During the first half of the 1800s, the Missouri River was a major highway from St. Louis to the Wild West, but the Mighty Mo took a great many steamboats down as they struggled to settle Missouri and points west.
The steamboat Pirate was one of the earliest steamboats to fall prey to the Missouri’s deadly waters. Carrying supplies for Joseph N. Nicollet and the Potawatomi Indians displaced from the east, it sank in April 1839 near what is now Bellevue, Nebraska.
One of the worst disasters on the Missouri River was the steamboat Saluda near Lexington, Missouri. On April 9, 1852, Captain Francis T. Belt, frustrated by the lack of progress in making a difficult bend, ordered an increase in pressure. The boilers exploded. Over 100 people were killed, including Captain Belt.
The steamboat Arabia was a side wheeler built in 1853 around the Monongahela River in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. It was eventually purchased by Captain John Shaw who operated it on the Missouri River. Later, Shaw sold it to Captain William Terrill and William Boyd who made more than a dozen successful trips with it up and down the Missouri River. On Sept. 5, 1856, the Arabia hit a submerged sycamore tree snag, ripped open the hull, and sank.
The Bertrand steamboat was launched in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1864. On April 1, 1865, it only took ten minutes to sink after hitting a submerged log in the DeSoto Bend of the Missouri River near Omaha, Nebraska.
The USS Naiad was built as the Princess in 1863 at Freedom, Pennsylvania. Purchased by the Navy at Cincinnati, Ohio, it was commissioned on April 3, 1864, as the USS Naiad. Surviving the war, the USS Naiad was decommissioned at Cairo, Illinois, on June 30, 1865. Sold at auction on Aug. 17, 1865, the boat was given back its original name of Princess. It survived almost three years before hitting a snag at Napoleon, Missouri, on June 1, 1868.
These are only a few of the hundreds of steamboats that sank on the Missouri River, most of which have never been recovered.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008. She has covered the War Between the States, U.S. history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.firstname.lastname@example.org.