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Crossing the Missouri

On this date in 1887 the McClean County Mail touted the great advantages that the town of Washburn had to offer. The town had been founded five years earlier 1882 by John Satterlund. He felt the area was an excellent site for a town. The location offered many benefits including good soil, an abundance of wood and coal, and excellent water transportation thanks to the Missouri River.

Satterlund’s assessment proved correct, and steamboats began to regularly arrive from St. Louis. The boats brought groceries, farm tools, and other necessities. They exchanged the goods for buffalo hides, furs, and agricultural products. The river offered the best means of travel, and the steamboat Yellowstone was the first boat to ply the Missouri in 1832. In the heyday of steamboats, there were forty of them on the Missouri, employing about 1,200 men.

Washburn became a thriving town in just a few years. It billed itself as “the grandest little city on the Missouri.” It became the county seat of McLean County, and one of its biggest assets was a ferry. In 1887 it was the only ferry across the Missouri for two hundred miles in either direction.

The Missouri River had long presented an obstacle to westward expansion. Crossing it was a challenge. Channels and sandbars shifted, and there was no consistently safe route. In winter, the frozen river offered a natural highway, but the spring melt created dangers as the ice broke up. This resulted in both people and animals drowning. In 1805, Lewis and Clark found a number of dead buffalo that had fallen through the melting ice.

The first bridge to cross the Missouri was the Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge at Bismarck. It was completed in 1883, and built fifty feet above the water to allow for steamboat traffic. Eventually other bridges would make crossing the Missouri a routine task.

The Missouri is a notoriously unpredictable river. Sometimes it is slow and lazy. Sometimes it is a raging torrent that overflows its banks. The river has been channeled, dammed, and diverted, but portions still echo the wild river observed by Lewis and Clark in 1804-1806. And Washburn, by the way, just happens to be home to a Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Bismarck Historical Society. “It Happened in Bismarck.” http://www.bismarckhistory.org/it-happened-in-bismarck/?&offset=0  Accessed 7 April 2019.

City of Washburn. “History of Washburn.” https://www.washburnnd.com/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={2546358E-E8E7-414E-9B78-8F1DCD22CC46}  Accessed 7 April 2019.

North Dakota. “9 Iconic Bridges in North Dakota.” https://www.ndtourism.com/best-places/9-iconic-bridges-north-dakota  Accessed 7 April 2019.

Germans from Russia Heritage Collection. “The Missouri River.” https://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/outreach/exhibit/riverexhibit.html  Accessed 7 April 2019.

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