Monday, July 27, 2009

Steamboat days ...

Getting to Montana was pretty difficult before the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s ... land travel was torturously slow, especially in the winter, and roads were pretty much nonexistent. Steamboats provided a better alternative, though of course the routes were limited and the service was very seasonal.

Steamboat traffic in Montana was always fairly minimal, and was mostly on the Missouri River; boats would travel upstream as far as Fort Benton, where the cargo would be transferred to wagons destined for Helena and beyond. A far smaller (and less successful) level of service also existed on the lower Yellowstone River beginning in the 1860s, though, as evidenced by this well-known photo of the little steamer "Fort Pierre," tied up on the shore at Glendive. River traffic on the Yellowstone pretty much ended after 1882, when the Northern Pacific Railroad constructed its line into the area.


  1. Oddly me that looks like the old railroad bridge in Fort Benton in the background. Most of my blood rellies came up the river from St. Louis on a couple different boats, arriving in June of 1882...I don't know when the railroad bridge was even built. But the arrival of the "Patrick Colony" was quite an infamous event.

  2. Yeah, seeing that bridge in the photo kind of troubled me, too. It's a very standard design for the era, but I don't think Glendive got its first Yellowstone River bridge until the 1890s, which would make that photo a relatively late one as far as the Yellowstone riverboats go. Still, I don't know that there's any reason to disbelieve the writing on the image, which was probably put there by the photographer himself.

    River traffic to Fort Benton lasted longer, of course, than the boats up the Yellowstone. The river conditions were much better, and the railway up there wasn't built until a few year later. What a trip that would have been, taking a steamboat down Montana's part of the Missouri!

  3. I can see the differences after comparing photos this a.m. The first bridge (1897) at Benton was a swing span that was destroyed in 1908.

    What a trip indeed...most of the Patrick Colony were 'deck passengers' and apparently there were close to 100 of them, from 17 different families from Missouri, that Patrick had cajoled/helped (conned?) into pioneering. The story would make a helluva mini-series. *S*

    Have you read "Boone's Lick" by McMurtry? Parallel moments in that story.

    On another note, I'm tracking the book "A Fist in the Wilderness" by Lavender. Patrick worked for the American Fur Company in 1836...the book sounds like a good resource of the era.

  4. I definitely need to add "research Yellowstone River steamboats" to my to do list ... along with "research historic bridges in Glendive."

    Maybe you need to start writing that miniseries? :)

    And I'll add both those things to my impossibly-long reading list. They both sound worthwhile ... thanks!

  5. The same steamboat was the last to pass the Lower Yellowstone Diversion Dam construction site at Intake, MT, on August 25, 1909. Intake is downstream from Glendive. Until then she was in limited service as far upstream as Forsyth in spite of the railroad.