In the nineteenth century, the Missouri River gained a reputation among river men as a steamboat graveyard. From the 1820’s to the 1880’s, hundreds of steamers went down in the murky waters of the Mighty Mo, sunk by underwater snags, hidden boulders, and unseen shoals. Snags brought down the majority of boats.
On September 5, 1856, the steamboat “Arabia” sank in the river after hitting a snag near Parkville, Missouri. As soon as the snag – believed to be the trunk of a walnut tree – punctured the hull of the “Arabia,” the Missouri’s dark waters rushed into the opening. As the hull filled with water, the pilot tried to steer the stricken vessel toward the safety of shore, but he didn’t make it. Within minutes, the passengers and crew were forced to abandon the doomed ship to the river.
In 1987, a team of treasure hunters discovered the site of the “Arabia” steamboat wreck beneath a bean field. Following a major excavation effort in late 1988 and early 1989, the amateur archaeologists recovered a wealth of artifacts from the old steamer. Many of those artifacts are now housed in the Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
On October 27, 1870, the steamer “North Alabama” sank near Vermillion, Dakota Territory, after striking a submerged planter (a snag firmly rooted in the river’s sandy bed). The thick trunk of the tree that destroyed the “North Alabama” had been visible as recently as 2011 in the riverbed west of Vermillion.
Hiram Chittenden, who served as an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the nineteenth century, estimated that 273 steamboats went down in the river between 1830 and 1902. Others believe the river may have destroyed upwards of 400 vessels in the nineteenth century – a number equal to almost half of all the boats that worked the river. We may never know the exact number of steamers lost to the Missouri; but we do know the Missouri took an incredible toll on commercial shipping. It’s no exaggeration to state that the Missouri possessed a voracious appetite for steamboats.
In order to decrease the steamboat loss rate, and lower the insurance premiums on shipped cargo, steamboat companies built steamers specifically designed for operations on the Upper Missouri – the river reach flowing through Dakota and Montana territory. Along this reach, the Missouri became particularly difficult to navigate in the late summer and early fall when low water increased the odds of a boat hitting one of the river’s sunken snags, boulders, and hull-busting shoals. Steamboat company executives wanted vessels that could float above the river’s many obstacles – even in low water. They also wanted ships that could nimbly navigate through the Upper Missouri’s narrow channels.
Tasked with creating a versatile vessel that could navigate one of the world’s most dangerous rivers, American shipbuilders constructed what became known as the mountain boat. River men called this steamer a mountain boat because it literally climbed up the Missouri River from the lower elevations of the middle continent to the mountains of Montana.
Mountain boats represented the height of steamboat technology and design. Engineers built the vessels with a low profile to keep them from being buffeted by the strong winds so prevalent across the Great Plains. It wasn’t unheard of for a powerful gale to throw a steamer up against a cut bank or atop a snag. The upper decks of the mountain boat contained lightweight woods and a minimum of frivolous finery; this lessened the overall weight of the steamer, which meant it drew less water. Thus, the boat could skim over the top of sandy shoals. The high-tech steamer had a special boiler installed in its hull – made with stronger and lighter steel. This engine generated the head of steam necessary to overcome the upper river’s powerful rapicages. Two spars, or grasshopper legs, extended out from the bow of the ship. If the boat hit a sandbar or shoal – which happened multiple times during a trip to the upper river – crews lowered the grasshopper legs into the riverbed, increased the engine’s head of steam, and propelled the boat up and over the obstruction. The spars acted like a pair of crutches, allowing the steamer to hop over sandbars and shoals.
When the railroads reached Dakota and Montana, the steamboat era along the Missouri River came to end. The mountain boats could not compete against the railroads. Rail transportation was safer, cheaper, faster, and more reliable than steamboat travel. Yet, it was the mountain boat, and the men who manned them, that first opened the northern Great Plains to European-American agricultural settlement.