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Drought Exposes 130-Year-Old Shipwreck In North Dakota

Photo Credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota
Photo Credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota

An extreme drought in North Dakota has exposed the 130-year-old shipwreck of the Abner O’Neal. The steamship, which sunk in 1892, remains relatively intact beneath the waters of the Missouri River, and it has since been deemed a historic site.

Postcard of the Abner O'Neal docked beside land
Abner O’Neal postcard. (Photo Credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota)

The steamship was constructed in 1884 in Freedom, Pennsylvania for the Steubenville, Ohio/Wheeling, West Virginia-area steamboat trade. Her namesake, Captain Abner O’Neal, and his son, Captain George O’Neal, were well-known figures in the industry during the 1870s.

For several years, she successfully operated in the region, transporting passengers and freight. In March 1890, she was sold to the Missouri River Transportation Company, for which she carried grain between Washburn, North Dakota and Bismarck-Mandan.

While transporting 9,000 bushels of buckwheat down the Missouri River in July 1892, the Abner O’Neal struck a snag or a rock and began to sink between Washburn and Mandan. Despite attempts to patch the hole, the damage was too extensive and she sunk beneath the 8-feet to 10-feet-deep water. The cargo and the boat itself were a complete loss, as they were uninsured.

Some of the Abner O’Neal was salvaged after it sank, including the superstructure and the paddlewheel.

Abner O'Neal shipwreck beneath the water
Abner O’Neal shipwreck beneath the water, 2021. (Photo Credit: KX News / YouTube)

Nearly 130 years later, the shipwreck remains at the bottom of the Missouri River. The recent drought in North Dakota is affecting over 58 percent of the state and, as a result, the Garrison Dam has been releasing less water. The receding waters have allowed the Abner O’Neal shipwreck to be visible both beneath and above the water.

Many kayakers have journeyed to the shipwreck, prompting officials to remind the public to not disturb the wreckage in any way, as several state and federal regulations protect it and prohibit the collection of artifacts from the area.

“It is public property and a protected historic site, so when visiting it, it is important to only take pictures and be respectful,” Andrew Clark, the state’s chief archaeologist, told KX News.

More from us: Drought Uncovers Lost Australian Village Complete with American Tanks

Abner O'Neal shipwreck beneath the water
Abner O’Neal shipwreck, 2020. (Photo Credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota / YouTube)

The shipwreck was previously visible during the 2011 Missouri River flood.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News