It Took a Century to Salvage This Steamboat Wreck. You Won’t Believe What Surfaced.


Within the frontier West of the mid- to late 1800s the cutting-edge methodology of journey, each commercially and privately, was the steamboat. The continental United States is blessed with wonderful waterways, none grander than its two mightiest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Whereas the Mississippi wends a comparatively languid and mild course, the Missouri has earned its popularity as an unpredictable and typically hazardous physique of water.

American Indians had been undoubtedly first to ply the Missouri by boat, but it surely was the massive nineteenth century fur firms, principally John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co., that initiated the primary large-scale makes an attempt to conduct business and passenger transportation alongside the Missouri. The advantages of a steamboat for transporting commerce items to the forts on the higher Missouri had been manifold. Fur dealer Pierre “Cadet” Chouteau Jr. spelled out a few of these in benefits in an Aug. 30, 1830, letter to American Fur headquarters in New York:

Because the lack of our keelboat [Beaver] and the arrival of Mr. [Kenneth] MacKenzie [American Fur’s principal trader], we now have been considering the venture of constructing a small steamboat for the commerce of the higher Missouri. We consider that the navigation will likely be a lot safer in going up, and presumably additionally in coming down, than whether it is by keelboat.…I think about that there’ll at all times be somewhat threat to run, however I additionally consider that if we succeed, it is going to be an amazing benefit to our enterprise.

In July 1831, on its maiden voyage out of St. Louis, American Fur’s side-wheel steamboat Yellowstone accomplished the primary profitable business run of the higher Missouri, navigating previous its many hazards so far as the Dakotas and again. The next 12 months it steamed some 2,000 miles upstream to the mouth of its namesake river. Three many years later myriad steamboat firms and enterprise considerations had been using the river as a superhighway west for the transport of products, livestock and passengers. Main gold strikes in what would develop into Montana necessitated the import of mining gear, sturdy clothes and huge shops of dry items. The quickest and most cost-efficient delivery methodology was by steamboat. The 161-foot paddle wheeler Bertrand was typical of these in operation on the Missouri in 1865, as touted in an advert from the February 9 version of Day by day Missouri Republican:

The brand new quick and lightweight draught steamer Bertrand…will go away St. Louis for Fort Benton on the opening of navigation to Omaha. Shippers and passengers searching for transportation to Fort Benton, Virginia Metropolis, Deer Lodge and the Bitterroot Valley can not enhance this chance.

In July 1831 the steamboat Yellowstone pointed the way in which for Bertrand and different vessels by finishing the primary profitable business run of the Missouri River. (The Steamboat Yellow-stone, by Karl Bodmer, Corcoran Assortment, Museum Buy, Mary E. Maxwell Fund)

Although such adverts promised passengers security, journey on the Missouri was fraught with hazard. The principle channel was additionally recognized to shift extensively, and shoals and sandbars might pop up in sudden spots between voyages. Submerged fallen timber, recognized snags or sawyers, had been notably hazardous, as they had been primarily undetectable till a vessel hit one, usually leading to pricey repairs and even the lack of the vessel. The boilers on these steam-powered vessels might, and typically did, explode, ensuing within the destruction of the vessel and/or deaths of passengers and crew. In an 1897 examine famous engineer and historian Hiram M. Chittenden recorded the lack of 295 steamboats on the Missouri from the 1831 outset of business river site visitors. Nearly all of losses had been resulting from snags (193), whereas different boats succumbed to river ice (26), hearth (25), submerged rocks (11), collisions with bridges (10) and the dreaded boiler explosions (six), amongst different causes.

1865-Steamboat-Ad-Including-Bertrand
This 1865 advert extolls the advantages of swift journey up the Missouri River on Bertrand and its sister steamboats however omits warnings of any inherent risks. (Nationwide Park Service)

Thus, trusting passengers and shippers positioned their fates within the palms of likelihood when Bertrand departed St. Louis at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 18, 1865, sure for the higher Missouri. Launched a 12 months prior, the steamboat was owned by the St. Louis–primarily based Montana & Idaho Transportation Line, based by skilled steamboatman John J. Roe, son-in-law John G. Copelin and companions. The companions already owned a wagon freighting line and hoped to extend their share of the upriver commerce with a big cargo of dry items and provides for the mining camps in Montana Territory. Stowed aboard with their cargo was a cargo of varied consigned items additionally supposed for the goldfields. Among the many consignees was “Mr. Montana” himself, the pioneering Granville Stuart, who operated a mercantile retailer in Deer Lodge that equipped miners. Stuart and the house owners of Bertrand, in addition to the passengers, had been all in for a shock. The ship by no means reached its vacation spot.

On April Fools’ Day Bertrand was continuing up the Missouri previous De Soto, Neb., some 25 miles upstream of Omaha, when it hit a snag. Happily for the passengers and crew, the wreck occurred in daylight, the climate was gentle, the boat took 10 minutes to sink, and nobody died. The following afternoon Bertrand’s grasp, Captain James A. Yore, and a number of other passengers checked in at Omaha’s prestigious Herndon Home lodge.

Among the many objects initially salvaged from Bertrand had been items labeled for Stuart and different consignees. Later studies and rumors additionally claimed the doomed steamship had been carrying a fortune in mercury (aka quicksilver, used to refine gold), in addition to 5,000 gallons of whiskey in oaken casks. A report in The Omaha Day by day Bee dated July 19, 1896, greater than 30 years after the wreck, associated the efforts of 4 would-be salvors and a employed civil engineer to find Bertrand and salvage the rumored 35,000 kilos of mercury aboard. They seem to have failed, because the salvage operation vanished from the general public document.

Steamboat-Bertrand-Wreck-Excavated-1968
This picture was taken in the course of the 1968 excavation of Bertrand, which turned up beneath a farmer’s discipline, the river having shifted course over the intervening many years. Recovered cargo included every part from dandy and peaches to sneakers and instruments. (Nationwide Park Service)

The following critical try got here 72 years later when Omaha-based treasure hunters Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino went searching for Bertrand. On scouring interval newspaper accounts, the pair had found the identify of somebody who had owned land alongside the Missouri close to the wreck web site. They accurately reasoned that over the many years the river had shifted its course, leaving Bertrand buried beneath a sure discipline. In 1968, having narrowed their search and obtained the permission of the present landowner, the salvors used fluxgate magnetometers to scan for buried ferrous metals, resembling these contained within the cargo of a ship holding {hardware}. That February they homed in on a probable goal and, with the assistance of heavy gear operators and a few 60 different kindred spirits, started excavating the location. Proof constructive of their prize got here after they pulled up wood crates stenciled “BERTRAND STORES.”

The salvors introduced up 9 wrought-iron vessels stuffed with mercury, every holding 76 kilos of the liquid metallic. If the cargo had included 35,000 kilos of quicksilver, it might seem that salvage divers employed by the unique insurers again in 1865 had eliminated most of it. Regardless, the true treasure of Bertrand turned out to be the trove of abnormal shops, clothes, foodstuffs and {hardware} that had lain encased in thick river mud for greater than a century and emerged in a state of close to pristine preservation. The salvors recovered such laborious items as knives, firearms and mining and agricultural instruments, in addition to fragile textiles and clothes, together with sneakers, coats, shirts and pants. Foodstuffs resembling sweet, ketchup, canned cherries, tomatoes, meat, peaches, pepper and spirits additionally survived the ravages of time. On show on the customer heart of the DeSoto Nationwide Wildlife Refuge, close to Missouri Valley, Iowa, the objects recovered from Bertrand present invaluable perception into on a regular basis life within the late 1860s, whereas the story of the wreck itself is illustrative of the extremely dangerous steamboat enterprise within the rising Western United States. WW

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