- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

BRIDGETON, Mo. (AP) — The Montana emerges like a giant skeleton near the banks of the Missouri River here, a relic from the pre-railroad era when steamboats were a vital mode of transportation.

The muddy bottoms of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are watery graveyards to hundreds of sunken steamboats including the Montana, which sank more than 120 years ago.

The Montana is embedded in mud and normally concealed by the river’s waters. But rain has been rare in the area this summer and the water level has dipped low enough to reveal the ship’s remains.

“I was impressed with how much of it is still there,” said Steve Dasovich, a maritime archaeologist who contracts with the state to preserve the Montana. “All the spokes of the paddle wheel are still there.”

By 1860, more than 700 steamboats regularly traveled the Mississippi. The Port of St. Louis logged more than 22,000 steamboat arrivals between 1845 and 1852.

The life expectancy of the boats was not long — about 18 months, Mr. Dasovich said. Downed trees and other river debris, ice, fire and explosions tended to do in the wooden boats.

Some think that up to 500 wrecked and abandoned steamboats still sit at the bottom of the Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. Greg Hawley, co-owner of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, said 289 documented boats sit at the bottom of the Missouri, but historians think the number is closer to 400.

The Montana was built in 1879, at the end of the steamboat heyday. It was among the largest on the Missouri — 280 feet long, including its giant paddle wheel. The boat’s three decks, pilot house and smokestack made it stand 50 feet tall.

It turns out it was a little too big.

In June 1884, the Montana tried to pass under a railroad bridge between the Missouri towns St. Charles and Bridgeton, just a few miles from where the river connects with the Mississippi.

The boat struck the bridge and took on water before running aground on the St. Louis County side of the river. No one was hurt, but the Montana split in half.

From a distance, the Montana wreckage looks like a tangled muddle of logs and debris. Closer inspection shows rusted steel poking through rotted wood in the brown water. Wooden spokes from the big paddle wheel are still visible. Mr. Dasovich says the bottom half of the wheel itself may still be intact in the river bottom.

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