There’s one sure thing that’s guaranteed to bring generations together—and that’s exploring interests they all have in common.
In our family, my mother, myself, and my grandson, Jon, all love history, as well as the water. So, for one summer vacation I found the perfect destination just a few hundred miles away at the historic port of Bismarck in North Dakota.
There, we sat on the deck of the last river steamer on the Missouri, the Lewis & Clark Riverboat, and floated down its muddy waters into history.
The Mighty Missouri River
Bismarck sits at what was known for centuries as the narrowest and least dangerous crossing of the mighty Missouri—which serves as the natural divider between the twin cities of Bismarck and Mandan.
Until channels cut off some 72 miles over the years, the Missouri was the longest river in the United States. Now, it’s comparable in length to the Mississippi River, which it joins just north of St. Louis, Missouri. Covering over 2300 miles, the Missouri drains one-sixth of continental U.S.
The headwaters of the Missouri rise in the Rocky Mountains near the town of Three Waters, Montana, at Missouri Headwaters State Park. The park is at an elevation of 4045 feet, although the furthest point of the Missouri is higher yet at Brower’s Spring, at the elevation of 8800 feet! Swirling and bubbling down mountains, cutting through gorges and canyons, the Missouri isn’t navigable until near Great Falls, Montana.
Early European explorers, Jolliet and Marquette, were the first to encounter the Missouri in 1673, where it roared into the Mississippi, saying they’d “never seen anything more terrific.” It wasn’t until 1713 that Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont, traveled and described its length, so cartographers could create the first map.
Steamships on the Missouri
The old west—America’s frontier, was defined by the Missouri River in the 19th century.
Pony Express riders started west from a ferry across the Missouri, as did the first Transcontinental Railroad. In a land of cowboy and outlaw legends, those who piloted and rode steamships also left a mark.
In 1831 the steamship, Yellowstone, began navigating through the treacherous waters of the upper Missouri as far as the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Some of the first to ride the riverboats were artists and writers, sketching the landscape and documenting information about the people they met along the way.
Captain Joseph LaBarge, the most famous captain on the upper Missouri, took John James Audubon up river to Fort Union in 1843. Audubon, of course, painted and cataloged North American birds—the National Audubon Society was named for him in 1905.
Steamships continued to travel the Missouri until the early 1900s, transporting goods, people and news, until they were gradually replaced by railroads.
The Lewis & Clark Riverboat
So what brought the Lewis & Clark Riverboat back to navigate the Missouri River today? A mission to preserve the nation’s rich heritage—and recognize the importance of the riverboat to its history.
The Missouri Riverboat, Inc. company has been operating the Lewis & Clark Riverboat on the upper Missouri for close to 20 years. Originally privately owned, the company is now operated by the publicly funded Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation, which supports heritage tourism in and around the Bismarck area.
A 40 foot, flat bottom steel hull riverboat, the Lewis & Clark was manufactured as a replica riverboat in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, in 1990. Unlike the original riverboats, two Cummins diesel engines provide the power for the Lewis & Clark’s journeys up and down the Missouri.
Our journey on the Lewis & Clark lasted an hour, although there are also half hour longer evening and sunset tours for those who want to experience the warm orange glow of sunset on the water. We booked our tour in advance to make sure we’d have a seat when we arrived, but tickets can be purchased just prior to departure, as the ship holds 150 passengers.
Floating Down the Missouri
My grandson, Jon, was the most excited about our riverboat ride. The year before we’d holidayed in Selkirk, Manitoba and spent hours walking through the boats in their museum—those boats, however, had been in dry dock. The Lewis & Clark promised the gentle sway of a large ship on water, which he hadn’t yet experienced.
The riverboat docks inside Sertoma Park, which is a three-mile wide stretch of plain beside the Missouri in Bismarck. Our prepaid tickets were waiting for us, along with instructions to quickly make our way to the boarding area, as the ship was ready to leave!
Even though it was a hot day, we decided to stay on deck instead of in the air-conditioned luxury of the lower level. I love the wind in my face, particularly when it carries the cool touch of river water with it, and Jon soon discovered he did too. Jon’s great-grandma was only a chair away, shaded by the canopy, so we were able to visit while we sipped cold drinks and listen to the captain’s narration.
The captain turned back the centuries telling us about the early people who had traveled the river, some by riverboat and many more by dugout canoes. Lewis and Clark, for whom the riverboat is named, spent from 1804 to 1806 exploring North Dakota, paddling the Missouri and its many tributaries. We heard stories about them, as well as Sakakawea, their Shoshone guide, and Sitting Bull’s famous defeat of General Custer.
There was lots to watch as the ship leisurely floated down the Missouri: fishermen and boaters, cabins and cottages, and all kinds of summer fun lovers, like the group of young people waving at us from their tire tubes. And then, once we turned around, we watched the steel railroad bridge that spanned the Missouri come closer as we neared the historic port of Bismarck.
More to See and Do
We also found there was no shortage of things to do along the Missouri in Bismarck and Mandan.
First, we explored Sertoma Park and Keelboat Park where we were. Jon, of course, was fascinated with the replica of an early 1800s keelboat like that used by Lewis and Clark.
How had boats so fragile appearing managed to make their way up the churning water of the Missouri in the spring, we wondered?
While we didn’t have time to follow it, the Missouri River trail for hikers and bikers starts nearby at Overlook Park and winds for three miles through the valley.
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, located 7 miles south of Mandan features On-A-Slant Indian Village, which is a 400 year old site with five reconstructed earth lodges and a natural museum.
Boating on the Upper Missouri
Boaters can navigate up the Missouri River from the Oahe Dam, situated north of Pierre, South Dakota, to the Garrison Dam in Central North Dakota. The Garrison is an earth embankment dam over two miles long, midway between the cities of Bismarck and Minot. Smaller boats are preferred, as there are lots of sandbars on the river.
Well known for its fantastic fishing, this part of the Missouri is best known as a great spot for walleye. Fishing tournaments begin in early May, and continue through the summer. Other popular catches include largemouth and smallmouth bass, as well as northern pike and crappie