The Great Plains are as far from any ocean as you can get. But in years past, the sea of grass witnessed treasure ships, mutinies, and battles that would put Long John Silver to shame. In those days, prairie-locked towns like Bismarck were major ports of call for the ships of the river – three-deck steamboats carrying adventurers and their cargoes into the West. The Missouri was the main shipping lane, and her undisputed master was Grant Marsh.
He is remembered for setting an unchallenged steamboat record – 710 miles in 54 hours, bearing the wounded from the Battle of the Little Bighorn to Bismarck in 1876. But the rest of his life was no dry history lesson.
Steamboats got into his blood early. As a boy in Pennsylvania, he watched them churn the water, their towering decks brimming with trade goods and passengers, their hulls barely dipping the surface. Thus in 1846, at the age of 12, Marsh became a cabin boy aboard a boat on the Allegheny River and began his life’s career. No one then knew that the boy skipping to his captain’s bidding was the future monarch of America’s steamboat graveyard – the Missouri.
Unlike her congenial sister the Mississippi, the Missouri rushed in a headlong tantrum, spewing muddy water. On the prairie, she could swing for miles left or right, engulfing stands of cottonwood, then abandoning them to bleach in the sun. Under such conditions, her channels and underwater dangers had to be constantly relearned. She was shallow, full of shifting sandbars, and thick with snags – submerged timber that could rip the bottom out of a boat. Rivermen quickly learned to treat the willful empress of the west with respect. Marsh was a lad of 19 when he first met her – and fell in love.
He later served his first captaincy on this turbulent testing ground in the season of 1866. Gold had been discovered in Montana, and steamboats were bearing fortune hunters and cargo to Fort Benton, a boom town near the gold fields. That fall, Marsh’s boat, the Luella, was the last steamer to leave Fort Benton for St. Louis, and every miner desperate to escape the winter booked passage, bringing their wealth with them. The Luella left the levee bearing $1.25 million in gold dust – the greatest treasure ever transported on the Big Muddy.
As usual, with gold came trouble, and for Marsh it was a miner named Gilmore. Marsh broke up a fight between him and another passenger, offering to set Gilmore ashore in hostile Indian territory. The miner bit his tongue for the time being, but later boasted to his friends that he would make the captain jump at gunpoint. In answer, Marsh challenged him to a fair duel. Gilmore whimpered out of it, scalded by the captain’s wrath and daring, and caused no trouble the rest of the journey. Marsh survived his first captaincy with flying colors.
Winter supplies to the Upper Missouri
Late in 1868, he was commissioned to bring a steamer with winter supplies up the Missouri to the Grand River Agency, near the present-day North Dakota-South Dakota border. This late in the year, steamboats risked being trapped by ice, with no guarantee that the wooden hull would survive the breaking of the ice in spring. But the government was eager to honor a new treaty with the Sioux.
Marsh’s boat, the Nile, only made it as far as the Cheyenne River Agency in what is now central South Dakota. Leaving their cargo there, they fled the encroaching winter – but too late. The ice locked in and left them marooned in a land buried under snow, void of settlers, and thick with embittered Sioux. The nearest post was Fort Thomson, 25 miles upriver from their location. Marsh and his men kept in communication with the fort, but remained with their crippled boat. When spring arrived, Marsh worked the boat free of the ice floes and started her back downriver – the first to survive a marooning on ice.
Later that year, he was called upon for another challenge. The steamer Tempest was hopelessly stranded in a shallow channel 130 miles below Fort Benton. The Tempest’s owners quickly surmised that if anyone could help her, Marsh could. He rushed to the scene via the fastest route – by train to Salt Lake City, then north by stagecoach to Montana.
But shallow water was the least of the Tempest’s concerns. Marsh arrived to a mutiny on board. The boat’s engineer had killed a passenger in a fight, splitting loyalties across the boat. Now the whole company was drunk and rankled. Marsh first shut down the bar and recruited the barkeeper as his ally, then sobered up the crew and freed the boat from the shallows.
Dispatched with the Seventh Cavalry
Marsh spent the summer of 1875 exploring the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers in Montana with the U.S. Army. Being the only pilot who knew those waters, the Army asked for his services again that fateful summer of 1876 as General Alfred Terry pursued the Lakota Sioux to drive them onto the reservations. The Army dispatched an enormous force, which included Lt. Colonel George A. Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. Marsh’s boat was the Far West, known as the fastest boat on the Missouri, though little did anyone realize how significant that reputation would prove.
On June 22, Custer and the Seventh parted from the main column to locate a Lakota Sioux camp somewhere on the Little Bighorn River. As Custer drew near the village, he divided his command, taking five companies of cavalry himself, placing three with Major Reno, and two with Captain Benteen. Their plan was to divide and conquer – oblivious to how vastly the Sioux outnumbered them. On June 25 and 26, Reno suffered major losses, and Custer and his five companies were annihilated to the last man.
On the morning of June 27, ignorant of the tragedy, Marsh tied up the Far West at the mouth of the Little Bighorn to bring the supplies as near the troops as possible. Captain Marsh and his companions were fishing that morning when Custer’s Crow scout Curly broke through the trees, weeping, and delivered news of the tragedy. The boat remained where she was until the wounded from Reno and Benteen’s commands were brought to her. Speed was now everything. The hospital at Fort Lincoln lay 710 miles downstream.
When the wounded were aboard and the boat had her steam up, Marsh took the helm – only to linger, staring over a river he barely knew, contemplating the lives now depending on him. For the first time, he couldn’t find his courage when he needed it. He stepped back from the wheel and told his officers, “Boys, I can’t do it. I’ll smash her up.”
His co-pilot Dave Campbell didn’t believe him. “Oh, no, you won’t,” he said. And with that simple statement of faith, gave his captain his confidence again.
Piloting the Far West’s epic run
A pilot’s job at the wheel depended on reading the surface of the river, and from that page to predict dangers below. Thus night piloting was almost unheard-of. But the Far West had precious cargo aboard. Marsh and Campbell took four-hour shifts around the clock, reaching Bismarck at 11 p.m. on July 5 – 54 hours later. Their labors set a steamboat record that stands to this day, but more importantly, they delivered the 53 wounded soldiers safely to Fort Lincoln, having lost but one along the way. No sooner had the Far West touched land than couriers sprang ashore with news of the Custer Disaster. A nation celebrating its 100th birthday and thinking itself invincible was dealt a sobering blow.
After his famed service to Custer’s Seventh, Marsh followed the rivers wherever they took him, and the early 1880s saw him working in the South. But at the turn of the century, when settlers were transforming North Dakota into a Garden of Eden, steamboats enjoyed a renaissance in the young state, and Marsh was delighted to return. He made his last home in Bismarck, and in 1916 was laid to rest at the age of 81 high on a hill in east Bismarck at St. Mary’s Cemetery on North 23rd Street.
In 1964, 100 years after Marsh first saw the banks that would become Bismarck, a new bridge was built. Today, it’s commonly called the Interstate Bridge, but it was christened the Grant Marsh Bridge. In its shadow docks the tour boat Lewis & Clark, a replica of the steamers Marsh would have known well. A short walk down the Riverside Park Trail will bring visitors to the site where the levee once stood. Today, a scaled-down replica steamboat with interpretive signs marks the spot.
Standing on the deck of that miniature riverboat, a city hums behind your back, but the old and tamed river washes before you and the Dakota wind breathes across your face. In many ways, they are the same water and wind that Grant Marsh knew and loved. Together with the landmarks along the river, they promise that Marsh and his steamboats will never sink beneath the waves of time or flow out of North Dakota memory.
Editor’s Note: This article was written using material from a number of publications about Grant Marsh. To learn more about Grant Marsh. Danielle Hanna suggests these three books: The Conquest of the Missouri, Marsh’s official biography by Joseph Mills Hanson, Pelican Publishing Company, 2002, (the original was first published in 1909); Wild River, Wooden Boats, by Michael Gillespie, Heritage Press, 2000; and Navigating the Missouri, William E. Lass, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2008.
Danielle Hanna is a freelance writer living in Mandan. She can be reached at www.daniellehanna.com.
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