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The First Highway

On this date in 1918, the Benton Packet Company greeted the New Year with good news. The steamboat company welcomed the increased regulation of railroads. The government was committed to farm development as well as the development of lignite deposits, both of which required reliable transportation. The steamboat company was confident that the increased regulation would require better connections between railroads and steamboats, making river travel more convenient and economical.

The Missouri River was the first highway in North Dakota. The steamboats fostered the fur trade, brought in supplies, picked up and delivered mail, and transported goods to market. The Missouri presented unique obstacles to the steamboats. The earliest attempts in 1819 ended in failure. The steamboat Yellowstone finally navigated as far as present-day Fort Pierre in 1831. The following year the Yellowstone made it to the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.

Those first steamboats were side-wheelers, but this was not a practical design, since the Missouri was narrow and twisting. Consequently, the side-wheelers were soon replaced with stern wheelers. Mounting the paddle wheel at the rear of the boat made the steamboat narrower and easier to handle.

The Coulson Line ran a successful transport business. In 1871 it commissioned the steamer Far West. This steamer is famous for bringing survivors of the fighting at Little Big Horn back to Fort Abraham Lincoln.

The Benton Packet Company, was organized in 1879. It was a coalition of four transportation lines, proving formidable competition for the Coulson boats. The company started by running between Sioux City and Bismarck. In the 1880s, however, it stopped working below Bismarck to concentrate on the Montana trade.

For a time, the Benton Line’s bet on railroad connections proved profitable. But as the railroad extended across the prairie, it provided faster and more reliable transportation than the steamboats. By 1888, there were only three boats remaining on the Missouri River. The Benton Line managed to hang on until the early 20th Century, but the steamboats were clearly a relic of the past, while the iron horse represented the future.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Bismarck Tribune. “Benton Packet Company. 1 January 1918. Bismarck ND. Page 1.

Western Cover Society. “The Steamboat Postal History of Dakota Territory.” https://www.westerncoversociety.org/early-western-mail-articles/territorials/the-steamboat-postal-history-of-dakota-territory/#.W_V-M_ZFxMs  Accessed 11/21/18

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