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June Rise


Today many worried eyes are cast on the Missouri River, for after fifty-eight years of relative quiet, it is once again showing its might. A summer rise that used to be a dominant river feature as the mountain snows finally reached the plains has not been seen since the Garrison Dam tamed the mighty river. This rise in the water depth normally signaled the high point of steamboat traffic as the river, free of ice, was navigable all the way from St. Louis up to Fort Benton a distance of 3,325 miles through the winding valley. It was a time for the steamboats to take advantage of the high water and carry the much-needed supplies to the garrisons and settlers along the river. Traffic was brisk.

Throughout June in 1874, the river was running nine feet above the low water mark. The channel, normally two hundred fifty yards wide, was now over a thousand. White foam signaled a fast current for which the steamboats struggled on the way upriver but quickly harnessed for the return trip down. The Fontanelle, a 210 foot steamboat with a light draft, made the trip from St. Louis to Fort Benton in forty-five days.

But the Fontanelle had plenty of company on the river, names that have long ago faded into history, many to become victims of the river itself. Steamboats such as the May Lowry, Nellie Peck, The Katie P. Kountz, the C. W. Mead and the E. H. Durfee plied the waters above and below Bismarck in 1874 for the huge profits that a successful voyage could guarantee. The Key West had only recently returned from Carroll, Montana Territory, carrying one hundred and seven tons of silver ore, 52 sacks of wool, one hundred and ninety-six bundles of furs, forty-six head of cattle and a portable sawmill. The steamboat Stockdale had arrived five days earlier carrying thirty tons of silver ore.

On this date in 1874, as the spring shipping season wound down, the Josephine was in Bismarck, on its way to Fort Benton. Following behind was the Western – probably the last steamboat that could make the trip in the now-lowering water. Space aboard the steamboats was limited and passengers paid dearly for the trip – gold miners and settlers willing to risk the uncertain challenges that awaited them. Although today, anxious eyes sullenly watch the rising water as it threatens their homes, there was a time, one hundred and thirty-seven years ago, eager eyes watched for the steamboats that would carry them to their dreams.

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis

Bismarck Tribune June 3, 1874
Bismarck Tribune May 26, 1874
Bismarck Tribune July 8, 1874