Thursday, March 23, 2006


Retired engineer hopes to save riverboat’s remains

By Tina Hesman
March 20, 2006

Nelson O. Weber helped make history. Now he wants to save a piece of it.

As a mechanical engineer at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing, Weber helped get Gemini space capsules and Skylab off the ground.

Now retired, Weber, 67, has turned his attention from spaceships to riverboats. He has undertaken an engineering survey of the wreckage of the steamboat Montana, one of the largest paddlewheel steamboats to ply the Missouri River.

The Montana, he has concluded, is a cultural treasure that should be moved to a museum instead of letting the river rip it timber from timber.

Built in 1879 for a freight company, the Montana and her sister ships, the Dakota and the Wyoming, ruled the river's muddy waters. At 280 feet in length with its paddlewheel, the Montana dwarfed most other riverboats.

She outlived most of them, too. The Montana steamed cargo and passengers up and down the river for nearly five years. Most boats fell prey to branches, debris and other shallow water hazards within a year or two, Weber said.

Ultimately, the Montana proved too big for its bridges. A railroad bridge spanning the river between St. Charles and Bridgeton caused the boat's demise when she attempted to pass under the bridge during high water conditions. The paddlewheeler lost control and stove into the bridge, beaching on the Bridgeton side of the river. More than 600 tons of cargo, muddy water and her own weight snapped the Montana's spine.

The remains of the boat are partially buried in the riverbank just south, or upstream, of the Highway 370 Discovery Bridge. Most of the time the river's muddy water obscures the wreckage too, but when the river falls, the Montana's wooden bones protrude.

"She's a skeleton in the sand right now. She comes and she goes," said Annalies Corbin, a maritime archaeologist from East Carolina University. Corbin helped lead an excavation of the Montana in 2002.

Last year, the Missouri was so low that Weber was able to map out nearly the entire width of the ship. The parts that still lay buried in the water and mud, he probed with a bamboo pole. Weber took measurements, drew diagrams, and even got his cousin to fly a small plane over the wreckage so he could take pictures. Some of his detailed photographs will be published in a book written by Corbin.

Her team's dig revealed an unusual design for a flat-bottomed boat. The Montana had a hollowed-out curve at its rear, called a skeg. The design was once thought impossible for a wooden vessel and didn't become popular for almost two decades after the Montana's demise.

The hollow allowed the rudders to sit even with the bottom of the boat, Weber said. The Montana's rudders are still in the left-turn position, evidence of the pilot's last-ditch attempt to save the boat, he surmises.

Weber made about 20 trips and spent nearly 60 hours documenting the Montana's remains between August and December last year. The boat still calls him to visit and continue his exploration.

Weber, who has a passion for cars, motorcycles and other "transportation stuff," began his love affair with the Montana in 1967. A newspaper article alerted him that the ship was visible. Weber salvaged some planks from the boat, made them into plaques and sold them at craft shows.

Weber spent the latter part of his engineering career finding ways to streamline planes and their parts. Now, he marvels over the elegantly simple construction of the Montana, part of which he has re-created in a quarter-scale model at his home in High Ridge.

He also has documented some of the boat's disappearance. A series of pictures shows how a large tree branch probably ripped a protruding piece of metal off the boat. Now, Weber wants to raise the wreck and put it in a museum. He plans to approach local governments on both sides of the river and the state of Missouri with his idea.

Corbin says his enthusiasm is appreciated but probably misplaced. "My passion is very much along the line of Nelson's in this case. I love the Montana and I love her story," Corbin said. The Montana was the pinnacle of wooden steamboat construction. But the boat is well-documented and its story is known.

It includes the tale of what happened to the front of the boat. Some people thought it broke off and floated away. Corbin's research shows it was removed and used on another boat.

Ships' hulls are difficult and expensive to preserve, she said. And the Montana's bare bones probably wouldn't make a very exciting museum exhibit. Missouri has many other shipwrecks that are more important and more valuable. She advocates letting the mammoth paddlewheeler stay in her riverbank grave.

"What's happening to the Montana is part of the natural process, and it's OK," Corbin said. "Ultimately, the river will carry the Montana away, and that's what is supposed to happen."


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