Between The Lines: ‘With a mighty roar … the river broke through’

Editor�s note: This column originally appeared in the May 7, 1959 Plain Talk, and contains news reports from the Ponca (NE) Journal and Vermillion Standard of the flood of 1881 that changed both the Missouri and the town of Vermillion for good. Many thanks to Cleo Erickson, Vermillion historian, for sending this our way. DL

Flood Changed River Channel

When the flood of 1881 washed away the greater part of Vermillion � under the hill � it also cut a new channel for the Missouri river. Before the flood Vermillion was on the river: after the flood the river was so far away that a steamboat�s whistle could be heard only when the wind was right.

What happened was that a neck of land a half-mile across was cut through and a bend in the river 18 miles long was eliminated. This made the trip up the river a lot shorter but it also took river traffic away from Vermillion.

The actual cutting of the new channel was described in the Ponca (Neb) Journal of April 28 and reprinted in the Vermillion Standard: �A gentleman who witnessed the flood at North Bend was in town Friday. He says the channel across the neck of Great Bend was not cut by the force of the water running over the upper side, as is generally supposed, but by water underlining the lower or east end of the new channel, which kept caving off until within a short distance of the upper current.

 �With a mighty roar that could be heard for miles, the river broke through and a new Channel for that part of the Missouri was made. The peninsula of Great Bend was one of the largest on the river, and was a great burden to the steamboats. It was in the form of an elongated ox bow, very narrow at the point.

�Across its neck was only half a mile, while to make the distance around by the river it was necessary to pull about 18 miles against a stiff current. Now with the new channel, all this surplus travel will be saved, and half mile will be as good as the former 18.  Water through this new cutoff is said to run with immense swiftness, and debris, which was seen floating down the stream, is described by our informant as going faster than the passenger trains used to on the Dakota Southern.

�The farm of Mons Nelson lay on the neck of Great Bend, where the channel cut across, taking the barns, sheds and all outbuildings, and was last Friday morning within about two rods of the large two-story house that he erected last summer at an expense of nearly $2,000.

�Eyewitnesses on the bluff say that there was one spot in the course of the new channel which was higher than the surrounding bottom, and here some 16 or 20 cattle and a number of sheep belonging to Nelson had collected. Those stationed on the bluff could see the river as, with apparent eagerness to grasp its prey, it devoured rod after rod of the earth, which lay between it and the cattle, and steadily crept towards them.

�At last but a few feet more of land was left for them to stand on, when all at once that little was undermined, then it wavered a moment and with a mighty crash pitched into the seething waters, hurling the cattle into the air for an instant, when they disappeared beneath the waves.�

With the shifting of the channel a large acreage called the Island, across the Vermillion river south of the town became a sort of no man�s land. Formerly a part of Nebraska, it was made a part of South Dakota by legislative action about 14 years after the flood.

Much of this land was sandbar, and after several years it grew up to weeds and willows and was taken over by squatters and other undesirable characters. It was called �Asymtote,� or �Tote� for short. Where it got that name is not known. What Covington, Neb., was to Sioux City at that time Asymtote was, on a small scale, to Vermillion.

An item in The Dakota Republican of August 20, 1891, had the following to say about the situation:

�A sandbar saloon is reported to be located in the willows on the old Missouri river bed south of town.  Its abatement seems to hinge on the question whether it is in South Dakota or Nebraska.�

A later item told of a Meckling man who purchased a jug of whiskey in Tote and set out for home.  He imbibed too freely and depended on his team to find the way.  The horses got off the road and onto the railroad track.  A train came along and killed both horses and severely injured the owner.

While Vermillion�s �recreation� spot was a distance from town, there was an easy way to get there.  A character named Harry Bridner operated a bus for the customers.  His outfit was described as a �squeaky wagon and a collection of bones so arranged as to vaguely resemble a team of horses.�

In 1895 Asymtote became a part of Clay County and law enforcement officers proceeded to make arrests and clean up the place.  The Dakota Republican of July 12 had the following item:

�Asymtote is a thing of the past. Loafman has gone out of business. The last saloon is closed.  Days may come and days may go, but Tote has turned its last toot.�

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