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In Mo., a bend in time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is the third in a series of reports from locations named Baltimore.

It's hiding. Amid the 1,100 acres of oak, hickory and black walnut trees and warm-season grasses and wild turkeys and rabbits, rabbits, rabbits, the Baltimore Bend of the Missouri River cannot be reached by foot from this spot.

When one finds the "Baltimore Bend Conservation Area," a state forest 55 miles east of Kansas City, Mo., one can expect to see the bend named Baltimore. But there is no marked trail, just a cheap rut. Thirteen ticks embedded in legs and thighs are the price of admission, and the wild turkey that just exploded from these warm-season grasses almost killed a man five minutes ago. Died of city fright, just about.

It's back to the car, back to Randy's gas station in nearby Dover (pop. 116), back to the Missouri River Navigation Chart. It clearly shows the Baltimore Bend, but no one here is sure of its exact location. Someone asks, "What do you plan to do when you get there anyway?" Look at it, of course. Sing to it, maybe. Think deep river thoughts.

What more incentive can a Baltimore, Md., traveler have than this posting at the unmanned ranger station?: "The riverboat 'Baltimore' found its final resting place against an island in the bend of the river, giving rise to the name Baltimore Island and Baltimore Bend."

Somewhere in the bubbling muck and subterranean silt could be a riverboat named The Baltimore; its wheelhouse buckled under the weight of time; women's hats and men's whiskey bottles slimed and entombed; catfish now breeding in its state rooms. Over in Kansas City, some salvage company raised the Arabia riverboat, put it on public display at the City Market. Raise The Baltimore as well!

Better yet, better start slow and find the bend first. Need to backtrack past the Lewis & Clark road signs leading to Dover, head back to Independence, our home port this trip. Regroup, buy some bug spray, ask ourselves the question asked at Randy's gas station:

If Baltimore Bend is found, then what?

There's time to think on that one, and help nearby: If ever anyone could figure some plain thing out, it was Harry.

Harry Truman is still The Man around here.

Harry will lead us.

Technically, the 33rd president of the United States is still dead. But in Independence, Mo., Truman's hometown, he lives in the walls and buildings and postcards and at the courthouse on Independence Square. Inside, the "Harry S Truman Office" features a worn table, a file cabinet and a portrait of Truman as its only decoration. Room 109, this former presidential office, is not vacant, however. A woman in white stands - and fidgets - under the Truman portrait. This is her hideout.

"Any minute now," says 23-year-old Kacie Abbey as she performs some sort of breathing exercise usually associated with childbirth. But she is, quite possibly, on the verge of giving birth to herself. Others simply call it getting married.

"I got them corralled. You ready?" asks a robed minister, fresh from the adjacent courthouse room where the gathered are waiting.

Kacie takes another deep breath. The justice of the peace swats me on the shoulder, playfully. "Now you got a story," she says. Then both are gone, through the door to the courtroom where, in 15 minutes, Kacie Abbey will wed James Grove.

It doesn't seem like the time or place to mention Baltimore Bend. They've handed me this other story; and there is nothing to do but wait in the hallway outside Harry's office, wait for the thing to be done.

Finally, the courtroom door opens, spilling out Kacie and James, man and wife. James reports he was nervous. Kacie says she cried. They've known each other six years and have a 4-year-old daughter, Jazmine. But they still look stunned.

They will honeymoon in New Orleans, which, as anyone knows, is on the Mississippi River - which is way downstream from the river they have here.

It's been said that if the Missouri River had been discovered first, the Mississippi River would be considered the longest tributary of the Missouri, instead of the other way around. Pointless now. The Missouri has always held its own with its mother river. Native Americans knew it first, then the French explorers Marquette and Jolliet discovered the river's mouth in 1673. In 1804 and 1805, Lewis and Clark charted the river from mouth to headwaters - 2,315 miles.

In the 19th century, the Missouri - nicknamed "River of Mud" or "Big Muddy" - was a highway for fur traders, homesteaders and men working on the steamboats. Big Muddy always had a reputation for treachery. In most rivers, the water moves and the bottom stands still; the Missouri River's sandy bottom moves and never in the same direction.

Currents are so easily deflected by objects that entire channels have been rerouted. "Land melts before the strong current as a snowbank before a noonday sun," according to Phil Chappell's 1904 "A History of the Missouri River." The upshot is the river, over time, is a mile or more away from where it once was. It has moved sideways.

Most steamboat wrecks in the 1800s occurred on the river bends, some as long as 20 miles. "From the velocity of the current, and the innumerable snags, the bends were a continued menace to steamboats," Chappell writes. The bends were customarily named after some side-wheeler that was snagged and lost. These marine graveyards were given the names "Diana's Bend" and "Sultan Bend" and upriver near Dover, "Baltimore Bend."

Built for the Wheeling-Louisville Union Line, the wood-hull, side-wheel Baltimore was launched in 1852. The boat was typical of those constructed in the 1850s: 637 tons and 275 feet long, with four boilers, 36-foot wheels with 10-foot buckets. She hauled freight and as many as 400 passengers, who enjoyed the decked-out staterooms and cabins of the era. Two tall chimneys, a pilot house and a dazzling coat of white paint completed the exterior of these "floating palaces of the palmy days of steamboating," as Chappell calls them.

One can imagine nights on The Baltimore as it steamed by the river towns of Dover, Waverly and Lexington.

"It was customary for the gay young parties to board these river steamers, and after the evening meal had been served ... the music maker, at that time an old-time fiddler, soon tuned the strings and rosined the bow," writes C.P. Deatherage in his 1972 book, "Steamboating on the Missouri River." They danced the Virginia reel and other square dances of the time. And these parties did not want to end.

"It took but a few minutes for these revelers to persuade the captain, if the night was moonless, to tie up at Waverly, Mo., and the gay young people were in for an all-night dance."

On Dec, 13, 1859, after only seven years of service, The Baltimore was "snagged and lost. ... No lives lost. Abandoned," reported the "Way's Packet Directory" of passenger steamboats. Only the roof bell of The Baltimore was salvaged. The Missouri took the rest. She joined 300 other steamers that sunk that century by snag, fire, storm, ice or by civil war.

That same year, 1859, marked the decline of steamboat traffic when the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railway to St. Louis was completed. The train would replace the steamboat, which had replaced the keel-boat, which had replaced the canoe on the Missouri River.

The Baltimore, it could be said, didn't overstay its welcome.

"You'll need a steamboat to get there," says a woman the next day at Randy's gas station in Dover.

Randy says no, let's call Alvin, get him in here.

Alvin, who was on the brink of taking a shower at home, arrives bare-looking except for his overalls. Any other man might be sore, but not Alvin. He ponders the whereabouts of Baltimore Bend. Then, by unanimous decision, it's decided Roscoe Cramer is the man. He has lived near the bend all his life. As luck in a small town would have it, Roscoe's grandson, Stephen, pulls up in his truck to get gas. The kid is immediately drafted.

He deposits me in the living room of 77-year-old Roscoe Cramer, all 6 feet 5 of him. We travel off road, over levees, past a sooty campsite, to the very banks of Baltimore Bend. A quarter mile away is the 3-mile-long Baltimore Island - 1,500 acres of cottonwood timber. "Used to be three houses on the island," Roscoe says. He doesn't know if any are still there.

He remembers when the channel used to be on the other side of the island. He used to duck hunt here, set up his blinds on the sand dunes. A duck-hunting paradise, he calls it. His son Steve puts out trout lines now and caught a 54-pound catfish the other night. "He's got the head hanging on a pole up there where he lives, if you want to take a look at it," Roscoe says.

Standing in front of the boiling, churning river (mud moving fast), someone should say something poetic.

"A kid drowned up near Lexington last month," Roscoe says. "I seen guys who could swim it. I never had the guts to do it myself."

The river isn't exactly pretty, I say.

"Pretty mean," he says.

Not much else to say or do at Baltimore Bend. No songs or poetry comes to mind. A riverboat could be down there, still snagged, or it could have been shoved down past St. Louis, all the way to New Orleans, where people honeymoon.

Two options now exist: Go home to Baltimore - or go see a 54-pound catfish's head on a stick.

It's a toss-up.

All Roads Lead to Baltimore

On Tuesday: Baltimore Ave., Las Vegas

Roads Not Taken

Baltimore Cleaners Derby, Kan. The paper-wrapped hangers quote Proverbs 17:22: "A cheerful heart is good medicine." Owner Mike Wolf is a recovering drug addict who considers himself a messenger for the Lord. He hopes the inspirational hangers will brighten customers' days; he'll do the same for their clothes. The 3-year-old cleaners was named for the avenue it sits on, but Wolf also likes to think the word "Baltimore" evokes a sense of history, and things "old-fashioned."-- Lisa Pollak

Baltimore Ravine

Placer County, Calif.

Not far from Auburn, the Baltimore Ravine was probably named for the hometown of the men who mined it for gold in the 19th century, says Placer County archivist Carmel Barry-Schweyer. Was it a lucrative spot? According to "Placer County's Own Mining Story," by Leonard M. Davis: "In 1852, two pieces of gold were taken here, one of which paid $70 and the other $58. ... Three years later, Baltimore Ravine was still paying well. (In December 1855) Hastings D. Company took out $200 in five weeks." -- Laura Lippman

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