Chapter XXXIX

Burlington Saturday Evening Post

Capt E. H. Thomas



Wrecks followed by shifting of channel  

A Wrecked Boat Buried Every Seven Miles from the Mouth of the Missouri Clear Up to Great Falls.  

   My boat was on the down trip from Davenport to St. Louis.  We landed at Keokuk, where we took on a lot of freight and sufficient coal to make the trip to St. Louis.  It was my watch out of Keokuk.  The lines were let go.  I rang the backing bells, and the big stern wheel commenced to make its revolutions.  The steam had reached the top mark, and it was making a noise, as it came out of the safety valves on the boilers.  Some people on the shore were yelling at me, and pointing toward he stern of my boat.  I could not hear them for the steam, but I looked and saw nothing in the way, and let her back at full speed.  As I looked ahead again I saw the wooly head of one of the colored roustabouts  bob up near the bow of the steamer.  He came up smiling, with his face toward me.  He had been sent out on the wheel to do some repairs.  The engineer as is their custom, started the engines slowly, to work the water out of his cylinders, pulled the colored gentlemen under the boat and I had backed over him.  He was a professional river rat from St. Louis and a good swimmer, and he soon made the shore.  I landed and picked him up, and the only complaint he put up was that he had lost the wrench which he was using to tighten up the buckets on the wheel.  It was considered a great joke for one of the crew to fall overboard.  The boys got it on to me on one occasion.  We were lying at Muscatine one night discharging a lot of freight.  We finished the job about midnight.  I started for the pilot house to take the steamer out.  There was a torch burning on the levee, and its light blinded me so that I wandered over to the starboard side, and  fell from the roof into the river, a distance of about 25 feet.  As there was plenty of water under me, the fall did me no harm except to ruin a suit of clothing which I had purchased in St. Louis.  It was one of those expensive Prince Albert suits, with the lavender attachment, and this was its first trip up the river.  After its drenching at Muscatine the shrinking commenced and I was never able to get into it thereafter.  It was a costly dive and swim for me, but the incident furnished the boys with amusement for  a week or ten days.  It was a common saying among us that one could not be classed as a steamboat man, until he got wet.  So I took my turn with the rest of them, and it was a high dive, a good one.

  In some cases such incidents brought fatal results.  I was making a trip on one of the Davenport and Montrose packets.  We were on the up stream run, and between Muscatine and Davenport we lost one of our colored deck hands.  This man was in the habit of loafing around the engine room and tinkering with the machinery.  The engineer had told him a number of times to stay out of there, but he paid no attention to the order, and continued his visits.  On the night of his disappearance, he went in there and turned the throttle of the “Doctor” engine, and started the big boiler pump at a gallop. Seizing a bucket of hot water the engineer made a run for him, threatening him with the scalding water.  The colored man backed out of the engine room and when on the guard the hot water was thrown on him. He went overboard backward, and that was the last seen of him.  No alarm was given, and there was but one man, a fireman, who saw the man go into the river, and he said nothing about it for a week.  When it became known , some of the crew threatened to report it however they did not do it, and the incident was soon forgotten.  One more victim wad added to the list of floaters on the big river, and that was the end of it.  We landed at Keithsburg one afternoon and among the passengers who came aboard was Norris Keoch, a boy about 13 or 14 years of age.  His home was in Wapello, and he had been down there visiting his Uncle Henry Martin.  The uncle told the clerk that he was sending the boy home.  That he could not keep him away from the river and he was afraid he would be drowned.  We went into the Iowa river after dark, and the last I saw of the boy was at sundown, just below New Boston, when I told him to go down off the roof.  I then called the steward and told him to look after the lad.  He was running around all over the boat, and I was afraid he would fall into the river.  The steward put him to bed at 8 o’clock.  When we reached Wapello a thorough search was made, but little Norris could not be found.  His suit case and a pair of boots were in his stateroom.  Little Norris was a good swimmer and we still had a hope that he might have reached the shore or one of the islands.  On the down trip we went slowly, sounded the whistle and made a search of the shores and islands, but Norris was not there.  We put searching parties at work on the Iowa and Mississippi, and on our next trip we were hailed by two men in a skiff.  They had found the body in a drift pile near, the head of Huron Island.  To me, this was a sad affair, one which brought tears to my eyes, when I gazed upon the lifeless form of little Norris and thought of his grief stricken mother in Wapello.  Our theory was that the lad, after being put to bed, had left his berth and in his sleepy condition, walked off the boat at some point between Wapello and the mouth of the Iowa. 




The latest effort to recover a supposedly valuable cargo of whiskey from the hull of a wrecked Missouri river boat has failed.  Men who explored the wreck of the steamer Leadora, sunk four miles south of Elk Point, S. D., after burning in 1867, expected to find 100 barrels of whiskey, but found nothing except rusted iron and the rotting mass of the 148 tons of miscellaneous cargo that the boat carried.  The same experience rewarded the men who spent thousands of dollars in sinking caissons to the hull of The Arabia, near Parkville, Mo.  Several years ago, in the expectation of recovering the cargo of 150 barrels of whiskey that went down with the boat in 1856.  The only find that rewarded treasure seekers was a lot of old wool hats, which had resisted the decay of nearly fifty years.  Some years earlier treasure seekers explored the hull of the Twilight, sunk near the mouth of Fishing river, opposite Napoleon Mo., but found nothing of value. 

   These failures, however, will not daunt other treasure seekers, for there are still believed to be rich treasures awaiting a finder in some of the more than 250 rotting hulks that lie embedded in the river’s sand.  Some 200 of these boats have been sunk by rocks and snags, the remainder by fire, explosion or overloading.  The first wreck on the river occurred in 1819, when the Thomas Jefferson, one of the government fleet in the Long Yellowstone expedition, was wrecked at the Cote Sans Dessein opposite the mouth of the Osage river.  The last wreck in which the boat was sunk and lost was the government steamer Atlantis, sunk by an ice gorge at Missouri City in 1919.  The government lighthouse tender Lily struck a snag at Wellington, Mo.  A few weeks later and sank in shallow water, but was raised some time later.




   Probably the richest treasure in any of these wrecks is that on the Bedford, sunk April 25, 1840, at the mouth of the Missouri river.  The boat had a heavy passenger list and there was said to be a large amount of silver and gold on board.  One passenger is known to have had on board $6,000 in gold in his trunk, while estimates of the total amount of gold and silver on board range anywhere between $25,000 and $100,000.  In the boat’s safe was said by one report to have been more than $25,000 on deposit by passengers, in addition to money of the owners, paid to them for passage and to be used in trading. 

  The Bedford struck a snag after entering the mouth of the river and sunk until only its smokestacks showed, within one minute fifteen of the passengers were drowned.  A terrible rainstorm was raging at the Lime and the night was pitch dark.  Since the sinking of the Bedford the mouth of the river has moved south several miles, leaving thee wreck of the steamer buried under land that now is being farmed.

  Another boat which would yield a treasure to its finders is the Bertrand, which sank in 1865 in Bertrand Bend, near Portage La Force Neb. With a cargo in which there were iron flasks containing more than $25,000 worth of quicksilver destined for the mines of Montana. Probably the most valuable cargo ever lost on the river was that on the Butte, which sank July 13, 1863 near Fort Peck, Mont.  The cargo was valued at $110,000 and it was said to be a large quantity of gold dust from the Montana mountains.

   The Boreax which sank near Hermann Mo. In 1846, after burning carried a large quantity of silver bullion and Mexican dollars.  The boat was supposed to have been set afire by men who expected to steal the treasure, but the fire spread so fast that they were forced to jump overboard to save their lives without getting  at the silver.

   Nearly all the boats coming down the river until along in the 80’s carried more or less gold and silver from the Montana mines, and passengers coming from the west frequently were miners who carried their wealth in gold dust.  The records of losses of this kind, however are very indefinite.  In many cases boats sank so quickly that passengers and crew had barely time to save themselves without heeding any treasure that might be aboard.  In other cases boats sank in shallow water and everything was saved and the boats were raised again.  Many of these boats are now buried under dry land, due to the shifting of the river channel, where, if they could be located, it would be an easy matter to explore them.  In some cases the wrecks still are in the channel and can be seen at low water.  Frequently where they have, or may, become a menace to navigation, they are pulled apart or blown up by the government snag boats. The hull of the Timour which blew up just below Jefferson City, August 29, 1854 lies part - on the present bank of the river and is almost wholly out of the water in the extreme low water season.  More than thirty persons killed in the explosion on the Timour and the safe, which contained a large amount of money was blown to the top of a bluff, 200 feet high.




   From the mouth of the river to the head of navigation, at Fort Benton, Mont. There is a wreck to about seven miles of river.  A great deal has been written abut the explosion on the Saluds at Lexington, April 9, 1852, when twenty-seven persons were killed but that was not the worst of all the explosions. The worst explosion was that on the Edna, near the mouth of the river July 3, 1842, when fifty-five German immigrants were killed.  The explosion on the Timour killed thirty and the explosion on the big Hatchie at Hermann, killed a large number.  The records of this explosion, which occurred July 25, 1845 are indefinite.

  Fewer than thirty persons have been drowned as the result of steamboat accidents, more than half of them drowned by the sinking of the Bedford.  All told, there have been about 305 wrecks in the history of the Missouri River.   

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