By Correspondent, Great Escapes
updated 9/23/2004 5:42:34 PM ET 2004-09-23T21:42:34

Unwinding the Missouri we whisk our Hybrid into soybean and corn country. We pass through Sioux City, Iowa, where the Corps of Discovery, just three months into the journey, faced its first — and only — fatality when Sgt. Charles Floyd fell ill and died, probably from a burst appendix.

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Out the window we overlook a straightened and embanked Missouri River, quite unlike the broad, shallow oxbowing stream pocked with islands observed by the Corps of Discovery. They were 450 miles from St. Louis by river at this point. A different corps, the Army Corps of Engineers, channelized this stretch in the 1940s and 50s, cutting the distance by a third, making it safe and efficient for barge traffic.

We stop in this stretch at a Diary Queen, Pasquale’s favorite diner.  “Warren Buffett owns D.Q. That’s why the Blizzards are so rich,” Pasquale cracks. Buffett’s a big name around these parts; one of the country’s richest men, he makes upcoming Omaha his home.

History on a bluff
Omaha is also where Lewis and Clark’s historic first meeting with American Indian leaders took place on the Nebraska side of the river, across from what is now called Council Bluff.  We meet Mayor Mike Fahey, proud of a billion-dollar renovation along the river under his watch, one that has turned the once seedy area into a modern meeting place for a mix of cultures. Then, since we’re in Warren Buffett Country, we steer over to Gorat’s Steak House for dinner, the billionaire investor’s favorite eatery.

Map: Great Escapes  — Kansas City
MSNBC.com
Map: Kansas City, Missouri
The fertile floodplains of the Missouri — once browsing ground for millions of buffalo — have been converted to productive cornfields since Lewis and Clark, which in turn have fattened the cattle that give Omaha, and Gorat’s, its famous steaks. The second richest man in the America comes to Gorat’s every day for a hot beef lunch, and every Wednesday night for his trademark rare T-bone steak, with a double order of hash browns and a Cherry Coke.  His friend Bill Gates has also pitched into a dry-aged slab here, as has Tom Brokaw, Michael Eisner and Martha Stewart. Surely there’d be a table for us.

The place feels frozen in the '50s, evoking Frank Sinatra-in-Palm Springs chic, and the staff seems from another era as well. The chef, Bill Caveye, has been sizzling in the back for 40 years; five of the waitresses have been serving tables for over 20 years. And almost everyone else is family. We meet Steve Branecki, who owned a Dairy Queen for 36 years, then married into the Gorat family and now helps run the shop that, he says, proudly serves billionaires and average Joes. I settle in to sample a couple of their signatures pieces, the French-fried parsley (oxymoronic fatty health food), and the Blue Ribbon strip sirloin (excellent, though this journey down the Missouri has been passing prime beef country throughout, and there have been some choice contenders). 

The road to Independence
The next morning we truck on down to Independence, Missouri, once known as the Queen City of the Trails, a booming crossroads in the early 19th century. The city is located where the Missouri River veers north, so travelers heading due west would not continue by boat, but load up their wagons and continue on the Santa Fe or Oregon Trails. Though steamboats did continue all the way to Montana, the great majority of the river traffic was between St. Louis and here. And it was in this stretch that most of the river disasters occurred.

Of the 700 steamboats that paddled up and down the Missouri River between 1830 and 1902, nearly 300 were damaged and sunk by trees or other river debris. The “Great White Arabia” was one of these causalities, and we meet up with Dave Hawley, the Bob Ballard of steamboats.

Animals of the Mighty Mo'On the afternoon of September 5, 1856, the 171-foot-long side-wheeler Arabia was plying the river bound for the new town of Omaha with 130 passengers and 200 tons of freight. Folks were having dinner when a snag ripped a gaping hole in the oak hull. One survivor’s account of the disaster: “We felt the shock, and at once the boat started sinking. There was a wild scene on board. Chairs and stools were tumbled about, and many of the children nearly fell into the water. Several of the men seized the lifeboat and started for shore, but they came back and the women and children were put in the boat.” Someone call James Cameron!

Or, better yet, call Dave Hawley. In the summer of 1987 Hawley and his four partners located the long-lost wreck buried in a bean field using a proton magnetometer, a fancy metal detector, and started the protracted and expensive process to exhume the Arabia. “We borrowed $50,000, and it ending up costing over $1 million,” Dave tells us. The treasure from the muck was worth it in a time capsule sense, but not monetary: coffee beans from South America, guns from Belgium and trade beads from Bohemia. There were crystal glasses, almond-scented hand cream, and bottles of French perfume, cognac and champagne. They found butter, cheese and spiced pigs’ feet. There were a million nails, and 35,000 buttons on board. But no gold, no payroll. As for cash, they found 26 cents.

In order to pay off the debts for raising the Arabia, Dave and company decided to open a private museum along the Missouri, charging admission. In 1991, the Arabia Steamboat Museum opened its doors in downtown Kansas City, showcasing over 100,000 pieces of antebellum Americana, about half what the boat was carrying. Now Dave and party are in the black, and using proceeds to continue work on preserving the rest of the artifacts — which will take another decade or so, says Dave. But this hasn’t diverted him from his mission: he has a long map on the wall of identifying where other boats went down, his wish list for this reach of the Missouri River.

The buck stops here
To end the day we make a quick stop at the humble white Victorian-style home of Harry S Truman, and his Presidential Library not far away, where we bump into a dapper ghost of the 33rd president. Dressed in brimmed hat and double-breasted suit, carrying a trademark cane, historian and former Truman Library archivist Neil Johnson now earns his living as the impersonator who takes one as close to the living Harry Truman as can be done.

Image: Truman impersonator
Andrew Locke  /  MSNBC
"Harry Truman" holds up a "newspaper" telling of his "defeat"
I shake hands across history with the president, and when I ask who’ll win the close presidential race, he pulls from his inside suit pocket the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" newspaper, holds it above his head, and launches into a monologue of Harry’s folksy quips and blade-sharp commentary.

The image of Truman playing piano in the White House is part of his legacy, but not many know he was a songwriter as well. Harry was profoundly affected by the big brown river that ran two miles from his home, and even penned his own tribute, in a song called “Missouri Waltz.”

"Way down in Missouri where I heard this melody
When I was a little child upon my Mommy's knee
The old folks were hummin';
their banjos were strummin'
So sweet and low."

The river has always inspired music, and tomorrow we’ll find its soul.

The Great Escapes media team is traveling the length of the Missouri River in September, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at  greatescapes@msnbc.com.

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