A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Steamboat service for passengers and freight began working its way up the Missouri in the 1820s, reached the mouth of the Yellowstone River in 1832, and the end of the line at Fort Benton, Montana, in 1860.  Records indicate that the last steamboat docked at Fort Benton in 1890.  The steamboat had been permanently superseded thereafter by the transcontinental railroad.

The steamboat era on the upper Missouri River existed from 1819 through the 1920s.  These majestic vessels played a crucial role in transportation and commerce during that time.  Just for a moment imagine the wild adventures and hazardous trips made by skilled pilots which navigated these behemoths along that river!

Fort Benton, Montana served as the innermost port for shipping and human transportation, thanks to the arrival and successful voyages of steamboats.  Until the Corps of Engineers dams, the river continued to captivate those who enjoyed the experience of floating up and down the “Old Muddy.”  They had a strong appreciation for the puzzle of how these steamboats managed to navigate the Missouri with massive cargo and passengers, all the way from St. Louis to Fort Benton.

It is difficult to determine when the last steamboat made regular trips on the upper Missouri River.  A page one story in the March 9, 1922 issue of The Madison Daily Leader reported that a gentleman at Fort Thompson had made arrangements to purchase the river boat South Dakota.  He planned to make regular trips from Chamberlain to up river points as far as the Big Bend, with regular stops at Fort Thompson and Lower Brule Indian agencies.

“The influx of settlers in the region of the Big Bend,” the paper reported, “makes possible a good business for a boat running on regular schedule, hauling produce to market on down river trips and supplies for the settlers when proceeding up stream.”  Rosebud Landing was the site where steamboats took on farm products which were taken to the railroad at Yankton and sold on the national market across America.

In April of 1915 it was reported that the last steamboat on the Missouri river would disappear from Pierre.  The Northwestern Railway Company had maintained a steamboat at Pierre ever since the line was constructed to the Missouri in 1880.  With the bridge, the old boat had been tied to the shore for several years.

This eliminated all boats from the river at Pierre except for the small gasoline launches which were used for passenger and excursion business.  All crossings of teams and heavy material were by train.

Of the 295 steamers that have sunk in the Missouri River, 195 were wrecked by snags, 25 by fire, 26 by ice, 1 by collision with another boat, and 14 for unknown reasons.

There were few steamboats left on the Missouri after 1881.  They were still used to make short trips from railway points to Indian agencies, but the romantic day of steamboating had come to an end.

The disastrous winter of 1880 – 81 forced the General Meade into winter quarters at Pease Island about ten miles southwest of Geddes, and thirteen miles above Fort Randall by the extraordinary early freeze up in the fall of 1880.  The crew left the steamer and went down to Yankton for the winter.

They left the boat in care of S. M. Richardson and a young Norwegian boy whose name is not reported in the documents.   During the long winter, this youth was regularly instructed in the mysteries of navigation, particularly that portion that relates to the spring smash up.

On Saturday, March 27th, the break-up came with a heavy flood and the Meade was torn from her fastenings and carried off in the raging torrent in a field of dangerous floating ice.  Richardson immediately started to the shore with a heavy line in the hope that he could secure a turn around a tree.

The rope was pulled from his hands, leaving him alone on the shore.  The boy was left alone on the renegade vessel which took a position of the stern being downstream and it continued to follow the principal channel.

Mr. Richardson began to follow the boat on the shore but soon ran into Pease Creek which was impassible because of the flood.  He was compelled to go back and find a skiff and take his chances amid the crushing ice floes of the channel.

When the boy reached Fort Randall he made himself heard on shore telling of his helpless situation.  He asked that points below be notified that means of rescue might be devised.  From Randall all the lower points were notified and guards were kept out at Niobrara, Springfield, and Yankton throughout the night but the vessel did not appear.

At White Swan the boy assured the folks that it was impossible to guide the vessel into the shore.  In the meantime, Mr. Richardson was following with all diligence and eight miles below Randall he overtook the boat and relieved the boy of his charge.  He finally succeeded in landing the Meade over a quarter of a mile from the river back on the rolling prairie.  The Meade was uninjured; however, the problem of getting the steamer back into the regular channel of the river had to be resolved.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on June 26, 2024