Monday, November 07, 2005


Low river levels reveal treasure near Vermillion

Plain Talk
By David Lias
November 03, 2005

Archaeology and anthropology students
from The University of South Dakota,
along with personnel from the National
Parks Service's Submerged Resources
Center in Santa Fe, N.M., study the
bleached remains of the North Alabama,
a paddle-wheeled, wood-burning steamship
that sank in the Missouri River west of
Vermillion 135 years ago. (Photo by David Lias)

Sunken steamboat topic of study
On the 135th anniversary of the North Alabama's sinking in the Missouri River west of Vermillion, archaeologists received a rare opportunity, thanks to Mother Nature.

They got a chance to take a close look at what remains of what is believed to be the doomed paddle wheeler, due to lower-than-usual water levels in the Missouri's channel.

The work that took place last week has nearly everyone convinced that the ship is indeed the North Alabama. There is always some doubt about the true identity of shipwrecks in the Missouri, because the vessels, navigating in a channel full of snags and other hazards, didn't always have a long life span.

Historical accounts of a ship's demise in the river aren't always accurate, either.

Last week, the boards that once were part of the main deck of the ship - with long, sharp spikes still intact - snaked across a large sandbar in the river like the bleached ribs of a strange sea creature.

Both students and experts in archaeology and anthropology from The University of South Dakota and from the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center in Santa Fe, NM, took full advantage of the rare opportunity to get up close to an important part of the region's past.

Steamboats were the lifeblood of Yankton, Vermillion, Sioux City, IA, and other communities in the region that sprang up on the Missouri's banks.

They were built light so they could travel fast on the water with a heavy cargo, said Larry Murphy, director of the Submerged Resources Center.

With a bit of luck, such a steamboat might last about five years.

The North Alabama's luck ran out on Oct. 27, 1870. The 260-ton steamboat, built in Pittsburgh in the 1860s, was captained that day by Grant Marsh.

Scientists believe the North Alabama hit a snag in the river. Soon, its holds filled with sand and the best that its crew could do was salvage its cargo.

Larry Bradley, an archaeologist at The University of South Dakota, said the shipwreck has been the source of folklore over the years. The first time the boat's remains surfaced because of low water in the river, back in the 1930s, caused quite a stir in Vermillion.

"All the local bars emptied out to visit the wreckage," he said. "The rumor was that there was a hold full of whiskey, and it was well-aged."

Last week, the men and women who visited the shipwreck had science, not folklore, on their minds. They placed probes hooked to an electric current in the sandbar near the wreckage. The electronic pulse imaging will give researchers a good idea of just what lies beneath the sand along with the rib-like structure that's above the sandbar.

Two men, using a long pole containing more sophisticated electronic gear, made a global positioning record of the shipwreck's location, accurate to within one centimeter of the rib-like remains of the vessel.


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