Steamboat Wreck Sheds Light on Bygone Era

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 18, 2002

In the muddy bottom of the Missouri River are the remains of the stern-wheeled steamboat Montana, which sank 118 years ago. Scientists studying the wreck say it's revealing new knowledge about the riverboats that played a central role in America's westward expansion.

The Montana was the largest stern-wheel steamboat ever to travel the Missouri River. At 283 feet (81 meters), including its giant paddle wheel, it was 100 feet (30 meters) longer than most boats of its kind. The ship towered some 50 feet (15 meters) above the river and was as wide as it was tall.

Despite its grandeur, the Montana's run lasted less than five years. It sank in June 1884 near Bridgeton, Missouri, after colliding with a railroad bridge.

Today, about 180 feet (55 meters) of the ship's hull lies intact, locked in what appears to be pure clay. The bow was broken off and has not been found.

The Montana represented the last days' gasp of a once-glorious steamboat industry that helped fuel the explosive growth of the American West.

A private company, SCI Engineering, Inc., of St. Charles, Missouri, is exploring the Montana wreck on behalf of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' State Historic Preservation Office. Archaeologists Annalies Corbin and Bradley Rodgers of East Carolina University, along with seven graduate students in maritime studies, recently completed the first season of work documenting the wreck.

Well-Known Wreck Site Yields New Information

Despite the historical and cultural importance of steamboats, little is known about their construction. "There have only been two archaeological studies of a Missouri River steamboat," said Corbin, adding that the expedition is the most ambitious study so far.

"It's tremendously interesting, of course," Rodgers added. "We're pushing the envelope of our knowledge every time we look at one of these. In this instance, we're pretty much doubling our knowledge."

The researchers say they aren't likely to find any significant artifacts in the muddy riverbed. When the ship wrecked in 1884, its cargo and valuable equipment were removed. And over time, as the shipwreck became a part of local legend, the site drew many treasure hunters.

"It was sort of common knowledge passed down, that this was the site of the Montana," Rodgers said. "People have been happening along here for a long, long time picking up bits and pieces here and there."

Continued on Next Page >>




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