Steamboats on the Missouri River

Transportation | FIND Iowa
Apr 18, 2024 | 00:03:56

How was travel on the Missouri River different from travel on the Mississippi River?

The Missouri River was a connection for Iowans and others traveling west. However, the Missouri River was strong, dangerous and caused many boats to sink.


[Abby Brown] On the eastern border of Iowa we have the mighty Mississippi. On the western border we have Big Muddy, the Missouri River.

The Missouri River is the longest river in the country. It starts way up in Montana and winds its way down through some northern states before flowing past the edge of Iowa and heading south, eventually joining the Mississippi River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

(A black and white photograph of steamboats traveling on the Missouri River. Crowds of people are lined up on the river’s edge. There are people traveling by horse and buggy on the road that follows the river.)

A long time ago, traveling the Missouri River on a steamboat was one of the only ways passengers could go west.

(Text on screen - “The Missouri River was famous for eating boats.”)

But as one steamboat captain said, "The Missouri River was famous for eating boats." Why?

I'm at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri Valley, Iowa. The visitor's center here has a display of cargo that was discovered on the Steamboat Bertrand, which sunk while traveling the Missouri River.

(Artifacts displayed include a porcelain mug, a wooden jewelry box, a medium-sized wooden box with Chinese letters on it and a row of iron shovels.)

(On display is a model of the Steamboat Bertrand. The steamboat replica has three levels with the word “Bertrand” at the back of the steamboat just before a red paddle wheel. The first floor has supplies in brown bags and boxes. The second floor has a deck walkway around the edge with doors to access the inside of the boat. The top level is the roof with a small square structure like a look-out.)

[Abby] Where was this boat starting and ending?

[Bill Cantine, Steamboat Bertrand Museum] It was starting in Saint Louis. And it was supposed to make it all the way to Fort Benton, Montana Territory.

[Abby] Okay. But it didn't, because what happened?

[Bill] On April 1, at 3:00 in the afternoon, right near here, it struck what's called a snag.

[Abby] Okay. What's the snag?

[Bill] It's a log. A tree that falls into the river and its roots snag in the riverbank.

[Abby] Okay.

[Bill] And then it just sits there.

[Abby] Okay. And eventually, the boat, it just sunk right?

[Bill] Yeah. The boat hit the snag and sank.

[Abby] Okay, and this is kind of a normal thing for the time, right? The Bertrand was not the only boat that sunk. So, what do you make of that? There were snags. And what were some other challenges of travel on the Missouri?

[Bill] Sandbars were a big one. The boat would just hit the sandbar. They couldn't really see it and it would get stuck on the sandbar. So they would have to work their way across the sandbar. And that could really slow them down. Unlike the Mississippi, the Missouri is very shallow. The water is very muddy. They only had two times a year they could go up the river, in late March and early June.

[Abby] So the Steamboat Bertrand sank In 1865. Is this the height of steamboat travel? Like, when did that start and when did it start to decline?

[Bill] The first steamboat on the Missouri was in about 1819, but it didn't really take off until they found gold in Montana in 1862.

[Abby] When did it start to decline? And for what reasons?

[Bill] On the lower Missouri, about the 1870s. When the railroad made it to Sioux City and Yankton, South Dakota.

[Abby] And then all of that transportation was being handled by the railroad.

[Bill] Right.

(A black and white photograph of a steamboat moving along the river bank. The boat is crowded with people. People along the shoreline watch the boat. Above a steam locomotive is crossing the river on a steel railroad bridge.)

[Abby] Is the Steamboat Bertrand still here?

[Bill] It is. It's not in this building. It's about a mile down the lake on the other side of the lake under a pond where they excavated it in the 1960s.

(The pond where the steamboat Bertrand is still submerged. A sign at the pond reads “Steamboat Bertrand Discovery Site.”)

[Abby] So they completed a full excavation. And then what happened after that?

(In a black and white photograph the Steamboat Bertrand is being excavated. A large crane sits at the side of a dug out hole while several workers stand nearby.)

[Bill] They were thinking of ways they could bring the boat up and display it for the public. But it was too fragile.

(A black and white photograph shows the open hull of the Steamboat Bertrand during excavation. There are large, metal poles strung across the hull like the excavators were attempting to remove the steamboat from the ground.)

[Bill] The oxygen would cause the wood to rot. So basically, they just covered it over with a tarp and sand, turned off the pumps from the excavation, and let the water fill in the hole.

[Abby] So now there's a pond there.

[Bill] There is.

[Abby] With the steamboat underneath, being nicely preserved.

[Bill] Yes.

[Abby] That's fantastic.

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