James Baughn was the webmaster of seMissourian.com and its sister newspapers for 20 years. On the side, he maintained even more sites, including Bridgehunter.com, LandmarkHunter.com, TheCapeRock.com, and Humorix. Baughn passed away in 2020 while doing one of the things he loved most: hiking in Southeast Missouri. Here is an archive of his writing about hiking and nature in our area.
Missouri versus Kentucky: The 1870 smackdown
Posted Tuesday, August 10, 2010, at 5:27 PM
In my last blog, I explored the places along the Missouri-Illinois border where the river has shifted course, causing portions of one state to be on the "wrong" side of the river.
These geographic oddities can be found all along the Mississippi River. The river between Cairo and New Madrid has been particularly troublesome for mapmakers, lawyers, and even U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Wolf Island, located just downstream from Columbus, Kentucky, is the oddest of these oddities. It's on the Missouri side of the river, was surveyed as part of Missouri in 1821, and is the namesake for a town and post office in Missouri.
But the 15,000-acre former island is actually in Kentucky, all thanks to a Supreme Court case with the poetic title of Missouri v. Kentucky.
Missouri had a strong claim to the island, but the court ruled that Kentucky had a stronger claim. It was a smackdown of the Show-Me State.
Since the case was decided in 1870, the river has shifted even more. A second island, called Middle Bar, has formed between Wolf Island and the Kentucky mainland. Going from west to east, we have this tangled mess of placenames:
- Wolf Island, Missouri, a town and post office
- Wolf Island, Kentucky, an island that is no longer an island
- Middle Bar, Kentucky, a sandbar that has evolved into an island
- and finally, the Kentucky mainland
Graphic adapted from an aerial photo taken 1997 for the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center.
Even more confusing, Wolf Island still bears Missouri survey lines. The section lines (spaced one mile apart) are shown on this topographic map in red. Notice how the red lines match the townships, ranges, and sections in Missouri, while Kentucky proper doesn't have any survey lines.
Without a levee to protect against flooding, Wolf Island is uninhabited, although it does have plowed fields, gravel roads, and farm outbuildings. A road crosses the Missouri-Kentucky border without any hint of a border crossing.
The Hickman County road map (PDF) shows that the island has three county-maintained roads (Island Road, Wolf Road, and River Road). I can't imagine that the county highway department is too keen on trying to maintain roads that are so hard to reach from the rest of Kentucky.
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