Conor Watkins' Ozark Mountain Experience
Article 42-45 and Article 7x
All Trips To The Beautiful Big Piney River Of The Missouri Ozarks
By Conor Watkins
Trips To The Beautiful Big Piney River Of The Missouri Ozarks
(This is a combination of all previous Big Piney articles.)
The beautiful Big Piney River as seen from the 1923 Route 66 steel truss bridge in Devils Elbow - This scenic view is only a 20 minute drive from Rolla. This view of towering 200 foot Gasconade dolomite bluffs was once listed by the State Planning Commission as one of the "Seven Scenic Wonders of Missouri." Both summer and winter views are shown.
The Big Piney River, which flows through Ft. Leonard Wood and Devil’s Elbow, is one of the closest floating rivers to Rolla yet remains largely undiscovered. Many have never heard of the Big Piney, which is partly due to the fact that other popular floating rivers are more highly advertised and more “on the beaten path” than the Big Piney. Although the Big Piney is not well known, it offers a relaxing, enjoyable, and scenic float that is comparable, if not better than floats on other nearby rivers. For those who enjoy a scenic float trip, the Big Piney is well worth a visit.
The Big Piney River originates near Cabool, MO and flows north to join the Gasconade near Jerome. It flows through remote parts of Missouri between Cabool and Houston. After flowing north past Houston the Big Piney enters the Mark Twain National Forest and Ft. Leonard Wood. River accesses and good roads leading to the Big Piney are few and far between. Some access points are provided by the National Forest Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), and private businesses. Most accesses are not located near heavily populated areas.
Perhaps its location is the main reason that the Big Piney remains so undeveloped, scenic, and peaceful, for it is a beautiful Ozark river. The river is kept relatively cool all summer since it is fed by various springs along its course. These springs also help keep the water levels consistent and allow the river to be floated during dry periods. High and scenic bluffs rim certain stretches of the River. The river receives its name from the pines common atop these bluffs, especially along the upstream sections. The bluffs are capped by Roubidoux sandstone, which weathers to produce acidic soils, allowing the pines to thrive. The Roubidoux sandstone also weathers at a slower rate than the underlying Gasconade dolomite, allowing it to serve as a protective caprock over the weaker dolomite below. If the sandstone layer were not present, the Gasconade Formation would likely have weathered to a much more subdued profile and not the sheer, scenic bluffs seen along the Big Piney and other streams in the central Ozarks.
Notice that the pines are growing atop the bluffs in the Roubidoux sandstone
and not the Gasconade dolomite below. The Gasconade dolomite would have
weathered to a more subdued profile without the Roubidoux Formation
to serve as a caprock.
One used to floating other Ozarks streams may notice that the water of the Big Piney is not quite as clear and carries a greenish hue. This color is due to the abundance of plankton, a microscopic organism nourished by nutrients washed into the river from the surrounding landscape. Most of these nutrients are from the soil of the region, which happens to be slightly more nutrient rich than most Ozark soil. The abundance of plankton has led to a rich and diversified river food chain, making the Big Piney an excellent location to fish for rock bass, small mouth bass, and other species of fish. The abundant plankton by no means gives the river a dirty or unpleasant appearance. Instead, it gives the river an almost surreal look and makes an excellent location for photographs.
One may also notice the abundant gravels in the bed and along the banks of the Big Piney. Although this gravel is now common to all but few Ozark streams, it was not always present in as large of an amount. When the Ozarks were logged and farmed in the past, extensive erosion of the land clogged the rivers with sediment. Although many of these practices have ceased and the finer sediments have washed away, there is still a large amount of gravel in the river. The construction of Ft. Leonard Wood in the early 1940’s is also thought to have been responsible for some of the erosion and gravel deposition in the Big Piney.
During the 1930's a proposal to dam the Gasconade River at four locations (Richland, Arlington, Vienna, & Rich Fountain) was considered to provide flood control, generate power, and aid in river navigation on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. If built, the Arlington Dam would have backed up the Big Piney, inundating the town of Devil's Elbow and much of the surrounding area. This dam was to be part earthfill and part mass concrete in design. Before construction could begin, federal funds became tied up by the Great Depression and World War II, delaying the dam projects. No large dams were ever constructed in the area, although a small dam is present along Big Piney near Ft. Leonard Wood. This has allowed both the Gasconade and Big Piney Rivers to be classified as free flowing rivers. There are seven rivers fitting this classification in Missouri today.
Cross section of the proposed Arlington Dam in its earthfill portion.
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1932)
Cross section of proposed Arlington Dam at the power house.
Click on either of the above images for more extensive plans.
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1932)
This section of a Phelps County tourism map published jointly by the
Missouri School of Mines and the Rolla Chamber of Commerce during
the 1930's (exact date unknown) shows where the Arlington Dam was
to be located.
Partial map showing area inundated by the proposed Arlington Reservoir.
Click map to see all four reservoirs.
On a three separate summer weekends in 2002, I decided to try floating the Big Piney River after receiving recommendations from friends and was not disappointed. The first float was taken near Devil’s Elbow, MO along the very far downstream stretches of the river while the second trip was taken near Houston, along the upstream stretches. The third trip was taken near Duke, in the middle stretched of the river. The trip in the summer 2003 took place near Licking. These trips will be discussed in the later parts of this article.
Unlike many float trips, which involve a long drive, the Devil’s Elbow trip was accessed via a less than 20-minute drive from Rolla. The float I took was a 15.9 miler from the East Gate of Ft. Leonard Wood to the Route 66 steel truss bridge in Devil’s Elbow.Canoes to float the Big Piney were rented via the Elbow Inn and BBQ Pit, a bar and grill located on “old old” Route 66 in Devil’s Elbow. Along with serving as a bar and BBQ, the Elbow Inn also rents canoes on the Big Piney. Reservations for canoes are suggested but not required. I had made reservations for our canoe earlier in the week and paid $30 for the rental service of one canoe. Opened in 1929 as the Munger Moss Sandwich Shop, the Elbow Inn is claimed to be the oldest structure on Route 66 used for its original purpose, which is serving food. When the “new” four-lane section of Route 66 was opened in the 1940’s to serve Ft. Leonard Wood, the road bypassed this location and cut down on business at Munger Moss. The Munger Moss name moved to a different part of Route 66 farther west in Lebanon, MO and the structure both served as a residence and stood vacant for a time. Since 1997, the building has been used for the Elbow Inn and has gained quite a reputation for serving quality BBQ.
Upon arriving at the Elbow Inn, we found an American Flag proudly hanging high above the road in front of the bar. Since it was early in the morning, we were the only customers. The walls of the Elbow Inn are decorated with various antique signs and pictures, including many relating to Route 66. There are also framed articles highlighting Route 66 and other “unique” decorations hanging from the ceiling.
Our host from the Elbow Inn loaded up the canoe, accessories, and lifted his dog, a friendly nine-month-old German Shepard, into the bed of the pickup truck for the ride up to the East Gate of Ft. Leonard Wood. He explained why he had to lift his dog into the truck on the way our to our put-in point. When his dog was three months old, it was run over by a pickup out in front of the bar. Its entire pelvis and rear legs were crushed. The driver stopped and was promptly punched out by our host. Witnesses say the driver was punched as many as thirty times! Our host and the dog were then driven to a Rolla veterinarian by a friend, where the dog received over two hundred staples in its pelvis and rear legs. No one was certain if the dog would live.
When our host returned, he fully expected the Sheriff to be waiting to arrest him for assaulting the driver that ran over his dog. Instead, the driver had left his name, number, and address along with a note offering to pay for any veterinary bills. He threw the contact information away for various reasons. He had broken the driver’s prescription glasses, which were most likely expensive, and the driver didn’t have him arrested and thrown in jail. It seemed to be a good trade to not have the driver pay for the veterinary bills. Although a little rough around the edges, our host was very friendly and had plenty of other stories to share. ***
The dog seemed to be doing well six months after the near fatal injury. It only limps after running hard for extended periods. As our host explained this story, one of my friends from an affluent area of West St. Louis County sat next to me. He didn’t say too much during or after hearing the story.
After hearing this story, we stopped and put our canoe in the Big Piney almost directly under the bridge to the East Gate of Ft. Leonard Wood. Just after putting in, the roughest rapids of the trip were experienced. Although quite a bit of water splashed into the canoe, we made it through without swamping.
For the first mile or so of the trip, a rumble could be heard in the distance. This sound was artillery fire coming from practice exercises being conducted at Ft. Leonard Wood and is commonly heard by those driving along Hwy J near the East Gate.
One of the first things everyone noticed was that the river was almost deserted of other floaters. There were a few other canoes and some people sitting beside the river, but it was amazingly quiet for a Saturday. All those sitting alongside the river were friendly so we slowed down and chatted for a minute while passing by. One person sitting on the river bank gave the indication that something was wrong, and held has hand up to his mouth as though drinking from a can. When we lifted our silvery cans out of the bottom of the canoe and into his view, he was satisfied.
Soon after starting, a sheer and scenic bluff appeared on the right (east) side of the river. Spring Creek flows in at this location and twisted and broken steel, which appeared to be the remains of an old bridge, sat in the middle of the river. A large cave opening known as Pillman Cave or Spring Creek Cave was visible in the bluff.
While floating, we discovered several stout sycamore trees that had been partially undercut by the river, but were still anchored firmly to the shore. These trees were hanging out over the river at such a low angle that they were almost horizontal. The inclined position of these trees allowed one to walk/climb up the trunk and over the river and into a good position to swing out and jump into the river. Luckily it was possible to jump from all these trees since the water was always deep and clear of debris below. Such conditions may not always be the case so the river should be checked for proper depth and debris before jumping. A few rope swings were also present along the river but these particular swings didn’t provide near the enjoyment of jumping from the inclined trees.
One of the many overhanging trees on this trip.
The author gets ready to jump and then goes for it!
The author gets ready to drop off of this rope swing into the Big Piney River. Although crudely constructed, the simple ladder nailed to the tree and the associated rope swing served their purpose well.
Several cows stood in and around the river at our first swimming stop. The cows simply stared and mooed as we swam in the river.
The upstream half of the trip, with the exception of the initial rapid, was relatively smooth and peaceful. There were wide sandbars, which made for good places to stop and relax, along with fewer motorboats. The river tended to have more slow stretches during the first half of the trip. Most of the good swimming holes and inclined trees were on the upstream stretch.
moved faster after the halfway point. There were fewer slow stretches
along with more twists and turns to the river. It was more crowded, with
houses and cabins along the shore, and there were a few more motorboats, but
the river was still very scenic and well worth the float. The bluffs closed
in on the river and the gradient of the stream increased, making for a scenic
and slightly more challenging section of river. If one is observant, the
ruins of an old river resort may be seen on the right side of the river.
These stone ruins consist of an old footbridge, concrete parts of a boat dock,
picnic area, and the ruins of a stone house with two prominent chimneys remaining.
Another cabin, which is more intact, exists farther from the shore. Upon
talking to the locals, I discovered that this was once a resort owned by the
Bussman family of Bussman Fuse in St. Louis. The Cooper-Bussman Fuse Company
is still in existence today and is headquartered in West St. Louis County.
The author stands on the stone footbridge left from the Bussman Resort
on the Big Piney.
The remains of another cabin farther from the river are more intact.
The remains of the resort once used by the Bussman Family
are overgrown and only noticed by the observant.
The view as seen looking upstream from the Bussman Resort.
Shanghai Spring, known as Blue Spring by many of the locals, flows into the Big Piney on the left. This spring is located 500 feet up the spring branch on private property. The spring branch flows under both the U.S. Army Railway and a road before flowing into the river. Although this spring is on private property, it may be viewed from the road. See the web link mentioned later in this article for directions.
Shanghai Spring, which discharges around 10 million gallons per day, is located on private property but easily viewed from the road.
We floated under the green U.S. Army Railway Bridge within a couple of miles of the end. One notices wooden approach trestles on either side of this bridge.
The U.S. Army Railway Bridge and wooden approach trestles will
be passed on this stretch of the river.
Just before the end of the trip, we rounded the “Devil’s Elbow,” a sharp bend in the river that used to wreck havoc when tie rafters floated railroad ties down the river. It wasn’t much of a problem on our trip, but it is said to be rough when the water is higher. It is also a different story when talking about floating hundreds of ties around the bend at the same time. After rounding the Devil’s Elbow, the float finished out in a long, straight stretch with beautiful bluffs on the right side of the river. These towering bluffs of Gasconade dolomite were once classified as one of the seven most scenic locations by the State Planning Commission. After floating under the 1923 steel truss bridge in Devil’s Elbow, we pulled out at the Elbow Inn and BBQ Pit. For those wanting a shorter float trip of around eight miles, the downstream half of our float is offered as a float at the Elbow Inn.
This view of the 1923 Route 66 steel truss bridge can be seen from the takeout at the Elbow Inn.
By the time we pulled our canoe out of the river at during mid-afternoon, the business at the Elbow Inn had picked up. The inn has a motorcycle only parking area out front. This parking lot is paved in concrete and it was full of Harley Davidsons and other motorcycles of all vintages. A gravel parking lot and the road are for customers with pickups and cars. We all stood and talked with employees and customers while admiring the bikes.
We didn’t stay around to eat at the Elbow Inn, but I do intend to return, as I have heard good recommendations about the food. My friends had never seen the Devil’s Elbow area and wanted to drive around and explore the area. We drove the roads deep into the forest near Devil’s Elbow to view a trestle on the US Army Railway Spur to Ft. Leonard Wood and other scenery. See http://web.umr.edu/~cwatkin/cwome/article23&24combined.htm for more information on this drive. When we stopped at the Mayfield Cemetery in the area, my friend from West St. Louis County noticed countless small plastic cylinders with metal ends lying all over the ground. He commented on the number of cigarette lighters that were lying about. These objects were not lighters, but spent shotgun shells. My friend is “cityfolk” for sure!
This scenic road is located near Devil's Elbow and is parallel to the Big Piney as it heads towards the Gasconade.
The Mayfield Cemetary is located in the Devil's Elbow Area.
Everyone was ready to return home after spending a full day in the outdoors, but the Big Piney offered everyone on the trip a scenic float and a good time. There are multiple float liveries along he Big Piney near Ft. Leonard Wood, and all seem to charge the price of $30 per canoe. I drove around before selecting a float location and the Elbow Inn seems to offer the most unique setting with the best character. It is also the closest location to Rolla. If there happen to be no other canoes available at the Elbow Inn (http://www.elbowinn.com), both Lay Z Day (http://www.layzday.com) and Route 66 Canoe Rental (http://shell.zigs.net/~rt66canoe) offer floats on a similar portion of the river.
To get to the Elbow Inn/Big Piney from Rolla, take I-44 west to Hwy J (exit 169). Turn left and cross I-44. Take an immediate right on Hwy Z and follow to Teardrop Road on the left. Hwy Z is the “new” stretch of old Route 66 built in the 1940’s to serve Ft. Leonard Wood while Teardrop Road is the original 1926 stretch. Follow Teardrop Road to the Elbow Inn on the right. This bar is located just before the steel truss bridge of “old old” Route 66.
There are at least four float liveries that provide access to the upstream and middle portions of the river. Rich’s Last Resort (http://richslastresort.com/) provides floats on the middle and upstream portions of the Big Piney and is located at the Ross access near Duke, MO. All floats at this location consist of a haul upstream, so the floater always ends at the resort. Wilderness Ridge Resort (http://www.missouricanoe.org/wilderness.html) is also located very close to Rich’s Last Resort and serves a similar portion of the river.
The Boiling Spring Resort (http://www.boilingspringsresort.com/), roughly located between Licking and Houston, services the upstream portion of the river and ranges from $16-$18 per person for canoe rental. This resort was chosen for our second float trip on the Big Piney. Wades On The Edge Resort is also located nearby and serves the same part of the river. Wades wasn't discovered until after this trip but it was used on the fourth float.
The float picked for this trip was a 12-mile run from the Mineral Springs Access (MDC) back down to the Boiling Springs Resort, which is just downstream from the Boiling Springs Access (MDC). The upper Big Piney is narrower, slower, and more closely rimmed by bluffs when compared to the downstream stretches of the river. Upon starting, it was noticed that the river was about 6 inches higher than normal due to recent heavy rains. Although most shallow locations were easily floated over, this might not be the case during normal river level. Many small caves were observed but none were explored, as they were all quite high in the bluffs and the climbs appeared treacherous. Along the slowest sections, clusters of lily pads were common near the shore.
The first four miles of this trip were extremely peaceful, as we had the entire river to ourselves. The trees nearly formed a canopy across the entire river in many places, which gave one the feeling that the float was taking place in a jungle like setting. An ancient and enormous sycamore tree leaning nearly horizontal over the river was discovered about 3 miles into the trip. The water was deep enough to jump off of the tree so we decided to stop at this location. Upon climbing onto the tree, a hidden rope swing was discovered. Everyone spent a while climbing on this tree and jumping into the river from both the tree and the rope swing.
At around four miles into the trip, a concrete low water bridge was encountered. Although we had to get out and portage (carry the canoes), this bridge would have been easily passed if the water were only a few inched higher. Soon after passing this bridge, other floaters were encountered. They had put in at the low water crossing and were taking a shorter (8-mile) float. At this point hard rains hit for 20 minutes or so and threatened to return for the remainder of the trip. The sound of distant thunder encouraged us to paddle faster and not stop at many locations from this point on. Around five miles or so from the end of the float, more floaters were encountered. Many were highly intoxicated and we observed multiple canoe swampings. These floaters were taking yet a shorter five-mile trip. At one point, much trash had been spilled into the river by a swamping and it seemed we were recovering bottles and other floating debris for the next couple miles.
Once all the other slower floaters had been passed, the river returned to its deserted state. The distant thunder grew louder and no one wanted to stop and end up trapped in a lightning storm, so we all paddled fast and furious. The end of the float came up sooner than expected due to our hurried pace. As the float ended, the Hwy BB Bridge passed overhead. After the bridge, Boiling Springs came into view on the left bank. This medium sized spring puts out around 10 million gallons of cool water a day. Although the land above the spring is posted “No Trespassing”, the spring itself is almost at river level and open to visitors. Large rocks have been placed around the spring, which has created a pool of a slightly higher elevation than the normal river level. Other floaters were swimming in the cool, clear water while screaming due to the shock of the cold water.
After investigating the spring, we crossed to our take out on the other side of the river. A thunderstorm hit as soon as we entered the car to head home so we were all happy to be off the river. Although this trip was hurried by weather, the upstream portions of the Big Piney are scenic and worth a visit.
To get to Boiling Springs Resort, take Hwy 63 south from Rolla through the town of Licking. From this point, continue south to Hwy BB and turn right. Follow for several miles to the resort, which is located on the left before crossing the river. One might enjoy viewing a particular road sign in Licking on the way home. The sign is located just before Hwy 32, the only stoplight in town, and has directions to both Success and Rolla. Success is not to be achieved in Rolla according to the sign, as the arrows point in different directions.
Where is Success? According to this sign, it isn't in Rolla.
Three canoes for the third trip on the middle section of the Big Piney were rented at Rich’s Last Resort located near Duke, MO. The trip chosen was a 7-miler from Six Crossings to the Ross Access/Rich’s Last Resort. All of us were hauled upstream in a retired special education school bus to Six Crossings, where we were unloaded. Two other floaters had three large black Labrador retrievers, which seemed to enjoy the river more than any of its human visitors. These dogs spent hours fetching special floats made just for dogs to retrieve from the water.
The weather was perfect and the river was relatively empty of other floaters. Most other floaters encountered were busy fishing for small mouth bass. We were about the only group without fishing rods, which indicates that fishing is quite popular on the Big Piney. Upon starting the trip, it was noticed that the middle stretch of the Big Piney was somewhat of a transition between the upper and lower stretches of the river, which is to be expected.
The river was deeper and wider than the upper stretches, but was slower flowing and not as large as around Devil’s Elbow, more like the upper stretches. Large clusters of lily pads were seen in many locations. The water had settled down since the last trip and had returned to its normal, green tinged color. The bluffs and other scenery more resembled that of the lower stretches. At this point, the valley gets wider and the bluffs seem to get taller. The bluffs along this stretch are not weathered as much as those on the lower stretches, but are just as high. Large rocks have fallen off of the bluffs in places and are now in the river. One has to wonder what kind of splash such an event would make. These bluffs sit back from the river more than those on the upstream portions of the river, giving the observer a better overall view of the entire bluff. Several inaccessible caves were also observed in the high cliff walls. Overall, this stretch of the river probably had the best scenery, as the shear bluffs push 200 feet or more in height at many locations. This portion of the river is definitely best for those wanting scenery and a good relaxing float.
Much of the land along this stretch is privately owned and not part of Ft. Leonard Wood or the Mark Twain National Forest. Purple paint, which means NO TRESPASSING, could be seen on many riverside trees. Any part of the river below the normal high water line is public property, but anything above the gravel bars is probably privately owned.
Cows entered the river in at least two locations. These cows appeared to be dairy cows since they were of the classic black and white Holstein breed. There were many more cows along the bank sitting under trees in shade.
MOO! Cattle enjoying the Big Piney River - notice the lily pads
growing in the water.
As with the rest of the river, there were plenty of good swimming holes. The weather was not threatening so there was plenty of time to stop and enjoy the river. Our only disappointment from this part of the Big Piney was the lack of good trees and/or rope swings to jump from. One rope swing was found, but it was no thicker than a shoelace. Although it seemed to be plenty strong, no one could grip such a narrow string with wet hands. Tying a large stick onto the end made it no better since the string stretched and left the user partially in the river.
This float trip ended just before a massive bluff on the right side at the Ross Access. The weather was excellent and everyone, even those who had never heard of the Big Piney and were skeptical at the start, had a very good time.
Bluffs of the Big Piney near Ross Access.
These cliffs marked the end of an enjoyable float.
There are two separate ways to get to Rich’s Last Resort from Rolla. The most scenic way is to take Hwy I-44 west to Hwy J (exit 169) and turn south (left). Follow Hwy J for around 20 miles where it ends at Hwy K. Turn right on K and follow the signs to Ross Public River Access (MDC) and Rich’s Last Resort. Another way to get to this location is to take Hwy 63 south to Hwy K, which is slightly south of Edgar Springs. Turn right (west) at Hwy K and follow through Duke, Missouri. Follow signs to Ross Public River Access and Rich’s Last Resort. Although this way is slightly shorter, it probably is not as scenic as the I-44 route. We took the I-44 route to Hwy J which is very scenic. Hwy J parallels the ridges and valleys surrounding the Big Piney and offers excellent views of the bluffs, the river, and other surrounding landscapes.
The summer 2003 trip brought about a whole new set of experiences worth sharing. June 28, 2003 marked my fourth trip to the river. This trip consisted of a 15 mile float between the Boiling Spring Access and Slabtown Bridge. As usual, no one on the trip was disappointed. A total of six were in the group, including a married Japanese couple who are also students at UMR. They had never been on a float trip in the Ozarks but found the experience enjoyable.
The weather cooperated, as it was a beautiful sunny day with a high of around 86 degrees. There were very few other floaters on the river and it seemed we had our own private river. This was probably was not the case at the Meramec and other more well known rivers on that same day. The only complaint on the trip was the number of biting flies that swarmed at certain locations. These had never been experienced on any previous floats to any river and may have been newly hatched.
Canoes for the trip were rented from Scott Wade, owner of Wade’s On The Edge Resort near Licking, MO. Although right beside the road, this location is easy to pass up, as the sign near the road is relatively small. A previous canoe rental had taken place at the Boiling Springs Resort just down the hill but we were recommended to try Wade’s On The Edge, as they were said to be more friendly and down-home than other locations. This recommendation was accurate, as our host was talkative, friendly, and provided a great wealth of information about the local history and scenery of the area. Our canoes were in excellent shape and none leaked water.
Upon starting from the Boiling Spring Access, it was noticed that the first part of the river was relatively slow but slightly higher and faster than normal due to recent rains. It was much like the portion previously floated above Boiling Spring but a little wider and deeper. A spring known as Burnett Spring flowed in from the left bank. The spring itself is privately owned and is not visible from the river.
Two rope swings and a simple dock/platform were discovered along the right bank of the river. Everyone decided to stop and give the swings a try. The setup included a crudely constructed platform from which to climb onto the ropes and swing out over the river. Although wobbly, it did not collapse under anyone’s weight. The stone foundation from an old riverside cabin was present just above the swings.
We stopped for lunch a little after noon at the the Missouri Conservation Department's Mason Bridge Access, which is right next to the old Mason Bridge. This location was approximately one third of the way into the trip. The bridge (now closed) consists of one main truss span and two smaller pony trusses serving as approach spans. The deck consists entirely of wooden planking, with most of that being covered by asphalt pavement. The wooden deck is exposed on a portion of one approach span. The builder’s plates for the bridge were still intact at the time of the float, allowing us to find that the bridge was constructed in 1926. The bridge is typical of the simple steel truss style built in the Ozarks during the 1910’s-1920’s.
The Big Piney River as viewed from the old Mason Bridge.
Approach to the old Mason Bridge.
Various pictures showing the structure of the old Mason Bridge including
its structure and exposed wooden decking.
Mason Bridge builders' plate.
"1926, CONCRETE & STEEL CONSTRUCTION CO., JOPLIN. MO.
J.J. POWERS, JNC. STITES, A.F. WILSON - COUNTY COURT
O.L. GENTRY - COUNTY CLERK"
After the float it was discovered that the bridge had been closed for only a year, if even that long. A semi-truck had fallen through a portion of the bridge in 1997 or so, give or take a year. This happened on the approach span with wood decking exposed. The section appeared to have undergone recent repairs and that the pavement simply wasn’t replaced before the bridge’s closure. Although slightly rusty on the surface, the steel structure remains in remarkably solid condition, even underneath the deck.
After walking around on the bridge, the Japanese couple decided to inquire at a local residence about using the restroom. Although the location was plastered with “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out” signs, the two were welcomed to use the restroom. They signs are probably meant to deter those passing by on the river who might want to cause trouble or litter the property. The owners must have realized no harm was intended but probably wondered where two so obviously foreign people came from in the middle of the rural Ozarks. The couple was innocent of stereotypes that have developed due to angry landowners chasing people and concerns of racism, but luckily the property owners were very hospitable.
After leaving Mason Bridge, the gradient of the river increased, but there were still plenty of slow eddies to paddle through. A very scenic spring known by locals as Roaring Spring and Falling Spring entered from the right bank about halfway through the trip. This spring issues from the bluff about 15 or so feet above the river and cascades down over moss covered rocks. The water is cool and clear, making for an excellent location to soak the feet on a hot day.
Falling (or Roaring) Spring on the Big Piney makes for an excellent location
to soak the feet on a hot day.
During the last third of the trip, the height of the bluffs increased and the river started to meander around more twists and turns. This was by far the most scenic portion of the trip. Vultures were commonly seen circling above the bluffs. Upon talking to others before the trip, I learned of the location of ruins of an old resort along the river. The site is invisible from the Big Piney except for the remains of an old boat ramp. This ramp is present along the right bank of the river and consists of crumbling concrete, two steel I-beams along with old railroad track, and a hand railing protruding towards the river. It was encountered 2.5-3 miles from the end of the trip. The resort is said to be quite elaborate but no one was dressed to brave the insane numbers of thorny wild multiflora rose bushes and poison ivy vines guarding the site. A visit must be done by those in tough clothing, on a float trip during the fall or winter when the growth is less, or by driving to a local access road.
Scenic bluffs appear during the last third of the trip between Boiling Spring
and Slabtown Bridge.
Big Paddy Creek enters the Big Piney on the left just around the next bend where the river splits to go around an island. At the time of our float, the right side of the island was much deeper and had less debris buildup, so this route was chosen. Unfortunately, floaters taking the right side of the island will miss the confluence of Big Paddy Creek.
The trip ended at the Slabtown Bridge, which carries county Highway AF over the Big Piney River. Slabtown, as it once was, no longer exists but the name has its roots in the history of the area and the use of the river to transport ties downstream. Slabtown was home to a saw mill, which cut logs with a round cross section to a rectangular profile. Four “slabs” of wood were left from this operation. Instead of letting this wood go to waste, the workers built cabins and other structures out of the slabs. This use of leftover wood products gave the area its name, as the town was essentially built out of slabs. The exact area containing the settlement is now owned by private individuals and the simple wooden structures have disappeared. Although the namesake is no longer around, the name remains at nearby Slabtown Spring, Slabtown River Access, and Slabtown Bridge.
While waiting for our return shuttle under Slabtown Bridge, some interesting folks were observed. It looked as though several families were living under the bridge. Some were living in a tent tucked up under the bridge while others were residing in and around old cars without license plates. Babies and young children were sleeping on blankets in the shadow of the structure above. There was a fire ring filled with the remains of cans, bottles, several burned tires, and other miscellaneous trash. It did not look like a pleasant life, but everyone at the location seemed friendly.
The trip back to our vehicles traversed several scenic country roads through the forested Ozarks and gave everyone an excellent view of the Big Piney and its valley. The forests atop the bluffs and ridges contain many of the shortleaf pines that give the river its name.
To get to Wade’s On The Edge Resort, take Hwy 63 south from Rolla about 40 miles to Hwy BB, which branches off on the right about 3 miles past Licking, MO. Take Hwy BB 7 miles west to the resort, which is on the left before driving down a big hill to the river. Camping, cabin, kayaks, rafts, and paintball are also offered at the resort. See www.wadesontheedge.com or call 573-647-4532 for more information.
Only a small portion of the Big Piney River was floated during these four float trips and the rest of the river is said to be just as scenic. A partially submerged cave-like grotto is said to be located somewhere along middle stretches of the Pig Piney. It seems that excellent scenery is guaranteed no matter where one floats on the Big Piney. All three floats were excellent, with the exception of the stormy weather on the upstream portion of the river. There are multiple other float trips offered from every resort visited during these three trips so there is plenty more to see along the Big Piney.
Typical scenic view of the Big Piney River - Notice the green tint to the water.
The Big Piney originates near Cabool, MO and flows north past
Houston and Devil's Elbow on its way to joining the
Gasconade near Jerome.
1.) Approximate location of Elbow Inn
2.) Approximate location of Boiling Spring's
and Wade's On The Edge Resorts
3.) Approximate Location of Ross Access (MDC),
Rich's Last Resort, & Wilderness Ridge Resort
“Missouri Ozark Waterways” a Missouri Department of Conservation
booklet giving details on 37 major floating rivers in the Missouri Ozarks, Kevin
Brady for informing of the Big Piney’s beauty, All Outdoors (http://www.conservation.state.mo.us/news/out/1995/out12295.html),
the Fall 1996 Missouri Resources Magazine, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft for his “Ozark
Journal” and his book “A View of The Lead Mines of Missouri”,
and the Elbow Inn, Boiling Springs Resort, and Rich’s Last Resort for
the experience of excellent float trips.
In Chapter 19 (Ozark Culture) of Tom Beveridge’s “Ozarks” (www.umr.edu/~cwatkin/ozarks/ozarks.htm), the author covers two aspects of Ozark Culture observed in our guide’s dog story. Beveridge states that Ozarkers tend to be of a Scotch-Irish background and follow Old Testament oriented religions. These views are reflected in the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” attitude and our guide’s handling of his dog situation.
Also stated is the fact that the dog is highly regarded by many in the Ozarks. Stealing an Ozarker’s dog is viewed almost as bad as stealing his wife! If an employee loses a dog, the employer is almost required to allow the worker some time to find his dog for fear of losing the employee permanently.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his assistant Levi Pettibone were the first men of European descent to enter the interior of the Ozarks with the intention of exploring the region and documenting their findings. Although the two were mainly interested in researching reserves of lead and other mineral resources, they also recorded their experiences with the locals in their journal (http://history.smsu.edu/FTMiller/LocalHistory/Schoolcraft/hrschcrft.htm). During his travels, Schoolcraft repeatedly noticed that dogs were often a man’s most prized possessions since they served to protect or warn of danger and were helpful during the hunt. Schoolcraft’s expedition took place in the winter of 1818-19 so the high regard for dogs is not a new tradition in the Ozarks.
It should be pointed out that Tom Beveridge once served as the department head for the MSM-UMR Department of Geological Engineering and had a strong interest in the geology and culture of the Ozarks. This combination of interests might sound strangely familiar.
(C) 2006 by Conor Watkins