ut the definition of "navigability" was to grow steadily narrower. Even as Meriwether Lewis made his way down the Ohio River in 1803, the Irish-American Robert Fulton (1765–1815) was demonstrating his experimental steamboat in Paris, and by the time Lewis was back east in 1807, Fulton and his partner, Robert Livingston, were about ready to begin commercial steamboat service on the Hudson River. Four years later, Fulton made a bold attempt to conquer the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers by the same means. It was not a successful attempt, for several reasons, but a beginning, at least.1
In 1819, the U.S. Army mounted the first "Yellowstone Expedition" with a small fleet of steamboats. Partly exploratory, partly a show of military force to intimidate the Indians, it was technologically premature, and it didn't even reach the mouth of the Yellowstone—"a fiasco," historian Hiram Chittenden called it.2 It was another decade before John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company would begin using steamboats on the Missouri.
Not until the 1860s, driven by regional military needs, did the new technology meet the Yellowstone River's demands, but then only irregularly, for the lack of sufficient firewood and the hazards of Wolf Rapids, Bear Rapids and Buffalo Shoals were major handicaps.3 In 1873, there were still doubts about the river's navigability. In May of that year, under the skillful command of Captain Grant Marsh, and with the famous "Yellowstone" Kelly aboard as chief scout and hunter, the Key West made it to within two miles of the Powder River.4
The longest-lived steamboat to ply the Yellowstone was the Josephine, which made its first trip in June of 1873, and in 1875 ascended as far as today's Billings, Montana. The primary purpose of the voyage was to survey the river's navigability for steamboats that might supply military outposts farther up the Yellowstone. A secondary task was to transport and supply troops en route to protect from Sioux warriors the engineers and surveyors who were preparing the way for the Northern Pacific Railroad—a paradigm shift that would make the likes of her obsolete in less than a decade.
1. See John Seelye, Beautiful Machine: Rivers and the Republican Plan, 1755–1825 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 227–47.
2. William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1991), 39–45. Hiram Chittenden, The American fur trade of the far West (2 vols., New York: Barnes & Noble, 1935), II:580–87.
3. That low-grade coal Clark had noticed in the banks in 1806 would not burn satisfactorily in boilers designed for wood fuel.
4. John G. MacDonald, "History of Navigation on the Yellowstone River," master's thesis, Montana State University, 1950.
Grande Dame of the Yellowstone
The sternwheel steamboat Josephine
on the upper Missouri River in the 1880s.
Montana Historical Society, Helena
The Josephine at Fort Benton, Montana, in the 1880s.
Montana Historical Society, Helena
Notice the firewood stacked on the main deck. By the end of the steamboat era professional woodcutters—"woodhawks"—had practically stripped the banks of the Missouri and its navigable tributaries of all Cottonwood trees. The coal that Clark had seen in the banks of the Yellowstone River wouldn't burn hot enough for steamboat boilers.
The Josephine was built in 1873 at Freedom, Pennsylvania, a few miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, to the specifications of the experienced Missouri River captain, Grant Marsh. She measured 178 feet from stem to stern, with a beam of 31 feet and a six-foot hold. Powered by two engines and two boilers, she had a capacity of 300 tons, though she drew only about a foot of water. The spars at the bow were used in winching the her over shoals when the water was low. Another technique was "grasshoppering," in which long sturdy poles were driven into the river bottom, and ropes with block and tackle were used to raise and drag the boat forward, foot by foot.
She spent her senior years on the lower Missouri, clearing snags for the Corps of Engineers. She sank after striking an ice floe in 1907; her boilers and machinery were salvaged and shipped to the Yukon River.1
1. John G. MacDonald, "History of Navigation on the Yellowstone River" (master's thesis, Montana State University, 1950).