On a small trail in Riverfront Park, where the snow is pockmarked by deer tracks and a lone bicycle’s tires, a brown plaque marks the location where the steamboat Josephine tied up to a cottonwood tree on June 7, 1875.
The marker intrigued local mapmaker and history buff Ralph Saunders. He wondered how accurate the sign’s placement was. So he dug out some old maps and put his skills to work. What he found may change the historical record.
Saunders found an 1878 Government Land Office map for the region which even marked with an X on the handwritten document the “Highest point reached by steamboat 1877.” (Note that the map reads 1877, not 1875, more on that later.) The map, created by Walter W. deLacy, showed the point reached was just below a large island, named Blankeys Island.
Saunders took the 1878 map and plotted its coordinates onto a base map created in 1956 and revised in 1969 and 1975. His drawing showed the two sites – the plaque in Riverfront Park and the marking on deLacy’s map – as nearly identical.
“Looking at the 1878 channel it is not surprising that the steamboat could not have traveled farther up the river since the river divided at that location and neither channel, probably, would have had sufficient flow for that size of vessel,” Saunders wrote in an email.
Since that initial investigation, though, Saunders has come upon other information that may point to the steamship struggling farther upstream before turning around.
The 1875 trip in the 178-foot long, 31-foot wide steamboat was made during a survey for the War Department with Lt. Cols. James Forsyth and F. D. Grant in charge.
In a report to Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan written after the trip, Forsyth refers to stopping the steamboat on the night of June 6, 1875, above “Hell Roaring Rapids.” The next day, he wrote that further progress was difficult because of the many channels in the river, so they turned around, having reached a point they estimated was 250 miles above the mouth of the Powder River.
In his book on steamboat Capt. Marsh, “The Conquest of the Missouri” published in 1909, author Joseph Mills Hanson wrote that Forsyth ordered a reconnoitering party to ascend the river on June 7, 1875, to assess the route upstream.
Since the boat didn’t leave its moorage until 2:10 p.m. that day to return downstream, Marsh certainly would have had time to carve a record of his feat into a cottonwood tree.
Hanson writes on page 220, “Before leaving this highest point attained, Captain Marsh blazed the trunk of a gigantic cottonwood to which the Josephine was tied, and carved thereon the name of the boat and the date.” In the preface to the book, Hanson notes he interviewed Marsh and Forsyth, as well as relied on other sources for facts and proofreading, making it seem unlikely that he would have fabricated the act or reported hearsay.
In his report, Lt. Col. Grant notes that the highest point the steamboat reached is 12 miles beyond “Hell Gate Rapids,” which he writes is located at the same point as Belle Buttes. Joyce Jensen, at the Western Heritage Center, and Saunders agree that Belle Buttes was another name for what we now call Sacrifice Cliffs, or the Four Dances Natural Area. Grant puts the stopping point at 22 miles above Pryor Creek (12 above Hell Gate Rapids), while Forsyth writes it was 23 miles above Pryor Creek.
On a modern Bureau of Land Management map of the Yellowstone River, 22 to 23 miles upstream from Pryor Creek is a mile to two miles below the Duck Creek Bridge. Twelve miles above Belle Buttes, depending on the starting point, is also in the vicinity of the Duck Creek Bridge.
Saunders roughly measured 12 miles upstream from the Belle Buttes on the 1878 map that deLacy made and reached a point close to Duck Creek, which joins the river just upstream from the bridge, or about five miles below the mouth of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.
All of these measurements seem to point to the Josephine reaching a minimum of 6 miles farther upstream than the current marker indicates. Neither Forsyth nor Grant noted in their report that Marsh marked the location where they tied up the steamer on the night of June 6, 1875, by carving the date on a tree. Unknown is whether Marsh noted it in his captain’s log.
So why did deLacy’s map say 1877 instead of 1875? Was it merely a clerical error from a man who had to pay attention to details, especially numbers? Had someone else marked another tree with another date? Did Capt. Marsh simply carve the day into the tree with no year inscribed?
The Josephine reportedly returned to the area in 1877 and docked near John Cochran’s home, and it is possible that a new carving was made then. The point on deLacy’s map showed that the steamboat Josephine had tied up due south of a small square marked as Cochran’s home.
Cochran is known to be the first Euro-American to settle in the Yellowstone Valley near present-day Billings. He built a home just north of the river in 1877. That’s known because on Sept. 13, 1877, Nez Perce warriors burned his home during their long flight from Idaho to Canada. (Interestingly, the BLM Yellowstone River map notes the Nez Perce crossed the Yellowstone River about 1.5 miles below Duck Creek Bridge, indicating this was a shallow area.)
According to another plaque in Riverfront Park, Cochran reportedly built a second home just 500 feet east of his first place. The homesite would now be under the far eastern end of Lake Josephine.
The sign in Riverfront Park, placed with the help of the Western Heritage Center, makes no mention of the date carved into the cottonwood tree, but does state that the sign marks the “highest point ever reached on the Yellowstone River by a steamboat of this size – 200 feet in length.”
DeLacy’s field notes on Aug. 21, 1878, found on microfiche at the Billings BLM office, notes a “tree marked by steamer ‘Josephine’ bears N. 50 (links?) dist. The highest point ascended to by steamboats.” The note goes on to place “Cochrans house lies North of tree 4.00 (chains)” – a distance equal to 264 feet. It doesn’t reference any date carved into the tree, although his map marks the site as the “Highest point reached by steamboat 1877.”
As the river shifted over the years, the cottonwood, along with any carving it may have had on its trunk, was swept away.
Saunders found a 1940 copy of the state of Montana Water Resources Survey for Yellowstone County that used aerial photography. That allowed him to compare the 1940 channel to the current river to see how much the river had migrated between then and 1975. He found that in 1940, the river would have been about 100 feet north of where the sign is now, close to the edge of the current lake. That would have put the old cottonwood that Capt. Marsh supposedly tied up to and carved a date on in the midst of the river’s rushing water.
The river has shifted so much since 1875 that the sign marking the cottonwood tree is far inland from the current bed of the Yellowstone River, which lies to the south through a tangle of willow, Russian olive and cottonwood trees.
The comparison of older maps to the river’s current location demonstrates how dynamic the relatively free-flowing Yellowstone River remains, as anyone who has watched it flood can attest.
By 1940, the river below what is now the South Billings Boulevard bridge was wide, with about eight smaller islands scattered through the braided section, and most of Blankeys Island was under water.
The western end of what was once Blankeys Island would have been near where the bridge crosses the Yellowstone on its way to the Blue Creek subdivision. A large portion of the island that disappeared in 1940 was at some time reconfigured and is now part of Riverfront Park.
Marking an era
Riverboat travel on the Yellowstone River, especially the upper stretch, was short-lived, lasting only decades before becoming outdated as the railroad muscled into the region in the early 1880s. Still, the steamboats mark an important link to the history of Billings and Montana, one that Saunders -- and others before him -- believes should be made more obvious.
In 2000, County Commissioner Bill Kennedy attempted to have Riverfront Park’s name changed to Josephine Park to more significantly mark the historic site. Opposed by the public, the move was voted down by the City Council. Kennedy referred to the lack of attention to the steamboat Josephine’s ascent as a “historical, cultural crime.”
Saunders said that more should be done to mark the site of Josephine’s reach, since it’s off the main path and not easy to find.
“I think it should be made more available and knowledgeable to others,” he wrote.
Saunders’ research stands as testimony to the sweeping changes of the Yellowstone River, as well as its permanence in Billings residents’ lives and lore.