Have often wondered why readers haven’t written about Steam
Boats and their part in our Nations early development.
The Yellowstone, a side wheeler was the first steam boat to
ascend the Missouri into Nebraska territory in 1831.
To navigate the upper Missouri steam boats had to be different
design than Mississippi river boats. Most Mississippi river boats
were large side wheelers with three decks. Upper Missouri river
boats were smaller and stern wheelers. They averaged about one
hundred feet in length, thirty feet in width, drew about three feet
of water and cost from twenty thousand dollars on up. The boilers
were located at the front of the boat and were topped by two smoke
stacks extending several feet above the pilot house. They burned
coal or wood. The lower deck was for cargo and the deck above was
the living quarters for the crew and passengers. The pilot house
was above this.
The Missouri was a very difficult river to navigate, because of
snags, sand bars and changing channels.
The boats were loaded to draw about a foot more water at the
prow so they would not run up on sand bars and lodge. They averaged
about fifty miles per day up stream and usually tied up at night.
Each boat had two long spars fastened upright near the prow. When
they struck a sand bar there were let down on the river bottom, a
rope was fastened from the gunwale of the boat through a pulley at
the top of the spear and down to a capstan in the prow. The capstan
was wound up and with the help of the paddle wheel the boat was
lifted over or back off the sand bar. This was called
Some early day boats made enough in one trip to pay for
themselves, while others sank on their maiden voyage with a loss of
all their cargo. Some pilots received as much as twelve hundred
dollars a month.
Most early day towns, forts and Indian agencies were built along
the river banks.
When my father homesteaded near the Missouri river in north east
Nebraska in 1891, he was forty miles from a rail road. Steam boats
brought in most of their supplies.
Tower, Nebr. was once a busy little steam boat town located at
Iron Post landing, a few miles from the South Dakota line. It had a
post office, three stores, a saloon, lumber yard, black smith shop,
livery stable and hotel.
A ferry boat also crossed the river there. Today the town site
is a corn field, and a few crumbling foundations are the only
evidence a town once stood there.
My father has told me of hauling corn and hogs to market there.
The most he ever got for corn was ten cents a bushel sacked.
Some of the boats that made trips up the river were, the
Castalia, the Little Maude, the South Dakota, the Capitola and the
Last Chance. The Capitola was a large boat and could only navigate
when the river was high. I am told the Castalia was the fastest
boat on the river.
It has been estimated more than four hundred fifty steam boats
sank in the Missouri. The only ones I have record of are the South
Dakota that burned and sank not far from my fathers homestead and a
boat sank farther down stream, near the mouth of the Niobrara
The railroad came through this part of the state in nineteen two
and ended steam boating.