Wednesday, April 05, 2006

 

Racing time and the Red to save 1830s riverboat

_________________________________________________________________

The Tribune
By Arnold Hamilton
April 04, 2006



John Davis, historical interpreter for the
Oklahoma Historical Society, works on the
drive mechanism of the Heroine, which sank
on the Red River in 1838.

OKLAHOMA CITY - The mystery was buried for 148 years in a southern Oklahoma cow pasture.

It took an act of God and a half-decade of painstaking excavation and old-fashioned sleuthing to unravel it.

Now, Oklahoma historians and Texas A&M researchers are in a race against time to preserve what they view as a treasure of America's westward expansion and Texas independence: the oldest steamboat ever recovered in this country.

Archaeologists are set to return this summer to a remote Red River site about 100 miles northeast of Dallas for what could be the final quest to salvage as much as possible of the 140-foot-long Heroine before funding is exhausted and some artifacts are lost forever to time and weather.

"I think we have a short window of opportunity to save parts of it," said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. "We have critical decisions to make this summer."

The discovery, experts say, not only affords historians and researchers their finest glimpse to date of 19th-century river travel - a key to settling the American West - but also important new details of Lone Star history. As Texas A&M professor Kevin Crisman discovered, the Heroine carried freedom fighters and supplies to frontier Texas, bolstering the fledgling republic in the weeks after Santa Anna's defeat.

"It's like panning for gold," said Crisman of A&M's Institute of Nautical Archaeology, describing the river excavation and detective work that helped unravel the riverboat's history. "You search through a lot of material to get a few nuggets."

The Heroine struck a submerged log in 1838 and sank in the Red River between what would become the states of Texas and Oklahoma. It was carrying a year's supplies to Fort Towson, the frontier garrison that first guarded the U.S.-Mexico border and later served as a processing center as tribes were relocated from the Southeast to Indian Territory.

Five years later, a flood rerouted the river channel, leaving the boat buried - and forgotten - in a sandy cow pasture. It wasn't until a second flood - this one in 1990 - that the river's route changed again, its currents eventually exposing portions of the wreckage that were first spotted by a nearby landowner.

Remnants of the circa 1832 riverboat already are on display in the new Oklahoma History Center, near the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. Other pieces - including the oak rudder –_ are being preserved and strengthened at Texas A&M's laboratories.

More artifacts and a scale-model of the Heroine will be housed in a new, 2,000-square-foot visitors center and museum to be constructed near the Red River at the Fort Towson Historic Site, a project of Oklahoma's 2007 centennial celebration.

"It's more than just Oklahoma history," said Blackburn. "It's regional and national history."

George Bass, a Texas A&M professor emeritus now conducting research in Turkey, said the Heroine's discovery is especially significant because rivers served as the nation's highways during the frontier era.

"Steamboats were a most important factor in the spread of people from east to west," he wrote in an e-mail. "We are interested in learning as much as we can about these boats."

For five summers, nautical archaeologists worked to recover portions of the steamship and artifacts, ranging from a seven-foot section of the main deck to barrels of pickled pork and flour. Atop the priority list for recovery this summer: a flywheel, two axles and the port-side paddle wheel.

Diving in murky, fast-moving water, they also mapped the vessel inch-by-inch, giving experts a detailed first glimpse into the construction, engine and machinery of a 1830s-era riverboat.

John Davis, who manages the Heroine project for the Oklahoma Historical Society, said two 10-by-20-foot docks and a pump barge were custom-built to help with the excavation and mapping.

At the same time, researchers scoured newspapers and government records, eventually piecing together enough clues to tell the Heroine's saga, including its role in the Texas revolution.

Among the finds: a New Orleans' newspaper article noting that the Heroine was carrying 94 troops headed to Texas, just weeks after San Jacinto. A Louisville newspaper advertisement heralded a separate trip to Natchitoches, La., and Texas, most likely to provide supplies to the new republic.

The Heroine worked the Mississippi and Ohio rivers between New Orleans and Louisville, Ky., and later from Vicksburg to various ports on the Red River. At six years, she was old for her profession. Usually riverboats were sunk or retired by that age.

So far, more than $600,000 has been spent on the project, including excavation, mapping and conservation. Of that total, Texas A&M and its Institute of Nautical Archaeology have contributed about $100,000 in equipment and direct and indirect funds.

It would cost several million dollars, at least, to recover and preserve the entire hull, experts say - a price tag so daunting it isn't seriously being discussed.

But it's also a gamble to walk away from the site after this year: Although the riverbed has so far done a pretty good job of preserving some material that is buried, time and weather could destroy quickly what's left of the riverboat.

"We have lost some elements to the river," said Blackburn. "We just don't know what the water might do."

Another concern: Scavengers could stumble onto the site, wreaking havoc on decaying artifacts or sneaking away with historically significant pieces.

The Red River excavations and other research have combined to help provide a fuller picture of what Crisman calls "the glory days of steamboating."

"It was a free-wheeling time in terms of river life," he said. "Everybody was traveling on these boats. Everything they owned was on these boats.

The Heroine's demise, Crisman said, also underscored the oft-precarious realities of 19th-century travel and commerce.

In an era when a skilled worker might earn $1 a day, the Ohio businessmen who contracted with the federal government in November 1837 to provide the year's supplies to Fort Towson the next year stood to clear as much as $5,000 to $6,000 profit from a successful excursion.

Instead, the steamship sank about two miles downriver from the fort - and pay dirt.

Several years later, Crisman said, the businessmen petitioned Congress for partial payment, arguing a portion of the Heroine's cargo - including some soap, candles, pork and flour - was salvaged.

Alas, Crisman said, "We don't know if they ever got it."


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