With the Missouri River bisecting our metropolitan area, we should pay homage to one of the very reasons Kansas City exists today. Trade on and along the river was a major factor in the westward development of our country. As riverboats plied the ever-shifting river channel, they developed their own law, lexicon and lore. As late as the 1950’s, I went to sleep on foggy summer nights with the windows down, the redolence of the stockyards and the lullabies of distant trains and tugboats sounding their horns on the Missouri River.
Admiralty law, also called Maritime law, covers all contracts, torts, injuries or offenses that take place on navigable waters. Admiralty law traditionally focused on oceanic issues, but it has expanded to cover any public body of water, including lakes and rivers. Very few lawyers practice in this highly specialized area. Courts usually apply special rules and legal principles to Admiralty cases, which is why we refer out all matters in this field. Here are a couple of terms with which you may be familiar that have found their way into our everyday vocabulary.
When a catastrophe occurs of epic proportions, someone may suggest that the parties declare “general average,” a legal principle of Maritime law under which all parties proportionally share any losses. While general average traces its origins to ancient maritime law, it still remains part of the admiralty law of most countries
Another is “Mark Twain” originally from the riverboat term for “Marking On The Twine.” A crew member would hang over the side of a riverboat with a ball of twine in one hand, which he let out into the water until the weight on the end hit river bottom. The crew member would then look at the extent of the twine played out and yell up to the pilot “Marking on the twine, four fathoms, (two fathoms, etc.) below.”
This communication was eventually colloquialized to a sing-song, “Mark Twain!” followed by the depth in fathoms. As a boy growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, Samuel Clemens harkened to this regular cry from the riverboats going by and decided to adopt it as his pen name. Thus, was born the legendary pen name of one of America’s most famous authors.
There is a Back Porch Majority Album dedicated to riverboats and their adventures. One song talks of a race between two riverboats, laden with cotton, racing up the Missouri River for Leavenworth, Kansas. One riverboat is marking on the twine until there are:
“… no fathoms below. You better pray it ain’t so.” As their ship sits grounded on a sandbar, Ol’ Dixie paddles by singing, “Who’s got that cotton to sell? Ah, but as she’s passin’, we’re ridin’ high on her swell. We’re on the move again.” Then Ol’ Dixie runs aground. “There she stands high and dry as we’re walking right on by. I can see the lights of town, we’re gonna roll that cotton down.”
Locally, we can identify with the hazards of the river by visiting the Steamboat Arabia Museum, which is tangible evidence of the hazards of river travel. It was unearthed a half mile from the present streambed of the Missouri River.
The Corps of Engineers has largely tamed the river now, but snags, sandbars and other navigational hazards remain, along with the need for admiralty and maritime law.