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Collected and Researched by

Sue Rekkas


The Saturday Evening Post, June 5, 1915, page 3.








Towing Supplies to Fort Benton



    Those who toil and grieve over the rough time they are having in working eight hours a day and watching the clock ought to read the story of the mackinaw boat men.  Along the early fifties before navigation had opened up to Fort Benton on the Upper Missouri, the Joe LaBarge line of steamboats consisting of the stern wheelers, Antelope, Emile, Sainte Marie and the Spread Eagle, which brought the supplies up from St. Louis for the American Fur Company were unable to proceed farther than Wolf River which is now known as Coal Harbor.  The boats always went as far as they could before turning back.  Then after tying up and unloading, the mate placed a shingle on a tree to mark the turning point.  There was naturally a good deal of rivalry as to which of the boats could climb the farthest up the stream and get back again with a whole skin.


     Sometimes they could go farther on a June rise but there was danger that the water might go down and leave them stranded high and dry so that Wolf River came to recognized as the uppermost point of navigation by steam.  The cargoes however were consigned to five trading posts farther up so that the transportation company decided to build flat boats for portage and go on.  The lumber for the mackinaw boats was brought along and the carpenters built them in a few days.  Each of the three boats was ninety feet long, fourteen feet wide and three feet deep, capable of carrying ninety tons of freight.  Each was manned by twenty big husky fellows who had to tow the thing practically all the way to Benton, 700 miles farther up the river.  The deck hands had a long rope and with this over their shoulders, the trudged along on the bank, working like gallery slaves and it required forty-five days to get through.


     Sometimes when the wind was right they could put up a square sail on the thirty-foot mast and tack along fairly well and in this way they could make thirty miles a day.  There was a helmsman at the rudder and a pole man in front to keep the craft off shore while a husky boy was perched on the dash-board to prevent the cordell from catching under the snags.  Two professional hunters--Jim Rouche and Paul Longtramp--while not fighting Indians, went ashore and killed game for their fresh meat and thus the days passed by like a shadow o’er the heart but no one complained.


     The patient brother of the ox, the men bent on their work and their wearied bodies groaned like a door on a rusty hinge but never once did they grumble over the strenuous task.  Their greatest trouble came at the rapids.  Here the line boss took the cordell and went ahead to snub onto a tree above the rapids.  Then the crews trebled up with up with sixty men on a mackinaw and with the 500 foot tow line pulled the load over the dalles.  The line came in over the prow to a pulley on top of the guyed spar, thence downward thru another pulley at the foot.  Hand over hand they coaxed the boat up over the rapids and there were a dozen or more of them.  When Fort Benton was finally reached and the cargoes discharged, the boats reloaded with buffalo hides, robes and furs for the down trip which was made clear through to St. Louis where the outfits were sold.


     One of the boatmen was Francis Dauphin, a big strapping giant, who made a bet of a $100 that he could take on alpine staff and ford the raging river at the worst of the falls.  He loaded himself down with a heavy log chain swung in a coil over his shoulder, took the stick and actually waded the stream at its most dangerous place, which in honor of the man’s deed was called Dauphin’s rapids and so it is marked on the maps today.  He demonstrated that “by toil the flaccid nerves grow firm.”  In June 1853, Joe LaBarge took the Key West thru to Fort Benton and it was the first steamboat to reach that place, but on returning it went to pieces on the rocks in Dauphin’s rapids and everything was a total loss.  Afterwards, the government cleaned out the big boulders that impeded the way and the wet tail steamboats made regular trips up to Benton while the water was high enough, so that the work of the plodding cordelleros with their taut towlines over their aching backs was done for evermore.



Collected and Transcribed by

Sue Rekkas

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