Keelboats of the Missouri River
Keelboat Mandan on display in downtown Fort Benton, Montana
This Keelboat Mandan is on display on the levee in downtown Fort Benton, Montana. This particular keelboat replica was built for Guthrie's movie The Big Sky.
Keelboats antedated steamboats and used every kind of power - chiefly man - except steam. Propelling them was no idle pastime. The usual method was to set long ash poles in the river bottom, toe the cleated walk and push hard, bow to stern. Crews also stumbled along the bank at the end of a cable. Some had sails to take advantage of favorable breezes. But masts and sails were problematic since they got caught on overhead limbs and such.
The keelboat speed record, a brisk 1,100 miles in 61 days, was set in 1811 by a select crew of Manuel Lisa, an impatient character. South Dakota winds chased his vessel clear around the Great Bend below for 75 miles in a long day.
In the enclosed cabin keelboats carried beads, whiskey and other goods traded for beaver and buffalo robes at Indian posts along the Missouri.
Keelboats such as this one were propelled upstream by human muscle. When the river was shallow enough, the boat was propelled by setting poles. Running boards ran along each side of the keelboat, along which a line of men would walk while pushing a pole set in the bottom of the river. When an individual reached the rear of the boat he would lift up his pole and return to the front of the boat and repeat the process. If the river was too deep for setting poles, cordelling was another method of propelling the craft. The cordelle was a strong cable, frequently as much as 300 yards long, fastened to the mast by which the boat was pulled up stream by a force of 20 to 30 men. One can only imagine all they had to endure while fighting their way through brush, driftwood, mudholes and other shoreline obstacles.
On occasion oars were used, and under favorable wind and river conditions, a sail might be used.
A distance of about 15 miles a day was considered a good day's work, requiring the most arduous labor from all hands from daylight to dark to accomplish.
Another method of propelling the boat was called warping, which was generally a last resort because of the effort involved. A skiff would carry a cordelle upstream and fasten the end to a snag or a tree. The men in the bow of the boat would draw the boat forward by means of a windless or winch, or even by pulling the cordelle in hand-over-hand. This was the most laborious of all methods, and progress of six miles in a day was considered good.
Keel Boat on the Missouri River
Keelboats such as this one started to be seen on Western Rivers around 1790. Keelboats were long narrow craft built on a keel and ribs, with a long cargo box amidships. They were steered by a special oar and propelled by oars or poles, pulled by a cordelle, or occasionally fitted with sails.
Keel-boats varied from 40 to 80 feet long, 7 to 20 feet in beam, 2 feet or more in draft, with sharp ends. A cleated footway on each side was known as the "running board", twelve to eighteen inches wide, where the crew walked when poling the boat.
Some keelboats had seats near the bow for four to twelve rowers.
Most every keelboat carried a swivel gun and the crew was armed.
Keelboats were used extensively until shallow draft steamboats drove them from the main river around 1820. Keelboats continued to be used on the tributaries until after the Civil War circa 1865. The chief utility of the keelboat was for upstream transportation and for swift downstream travel. Keelboats were widely used for passenger travel on the Missouri River. Keelboats had a carrying capacity of 15 to 50 tons, but usually transported less than 30 tons.
Replica of the Lewis & Clark Keel Boat
The Lewis & Clark State Park in Iowa was featuring a full-sized replica of Lewis & Clark's keel boat when we visited there in 2004. It is neat to actually get to walk on this 55-foot boat and imagine the manpower required to pull and pole this 55-foot monster up the swift running Missouri River. The boat itself weighs 12,000 pounds and carried 13,000 pounds of provisions and trade items..
Replica of Lewis & Clarks Keel Boat
In Iowa's Lewis & Clark State Park we got to walk around and view up close and personal this replica of the Keelboat Lewis & Clark used.