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The Fate Of The ‘bertrand’

February 2019

Another steamboat delivers her cargo late

On February 22, 1865, the St. Louis Tri-Weekly Missouri Democrat announced a newcomer to the river: “ FORT BENTON PACKET, IDAHO AND THE GOLD MINES. THE NEW, FAST AND LIGHT DRAUGHT STEAMER, BERTRAND . . . WILL LEAVE ST. LOUIS FOR FORT BENTON ON THE OPENING OF NAVIGATION . . . .” Three months earlier the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer had hailed the launching, in West Virginia, of “a nice trim little steamer, neat but not gaudy, [that] sits on the water like a duck.”

Reliability, speed, safety, and ducklike qualities notwithstanding, the Bertrand never made it to Fort Benton. Having departed St. Louis on March 18, the steamboat was just two weeks out when, near Omaha, she hit a snag and sank within five minutes. As with the Arabia , everyone made it safely to shore. Most of the cargo did not. There was a lot of it. Although registered at 250 tons, the Bertrand carried freight equal to almost twice her weight, a customary practice then.

In the 1960s two Omaha men, Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino, discovered an 1867 Corps of Engineers map showing the approximate location of the river’s channel in 1865 and came across a story in the Omaha Weekly Bee from the summer of 1896 detailing plans for a Bertrand search and salvage effort, giving the name of the current owner of the land where the Bertrand lay—J. E. Markel—and describing the cargo as “including 35,000 pounds of quicksilver [mercury] and a considerable amount of . . . whiskey.” This heightened their interest. Mercury, used in gold refining, remained valuable. The two men secured a federal contract promising them 60 percent of any mercury, whiskey, or gold they might recover—everything else would remain government property—and went searching through the Register of Deeds, Washington County, Nebraska. Although river channels may shift, property lines do not, and once they’d found where Markel’s land had been, they were very close to their quarry.

Pursell and Corbino found the hull lying 28 feet belowground. The excavation revealed containers of such bedrock necessities as flour and potatoes stacked alongside champagne and oysters. Nevertheless, basic tools such as shovels, picks, and axes predominated, and quantities of pitchforks and plows suggested that agriculture was taking hold on the frontier. Gold wasn’t paying off for everyone.

Pursell and Corbino lost too. They found no gold, no whiskey, and only nine containers of mercury. But like the Arabia , the Bertrand offered a vivid look at the material life of westering America, and like the Arabia ’s, its cargo is on display in a fascinating museum. Founded in 1981 in the De Soto National Wildlife Refuge, the Steamboat Bertrand Museum and Visitor Center contains 200,000 artifacts salvaged from the wreck, ranging from Bourbon Whiskey Cock-Tail from Boston and ale from Amsterdam to a jar of pickles (with the pickles and the brine they were shipped in perfectly intact), hobnailed boots—700 pairs—and ax heads packed by the dozen in wooden shipping cases, some of them consigned to Worden and Company, of Hell Gate. Frank Worden, one of the first settlers in Montana Territory, was depending on the Bertrand to stock his new store. He survived the loss and lived to see Hell Gate become Missoula.

To visit Worden’s axes and the rest of the Bertrand ’s bounty, take Interstate 29 to the Missouri Valley, Iowa, exit, and drive west for some five miles on U.S. 30, heading toward Blair, Nebraska. The museum (712-642-2772) is open daily from 9:00 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. , except on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.