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Urban Rivers


Urban rivers are always interesting.


Large rivers handle boat traffic but are often exploited for industrial development. Witness the Cuyahoga in Cleveland, which has on occasion caught fire due to high levels of chemical pollution. As a boy, I recall the mighty Chicago River bubbling on hot August afternoons, so much organic matter had settled on its bottom. Smaller streams discourage industrial use but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve escaped abuse. Agincourt’s river is the mighty Muskrat, a middling stream that has avoided most of the evils that come from urbanization. Luckily, the Industrial Revolution largely bypassed Iowa. 

Before 1850 as settlers from the Atlantic seaboard crossed the Appalachians and moved into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, they brought with them well established ideas about water, both as a means of transport and a source of power. New England’s textile mills, for example, were water powered. This wave of settlers were also children of the Canal Age–the Erie, Kanawha and other canals having been funded by Congress or state legislatures as components of America’s emerging infrastructure. So I wondered how a smaller tributary of the Missouri, serving a small watershed in northwestern Iowa, might have been exploited by Agincourt’s first settlers in the late 1850s.

Surprisingly there were a large number of water-powered mills in Iowa. I found a website with photographs of many. So I was perfectly comfortable imagining the Syndicate Mill and exploring the details of side-shot water wheels for manufacturing. But I’ve lately become fascinated with the recreational aspects of both the Muskrat and Crispin Creek, which form the west and south edges of the original Agincourt townsite.

Through the Civil War era, the creek and river banks would have been a source of wildlife–both game and fish and, perhaps, the occasional turtle. And though the Muskrat is within easy walking distance of everyone in town, I thought its scruffy trees and mangey shrubs might have afforded a pleasant place for evening and weekend getaways. Could there have been a colony of squatters along it opposite bank? Cabins and boathouses of no particular architectural merit other than their sense of quaint decay and eccentricity? I imagined a loose association of friends–The River Rats–who carried that tradition into the early years of the 20th century.


My imagery comes from postcard views of the Blue River in Kansas City, which I hope to merge into a composite painting this winter. Ain’t this place sweet?

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