“Capt. McGarry’s funeral last Sunday was one of the largest ever seen in Bismarck….
The Butte’s flag was at half mast and the whole boat covered with mourning.”
-July 19, 1879, The Bismarck Tribune
A captain known for his quiet demeanor, honesty, and passion for the steamboat trade was dead at the age of only 44 years old. Throughout the 1870s Captain James McGarry was often hailed as one of the most skilled and knowledgeable captains of the Upper Missouri. His success even earned him the title of Prince of the Upper Missouri. McGarry worked the river during a time of dramatic changes in not only the steamboat business, but, the history of the American West. The last four years of Captain McGarry’s life were arguably his most successful ones. He worked his way up through the ranks nearly 10 years prior and quickly became one of the most reputable captains. In late 1874, he was tasked with contracting the building of a steamboat, the Benton, for the newly created Fort Benton Transportation Company. For the next three years he served as her captain until he was once again tasked with overseeing the building of two other boats, the Helena in 1878 and the Butte in 1879. Captain McGarry was elevated to the position of superintendent for the steamboat line in 1879, just months before his death. Perhaps his premature death is why his story has remained untold for so long.
The Prince of the Upper Missouri: Captain James McGarry is an enormous undertaking requiring records that are found in dozens of states here in the United States as well as in Canada and Ireland. Work on the first article about the captain has begun but research is still very much in progress. Although work remains to be done the project, it is already drawing attention. This project has been the subject of a conference paper which received an award, recently was the topic of a newspaper article, and most notably was among the 2016 recipients of the Charles Redd Center’s Independent Research and Creative Works Award. Captain McGarry’s story will also be shared at the 2017 History Camp Iowa.
A GoFundMe account has been created to assist with the costs associated with the remaining research.