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Low river reveals 130-year-old shipwreck in central North Dakota

The Abner O'Neal, built in 1884, hauled freight and passengers on the Missouri River for a few months before primarily transporting grain between Washburn, North Dakota, and the Bismarck-Mandan area, according to the North Dakota State Historical Society.

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Remains of the Abner O'Neal steamboat, which sank in 1892, are still visible today near the Steckel Boat Landing in Wilton, North Dakota. Kyle Martin / The Forum

WILTON, N.D. — North Dakota is experiencing a record-breaking drought this year that has had devastating effects on farmers and ranchers; however, the reemergence of a nearly 130-year-old shipwreck may offer a silver lining for the state's history buffs.

Adjacent to the Missouri River shoreline about 25 miles north of Bismarck lies the remains of the Abner O'Neal steamboat. Parts of the boat's structure stick up above the water, and from a bird's-eye view the wreckage is reminiscent of railroad tracks or a fish's skeleton.

The Abner O'Neal, built in 1884, hauled freight and passengers on the Missouri River for a few months before primarily transporting grain between Washburn, North Dakota, and the Bismarck-Mandan area, according to the North Dakota State Historical Society.

The Abner O'Neal took its last voyage while transporting 9,000 bushels of wheat in July of 1892. The steamboat "struck a submerged snag or rock and began to sink," according to the Historical Society.

"The boat was deemed a complete loss with both its grain and the boat itself," said Andrew Clark, North Dakota's chief archaeologist.

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The area where the steamboat sank is notoriously difficult to navigate because of numerous sandbars and tree snags, according to the Historical Society.

The crew aboard the Abner O'Neal initially felt a jolt when the steamboat collided with an obstacle and thought it was unimportant, according to news coverage of the sinking at the time. The crew attempted to put tarps over the hole and throw some cargo overboard to lessen the ship's weight, but the steamboat still sank to the bottom.

Clark said the company that owned the steamboat salvaged everything it could from the portion of the Abner O'Neal that protruded above water and left the remains that still sit at the bottom of the Missouri River.

Removing the wreckage from the Missouri River would be difficult, Clark said, and the site is currently under state and federal preservation laws, which prevent looting.

The visibility of the wreckage has varied over the last few years as the water flowing through the Missouri River system increases and wanes depending on environmental factors and waterflow through the Garrison Dam, Clark said.

A few weeks ago, a few Missouri River kayakers noticed the Abner O'Neal wreckage remains emerging above the water and posted about it on social media, he said. Since then, many people have come to see the wreckage for themselves.

"It's kind of a rare opportunity and rare time to be able to get out and see it because of how inaccessible it is normally," Clark said.

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Remains of the Abner O'Neal steamboat, which sank in 1892, seen on Monday, Oct. 4. Kyle Martin / The Forum

The Abner O'Neal is not the only steamboat to meet a disastrous end in North Dakota, he said. The Missouri River is narrow and difficult to maneuver in some places, and there have been a handful of wrecks in the state

The land near the Abner O'Neal shipwreck is private property, and the North Dakota Historical Society urges spectators to be mindful of trespassing and be respectful of the steamboat itself to help preserve it.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

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Remains of the Abner O'Neal steamboat, which sank in 1892, seen on Monday, Oct. 4. Kyle Martin / The Forum

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Remains of the Abner O'Neal steamboat, which sank in 1892, seen on Monday, Oct. 4. Kyle Martin / The Forum

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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