Thursday, August 18, 2005


Steamboat emerges from Big Muddy


Columbia Tribune
August 13, 2005

Dry summer reveals Montana’s remains.
BRIDGETON - It emerges like a giant skeleton near the banks of the receding Missouri River, a relic from an era that helped shape Missouri’s history in the state’s infancy.

More than 120 years after it sank, the steamboat Montana has remained embedded in the deep mud of the Big Muddy. The vessel is normally concealed by water, sitting near the St. Louis County side, out of the river’s navigation channel.

But rain has been rare this summer in the St. Louis area and elsewhere along the Missouri. With the river level so low, the Montana is suddenly visible again.

"I was impressed with how much of it is still there," said Steve Dasovich, a maritime archaeologist who contracts with the state to preserve the Montana. "All the spokes of the paddle wheel are still there. The level of preservation of the wreck is impressive."

The muddy bottoms of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are watery graveyards to hundreds of sunken steamboats, reflecting an era before railroads when steamboats were the primary mode of mass transportation.

By 1860, more than 700 steamboats regularly traveled the Mississippi. The Port of St. Louis logged more than 22,000 steamboat arrivals between 1845 and 1852, with the vessels lining up for miles along the city’s riverfront.

The life expectancy of the boats wasn’t long - about 18 months, Dasovich said. Downed trees and other river debris, ice, fire and explosions tended to do in the wooden boats.

Some believe as many as 500 wrecked and abandoned steamboats still sit at the bottom of the Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., alone. Greg Hawley, co-owner of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, said 289 documented boats sit at the bottom of the Missouri, but historians believe the real number is closer to 400.

The Montana was built in 1879, at the end of the steamboat heyday. Dasovich said the Montana and its sister ships - the Dakota and the Wyoming - were massive vessels, "last-ditch efforts to combat the railroad trade. They just could not keep up."

The Montana was among the largest on the Missouri - 280 feet long, including its giant paddle wheel. The boat’s three decks, pilot house and smoke stack made it stand 50 feet tall.

Turns out, it was a little too big. In June 1884, the steamboat tried to pass under a railroad bridge between St. Charles and Bridgeton, just a few miles from where the river connects with the Mississippi. The boat struck the bridge and took on water before running aground on the St. Louis County side of the river.

No one was hurt, but the Montana split in half.

From a distance, the Montana wreckage looks like a tangled muddle of logs and debris. Closer inspection shows rusted steel poking through rotted wood in the brown water. Wooden spokes from the big paddle wheel still are visible - Dasovich believes the bottom half of the wheel itself might still be intact in the river bottom.

Most of the goods carried on the Montana were salvaged at the time of the sinking. Over time, souvenir seekers have removed the few remaining artifacts as well as some parts of the boat.

Hawley, whose museum focuses on the Arabia steamboat that sank in 1856 but includes information about steamboats in general, said the paddle-wheelers are a part of American history that too few know much about.

"There’s a great heritage there that is, by and large, an untold story," he said. "The great treasures of our nation’s past are buried along our river systems."

As far as Dasovich is concerned, the Montana will stay where it is. He said there are no plans to remove it from its resting place. A plan in its infancy calls for development of a maritime preserve at the site, in which visitors would take a boat and learn the history of the Montana and other steamboats.

National Geographic article about the 'Montana'


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