Monday, March 7, 2011

Steamboats on the Missouri

Ah ... steamboats ... how romantic. One of the things I learned researching A Most Unsuitable Match (which is in its final stages of editing--WHEW) was that, in actuality, steamboats on the Missouri were noisy, exasperating, and dangerous. The Missouri presented challenges that Samuel Clemens didn't face piloting the Mississippi.
"We felt the shock and at once the boat started sinking ... (it) keeled over on one side ... there was a wild scene on board ... the chairs and stools were tumbled about and many of the children nearly fell into the water."

So wrote one of the passengers on board the Steamboat Arabia when it hit a snag hiding below the surface of the Missouri River and met its demise. The year was 1856, and the Arabia was only one of some four hundred steamboats to meet their demise while navigating the river called "Old Misery" by those who knew it best.

The lovely hanging lamp above is one example of some of the goods making their way north aboard the steamers that carried virtually millions of tons of freight from St. Louis to Montana in the latter part of the 19th century when gold fever called tens of thousands of hopeful miners to Alder Gulch.

It was seeing the cargo (on a field trip for a history class) a couple of years ago set me on course to write the story of a young girl venturing north from St. Charles Missouri, in search of her only living relative in 1869. I never would have imagined crystal bowls and bolts of silk cloth, ornate dinnerware and silver thimbles, but there they were on display at the museums showcasing the cargo of the Bertrand (in Nebraska) and the Arabia (in Kansas City). What was that like? I wondered, as I read of survivors being hauled ashore and watching as the ship sank in the murky depths.

Those who knew it best called the Missouri an "unpoetic and repulsive stream of flowing mud studded with dead tree trunks and broken by bars." Pilots were constantly challenged by its shifting course and the confines of steep bluffs. Just when a pilot thought he knew the river, she deposited a sand bar and cut away a new bit of bank, leaving new and treacherous barriers just below the surface of the water. The Missouri went through open country that was subject to tornadoes, violent thunderstorms, and fierce gales that could literally blow the shallow-drafted steamers over. Prairie fires could blister the paint when the current forced a steamboat close to the bank and passengers were often tormented by clouds of mosquitoes.

While the record passage from St. Louis to Fort Benton, Montana was "only" twenty-three days, most trips took far longer thanks to exasperating delays from sandbars, broken tillers, failing boilers, and various other challenges including the ever-present threat of boiler explosions, fires, and snags.

And so ... I send eighteen-year-old Fannie Rousseau north aboard a fictional steamboat ... and of course things will not go well.

If you have a chance to visit either historical sites at DeSoto Bend in Nebraska or at the Arabia Museum in Kansas City, you won't be bored. And you'll be thankful for the interstate!


  1. Hi Stephanie:

    I plan to go to KC in the summer. I will try my best to get to the Arabia museum.

    It’s amazing that 400 steamboats sank on just one river. I would have guessed that not even 400 steamboats were ever built! There must have been a steamboat in sight every time you looked at the river! I need to read more about this history.

    Will “A Most Unsuitable Match” be available as an eBook?


  2. The most enjoyable book I found on the general subject of steamboating the Missouri was part of the Time-Life Series. It's called The Rivermen. Text by Paul O'Neil. Many historical photographs, charts, etc. Even the technical information was understandable ... it's a good place to start.

  3. I believe Bethany House is beginning to issue e-book versions of most of their new releases, so "A Most Unsuitable Match" should be available that way as well. Let's hope! E-books are an exciting revolution in the world of books. Some of my out of print backlist will be available as ebooks in coming weeks, too. How about it, folks ... do you own an ereader? Which one? Care to comment?

  4. I have been to the Arabia museum and it was FASCINATING! Can't wait for your book.

  5. You made my day! Thanks so much for this comment. Remember the sewing tools at the museum? I just thought of all those thimbles and and buttons in context of Nancy's newest post, too. I loved learning about steamboating and hope to do another book. Let me know what you think of A Most Unsuitable Match.