Ships 2


Ships 3


Riverboat Montana Sunk In Missouri River

By James Donahue

The riverboat Montana was one of a trio of steamships operating on the Missouri River in the early Nineteenth Century that held the distinction of being among the largest stern-wheel packets of their kind. They were built big in a last-ditch effort to compete with the railroad, which was putting the riverboats out of business.

Ironically, the Montana sank after it struck a Wabash Railroad bridge at St. Charles during a trip up river on June 22, 1884. The 283-foot-long vessel then swung into a pier, broke in half and sank at the edge of the river after the collision. All of the passengers and crew escaped without injury.

Captain George G. Keith was master of the Montana on the day it was lost. At the wheel was William R. Massie. The ferry John L. Ferguson pulled alongside and assisted in the rescue.

The wreck still remains at the place where it sank although it was stripped of its cargo and all of the parts of value before the hull was left to rot in the mud. A steamboat archaeology research team recently dug up the remaining portions of the vessel in an attempt to uncover all of the story the old wreck still had to tell.

While riverboats were common in their day, it is said that the men that built these amazing vessels never used plans. They apparently just knew how to build them and went ahead and did it. Thus the way these old boats were assembled, and the way they were built with a shallow draft capable of maneuvering shallow sand bars on the river ways while carrying heavy cargo was an unknown,

The general belief was that the riverboats were little more than a flat-bottomed box with a steam-powered paddle wheel mounted at the back. But when the remains of the Montana were examined, it was discovered that this was all wrong. The ship did not have a flat barge-like bottom but instead sported a curving arch and fine lines like a skeg.

The design allowed for better maneuvering by the riverboat pilots, yet the vessel had such a shallow draft of less than three feet, allowing it to work its way off unexpected sand bars.

The Montana and its two sister ships, the Dakota and the Wyoming, were built in 1879, near the end of the steamboat era, by the Coulson Company in partnership with other steamboat companies. The companies banded together to build vessels that they hoped could compete with the competition of the railroad.

They were all built 100 feet longer than most riverboats operating at that time. The plan was to undercut railroad freight prices by carrying large cargos and for a few years, they succeeded. The boats traveled as far up the Missouri River as Fort Benton, Montana, some 3,000 miles from open water.