Walking Nebraska City’s main street from the Missouri River is a journey *cue swelling orchestra* filled with echoes of the hopes and disappointments of intrepid pioneers making their monumental trek across the wide country on the Oregon Trail.
I’m forced to be dramatic, because Nebraska City, Nebraska’s historic river landing sure isn’t. Surprising for such an important stage in the migration of settlers across the Old West. Or not so surprising, if you think about its place in the New West.
To get to the landing, walk down the slope of Center Avenue, over the train tracks, and past the weighing station of DeBruce Grains. In the middle of the night, the train wails evocatively (and often), while in the daytime the actual tracks are drab. You may feel as if you are trespassing, but the land is public (you have to ignore the sign that reads something like STOP, TURN BACK, GO NO FARTHER OR ELSE because it is speaking to several-ton trucks, not bipeds).
The river rushes smoothly past DeBruce’s grain towers and barge pier, past a muddy point (the fabled landing), and past a waste treatment plant that exudes its municipal duty. Alongside the bank dotted with soda cans and anonymous scraps of plastic, a shallow stream spills into the river, depositing rural and suburban effluvia from its own journey.*
Somehow, it is still possible to see something mighty in this scene, to imagine steamboats pushing against the current, carrying families huddled with their belongings and gazing wide-eyed at the broad street cresting the hill above them. Or, when the river was wilder and shallower, to imagine pioneer wagons swaying as their horses plunged into the current and bore them across. (The problem with seeing so many westerns is that I can only picture this with a fringe-coated Gary Cooper.) The point is, you want to see something on the riverbank to commemorate this stage of the pioneer trails–a sign, a kiosk with brochures, even a cheesy T-shirt shop.
So why isn’t anything there? Pondering that while I stood on the muddy bank of the river, I began to understand the ambivalence that towns like Nebraska City have for rivers that brought them to life.
The Missouri was once a wild, tantrum-throwing child, ox-bowing and meandering over its flood plain, gathering up rain and snow melt and dumping it too often onto crops and towns. It has the largest upstream drainage basin of any river in Nebraska, so it deserves to be anthropomorphized by organizations as sober as the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, who calls it “capable of thwarting almost every attempt to control it.”
The river is a bankable resource, so from that perspective it makes sense that its wildness be subdued. Major floods–meaning muddy, debris-filled, five-mile-wide, dike-breaching, human-killing disasters–have occurred in 1881, 1943, 1952 (the flood of record), 1967, 1978, and 1993. Floods in 1993 soaked homes, farms, and businesses and “threatened” the Cooper Nuclear Power Plant. (I put that in quotes because I’m sure it’s a euphemism for something quite dire, such as a potential Armageddon.)
Towns like Nebraska City grew up battling the river, while it is often the people who live the farthest from the battlegrounds of man vs. nature who most want to stand close to nature and admire it. So I stood, and having the leisure time to do so, watched the waters slink past me. Here the river is not “inviting.” It is not “sparkling.” It’s like a troubled teen who has long since accepted adults’ view of him or herself: sullen, uncommunicative, and prone to lashing out when it gets the chance.
It probably will remain that way. It would be expensive to prettify, and the businesses that are already present may give more back to the town than a lonely sign would (in the financial sense).
It’s like many other places along rivers in small towns. Actually, like other places along rivers in big towns too: In north Brooklyn I can take a walk down any one of the side streets but not even get close to the East River because of old factories, piers, and warehouses. But this area between the river and the land has new value. The shift in commerce away from the ports of New York drew the Brooklyn waterfront into a legal battle between community organizers and luxury housing developers. It’s a fight that polarizes environmentalists and businesses, long-time residents and modern-day carpetbaggers, but with a little luck what will arise from the fray will be sustainable dreams of what urban planning could be (imagine! green parks!! for us!!!) and new paradigms for the complex intersection of humans, commerce, and environment.
Nebraska City’s historic landing is what it is. For now. But people—DeBruce Grains, residents, tourists, the town board–they can dream, can’t they?
…as time slips by, as swiftly and as remorselessly as the Missouri. (How’s that for purple prose?)
*Let’s not get too sentimental about a pristine space—in the nineteenth century there was probably garbage lying about from the travelers moving through. Maybe not aluminum cans, but still… Interestingly, what I did not see much of were cigarette butts. No one stands there to look at the view. I mean, no one.
The unique pontoon bridge across the Missouri River at Nebraska City, 1888 (Nebraska State Historical Society, N361-24)