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Steamboat Park


A stroll along River Road next to the Missouri River in Bismarck presents walkers with an interesting lesson in North Dakota history. One of the stops is Steamboat Park, a site that was acquired by the State Historical Society of North Dakota on this day, January 16, 1941.

Steamboat Park marks the location of one of the largest river warehouses built by the Northern Pacific Railway. Constructed in 1883, the 300-foot stone and frame structure was built to store goods in transit between steamboats and freight trains.

The park, which today includes a historical marker on the site of the warehouse as well as a 60-foot replica of the Yellowstone Steamboat, serves as a reminder of the importance river transportation played in the development of North Dakota.

Steamboats operated on the Missouri River, Red River, Sheyenne River and Devils Lake carrying heavy freight and passengers. Much of the freight brought to the west on steamboats consisted of railroad building materials, machinery, dry goods and livestock. Goods shipped back east included furs, grains and other products from Dakota Territory and Western Canada.

As a result of this river traffic, the wharf in Bismarck played an important role as a distribution and transportation center. Frequently as many as twenty steamboats would be moored at Bismarck. Saloons, hotels, restaurants and other warehouses were constructed nearby to meet these travel demands.

Steamboat Park also serves as a reminder of the importance river transportation played during the early railroad era. By 1873 the eastern segment of the Northern Pacific Railway had reached the Missouri River at Bismarck. However it would take another nine years before a permanent bridge spanning the river would connect east and west. Until the railroad was built westward from Bismarck, the steamboat was the principle method of transportation to the west.

Additionally, until branch lines were added, steamboat traffic continued to play an important supporting role to the expanding railroad by serving as a north-south link. Steamboat traffic had access via the Upper Missouri River System to locations from St. Louis, Missouri to Fort Benton, Montana. In 1889 alone, 119 steamboats hauled nearly one million tons of freight and over 26,000 passengers on the Upper Missouri River System.

But steamboat travel was not without its problems. Ice jams on top of the river could stop traffic while sandbars or water-logged tree trunks presented unseen dangers beneath the surface. River travel was seasonal and also expensive. It was not uncommon for steamboats like The Far West to use $100 of wood in a single day’s travel.

As a result, while railroads continued to expand, nearly all steamboats disappeared from the rivers of North Dakota by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century and with it came the end of one of the most colorful phases in the state's history.

Written by Christina Sunwall


Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau- http://www.bismarckmandancvb.com/elements/visitorguidepdfs/8.pdf

State Historical Society of North Dakota Long-Range Plan- www.nd.gov/hist/LRPlan.htm

Steamboats in Dakota Exhibit. State Historical Society of North Dakota Heritage Center

A Traveler's Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites, J. Signe Snortland, ed., (Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota; 1996)