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A steamboat known as the North Alabama sank in 1870, heading to the bottom of the Missouri River near Goat Island, between Nebraska and South Dakota. But the river, dwindling under a drought that began last fall, revealed the sunken vessel this summer.

Ruins of the sunken steamboat North Alabama are visible in the Missouri River during low water. 

National Parks Service

“The Missouri always claimed a lot of steamboats during that era, but it’s one of the few that are still in there and hadn’t been removed,” said Dugan C. Smith, a park ranger with the Missouri National Recreational River in South Dakota.

And there are no plans to disturb what’s there, Smith said — it would probably deteriorate. 

The exposed timbers bleaching in the sun give a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of ship that helped open the West. The North Alabama was part of a booming trade along the Missouri.

“The community of Yankton here was basically established because it was a major steamboat port during that time,” Smith said. 

The boats would travel the river, bringing gold and precious metals from Montana all the way down to St. Louis, and equipment and supplies for homesteaders, like plows and horses.

“I describe it to students as like the interstate of today, back then,” he said. “Steamboat traffic came up and down as much as they could, until it was too dry. But if it was a wet year, they’d keep on bringing products up and down.”

The 220-ton packet steamboat was bringing flour and whiskey from Sioux City, Iowa, to Montana, sinking cargo worth $12,000 at the time, according to the Missouri River National Park. In 1904, the 170-foot hull reappeared for the first time — and has reappeared periodically during times of drought and low water, like this summer.

It’s not the only piece of history brought back above the surface this year by dry conditions. Historic drought conditions at Lake Mead have exposed secrets including human remains. 

In Europe, water levels in Italy’s Po River dropped low enough to reveal the Zibello, a World War II-era barge, along with a 1,000-pound WWII bomb. Dozens of German ships of the same era have become visible in the Danube River

And in Texas, a river in Dinosaur Valley State Park dried to reveal tracks made by Acrocanthosaurus and Sauroposeidon more than 110 million years ago.

Dinosaur tracks discovered in dried-up Texas riverbed