Saturday, October 29, 2005


River reveals sunken steamboat


Argus Leader
By Nestor Ramos
October 28, 2005

VERMILLION - On Oct. 27, 1870, the North Alabama steamed up the Missouri River, burning through a cord of wood every hour.

As it traveled, riding high on the river, paddle wheels churning, it snagged on something just beneath the water. The hold filled with sand. The crew couldn't save their ship, so they salvaged what they could.

Now, the remains of a ship that archaeologists think is the North Alabama sit exposed, uncovered for the first time in 75 years.

"All indications seem to be that this is the North Alabama that sunk on this date in 1870," Larry Bradley, an archaeologist at the University of South Dakota, said Thursday, standing on a sandbar in the middle of the Missouri.

Last year, Bradley said, he would have been under six feet of water.The river's low water level, sand migration and the ongoing drought all played a part in exposing the ship's hull.

To Larry Murphy, the boat's bleached, deteriorated remains are a fascinating reminder of the lifeblood of a lost era, when the country's rivers were as vital to commerce as the highways and the air are today.

"People growing up now see the river in a very different way, rather than fundamental to their existence," said Murphy, director of the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center in Santa Fe, N.M.

The park service and the university have been working for two weeks to document the precise location of the boat's remains, each morning ferrying their gear to a sandbar in the stretch of river southwest of Vermillion where the boat snagged.

The location of the wreckage, as well as the details of its construction, tell the small crews that this is indeed the North Alabama, a riverboat designed to move large amounts of cargo.

Using global positioning locators and electric pulse imaging, the archaeologists can document and map the exact location, to within 1 centimeter, of every piece of eroding wood and rusted metal.

"All we can see now is just a small percentage of the boat," Bradley said. Some of the remains now sit under the sand, including another rudder - the North Alabama had four.

The ship's skeleton reaches out of the water, then winds back under, the bow still pressing, just beneath the water, against the heavy stump that probably brought it under 135 years ago.

The hull is split down the middle, and much of what made the boat a boat has been lost to time and scavengers and the relentless river.

Murphy has seen the Titanic, the monuments at Pearl Harbor and Spanish galleons with the parks service.

For him, the planks and boards of the boat that once traversed North America's most dangerous river to navigate are a treasure. He pointed upriver at the stumps and logs jutting out of the water, hazards that would have been impossible to see when the river was higher.

Piecing together history
"Every time there's a chance to look at one, we are able to learn a little bit more and to piece together a history that's going on 150 years old," he said.

Centuries from now, men like Murphy might be picking over the fascinating skeleton of a rusted jet.

Because the boat's remains are well-preserved, the crew has been able to document a substantial amount, Murphy said.

"The only real threat now is that people are removing things," Murphy said. That danger is much more significant than the river, which erodes the oak slowly.

Even so, Murphy hopes people will come to visit the wreckage.

"This is a part of our common history," he said.

A 260-ton steamboat built in Pittsburgh in the 1860s, the North Alabama was captained the day it was lost by Grant Marsh, who had found his fame four years earlier, when he transported wounded soldiers down from the Little Big Horn River, bringing with them the news of Gen. George Custer's defeat.

Not built to last
Riverboats were built light and fast to save money, Murphy said, and they typically had a life span of only five or six years. Their architecture was unique the world over.

Owners could make back their investment in one trip, provided the ship carried enough cargo, and every trip thereafter was pure profit.

So when the North Alabama hit the snag, it wasn't a complete disaster. Nobody drowned, and many of the usable parts of the boat - the paddle wheels, in particular - were quickly salvaged.

In the 1930s, Bradley said, the boat surfaced briefly.

"All the local bars emptied out," he said. People flocked to pick over the wreckage. The rumor was that "there's a hold full of whiskey, and it's well-aged," Bradley said.

Anything is possible, but it's unlikely that anyone scored anything of value.

Until last year, that was the last time anyone saw the North Alabama above the water.

When the boat surfaced in 1890, Murphy said, the town came out to gawk.

"It was quite spectacular," he said. "The local news at the time said, 'The river has given up one that it had once taken.' "Now, a century later, it has given it up again.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?