Tuesday, April 18, 2006

 

300,000 project will preserve the Kentucky, stabilize riverbank on a 1865 shipwreck site

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The Shreveport Times
By Jeff Richards
April 17, 2006


The grave site of a steamboat sunken in Shreveport 132 years ago will remain untouched for the most part, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday. That is disputed by local Civil War historians, however.

Officials here have started archaeological studies on the Kentucky, which sunk just days after the end of the Civil War here in 1865. It struck an obstruction in the river near what’s known now as Eagle Bend in south Shreveport as it carried about 900 Confederate soldiers and their family members — estimates on the number of passengers vary — home from the war.

Hundreds died in the shipwreck, according to news accounts at the time.

About 30 feet of the 200-foot ship’s stern still sits in the water and the rest is buried in earth. Scientists want to chart, examine and remove the stern, re-bury it beside the buried part of the ship and chart where they put the pieces. Divers on site have already begun this work.

After that, the corps wants to stabilize the riverbank where the stern now lays, corps archaeologist Erwin Roemer said.

Site study supervisor John Seidel said the team doesn’t anticipate finding artifacts like passengers’ valuables, but they are eager to learn about the boat’s construction. Few details exist on how the boat, a “western steamboat,” was built, Seidel said.

The project should be complete by September at an estimated cost of about $300,000, said Roger Cockrell, project manager for the Red River Navigation Project.

Area historians, however, don’t want to see the stern disassembled for fear it contains bodies. Civil War historian and author Gary Joiner of Shreveport said the shipwreck victims could number 700 to 900 people, which, if true, would make it the second-largest loss of life in a shipwreck on inland waters.

“If the potential that this is a grave site is there, we ought to not desecrate the graves,” Joiner said.

Seidel said “there’s no question some died,” but only the hull of the ship — usually used to hold cargo, not people — sank. The upper floors he believes housed people were above the water when the ship sank, Seidel said.

Joiner, referring to news accounts from 1865, asks “Why did the papers not comment on refugee camps or large numbers of refugees at the site?”

Historians would like to see the ship brought up and preserved, but that’s too costly, Joiner said. A cheap alternative would be to bury the stern with the rest of the boat and push the bank stabilization project deeper into the river. That would keep any bodies in the stern undisturbed, Joiner said.

“All we’re asking for is 30 to 50 feet of the river because there is the chance that the dead are still inside,” Joiner said.


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