riverboatman said. "The boys went up the Mississippi, and the men went up the Big Muddy."
Throughout the steamboat period, the Missouri River was known for its general lack of hospitality. The lower Missouri River (between St. Louis and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas) was filled with shirting sandbars, chutes, rocks, boils, whirlpools, and snags, forcing most savvy steamboat pilots to operate only during daylight hours. Steamboaters were most wary of treacherous river bends. "Each bend changed the course of the boat from one side near the bank to the opposite side, so that many extra miles were traveled," one pilot explained. Pilots had to guess the speed of the current in a bend, then figure what might lie ahead and underneath in the muddy, swirling water. ("Expert pilots not only knew the river so well, they remembered where the sand bars were, but could also forecast where new sandbars were and where the snags would anchor," stated Walter Stevens in 1921 for the Missouri Valley Historical Society.) Soft river banks, especially on the lower Missouri, were "continually falling into the river and taking the trees with it," writes John G. Lepley in Packets to Paradise: Steamboating to Fort Benton. "These trees make the snags—when a boat strikes a big one under the water it's rather certain death to her." At least 400 steamers sank in the Missouri River, 295 of them undone by snags. Of all the packet steamers sunk in America, only three of them, including the Twilight, have been excavated. All three went down in the Missouri River.
The Twilight and its sister ships floated past an unbroken wilderness of dense forests whose trees often spread over much of the river. Some shorelines grew thick rose bushes and thorny 15 foot shrubs that made the banksides nearly impenetrable. In addition, cholera and other diseases could suddenly devastate a steamer. "We boxed up three of four (cholera victims) in a night," recalled fur trader Charles Larpenteur, a veteran steamboat traveler. Steamers such as the Twilight were continuously on guard against Indians. Some barricaded their staterooms and decks, while most of them wrapped boiler plates around their pilot houses so that, in the words of one historian, "Indian bullets...might patter harmlessly." Of course, crew members, passengers, and the traveling military regularly used small arms to return Indian fire.