The Heroine of Louisville: Archaeological Discoveries from an 1830s-Era Western River Steamboat
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2012
- pp. 43-67
- View Citation
- Additional Information
FALL 2012 43 The Heroine of Louisville Archaeological Discoveries from an 1830s-Era Western River Steamboat Kevin J. Crisman I n January 1812, the steamboat New Orleans completed an arduous passage from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to New Orleans, Louisiana, a distance of nearly two thousand miles (3219 kilometers). The voyage marked the first successful use of steam propulsion on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and the beginning of a transportation revolution on the western rivers of North America. Over the next twenty-five years, steamboat hulls and machinery rapidly evolved into a unique vessel type well suited for navigating these difficult waterways. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, shipbuilders constructed hundreds of steamboats, and each year they carried uncounted numbers of passengers and tons of cargo between riverside ports and landings. Cheap, fast, and numerous, steamboats helped utterly transform the economic, cultural, and environmental landscape of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys.1 But the steamboat era did not last. By midcentury a new mode of transportation , the railroad, began to eclipse river steamers, and by the early twentieth century only a handful of the boats remained in service. Though powerful agents of change, steamboats were short-lived creations, and today few traces of the vessels can be found. In May 1990, the Red River experienced one of its periodic flooding episodes , overflowing its banks and inundating bottomlands in the states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. One stretch of the river in southeastern Oklahoma’s Choctaw County shifted over one-quarter mile (four hundred meters) north of the pre-flood channel, cutting a new path across a former cattle pasture. After the flood subsided, local fishermen and ranchers noticed the hull of a large wooden ship partially exposed along the north bank. More of it appeared over the following years as the bank continued to erode. Only a few individuals knew of the wreck’s existence until 1999 when one of the fishermen thought to inform employees at the nearby Fort Towson State Historic Site. Archaeologists from the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University (INA-TAMU) determined the vessel was a sidewheel steamboat fitted with an arrangement of machinery used prior to the 1840s.2 THE HEROINE OF LOUISVILLE 44 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY Researchers did not know the name and precise date of the wreck in 1999, but they immediately recognized its archaeological and historical significance. Scholars know surprisingly little about the design, construction, and operation of early steam vessels, particularly those used on the Mississippi and its tributaries. The earliest known contemporary plans for a river steamer date to 1850, nearly four decades after the start of the steamboat era in the West. Well-preserved wrecks of these boats are also rare. Hundreds of river steamers plied the western rivers over the course of the nineteenth century, but archaeologists have located only a small number and studied even fewer. Two wrecks have been salvaged in recent decades—the Bertrand (sunk in 1865) and the Arabia (sunk in 1856)— and a handful of others have undergone limited test excavation and recording, but scholars still have much to learn about America’s age of steam.3 The location and age of this wreck made it of particular interest to the Oklahoma Historical Society, since it dated from the era when displaced Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee peoples from east of the Mississippi first settled the region. Between 1999 and 2002, researchers surveyed the wreck site by sonar and magnetometer , recorded the partially exposed stern structure, and excavated test holes to determine the size of the wreck and extent of its preservation. This preliminary exploration revealed that the lower hull was intact from stem to stern (in many places up to the level of the main deck), and that elements of the propulsion machinery and barrels from the final cargo survived with the wreck. Accordingly, the OHS and INA-TAMU embarked on an ambitious plan to excavate the hull completely and recover its machinery and contents. The research team did not attempt to salvage the hull due to the projected high costs of recovery, conservation, and exhibition. Steamboat wreck in the Red River, first...