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August 8: Crossing the Wide Missouri

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Crossing the Missouri River could be a daunting task before the construction of bridges. In the earliest days of westward expansion, travelers had to ford the river. This was easier at times of low water, although the river is known as the “Big Muddy” for a reason. Wagons could easily get bogged down in the mud of the river bottom.

Enterprising pioneers built ferries and charged travelers for crossing. These ferries were simple wooden platforms poled across by the ferryman. This was an acceptable form of transportation when the river was at a normal level, but when the wild Missouri River was in flood stage, it was downright dangerous.

On this date in 1904 it was announced that a new and improved ferry would soon start crossing at Bismarck. It was being established by Grant Marsh, the well-known river man. He had a reputation as a superb steamboat captain, having piloted the two most famous steamboats on the Missouri, the Far West and the Josephine. It was said he knew more about the river than any man alive. He had been given the go-ahead for a new type of ferry -- a cable ferry. This was similar to the old raft style, but it was guided across the river by an overhead cable. This made it much less likely that the ferry would be swamped or swept away by the current.

The ferry was a great boon to travelers. Unfortunately, it got stuck on a sandbar in October, at a time when farmers from the west were trying to get their wheat to market.

With the ferry system uncertainty, it was a relief to travelers when the Liberty Memorial Bridge was built at Bismarck in 1920. It provided a coast-to-coast link via Route 10. More bridges followed. The longest bridge in the state is the Four Bears Bridge, at nearly a mile long. The Grant Marsh Bridge, named for the famous steamboat captain, takes Route 94 across the Missouri. Just as the railroads put the steamboats out of business, bridges put an end to ferries.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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