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The Wreck of the Steamboat North Alabama

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The ruins of the Steamboat North Alabama are shown in the Missouri River, nine miles southwest of Vermillion, SD.
Ruins of the steamboat North Alabama
Tim Cowman

On Oct. 27, 1870 a steamboat carrying winter provisions to military posts and settlements on the upper Missouri River struck a "snag" - a partially submerged log protruding out of the mud on the river bottom. The log pierced the hull, creating a gash 2-feet wide and 8-feet long. The "North Alabama" was stopped immediately and sank. None of the crew were injured and it's believed there were no passengers on board.

Everything that could be salvaged from the boat was brought to shore soon after the sinking. Engine parts, pipes, and whatever cargo was still intact. So much was removed from the ruins that years later, there was virtually no way to positively identify the boat as the "North Alabama." At least one other steamboat sank nearby but, as is the case with most of the sunken steamboats on the upper Missouri, it was lost to the shifting currents and sandbars the Missouri is known for.

Some 400 steamboats sank in the Missouri river between 1819 and 1895, when steamboat traffic gave way to railroads and barges. Most of the boats sank after striking snags, which were occasionally visible but just as oftern submerged. Some snags actually moved up and down with the river current, which meant that a snag could rise up in a path that appeared to be safe just moments before.

The remains of the "North Alabama" are usually submerged beneath several feet of water but when river levels are low, the skeleton of the hull can be seen above the water's surface. This happened in 1906 and again in the 1930s, after which the wreck was largely forgotten. Low water levels in 2004 once again brought the wreck of the "North Alabama" into view and the boat was essentially re-discovered.

Watch a Drone Flyover of the 'North Alabama' Wreck Site (2020)

Images of the PastThe Wreck of the Steamboat North Alabama

The ruins of a 19th century Missouri River steamboat can be seen near Vermillion, SD.

Kayak View of the 'North Alabama' Wreck Site (2022)

SDPBSteamboat North Alabama - July 2022

The ship's ruins are sometimes visible, including in 1906, the 1930s, 2004, and 2022. 

Location of the Noth Alabama Wreck Site Using Google Maps. 


 

What follows is the transcript of an interview with Tim Cowman, the State Geologist & Program Administrator of the Geological Survey Program with the South Dakota DENR. Cowman was a member of the 2004 team that set out to positively identify the ruins as those of the "North Alabama."

Brian Gevik:

And of course, the topic is the North Alabama. And I think a good place to start is probably just what happened to that boat?

Tim Cowman:

Sure. So the North Alabama was pretty commonly used to haul cargo and it operated often in the upper structures of the Missouri river. On this particular day, it was hauling winter supplies up to the army fort in the upper part of the river, so it was destined up into the, basically, the more central parts of Dakota territory is where it was headed. It was taking winter supplies.

Tim Cowman:

Generally, that would be mainly foodstuffs like vegetables, flour, things like that to a couple of the forts in the upper part of Dakota territory. And as it was just upstream from the Vermilion area around what is now Goat Island, it was making a crossing from the Dakota shore to the Nebraska shore, and about 200 yards from the Nebraska shore it hit a snag.

Tim Cowman:

And a snag is basically generally a cottonwood tree that has eroded into the river and the crown of the tree often gets stuck in the river bed and buried in the sand. The trunk of the tree will generally flip over and point about 45 degrees downstream. So these snags are particularly dangerous for boats traveling up river because they will tend to spear the hull of the boat.

Tim Cowman:

And that's exactly what happened to the North Alabama, was it hit this snag, this large cottonwood tree, that was lurking just below the surface of the water and it ripped a large gash in the hull. Reports are that the gash was about two-foot wide by eight-foot long. So it immediately began taking on water and it sunk in about 30 minutes.

Brian Gevik:

Now, when you say it that it sunk, the water is not all that awfully deep right there. Everyone was able to get off the boat, no doubt, and can you describe to me, did they immediately begin a salvage operation?

Tim Cowman:

So we don't know exactly how deep the water was at that spot in 1870 when the boat sunk, but you're right. Generally, there are a few deep spots, but just a lot of shallow spots in the river. The river in that area is a good three-quarters of a mile wide and the majority of that probably would have been sandbars. They would have been tracking the thalweg, or the main channel, to try to stay in deep water, however.

Tim Cowman:

But again, the main channel can vary anywhere from five feet deep to 25 feet deep, and in that area, I suspect it was fairly shallow because that's always been, at least for the last couple hundred years, an area of the river that we call expansive where the river widens out and then becomes very braided and very shallow in spots.

Tim Cowman:

And there's a quote from a magazine in the early 1900s that Charles Fitch wrote and he said, "Throw a man into the Missouri River and he's not so likely to drown as he is to break his leg." And so, I think that this is a good example of those kinds of spots that Charles Fitch was referring to.

Tim Cowman:

So yeah, there was no loss of life. The crew was able to get off the boat and likely they were only in a few feet of water, maybe deep enough to bury the hull, maybe even deeper than that as well. But it wouldn't be a very far swim to shallower water where they were able to get off the river.

Tim Cowman:

So the salvage of the boat is an interesting thing. There's not a lot of detail about it. The reports are is that the boat was not insured. We don't know if that's true or not, because a lot of the facts that we read about that are reported in the papers over the next few days can be pretty unreliable. So the reports are that it was not insured, but it may have very well have been insured.

Tim Cowman:

If it's insured, then generally the insurance company comes in and does the salvage as quickly as possible. And they salvage what they can of the cargo. They often will salvage the engines themselves, and maybe even the boilers. In this case, if it wasn't insured, there probably still was some salvage that went on just by the company that owned the boat to begin with.

Tim Cowman:

And so, the fact that we're not finding any large metal chunks that would be boilers or engines out there tells us that it's likely that the engines were removed from the boat. And so, the boat was probably in shallow enough water where they could get to the engines and remove them.

Tim Cowman:

The cargo, like I said, was probably a lot of bagged stuff, which got too wet to salvage, but if there was canned goods and jars of pickled vegetables and so on, that probably got salvaged also.

Tim Cowman:

Now, an interesting thing is that one of the most valuable commodities on these boats was generally mercury, containers of mercury, because a lot of these boats had a final destination of Fort Benton, Montana. And that, of course, is during the steamboat era is where all the new gold mining activity was going on. And so, mercury was used to help leach the gold metal out of the ore itself.

Tim Cowman:

So the mercury was pretty valuable and that's what they went after to salvage. A lot of times was the mercury this boat, as far as we know, had no mercury on it though. Another thing though, that was a very valuable commodity was barrelled whiskey. So a lot of times these boats were hauling whiskey in barrels up to the army forts and just destinations in general upstream.

Tim Cowman:

And that was a very valuable thing, especially since a lot of times, the boat might not be discovered or salvaged for 10, 15, 20 years later, people have this nice aged whiskey in these barrels that they would go after. And the interesting thing was there was reports that there was barreled whiskey on this boat. Whether there was, or not, we don't know.

Tim Cowman:

But there was twice, remember, the boat sank in 1870, and there were two reports in the early part of the 20th century where the boat river conditions were right for the boat to surface, become exposed again, like on a shallow sandbar. And there are reports in 1906 and then again in the 1930s of people lining the banks to view the boat because it had become exposed and also reports that some people tried to get to the boat to see if there were barrels of whiskey that they could salvage.

Tim Cowman:

And then, the reports stop at that point. You don't really hear whether or not they were successful or not. So I think that's about all we know about the condition of the salvage of the boat.

Brian Gevik:

Okay. All right. Now, you mentioned that river levels made it visible in 1906, again in the 1930s. And yet, I've read articles saying that, well, it was essentially discovered or rediscovered in 2004. Could you explain that for me?

Tim Cowman:

So where the boat is sitting, it's generally under several feet of water sitting in a relatively shallow part of the river, but since the only thing that's left of it is the hull, it doesn't take much to bury the whole boat.

Tim Cowman:

One of the reasons we think only the hull is left is because it's sitting in a segment of the river that hasn't really moved since 1870, and so the river, the ice gorges, the floods and so on, have ravaged it over the decades and basically stripped it down to nothing left but the hull of the boat.

Tim Cowman:

So it doesn't take much to bury that hull underwater, and once it's under the murky Missouri River waters by a foot or two, you can't see it. So it's generally not visible, but in 2004, we were basically in the midst of a drought period where the river levels were very low so the flows were extremely low. They were down around nine or 10,000 cubic feet per second, coming out to Gavin's Point Dam in March of 2004.

Tim Cowman:

That exposed a lot of river bed in this area that normally would be under several feet of water. A local farmer was out in his fishing boat one day and noticed this unusual thing on a sandbar, went over to investigate, and he saw that it was the remains of a boat, and that's when he called us.

Tim Cowman:

And we went out and began an investigation. So that area where the boat is at changes from time to time. But in general, the general rule is once the flows become about 22,000 cubic feet per second or better, you really can't see much of the boat at all. It almost disappears. So most years, it's pretty rare for much of it to be exposed.

Tim Cowman:

But during those drought years, when the core was releasing very little water, 10,000 cubic feet or less out of Gavin's Point Dam, quite a bit of it was exposed. Then the 2011 flood changed things because the 2011 flood basically redeposited new layers of sand over the boat. And so, then even at that flows when we normally could see the boat, for the next couple of years, we couldn't see it anymore.

Tim Cowman:

That sand has since eroded away and we're back to that situation where when we get flows down into the around 20,000 cubic feet per second, there's a pretty good amount of the boat that's exposed again. So today you can see the boat when the flows get down the wintertime type of conditions.

Brian Gevik:

Tell me a little bit about the work that you and the team that you were with, what did you do to identify the boat? What was the process that you took to undertake this marine archeology, if you will?

Tim Cowman:

Sure. So it was a multi agency effort. There was myself and my colleague from the South Dakota Geological Survey, a couple of professors from the USD anthropology department, as well as the National Park Service out of Yankton were all involved in the investigation of this newly-discovered boat.

Tim Cowman:

Generally, when a steamboat sinks on the Missouri River, not soon after it sinks, it usually becomes buried in a lot of silt and sand because the river historically tended to shift so much. And so, usually by the time these things were discovered, they might be several hundred yards or a quarter of a mile off of the new main channel of the river, basically underneath a cornfield somewhere buried under 20 or 30 feet of mud and silt which preserved them really well.

Tim Cowman:

So usually, when the boats are discovered, when they're finally detected and people start recovering what's on the boat, they'll usually find things that have the name of the boat. A lot of the cargo crates would have the name of the boat stamped on it.

Tim Cowman:

And so, the Arabia down by Kansas City, the Bertrand down by Missouri Valley, Iowa, those are two good examples of fairly recent discoveries where they yielded a lot of great artifacts and it was really easy to tell that that was the boat because its name was all over the place in the cargo hold.

Tim Cowman:

In the case of the North Alabama, because the river had never shifted off it and it had been ravaged by the river all those years, basically all the evidence was destroyed of what this boat is. So when we found the boat, we basically had a mystery on our hands in terms of, what boat is this? But we narrowed it down to a couple of boats that had gone down in that area, in that era, or that area during the steamboat era.

Tim Cowman:

And that was the [Morrow 00:15:59], which was a slightly smaller boat than the North Alabama, but went down in a similar area, and then the North Alabama. So we started digging for information about each of those boats, and one of the things that we were able to come up with is a directory that was published that gave the specifications on steamboats as they were built.

Tim Cowman:

Generally, they were built out in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Wheeling, West Virginia area, and then floated down to either the Mississippi or Missouri rivers to begin their lifespan. So we had information on how long and how wide the North Alabama was when it was built, and because it was so well exposed in 2004 when we had the low water levels, we were able to get a survey team in from the National Park Service and do some really good measurements on the boat.

Tim Cowman:

The measurements that they came up with for a length and a width on the boat matched to within about a foot or two of what was published. So that's pretty good because generally these boats are about 150, 160 feet long, so about the length of half of a football field. And so, it will be within a foot or two on that length matches pretty good. We knew that the Morrow, the other boat we were considering, was a smaller boat, so the dimensions fit pretty well with the North Alabama.

Tim Cowman:

The second thing that really helped us though was there was an article written in the Sioux City Journal three days after the boat sank where they had talked to the crew and the crew had told them that the boat hit a snag and went down without advancing another yard. And that's an important piece of information because normally these steam boats would hit these snags and they'd start taking on water, but they could still try to limp to shore, and sometimes they get there, sometimes they wouldn't, but they never usually sunk right on top of the snag that they hit.

Tim Cowman:

Well, we had noticed in this case that the bow of the boat seemed to be wrapped around this old snag that it had hit. We couldn't tell for sure, because the snag was still in several feet of water, four or five feet of water, so a dive team from the National Park Service from out West had come in and they were actually able to put on diving gear and dive down and feel around down there.

Tim Cowman:

They were able to verify for us that the bow of the boat is indeed still wrapped around that snag, so that fit really well with that piece of information that the boat hit a snag and went down without advancing another yard, which is unusual.

Tim Cowman:

Then the third thing, the thing that really was the kicker for us, was often in these reports, they use some kind of a landmark to tell where these boats went down and they said that the boat went down generally about 20 miles below Yankton, and that fits with this location, but it's not specific enough for us.

Tim Cowman:

But the other thing they said in the newspaper report was that the boat went down about two miles above Wiseman's Woodyard. Well, back in the steamboat era, local landowners would often cut down their cottonwood trees along the river and stack them up for the steamboats to stop and buy wood to burn as fuel on their voyages, and those were known as woodyards.

Tim Cowman:

And usually, the woodyard was named for the local landowner who was doing the work. So there was a local land owner named Wiseman who had a woodyard in the vicinity where this went down, and back in 1870, when it went down, everybody knew where Wiseman's Woodyard was, they know the boat went down about two miles above it.

Tim Cowman:

Well, of course Wiseman's Woodyard is gone now, and nobody really knows where it was, but fortunately we have really good maps that were made of the Missouri River back in 1881 with a lot of detail. So that's only 11 years after the boats sunk, and we noticed that on the 1881 map from this area, there was a plot of where Wiseman's Woodyard existed, because it still existed in 1881.

Tim Cowman:

So we were able to geo-reference the map, which basically means rubber sheet it to today's maps so we can overlay it on top of today's maps. We then took a GPS coordinate of where the boat remains were found and superimposed that GPS coordinate of where the boat remains were found on top of this 1881 map that shows where Wiseman's Woodyard is, and the GPS point ends up being about one and three quarters miles above Wiseman's Woodyard. So fits really well with the local landmark description that the papers had of where the North Alabama went down.

Tim Cowman:

So with those three things, the dimensions of the boat, the fact that it's sunk on top of the snag, and the fact that it sunk within two miles of Wiseman's Woodyard, all three of those things point to almost certainty that it is the North Alabama.

Tim Cowman:

The other thing too, is that there is still a bend on the river called the North Alabama bend, which is just South of Vermilion, South Dakota. And those bends were often named for steamboats that sunk on or near those bends. If you look at a map today, the North Alabama bend is several miles downstream of where the steamboat sunk.

Tim Cowman:

So at first you look at that and it says, well, people might say that doesn't make sense. Why would that be called the North Alabama bend if the boats sunk four or five miles upstream? But the fact is, is if you look at maps from that era around 1881, that bend actually started just downstream of where the boat remains are at.

Tim Cowman:

And so, for locals that are familiar with the area, the river at that point would take off and go to the Northeast and flow basically on the North side of what's now Clay County Park, and then eventually bend 90 degrees and come back down to about where the Newcastle Vermilion bridge is today.

Tim Cowman:

So actually, that bend in the river, which was named the North Alabama bend actually did start clear back close to where the remains of the boat are today, it's just that the river has shifted and changed the location of that bend that we know now.

Brian Gevik:

So just so we can clarify for people who would be interested in possibly going out to view this wreck, there's really nothing left to take away from it. Is that right? There's no point in going out there and looking for metal, or brass, or some other exotic material. The best you might find is some wood scraps. Is that right?

Tim Cowman:

Yeah, that's right. When the boat was first discovered, there was some interesting metal artifacts there. We documented the cover plate to the furnace where they burnt the cottonwood to generate the heat that made the steam that turned the engine, and eventually that turned the paddle wheel. We found that.

Tim Cowman:

We also documented some other pieces such as long steel piping, and that would have been piping that ran from the boiler to the engine. We also found a rocker arm off of the engine itself. Those were the main metal things that we saw. The rest of it was primarily wooden structure on the boat.

Tim Cowman:

So there were some interesting things we found. There's a cable system that they had on these boats because they were so big and wide and built so thin that they had to have a structure to hold the whole thing, tension the whole thing, together so it wouldn't just flop around like a bird wing. We found that.

Tim Cowman:

The other thing that's out there are the four rudders of the boat. So the boat had four rudders and those are still there sticking out of the sand so you can see the top parts of them. But other than that, it's definitely a very humbling view just to see the size of the boat. And then the snag, of course, is still there. And the snag, when the boat's visible, the snag is sticking out of the water about five feet and the snag is also about three or four feet in width.

Tim Cowman:

So it was a huge, huge trunk of a cottonwood tree that this boat hit, and you can still go up to it and touch that snag as well. And so, it's a neat experience just to be able to touch that part of history from 1870.

Tim Cowman:

But in terms of anything to take, there really isn't anything of value to take, and that wouldn't be legal to do anyway, because this is in a National Park Service unit and you can't take artifacts out of those units so I would discourage anyone from going out there with the intent to actually take a piece of that boat.

Brian Gevik:

This is a detail that you may or may not know. I assume that these boats only operated in daylight hours. I guess I'm going to assume that there was no way that the helmsmen or the captain would have seen this snag if it were partially submerged. Are those two things correct?

Tim Cowman:

That's right. They do generally just operate in daylight hours because just like on the river today, boatman know that you need to be able to see what's ahead of you on that river because there's all kinds of hazardous obstacles you have to avoid. And it was the same with the steamboats.

Tim Cowman:

But having said, that there's two factors at play here that is the reason why these snags took down these boats. And one fact I didn't throw out there is that during the steamboat era, there were 400 steamboats that sunk on the Missouri River. 300 of those 400 sinkings were due to the boat hitting a snag. So obviously that was the major cause of the boats sinking on the Missouri River.

Tim Cowman:

And the reason they were so dangerous is because they either often lurked just a foot below the water level so pilots didn't see the snag. If they looked carefully, they would see the disturbance of the water flowing around that snag.

Tim Cowman:

But if they weren't careful, it could be too late to avoid it because the steamboats are like any big ship. Once you start to turn, it takes a while to get that boat to actually turn. So if they don't start turning soon enough, they're not going to be able to avoid the snag. They're just going to hit it, even though they know now that it's there.

Tim Cowman:

The other thing that there was something called the sawyers, and those were like a snag, but they were basically large branches that were somewhat free to sway on the current. We even see them out there still today.

Tim Cowman:

Basically, what they do is they bob up and down and sometimes the frequency of them, the cycle, is long enough that they might be under water for a minute or so, and then slowly pop back up out of the water and just stick maybe a foot above the water for a minute.

Tim Cowman:

And if the cycle is so slow that while the pilot is looking ahead, it might be underwater, and then once he gets closer, too close to avoid it, that's when it suddenly pops up out of the water and then it spears the hull of the boat.

Brian Gevik:

The pilot might be very well-intentioned and definitely paying attention, but there are just too many hazards. It almost sounds like the Missouri basically it was meant to eat boats.

Tim Cowman:

Yeah. Often considered a graveyard for the steamboats.