11 August 2008

Captain Grant Marsh: King of Montana River Navigation

By Ken Robison

This continues the series of historical sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

On Saturday August 16th, 2008, Captain Grant Marsh, the greatest steamboat master and pilot on both the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, will come to Fort Benton one century after his last trip to our town. His trip to Fort Benton this year will not be by steamboat and he will not arrive at age 174, but rather in the form of Arch Ellwein, a colorful role player in an appearance at the Upper Missouri Monument Interpretive Center. This visit by "Grant Marsh" affords a good occasion for us all to learn a bit about his remarkable career on Montana's rivers.

On his last trip in July 1908, Captain Grant Marsh came to Fort Benton by train to meet the government steamboat Mandan. The July 17 Great Falls Leader covered this visit, drawing memories of the old days of steamboating on the Upper Missouri in the following article, under the headline “How Conrad Caught the River Trade. Steamboat Men in Fort Benton at the Recent Arrival of the Mandan Tell of a Successful Coup of the Early Days.

The sound of a steamboat whistle which is familiar to old-time residents of this city, brought a large crowd to the lower levee about 8 o’clock Thursday morning [July 15] to welcome the government boat Mandan, says yesterday’s Fort Benton River Press. Her trip up the Missouri river from Sioux City has occupied several weeks, part of the time being occupied in removing snags, and making new charts of localities in which the course of the river has been changed.

Captain [William H.] Gould, who is in charge of the Mandan, made several visits here in steamboating days, and is renewing acquaintance with many of his old time Fort Benton friends. The Mandan is a strongly built boat, constructed especially for river work, the hull and lower deck being covered with steel sheathing. Her bow is fitted with a derrick, from which is suspended a mammoth snag-lifting apparatus with iron jaws that will accommodate any obstacle that it is desired to lift.

Among the visitors who are in town to meet the Mandan is Captain [Grant] Marsh, one of the pioneers of the upper Missouri river steamboat traffic, who made frequent trips to this point in the 70’s, his last visit dating back to 1879. Captain Marsh relates many interesting stories relating to steamboating in early days, one of them relating to a business transaction with W. G. Conrad, the well known Montana banker, who was at that time employed by I. G. Baker.

Captain Marsh was in charge of the steamboat Josephine, which was loaded with a cargo of freight from Sioux City to Fort Benton, and as it was late in the season it seemed probable that the boat could not go further up the river than Cow island. Upon his arrival at that point, Captain Marsh found Mr. Conrad camped with three bull teams, and was informed that the low stage of water would prevent his reaching Fort Benton. He inquired the rate for hauling from Cow island to this city, and as it appeared to be exorbitant it was decided to proceed up the river, and the Josephine being of light draft managed to reach her destination.

Two larger boats were scheduled to follow the Josephine, and in the meantime Mr. Conrad had tested the depth of the water at various places between Dauphin rapids and Cow island by wading into the river and using a sounding stick. He discovered that the larger boats could not possibly pull through some of the shallow places, and patiently awaited their coming. When they arrived and the question of freighting the merchandise to this city was discussed, Mr. Conrad quoted a rate three or four times the steamboat rate from Sioux City.

The steamboat men refused to pay the price, and attempted to continue their trip up the river, but they soon encountered trouble and concluded to accept Mr. Conrad’s terms.

Captain Marsh will go down the Missouri river with the Mandan in the interest of the Benton Packet company, to inspect the conditions and report to Captain I. P. Baker, manager of that line, with a view of running a steamboat between this point and the mouth of Milk river. It is proposed to inaugurate this business the present season if possible.”

Captain Grant Marsh’s record of achievement on the rivers of Montana is stunning in terms of the number of trips, late season operations, and pathbreaking events. Captain Marsh earned the honor of Steamboat King of Montana’s rivers, the Missouri and the Yellowstone. Look at the record:

Year Steamer Events
1866 Luella In 1866 during the height of the Montana Gold Rush, Capt. Marsh received his first command, the Luella, and both the boat and Capt. Marsh became Upper Missouri River legends this year. Capt. Marsh, acting as both master and chief pilot, arrived at Fort Benton June 17 from St. Louis. Keeping Luella on the upper Missouri throughout the summer, Capt. Marsh returned to Fort Benton July 11 from Fort Union with cargo for the North West Fur Company. Capt. Marsh arrived Fort Benton for the third time August 10 with cargo and machinery salvaged from the steamer Marion at Pablo's Rapids. The first to remain so late on the Upper Missouri, Luella departed Fort Benton August 16, and dropped down to Cow Island for a September 3rd departure after boarding 230 miners returning to the States. Capt. Marsh piloted the Luella down the Missouri River through water barely two feet deep with a cargo of 2 1/2 tons of Confederate Gulch gold dust, conservatively valued at $1,250,000. This was the richest cargo ever to go down the Big Muddy.

1867 Ida Stockdale Capt Marsh brought this new construction boat from Pittsburgh to Fort Benton, arriving June 16. After bringing a second load including passengers and cargo from the wrecked steamer James H. Trover to Fort Benton June 29th, the Ida Stockdale took the Trover's machinery down to Fort Buford. Passing down river the Ida Stockdale was hailed 220 miles below Fort Buford by the military, who wanted Capt. Marsh to return to Fort Benton for a third time to convey Major General Alfred Terry, commanding the Department of the Dakota, and his staff. Stopping at the new Camp Cooke for one day, the Ida Stockdale arrived Fort Benton on August 5th and began a slow return to St. Louis.

1868 Nile Departing St. Louis the Nile steamed up the Missouri River arriving Fort Benton May 21, double-tripping back to Fort Hawley for the balance of her cargo. Returning to St. Louis too late for a second trip to Fort Benton, the Nile engaged in trade on the lower Missouri. In October the Army Quartermaster insisted that Capt. Marsh take a load of three small agencies to satisfy provisions of a new Indian Commission Treaty with Red Cloud and the Ogalalla Sioux. Although convinced that he would not be able to deliver to this late in the season, the Nile departed St. Louis October 15 for the Upper Missouri facing low water and impending icing. Capt. Marsh skillfully took the Nile up the Missouri to a point 140 miles above Fort Randall, where much of the cargo was offloaded and stored. Nile then steamed on another 150 miles to the Cheyenne River Agency, before heavy flowing ice stopped progress. The remaining cargo was unloaded, and the Nile turn southward as Capt. Marsh tried to escape the winter elements. At a point 25 miles below Fort Thompson, Nile became imbedded in ice for the winter.

1869 Nile Capt. Marsh began the year by extricating the Nile from her shelter position without damage from breaking ice and bringing her down St. Louis. This marked the first time a steamer had wintered on the Upper Missouri and returned downriver in the spring undamaged. After a quick turnaround, the Nile departed April 25 for a quick trip to Fort Benton arriving May 27 with Marshal "X" Beidler and "Liver-Eatin" Johnston aboard and returning to St. Louis by mid July.
Tempest In St. Louis Capt Marsh was contracted to go overland to Fort Benton, by mackinaw boat to Cow Island, and there take command of the steamer Tempest being held by a mutinous crew. Upon arrival, Capt Marsh immediately shut down the bar and supply of whiskey, bought the crew in line, and got the boat underway, steaming slowly down to St. Louis.
North Alabama Late in the season in October, Capt. Marsh successfully steamed the North Alabama northward up the icy river to deliver supplies to forts in the Dakotas up to Fort Buford. Twenty-five miles short of its destination, ice closed in solid around the North Alabama. The supply of vegetables aboard was transferred overland to Fort Buford. Ten days later the temperature moderated, and the North Alabama broke free to return to Sioux City November 15.

1870 [Kate Kearney] The St. Louis trade with the Upper Missouri waned with arrival of the railroad at Sioux City, Iowa, so Capt. Marsh engaged in commerce between St. Louis and lower Missouri ports.
[Ida Reese No. 2] Late in the season, Capt Marsh assumed command of the Ida Reese No. 2, and took this Durfee & Peck steamer from Sioux City to Fort Buford.

1871 [Nellie Peck] During this season Capt. Marsh supervised construction and then operated the new Nellie Peck on the Lower Missouri.
[Silver Lake] Late in the season in November, post traders at Fort Buford, Leighton & Jordan, asked Capt. Marsh to take command of the old, slow Silver Lake for a successful trip to Fort Buford. On the down trip, Indians fired into the Silver Lake 40 miles above Fort Rice, and Pilot Joe Todd was painfully wounded. The steamer was frozen up near Fort Thompson.

1872 Nellie Peck During this season, Capt. Marsh brought this steamer from Sioux City to Fort Benton on two trips, arriving May 18, the first boat in, and June 30. During the second trip the Nellie Peck, with a larger cargo, and the Far West raced each other from Sioux City to Fort Benton with the Far West overhauling and passing the Nellie Peck, beating her to the Benton levee by several hours. A new record was set for the trip from Sioux City to Fort Benton, just 17 days, 20 hours.

1873 Josephine By early 1873, Capt. Marsh joined other investors in forming the Coulson Packet Line, whose major contracts were with the military to carry troops and supplies up the river. Capt. Marsh moved his family to Yankton and began this season with his first trip from St. Louis up the Yellowstone River.
Key West Capt. Marsh then took command of the steamer Key West, and on orders from General Phil Sheridan he was selected by the Army to explore the Upper Yellowstone. This began Capt. Marsh’s long period of exploration and contract support for the Army on the Upper Yellowstone. His first trip from Fort Buford entered the Yellowstone May 6, steamed to a point 200 miles up the river, and was stopped by a reef of rocks two miles short of the mouth of the Powder River with General Sheridan and General "Sandy" Forsyth and staff onboard. Their mission was to explore the Yellowstone and select army posts on the Upper Missouri. Key West departed Fort Buford again on June 25 to act as transport and patrol boat for General David S. Stanley of the 22nd Infantry Regiment during the Yellowstone Expedition. This pathbreaking season ended with the return of the Key West to Bismarck.

1874 Josephine During this season, Capt. Marsh returned to Missouri River navigation, making three trips from Yankton and Bismarck to Fort Benton, arriving June 1, June 22, and July 22. Josephine made a late season fourth trip up the Missouri to Cow Island arriving August 28.

1875 Josephine Capt. Marsh began this season with a trip from Yankton to the new port of Carroll at the mouth of the Judith arriving May 10 as the Coulson Line tried to break Fort Benton’s role as head of navigation on the Missouri River. Capt. Marsh then returned to Yellowstone exploration, taking the Josephine with General J. W. Forsyth aboard 483 miles up the Yellowstone River some 75 miles above the Big Horn. Stopping June 7 just below "Hell Roaring Rapids" within 60 miles of the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. No other steamer ever went that far up the Yellowstone River.
Far West Capt Marsh departed Yankton on September 24 for a late season trip with Army freight and recruits up the Missouri River to Carroll. At Carroll he left the Far West to take command of the Josephine for the return trip to see his family at Yankton.

1876 Far West Under Army contract, Capt. Marsh departed Bismarck in support of Generals Terry and Custer expedition against the Sioux. During the season, Far West remained between the Powder and Big Horn Rivers. Capt. Marsh steamed and warped the Far West up the uncharted Big Horn River to re-supply and rescue the survivors of the battle of the Little Big Horn. In a navigation feat never equaled on Western waters, Capt. Marsh brought more than 50 wounded survivors from Major Reno's command 700 miles down the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers to Fort Abraham Lincoln in just 54 hours, arriving at 11 PM July 5, 1876. This was one of the most remarkable exploits in Missouri River steamboating annals. It was Capt. Marsh and those he brought with him who relayed the fate of the Seventh Cavalry to the rest of the nation then celebrating its centennial year.

1877 Rose Bud In early spring, Capt. Marsh met this new construction Coulson Line boat at St. Louis and brought her to Bismarck. Once more Capt Marsh was chosen to move a high level Army delegation and supplies up the Yellowstone River, General Sherman, General of the Army and his party, were on an inspection tour of Montana military posts. With General Sherman’s party onboard, Capt. Marsh proceeded from the Yellowstone up the Big Horn and then the Little Big Horn to the new post under construction, Fort Custer. For the rest of the summer, the Rose Bud remained on the Upper Yellowstone shuttling Army supplies between the Tongue and the Big Horn rivers.

1878 F. Y. Batchelor In early spring Capt. Marsh went East to take command of this new construction boat, Capt. Marsh steamed from Pittsburgh to Fort Custer on the Yellowstone. After five more trips up the Yellowstone moving supplies to Forts Keogh and Custer during this long season, Capt. Marsh finally returned to Bismarck in early November.

1879 F. Y. Batchelor During this long season, Capt. Marsh made eight trips up the Yellowstone with Army supplies. In late September he departed Bismarck on a late season trip up the Missouri River to Coal Banks Landing with 100 Army recruits for the new Army post, Fort Assiniboine.

1880 F. Y. Batchelor This demanding season for Capt. Marsh began with five trips up the Yellowstone with Army supplies. He then made two trips to Fort Peck Reservation at Poplar River on the Missouri River. Even though very late in the season, the Army insisted that Capt. Marsh make a final trip up the Missouri to the mouth of the Musselshell, with a cargo of grain to support operations by General Miles. Departing Fort Buford in early November, Capt. Marsh navigated through extremely low water conditions to arrive at the Army depot on the Musselshell November 12th. By the 16th of November, snow began to fall and winter conditions set in as the Batchelor became imprisoned in ice near the mouth of the Milk River. Leaving the boat under guard, Capt. Marsh and part of the crew went overland to Yankton, suffering severely from the winter conditions.

1881 F. Y. Batchelor This year began with major flooding on the Missouri River at Yankton. Capt. Marsh departed early to the Milk River to extricate the F. Y. Batchelor and bring her down to Fort Buford. With the Batchelor, Capt. Marsh made one trip up the Yellowstone returning from Fort Keogh with a cargo of furs valued at an exceptional $106,000.
Eclipse Taking command of a new steamer, Capt. Marshoperated the Eclipse for the rest of the season. Again under Army contract, Capt. Marsh steamed up the Yellowstone as flagship of a five boat fleet up the river to Fort Keogh to bring 3,000 Indians held by General Miles for transfer to Standing Rock Agency.

1882 W. J. Behan In the spring Capt. Marsh bought the packet W. J. Behan, the last Upper Missouri River boat he would have. With the W. J. Behan, Capt. Marsh participated in one more notable event in late April 1882, transporting Sitting Bull and his remaining 171 followers from Fort Randall, where they had been detained after their return from Canada, up the river to Fort Yates.

For a decade and a half from 1866 to 1881, Capt Grant Marsh plied the difficult waters of the high Upper Missouri and the Upper Yellowstone, without ever losing a steamboat. He was a great Captain not least because he was a great pilot and master at low water operations. His reputation for achievement and professional skill became legendary. Grant Marsh earned the honor of “Steamboat King of Montana’s rivers.”

Sources: Great Falls Leader Daily 17 Jul 1908, p. 8; Joseph Mills Hanson, The Conquest of the Missouri Being the story of the Life and Exploits of Captain Grant Marsh; Joel Overholser, Fort Benton World's Innermost Port; William E. Lass, Steamboating on the Upper Missouri; William E. Lass, Navigating the Missouri Steamboating on Nature's Highway, 1819-1935; The Robison-Wahlberg List of Upper Missouri Steamboat Operations.

Photos: (1) Captain Grant Marsh, great steamboat master and pilot [OHRC Photo]

(2) The government engineering boat Mandan [OHRC Photo]

(3) Steamboat Josephine at the Fort Benton levee in 1883 [OHRC Photo]

(4) The steamer Nellie Peck at the Fort Benton levee[OHRC Photo] [OHRC Photo]

(5) The Far West docked along the Yellowstone River [OHRC Photo]