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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published July 28 2012

Eriksmoen: Businessman controlled monopoly of transportation, trade on ND river

For more than 20 years, one person’s monopoly of transportation and trade between Bismarck and Williston, N.D., was so complete that he was often referred to as “the man who owns the Missouri (River).”

Because of his great foresight and managerial skills, I.P. Baker greatly expanded his riverboat business during the early 20th century at a time when most of the other steamboat owners were abandoning that enterprise.

Isaac Post Baker was born July 20, 1855, in Weston, Mo., to John Finley Baker and Malvina Frayne Baker. At the time, John owned and operated a general store with Elijah Cody, the uncle of “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Later, John got a job as manager of the St. Paul and St. Louis Packet Co. and moved to St. Louis, where Isaac received his elementary education.

After attending Central College (now Central Methodist University) in Fayette, Mo., Isaac joined his father with the steamboat/packet company. Because of his education, keen business mind and leadership ability, he soon rose to a supervisory position. Isaac was known as “a strict disciplinarian.”

Meanwhile, steamboat traffic was beginning 1,200 miles up the Missouri River. Almost all of the riverboats on the upper Missouri were owned and operated by the Coulson Packet Co., whose goal was “to secure complete control of the riverboat business on the upper Missouri River.”

One person who hoped to challenge that monopoly was Thomas C. Power, a wealthy and persuasive merchant at Fort Benton, Mont. In 1871, he had a steamboat, the Benton, built, and the next year, it was hauling cargo on the Missouri. Soon, he had a number of steamboats hauling supplies for his Power’s Line on the Missouri.

Now that Power was in direct competition with the Coulson brothers, he believed it was time to formally organize. In 1875, he formed the Benton Transportation Co., with himself as president, his brother John as vice president, and George Baker, a St. Louis steamboat salesman who was Isaac’s uncle, as secretary. Business continued to grow as BTC signed government contracts for supplies to the military forts and Indian reservations located along the Missouri River.

Power’s biggest problem was that steamboat captains were very independent-minded. He complained that “steamboat owners couldn’t give them orders.” In 1876, one of his friends told him, “I know just the man who will bring those fellows to their milk! He is I.P. Baker, a young man in St. Louis.” Power sent for Baker and hired him as general agent for BTC, despite the fact that he was barely 22 years old.

Baker set up his office in Bismarck and “began his career of wearing down the irascible and proud steamboat men, and he succeeded.” People in Bismarck soon recognized the leadership ability that Baker possessed. In 1878, James Raymond convinced Baker to assist him with the number of growing businesses he had in Bismarck. The following year, Raymond sold the Bismarck National Bank to Baker, who had received financing from Power for the venture.

During the 1870s, most Missouri River steamboat owners feared the coming of the railroads. They realized that trains could deliver supplies and people to many places that riverboats could not travel. To the owners, the heyday of the steamboats was over. However, Baker was able to think outside the box and viewed this as a great opportunity.

By 1883, Baker began operating his own riverboats within BTC. It was during the 1880s that he began building small elevators on the landings along the river. This allowed the farmers in the western part of what is now North Dakota to haul their grain to nearby locations along the Missouri. From these elevators, the crew on Baker’s riverboats could load the contents onto their vessels and haul the grain to waiting trains in Bismarck. When the Great Northern reached Williston in 1889, his boats could also transport the harvest to boxcars there.

With diminished activity at the military forts along the river, most riverboat owners began pulling their vessels out of the Missouri, but Baker’s boats in the BTC increased the amount of cargo they carried. Even T.C. Power became less active. In 1890, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Montana, and that took him away from his riverboat enterprise. At about the same time, he pulled his boats from the Missouri and transferred them to the Yukon River in Alaska.

With his boats doing a brisk business, Baker was able to look at other pursuits. In 1889, he established the Bismarck Realty Co. and the next year was elected mayor of Bismarck. In 1892, Baker started the Northwest Public Service Corp. and in 1899 created the Cannonball Sheep and Cattle Co. south of Bismarck. “Baker was interested in scientific agriculture, particularly in the breeding of purebred cattle, and the adaptation of new grasses to the North Dakota environment.”

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the Coulson Packet Co. also left the Missouri River. The only other steamboats to run on the river were those owned by the Washburn Lignite Coal Co. These boats transported the coal they mined near Wilton, N.D., to the company’s railroad or to the Northern Pacific Railroad at Bismarck.

In 1904, William Washburn, the company president, sold his railroad and boats to the Soo Railroad. Baker then purchased the boats from the Soo and had a virtual monopoly on all the riverboat activity on the upper Missouri River. He organized all of his boats into the newly formed Benton Packet Co.

Baker continued to run his company until 1925 and died on Jan. 28, 1938.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.