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Steamboat Graveyards Yield 'Time Capsules' to Salvagers

History: Marine archeologists scour the 19th century wrecks in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers for artifacts.

July 07, 2002|JIM SUHR | Associated Press Writer

ST. LOUIS — His boots caked in the shoreline muck befitting the Missouri River's pseudonym, the "Big Muddy," Steve Dasovich gingerly climbs about the carcass of a 19th century steamboat and thinks death becomes her.

Partly hidden under murky water and silt, the remains are a muddle of rusted steel spiking through rotting wood, veined with cracks and bleached by decades of sun and water. The outline of a vessel spanning half a football field still can be seen, as can the wooden spokes--half-buried in mud--showing where the massive paddlewheel once turned.

Dasovich is a maritime archeologist hired by the state of Missouri to preserve any artifacts from the relic. He isn't put off by the river, which teases him by giving up such skeletons of American history when its waters recede, only to swallow them up again.

"Wrecks show you something, then hide it again," he said, near what could be the remnants of the Montana, among the largest steamboats to ply the Missouri before it hit a railroad bridge and sank in 1884.

He's beaming. "This is a lot of wreck to be still in one piece. This is an active river, a living river. So we're lucky to have this much in one spot."

The Missouri and Mississippi rivers have claimed hundreds of the wood-devouring, smoke-belching giants. Many underwater tombs are awaiting discovery.

Many historians estimate that in the Missouri from St. Louis to Fort Benton, Mont., hundreds of ships--many of them steamboats--were done in by such calamities as fires, explosions, ice floes and run-ins with toppled trees.

Along a 180-mile stretch of the Mississippi from St. Louis south to the river's confluence with the Ohio near Cairo, Ill., records suggest more than 500 boats met a similar end.

No one knows how many steamboat wreckage sites remain underwater or beneath farm fields (hidden there by the river's shifting course) or were ripped apart by currents. Their remains do appear to have been alluring to those wanting to salvage them--or to souvenir seekers.

"Everyone wants to see these wrecks," said Terry Norris, an archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis district. "If you envision the past as a jigsaw puzzle, each piece lying out there is a piece. If enough of it is removed, it's impossible to see the whole image."

The watery graveyards reflect bygone days when steamboats ruled, swelling from just a few on the Mississippi around 1815 to the more than 700 that regularly rolled on the river by 1860.

At the Port of St. Louis, 22,045 steamboat arrivals were logged between 1845 and 1852. Two years later, steamboats could be seen lined up side by side for more than a mile along the city's riverfront.

Powering them on the river was no small feat. Smaller steamboats of the time burned 12 to 24 cords of wood every 24 hours, the larger ones 50 to 75 cords--enough to build 15 small houses.

Such staggering demand for wood resulted in widespread deforestation and destabilizing of the river banks. Between 1821 and 1888, the Mississippi became increasingly wider and shallower, with the lower channel depth disrupting navigation and posing perils for all vessels. On average, a steamboat lasted 18 months.

Between St. Louis and Cairo, by some accounts, the Mississippi steamboat wrecks averaged one each mile--200 altogether before the vessels faded into lore and railroads gained popularity.

Once salvaged, wrecked steamboats have proven to be popular draws. Each year, roughly 150,000 people visit a Kansas City museum where the centerpiece is the Arabia, which sank in 1856 near Parkville and was exhumed--along with thousands of artifacts--in the late 1980s.

"There are still hundreds that remain to be identified, all preserved under the sediment," said Norris, citing existing insurance records that show where the ships went down and what was salvaged at the time. "The ones still intact with cargo are essentially time capsules with significant amounts of information about whatever period we're talking about."

There are few artifacts around the weathered wreckage Dasovich is exploring. The sternwheeler's resting place, he says, has been looted countless times. Dasovich has salvaged a crate of rusted, enameled saucepans--some in pieces or without bottoms.

"It's very important for Missourians to see these types of historical sites and allow them to have a better understanding of the state's cultural heritage," Dasovich said.

He plans to let the wreckage stay put.

"Pending a big flood, it's not going anywhere."

His only request is, "Look but don't touch."

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