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HISTORY & PREHISTORY

The Longest Steamboat Race In History

Copyright Montana Historical Society

Fights broke out, bribes were made, and traders and trappers all along the river placed bets on the longest steamboat race in history. The long, grueling, dangerous race occurred between 1866 between Carroll Jones Atkins, captain of the William J. Lewis, and Captain E. T. Herndon captaining the Mollie Dozier.

Both of their ships were of the new type of steamboat dubbed a “mountain boat,” designed specifically for travel on the Upper Missouri River. Approximately the same size and weight, the two boats appeared to be an equal match. Bound for Fort Benton and leaving the same day, the two raced for the finish and the trade advantage that went to the first boat to arrive at the port.

The William J. Lewis was leading, but the race heated up when the Mollie Dozier came into sight on April 15. Chugging up the river side by side, the passengers cheered and jibed at one another. Atkins took the chanced taking the route around the right of an island, and Herndon took the left, emerging several miles ahead of the William J. Lewis. Often racing neck and neck, but cutting each other off at every chance, the two captains made it a close race that day. But the next day Atkins ordered his boat full speed ahead and pushed his crew and the boat’s boilers to their limits, taking the lead once again.

During the race, which continued for several long, hard months, they battled ice on the river, heavy rains, and sandbars. A broken winch on the Lewis added to the drama and danger of the race. The captain and crew of the Lewis tried to pull the boat up the river, but the winch snapped and the current threw the boat back and slammed it into the Dozier, damaging both vessels in the crash. Atkins temporarily patched up his boat and steamed off, leaving the Dozier behind at the rapids. Finally on May 31 at 4:30pm Atkins surged into Fort Benton 33 hours and 45 minutes before his competitor.

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