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Monthly History Article

January 2012- King of the River Boat Pilots

It was said that he could navigate a sternwheeler through a seas of dew.

Grant Prince Marsh was considered the premiere steamboat pilot on the Missouri River in the late 1800s. He built a reputation for making more trips, traveling farther upriver and staying longer on the river each season than other steamboat pilots. Marsh never lost a steamboat in all his years as a steamboat pilot.

Marsh was born in 1834 and grew up in the river town of Rochester, Penn. He began his steamboat career 12 years later as a cabin boy.

Marsh received his first command in 1866, and both he and his boat became Upper Missouri River legends that same year. At the height of the Montana gold rush, Marsh kept the Luella on the upper Missouri throughout the summer. Most river boats would go downstream by July 15 for fear the water level would be too low to operate a steamboat. When Marsh departed on Sept. 3, he piloted the Luella down the Missouri River through water barely two feet deep with a cargo of gold dust conservatively valued at $1.25 million. Grant was the first to remain so late on the Upper Missouri.

During the winter of 1868-1969, the steamboat Marsh was piloting became imbedded in ice in the Upper Missouri River. Marsh returned in the spring to extricate the Nile and bring the steam boat to Saint Louis. This marked the first time a steamer had wintered on the Upper Missouri and returned downriver in the spring undamaged.

It was Marsh and those he brought with him who relayed the fate of Gen. George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry to the rest of the nation in 1876. The Far West’s 54-hour, 700-mile dash to Bismarck with wounded troopers of Major Reno’s command was one of the most remarkable feats in the history of Missouri River steamboating. The previous year, it had taken it Marsh four days in better water to descend the Yellowstone from Billings to Fort Buford, near present-day Williston, N.D. The trip in 1876 was at least 150 miles longer.

Marsh stayed active on the river as long as he could. He died in Bismarck, N.D. in 1916.

This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Find us on the web at www.sdhsf.org