Smoke curling from her dual stacks, the sternwheeler Rose Bud powered her way up the wide Missouri on her maiden voyage in the summer of 1877.
On board was one of the most famous and important men in the country — Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, Civil War hero and now chief of the U.S. Army. The Rose Bud carried him to the mouth of the Yellowstone and down that narrower, shallower river. From there, legendary boatman Capt. Grant Marsh would guide the Rose Bud up the Bighorn to the mouth of the Little Bighorn.
Her 20-inch diameter bell must have been heard clanging from miles away as she approached a siding where the general expected to disembark with his horse and ride out to take a look at Fort Custer, then under construction on a bluff above the mouth of the Little Bighorn River. His overland journey would take him to Fort Ellis, near Bozeman, on an inspection tour of military facilities in the wake of the disaster at Little Bighorn a year earlier.
Last summer, the bell that announced Gen. Sherman’s historic journey to Montana rang again for the first time in decades for an “Antiques Roadshow” crew filming in Billings at the Expo Center at MetraPark.
“They put me in a green room and powdered me all up,” said the bell’s owner, John Spomer of Hardin, who operates a memorabilia business. “I was really nervous.”
The crew found a frame to hang the riverboat bell, which Spomer says weighs between 200 and 300 pounds, and let the clapper loose.
Still clearly inscribed on the 20-inch-diameter bell is the name of the foundry — “A. Fulton’s Son & Co., Pittsburgh 1877” as well as “Steamer Rose Bud.”
Spomer’s segment didn’t appear on the first two Billings segments of “Antiques Roadshow.” It may be aired Monday at 7 p.m. on the final episode on PBS.
An appraiser valued the Rose Bud’s bell at between $5,000 and $6,000, an estimate Spomer thinks is too low.
“It’s worth more than that,” he said. “It’s the only one.”
John Doerner, chief historian at Little Bighorn Battlefield, agreed, saying the appraiser probably didn’t know the Rose Bud’s history.
The hardworking steamer played an important role in Montana’s territorial days. Before railroads crisscrossed the country in the 1880s, she and other steamers brought gold miners, settlers and soldiers up the Missouri from St. Louis to Fort Benton.
In a career that spanned an amazing 19 years, the sturdy steamer made more than 50 trips to Montana, much of that time working from Bismarck, N.D. She was one of the last of the steamers on Montana rivers before railroads rendered them obsolete.
Marsh, who learned his skills alongside Mark Twain, was the Rose Bud’s first captain. She was newly arrived from her Pennsylvania builder when Marsh boarded her in St. Louis for the trip north. She had been built for the Coulson Line and would join the Josephine, Far West and Key West on the Upper Missouri.
The Coulson sternwheelers were mountain boats, specifically designed with shallow drafts to work the shallower waters of the Upper Missouri and the Yellowstone. The depth of the Rose Bud’s hold was just 3 feet, 2 inches, but she could carry 286 tons, plus passengers and crew.
Marsh had commanded many of those boats at one time or another, most famously during the Sioux campaign of 1876 that culminated in the loss of half the 7th Cavalry on the bluffs above the Little Bighorn River. In support of the troops, Marsh guided the Far West down the Bighorn River to the mouth of the Little Bighorn. There, he took on the 7th Cavalry’s wounded and made a record-breaking trip back to Bismarck to bring news of the defeat to the outside world.
A year earlier, he was at the helm of the Josephine when it carried Lt. Col. James W. Forsyth on an assignment to see how far the Yellowstone was navigable. The Josephine picked her way to two miles above the present site of Billings before Marsh decided that was as far as she could go.
For the Rose Bud’s first voyage and with the chief of the army aboard, Marsh was the only captain considered. Sherman and his delegation were taken aboard at Bismarck. As the newest ship of the line, the Rose Bud had a cabin that was much larger and more luxurious than the older workhorses, which must have made for a pleasant summer voyage.
Photographs of dining halls on steamers show elegant, cloth-covered tables with formal place settings and stewards standing by. Guests could enjoy a meal, some spirits and a smelly cigar while discussing the day’s events or planning a military campaign.
It was an intense summer on the Yellowstone when the 193-feet-long Rose Bud was on her first of many military missions. Sitting Bull was still at large, and the failure of the Sioux campaign of 1876 was still fresh.
On her way to Fort Keogh, the Rose Bud stopped near Glendive Creek to take on Gen. Nelson Miles, commander of Fort Keogh on the Tongue River. Miles had been scouting on the Yellowstone when the stacks of the Rose Bud were seen. Miles became commanding general of the U.S. Army in 1895.
Together with other ships of the Coulson line, including the Far West, Key West and Josephine, she worked under military contract ferrying more than 400 laborers and troops, supplies and construction materials to new forts commissioned in the Little Bighorn’s aftermath. Fort Keogh would rise near Miles City and Fort Custer would stand on the bluff above what is now Hardin.
Supplies for Fort Custer were offloaded at Terry’s Landing, two miles above the mouth of the Bighorn, and freighted overland to the fort site. The Rose Bud accounted for eight of 26 steamboat arrivals at the landing. Normally a trip from Bismarck to Terry’s Landing took 10 days, but in 1879, the Rose Bud set a record of five days and 18 hours.
As the pace of modern technology increased, the Rose Bud adapted. In 1882, she was equipped with electric lights, and when she tied up at Fort Benton that year, it was the town’s first introduction to electricity.
In 1887, during a labor strike, the Rose Bud steamed into Fort Benton with a crew of Gros Ventres, Arikara and Manadan Indians.
By the late 1880s, the number of steamers on the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone had dwindled to a trickle.
The Rose Bud met her end wrecked on pilings of a railroad warehouse in Bismarck when the water level on the Missouri went down unexpectedly.
According to information Spomer has gathered, the bell was salvaged and placed in the steeple of a church in Elgin, N.D. The bell next belonged to an antique dealer who lived in New Leipzig, N.D. Spomer bought it from him 10 or 12 years ago.
Spomer said he plans to sell the bell but hopes it stays in Montana.
Other relics from the Rose Bud have found homes in Montana museums, said Ken Robison, historian at the Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton. The Overholser Center has two rare original ledgers from the Rose Bud listing her passengers and crew during the period from 1888 to 1890, he said.
The Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena has her pilot’s wheel and the generator that ran her electric lights, Robison said.