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Exposed Bismarck-area shipwreck has long intrigued divers, historians

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Randy Kraft knows all about the interest in an exposed shipwreck on the Missouri River near Wilton. 

"I got a caller from California, and he's all fired up to fly up here with his wife," said the owner and founder of Scuba One, a Mandan-based diving outfit.

Unfortunately, there isn't much to see, but "it's exciting for a North Dakota project," said Kraft, who has dived one time on the Abner O'Neal. The steamboat hit a snag, or obstruction, and sank in July 1892, in 8-10 feet of water while carrying about 9,000 bushels of wheat downriver.

The wreck has little to explore; there are no rooms, "it's just the ribs," according to Kraft.

Low water levels, like now, routinely reveal the wreck. Explorer Jacques Cousteau sent a team to the site in 1984, according to Tribune archives.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota took aerial footage in the fall of 2020, when the wreck lay exposed.

Professional archaeologists hadn't visited the site in 30-40 years, according to Historical Society Chief Archaeologist Andrew Clark. The Historical Society also wanted to test out its new camera drones at the site and document its location. 

Researchers would like to find schematics of the steamboat design, and they're working on a detailed article about the Abner O'Neal, Clark said.

Aerial photos show visible snags upstream of the wreck, illustrating "how dangerous that stretch of river was and even still is," he said.

The Burleigh County Dive Rescue and Recovery team checked out the wreck in August 2020 after conducting training nearby.

Sgt. Jeremy Alm, who dived on the wreck as a teenager, said the dive team went to the site for "something different to do," mainly for fun. 

Scuba diver Les Helm, of Mandan, has been to the wreck twice, once in high water with a "ferocious" current, and in water so low his crew could walk around the site. He last visited more than 30 years ago.

"I watch too much television and see treasure ships. I expected something better," Helm joked.

He also has dived on a sunken U.S. Army Corps tugboat near Garrison, and on shipwrecks in Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, the Red Sea and the Caribbean.

The State Historical Society in 1970 counted 32 boats sunk on the Missouri River in North Dakota, at least 20 of them wrecked by ice. 

Clark urges visitors to "be respectful," to take only photos and to not disturb the Abner O'Neal or trespass onto neighboring private land.

The Abner O'Neal was built in 1884. It worked the river between Pierre, South Dakota, and Fort Benton, Montana, beginning in 1890. 

The steamboat's crew escaped the sinking, but the boat and its cargo were a total loss. Neither was insured. 

The Historical Society maintains some artifacts from the wreck, including a pipe wrench and a metal ship lantern. A timber fragment and a piece of a bottle are on display at Cross Ranch State Park near Washburn.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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