"On the wrong side of the river": the odd story of McKissick Island, Nebraska

McKissick Island, Neb. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
Ducks in corn stubble on McKissick Island. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
McKissick Island, Neb. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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December 20, 2013 - 6:30am

You’ve probably never been to McKissick Island. Actually, you’ve probably never heard of it. We take a trip to McKissick Island and explain why it may be the most geographically-challenged place in Nebraska.


McKissick Island (far right), on a map that hangs on the wall of the office of the Nemaha County clerk. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News).

CLICK HERE for a Google Map of McKissick Island and the surrounding area.

Maybe better known is the Iowa community that sits on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River. CLICK HERE to learn more about Carter lake, Iowa.

A shredded piece of a metal building flaps in a biting 20-degree wind. It’s the only sound you hear this day on McKissick Island, Nebraska. You don’t hear hundreds of ducks grazing on the remains of harvested corn. You don’t hear cars; on some roads you see a few tire tracks in the couple inches of snow that fell a week earlier, others are untraveled, the snow disturbed only by deer hooves. In the distance you see steam rising from a power plant just south of Nebraska City. It’s distant, on the other side of the Missouri River from McKissick Island. That’s right, McKissick Island is east of the Missouri River.

Clayton Lang lived on McKissick Island for most of his life. He now lives in Hamburg, Iowa, but still farms about 1,000 acres on McKissick Island. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

“A lot of people don’t understand what it is when you try to tell them,” says Clayton Lang, who farms on McKissick Island, where he grew up. “It’s Nebraska ground on the basically the wrong side of the river, surrounded by Missouri and you’ve got an Iowa address.”

Confused? Just south of Nebraska City, the main channel of the Missouri River used to take a thumb-shaped diversion to the east. In 1867, just a few months after Nebraska became a state, a flood changed the river’s channel, cutting off the thumb. That left McKissick Island – 5,000 acres, about eight square miles of Nebraska – on the other side of the river, surrounded by Missouri but just a mile or so from the southern border of Iowa and the nearest town, Hamburg, Iowa.

Still confused? Try living there. Lang tells a story about renewing his driver’s license.

“I give them my address, and they held me there because the lady didn’t know exactly what to say because I was getting a Nebraska drivers’ license and I had an Iowa address,” Lang recalled, “and she said, ‘I’ve never seen this before. So there’s got to be something wrong.’”

Mike Stenzel is the third generation of his family to farm on McKissick Island, where he lived as a child. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

“I remember one issue (when) I was in the service and I was in California,” said Mike Stenzel, another McKissick Island farmer who also grew up on the Island. “I called back and I got the operator, (who said) ‘Well, we don’t have a number for that.’ I said, ‘Well yes you do, try West Hamburg, Nebraska.’ That’s how we finally got through. It wasn’t Hamburg, Iowa, because our address was Hamburg, Iowa, I said, ‘You try West Hamburg, Nebraska, and see if that doesn’t go through.’”

Nemaha County, and a local farmer hired by the county, maintain 5 miles of gravel roads on McKissick Island. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

It also creates some challenges for local government. For example, Nemaha County takes care of five miles of roads, ditches and culverts on McKissick Island.

"Whenever we do go over there to do any work, we haul all our equipment over like the backhoe, motor graters, we drive them over," says Bob Hutton, a Nemaha County commissioner.

“It is more costly to go across the river,” said Joyce Oakley, Nemaha County clerk.

Costly because of the extra distance to get there and haul materials. Also, the trip through other states means additional Department of Transportation permits are needed for equipment.

“We had to make sure we had the correct DOT permits,” Oakley said.

Andrew Wagner, Clayton Lang's stepson, lived on McKissick Island for most of his 19 years. "I really miss living down there," Wagner says. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

The county also hires a local farmer for some of the work. About any government service you can imagine has been a little different on McKissick Island over the years. What schools kids go to and who pays for this. Where fire and rescue protection comes from. Andrew Wagner farms on the Island with Clayton Lang, his stepfather.

“We had a guy die, a farmhand, and he had a heart attack on the tractor,” recalled Andrew Wagner, who farms on the Island with his stepfather, Clayton Lang. “They called the ambulance. They didn’t know how to get down there, so finally they got down like an hour and a half, two hours later after this happened. The guy happened to pass away.”

Wagner said 911 service was fixed after that incident a decade or so ago. In general, it appears over time there have been solutions to challenges created by this geographic oddity. But it still begs the question, why not give or sell McKissick Island to Missouri?

“I don’t think so in my opinion,” Hutton said. “We get quite a bit of tax revenue off of it.”

About $185,000 for 2013, according to the Nemaha County assessor’s office. Nebraska lost some tax revenue and land to Missouri in 1999, when an act of Congress shifted a smaller piece of Nemaha County land from Nebraska to Missouri. But another act of Congress that same year and a century-old U.S. Supreme Court decision has guaranteed the Island’s permanent home.

“It’s just McKissick Island and it belongs to the State of Nebraska,” Hutton said.

Which takes us back to the flapping metal and abandoned feel of McKissick Island. There’s never really been a town, but at times there’s been a school, church, houses and as many as 30 families here. By 2011, Clayton Lang’s family were the only ones left. Then the Missouri River flooded.

Today, McKissick Island is littered with memories of the 2011 flood: damaged farm buildings and piles of debris. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

“I guess I was just one who just hung on as long as I could,” Lang said. “But this last time, it took the whole house and it just wasn’t feasible to rebuild just because you’re building in the flood plain.”

Floodwaters also shredded metal buildings, flattened grain bins and uprooted trees.

“It’s completely different,” Wagner said. “There are no trees. There are no buildings. It’s all barren.”

“You get disoriented sometimes going down the road because a lot of the landmarks aren’t there anymore,” Stenzel said. “The flood issue it took its toll on the buildings, and the trees and everything else. It’s all gone.”

Stenzel lives in Hamburg but still farms McKissick Island land. Same with Lang and his stepson. They talk with pride, and a little sadness, about this island that’s not really an island. About this odd, unique little piece of Nebraska on the wrong side of the river.

“It’s kind of a special place, you know,” Stenzel said. “There are no other places around close anyway that’s that unique.”

"I don’t think a lot of people realize that we have that many acres over across the river," Oakley added.


A Short History of McKissick Island

McKissick Island (also known as “McKissick’s Island”) is named for the McKissick family, who bought land in the area in the 1840s and is generally credited with helping found nearby Hamburg, Iowa. It’s believed the McKissick family left the area in 1861.

When Nebraska entered the union on March 1, 1867, the state’s official boundaries included the Island, which essentially was a thumb-shaped eastern extension of the main channel of the Missouri River. Four months later, a flood rerouted and straightened the main channel of the river, cutting-off McKissick Island.

In 1904, Missouri went to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming jurisdiction of McKissick Island, saying the border was legally the middle of the river. Nebraska filed its own suit, claiming borders were determined by surveyors at the time of statehood. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nebraska, with Justice John Marshall Harlan saying, "The question is well settled at common law, that the person whose land is bounded by a stream of water, which changes its course gradually by alluvial formations, shall still hold by the same boundary, including the accumulated soil.” A survey in 1999 led to a Congressional resolution which reaffirmed the location of McKissick Island in Nebraska.

It is believed at its peak, in the early 1900s, about 30 families were living on McKissick Island. A log schoolhouse was built in 1881, replaced in 1903 by an improved structure for grades one through eight. The school closed in 1956. There was also a United Methodist Church, built in 1897.

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