In the years immediately following the Great War between the states, the Montana gold rush was booming along with the riverboat traffic on the Upper Missouri River. The head of navigation in 1866 was Fort Benton located about 200 miles north of the gold strikes of Alder Gulch, Bannack, Virginia City, and Last Chance Gulch. Thirty-one steamers tied up to the shore at Fort Benton that season, a startling increase over the half a dozen boats that arrived the prior year. Steamboat operators stood to earn huge profits, averaging $22,000 on voyages to the west to deliver staples and returning to St. Louis with passengers and freight that included the remnants of the fur trade and gold dust. But the risk was great and not a venture for the faint-hearted.
Captain Grant Marsh, though only 34, struck all who met him as a commanding presence, and the steamboat under his authority, the Luella, made history before the summer was over. Twice that season Marsh plied the tricky shoals, sandbars, and rapids of the Big Muddy. Steamboat captains generally hastily unloaded their cargo at Fort Benton and wasted no time pushing off and heading downstream. It was considered wise to “travel light” to avoid entrapment in the rapidly shallowing river of mid-summer.
Marsh, who instilled confidence in his crew and passengers, decided to delay his final departure until September. As the Luella offered the last opportunity of the year for leaving the country, there was a great rush of applications for passage. Many rough characters would employ any trick to avoid paying the established rates set as high as $350 for passage to St. Louis. Payment was demanded in advance, in gold dust. Some cagey miners tried to mix black sand with their dust which, if left undetected, would save some of their hard-earned wealth. Marsh foiled their scheme by requiring the passengers to pan their dust in the presence of the shipping clerk before boarding, thereby washing out all the sand.
When the voyage began September 2nd. the Luella had aboard 230 passengers and $1,250,000 in gold dust. It was the richest treasure ever carried down the Missouri River.
Marsh’s great skill through the torturous river bends, shallows and narrows made the trip uneventful until the Luella reached the mouth of the Milk River 347 miles below Fort Benton. It was at this point the Luella ran aground on a sandbar. One of the passengers. a man named McClellan, was on deck observing the crew as they labored to dislodge the boat. When the deck heaved and rocked, McClellan accidentally fell overboard. Though the water was barely two feet deep the current was swift. McClellan, apparently weighed down by a leather belt filled with gold dust hidden under his clothes. was swept off his feet and was unable to regain his balance on the slippery river bottom. So great was the weight of his treasure belt that he was dragged down and drowned before help could reach him. The powerful current swept away his body which was never recovered.
Indians, who happened upon the scene of the floundering paddle wheeler, began firing upon the Luella from a high bluff overlooking the river. Marsh simply called his 230 passengers to the deck who along with the 40 crew members, unholstered their shooting irons and drove the tribesmen off the skyline with the first, noisy fusillade.
Marsh got his boat, passengers, cargo, and crew to St. Louis without further incident, earning for himself, respect rarely accorded to a new captain on the Missouri and an everlasting place in steamboating lore.
(Source material: “The Conquest of the Missouri” by Joseph Hanson 1909. “The Rivermen” Time-Life Books Inc. 1975. “Steamboats of the Fort Union Fur Trade” Michael M. Caster 1999)