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The History of
Washington, Missouri

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Steamboat Days

Octavia Bagby

Steamboating on the Missouri River began in 1819, when the steamer Independence went to old Franklin, and back to St. Louis, taking two weeks for the trip.   In June the government sent three boats, the Western Engineer, the Thomas Jefferson and the R. M. Johnson, to test the navigability of the river.

The Western Engineer was the only one to make a successful voyage, and the failure of this expedition discouraged navigation for a time.  In 1829, however, there was a regular packet between St. Louis and Kansas City, and there were about fifteen or twenty in 1836.  These were side-wheelers--heavy, clumsy craft, making from five to six miles an hour.  They frequently carried one or two cannons to fire salutes, and as a protection from the Indians.

Steamboat traffic increased in the forties, but the peak came in the years that followed the discovery of gold in California.  There were many palatial steamers at that time.  They were painted a glistening white, had luxurious furnishings and appointments, and often carried bands for the entertainment of the passengers.   Sometimes there were races between rival boats.  The Dakota and the Wyoming were two that frequently vied with each other--Captain William Massey versus Captain George Keith.

The steamer Iowa made a trip up the river in 1849, with about 200 passengers bound for the gold fields.  In 1850 a party from Washington, composed of David Rasfeldt, H. Haupt, J. Hartmann, Henry Wellenkamp and a man named Uhlenbrock, left for California.  Many of the townspeople went to the landing to watch them board the steamer Tuscumbia.

There was a decline in steamboating in the Fifties, but traffic revived in 1862, with the discovery of gold in Montana.  At this time boats frequently made fabulous sums in a single trip.  The steamer Louella left Fort Benton on September 2, 1886, and arrived safely at St. Louis on October 5, with about 200 passengers and a wagon load of gold dust, worth $1,2000,000.00.

This lucrative harvest lasted about ten years, but after the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Bismarck in 1872, the great days of the river boats were over.   Steamboating  had begun in 1819. At the end of the thirty years it had grown to tremendous proportions; in thirty years more, it was dead.

It is difficult for us today to appreciate the tremendous importance of the river in the past.  Before the Pacific Railroad was built to Washington,   steamboats brought almost all necessary supplies to the community, and carried surplus products to St. Louis and New Orleans.  The arrival of a steamer was an exciting occasion, and in those days, boats were the principal source of news.

The outstanding pilot in the vicinity of Washington was probably Captain Arch Bryan, who commanded a number of packets that ran from St. Louis to Fort Benton, the head of navigation of the Missouri river.  Among his boats were the Hattie May, Bright Star, Calypso, which sank near Washington, and the steamers Helena and General Meade, which sank near St. Charles.  The life of a steamer was but eight or ten years, so hazardous was navigation on the Missouri.

Captain E. M. Baldwin, of Washington, was pilot on the Missouri river for fifty years.  He commanded the Cora, which sank in Cora Bend in 1880.  He was pilot for many years on the U.S. snag boat, the Suter, later named the Missouri.

During steamboat days, Washington was occasionally visited by a show boat, announcing her arrival by music from a steam calliope.  Two fine ones were the Wonderland and the Goldenrod.  Moonlight excursions were enjoyed on the Idlewild, Pilgrim, Excelsior and others.

Probably the most nostalgic memories of old Washingtonians center about the May Bryan--ferry boat extraordinary.

The May Bryan was a large boat, with two decks and a small one level with the pilot house.   Built in Louisville for John Purves and John Bryan, she was brought to Washington by the owners and Hezekiah Moore in 1874, and answered cheers of the crowd with blasts from the whistles.

The May Bryan changed ownership many times, but was under the command of Captain Frank Hoelscher for many years, and Ed. Roehrig was her engineer.  She was frequently chartered for excursions, and during floods rescued people from the Warren County bottoms.

The ferry did a flourishing business for many years.  After the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad was build through the bottoms in Warren County, it no longer became profitable to operate a boat of this size.  In 1898, when she was tied to the shore opposite the Missouri Pacific depot, the May Bryan settled to the bottom of the river.  The boat was raised in 1937 by the United States Government dredge, the U. S. Mitchell, and was found to be remarkably well preserved, in spite of an inundation of almost forty years.

The local office of the United States Engineer Corps was established in the Spring of 1930.  Since that time the channel of the Missouri river has been made narrower and deeper, and dikes and revetments have been constructed for bank protection.   At the present time there is a six-foot channel to Kansas City, and there is traffic on this historic stream once more.

The government maintains a fleet of dredge boats to keep the channel open for the barge lines.  The Tom Sawyer and the Franklin D. Roosevelt, tow boats of the Inland Waterways corporation, can pull an average of four barges, with a total capacity of 8,000 tons, or 400 times the load of a single freight car.  The two large boats of the Socony Oil company can tow 1,000,000 gallons of oil apiece.

There are fewer boats on the Missouri river today than in the romantic era of the steamboats.   The load they carry, however, is far greater than the combined tonnage of the packets of the Fifties and Sixties.

Click here for a complete Steamboats bibliography

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