Dakota Datebook: Steamboating on the Big Muddy

November 14, 2014
“Steamboating on the Big Muddy”

Transcript:

Robert Fulton was born on this date in 1765 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, far from North Dakota and well before Lewis and Clark ventured west and even before the United States acquired what would become North Dakota in the Louisiana Purchase.

Nonetheless, Robert Fulton had a direct and important connection to North Dakota.  On August 17, 1806 Fulton made the first trip in America’s first steamboat.  He traveled up the Hudson River from New York to Albany at the blazing speed of five miles per hour.  It wouldn’t be long before steamboats transported settlers, soldiers, gold seekers, and supplies into Dakota Territory.

The first steamboat up the Missouri was the Independence, out of St. Louis.  The Independence traveled to Franklin, Missouri in 1819.  The steamboats that followed pushed farther into Dakota Territory.  The Western Engineer was the second steamboat to attempt the journey.  The Engineer got almost to the Yellowstone River.  The round trip took close to six months.

Most steamboat pilots considered the Missouri River a nightmare to navigate.  The water was often low, especially in the summer.  Pilots had to negotiate snags and sandbars.  But the Missouri was a vital route for settlers in the westward expansion.

Missouri River pilots felt that Mississippi River pilots had it easy.  They said the Mississippi boats might be bigger and fancier, but the Missouri pilots had to be smarter.  The trip up the Missouri was dangerous.  Some boats only made one trip, and over 400 wrecks have been documented.  Explosions, fire, wind, ice, collisions, and running aground all claimed a share of boats.  Many of the wrecks remain buried under sediment deposited by the river.

The big steamboats of the Mississippi were a luxurious mode of transportation.  Many of them featured imported carpets, velvet drapes, and French glass mirrors.  Cabins were furnished with imported walnut furniture and the ceilings were hand-painted.  Missouri River boats tended to be smaller and more functional.  They were intended for transporting supplies and settlers, not wealthy plantation owners.  They were also smaller to accommodate the difficult navigation.

The arrival of the railroad was the death knell for Missouri river steamboats.  The last working steamboat trip came in 1888.  But for the tourist who would like the experience, old-style riverboats operate out of many Missouri River cities, including Bismarck.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Source

Dakota Datebook, Prairie Public (2014). http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/

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