The weekly luncheon meeting of the Vermillion Rotary Club was held on Tuesday, June 13, at the Neuharth Center on the campus of USD. President Mercy Hobbs called the meeting to order and also lead the invocation.
Rotarian Barry Vickrey introduced Dr. Larry Bradley, the chairman of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, who presented the program for the day entitled "Steamboat Wrecks on the Missouri."
Dr. Bradley used a PowerPoint presentation of slides to illustrate his presentation. He began with a background of the archeological history of the area. There are many archeological sites in and around Vermillion as well as along the river. Some of the sites date back as far as 10,000 years.
Some of the debris found includes extinct animal bones as well as projectile points and other tools. Some of these projectile points are among the oldest found in the country. Some are points from spear throwers, which was the weapon of choice until the advent of the bow and arrow.
Another site he mentioned is just below the edge of the bluff, which dates to about 3,500 years ago. There they have found bison bones with arrow points embedded in them. Also found were quartzite butchering tools. These were excavated in 2000.
Some dates Dr. Bradley mentioned as part of a timeline include: agriculture appeared about 1,000 years ago; evidence of a Vermillion bluff village 500 years ago; establishment of Port Vermillion or Fort Vermillion in 1833; a Mormon settlement in 1845 which lasted about two years; the sinking of the steamboat "Kate Sweeney" in 1855.
In the 19th century the Missouri was a major travel route for Native Americans as well as settlers and the steamboats that supplied them. In 1897 Hiram Chittenden reported that the Missouri had claimed seven steamboats between Vermillion and Yankton and that as many as 400 steamboats had sunk along the length of the Missouri. Trade was so lucrative that steamboat owners took great chances. The revenue from one or two trips could pay the entire cost of the boat itself.
Some examples of the dangers a boat faced include the "North Alabama" which weighed 280 tons. It was wrecked by a snag near Goat Island. The "Leadora" was destroyed by fire at Ponca. Other sites he mentioned include Riverside Park, which used to be an ice harbor for the boats during the winters. A wood yard found near Vermillion supplied cords of wood to power the steamboats.
Dr. Bradley also mentioned work in progress on an exhibit or museum for steamboat history and also a project to preserve oral history about the river.
During a question and answer session Dr. Bradley stated that it would be extremely difficult to preserve the boats because of their size and the fragility of the remains. The philosophy of the Park Service is to leave them where they are and let nature take its course.