A Note from Cottonwood Corners

At the bottom of the Missouri River and in the old channels of that treacherous stream lie cargoes of sunken steamboats valued at millions upon millions of dollars when those boats and their precious cargo became victims of the turbulent and turbid river.

How great the losses in river wrecks total since 1819, when the first steamboat was sunk in the river, will never be known.  However, an estimate based on government reports of the sunken steamers suggests that fifty million dollars is considered a conservative estimate.

On October 27th, 1870, the North Alabama was snagged and sunk at Vermillion near the mouth of the Vermillion River and Goat Island.  A large cottonwood log pierced the hull of the boat and created a gash two-feet wide and eight-feet long.  The North Alabama was stopped immediately and sank.  No crew member was injured and apparently no passengers were on board.  The steamer was a 160×32 feet vessel engaged in the Upper Missouri trade with Captain James McGarrah at the helm.

It had been reported that whatever could be salvaged from the sunken boat was brought to shore after the accident.  South Dakota Public Broadcasting in October of 2020 reported:

“Everything that could be salvaged from the boat was brought to shore soon after the sinking.  Engine parts, pipes, and whatever cargo was still intact.  So much was removed from the ruins that years later, there was virtually no way to positively identify the boat (bottom portion of the hull of the North Alabama was once again revealed because of a drought and low water levels in 2004) as the ‘North Alabama.’”

Goat Island, also known as Jake’s Island, is today a unit of the National Park Service and a part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.  Accessible only by watercraft, Goat Island is 3-miles long and a quarter-mile at its widest.

Volume IX of the Kansas Historical Collections reported:  “North Alabama sunk at mouth of Vermillion River on upper Missouri in 1870.”  The following telegram appeared in the New York Tribune of July 12, 1906:

“Vermillion, S. Dak., July 11, 1906:  The river steamer North Alabama, which was sunk in the Missouri river six miles below here, in 1870 strangely rose to the surface yesterday and today crowds of spectators line the banks.  The boat carried a cargo of flour and whiskey for the Yellowstone district.  The fifty barrels of thirty-six year old whiskey have attracted the lovers of good liquor and already a scramble to find the prize has begun.  As yet it had not been reached, owing to the quantities of mud accumulated over the lower decks.”

The Vermillion Plain Talk of July 12, 1906 reported:  “After all these years under water the old boat is now partially in sight.  Within the past few days the bow has seemingly pushed upward and now shows plainly from either shore.  At the time when the boat went down it was in the main channel of the river but in recent years the channel has been changing and this is no doubt responsible for the raising of the front end of the boat.”

It is interesting to note that Goat Island was never surveyed following the establishment of Nebraska and South Dakota.  Ownership of the island was disputed.  In 2016 it was agreed that the island would be managed by the National Park Service.

In September of 2022, it was reported by the Missouri National Recreational River located in Yankton that because of the low water level between the Gavin’s Point Dam and Sioux City in 2004, the North Alabama had once again become visible.  In a Facebook post they suggested:  “It wasn’t until 1904 that the North Alabama was exposed again and now when the water is low and the sands of time have shifted you might be able to catch a glimpse of her wreckage when you are out on the Missouri National Recreational River.”

On June 20, 1871, the Ida Reese was snagged near the mouth of the White River.  The boat was owned by Durfee & Peck, Indian traders that was returning from Fort Benton in Montana loaded with fur.  Most of the cargo was saved.

The boat was heavily loaded with a valuable cargo of Indian goods belonging to the Government, and sutler’s goods belonging to Durfee and Peck.  The value of the boat was $20,000 and the value of the cargo was estimated at $100,000.  Large quantities of whisky and bacon were in the hold and these were saved without much damage.

The Sioux City No. 2 was caught by the freeze up at Fort Sully in the fall of 1872 and the next spring, March 19th, 1873 was cut down by running ice.  Any reference to “running ice” in the 1800s referred to the movement of ice floes or chunks of ice in the river which was caused by the freezing and thawing cycles.  Some of the chunks of ice were an acre in size.  Along the Missouri River, the spring break-up was dangerous.

The flood of 1881 was especially notable.  The bottom land between Yankton and Vermillion became a raging sea, resulting in much suffering and loss.  Vermillion, which then was largely down on the bottomland was destroyed.  At Yankton, seventeen steamboats wintering along the shore were destroyed.

There are some of you who have many fond memories of the Missouri River before Fort Randall was constructed and the islands which are now inundated by Lake Frances Case.  You might want to schedule a visit to Goat Island near Vermillion later this summer!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on June 5, 2024