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Ghost Boats of the Mississippi (3CT243)

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Model barge...click to enlarge
Work underway on the model barge...click image to enlarge.

In 1988, record low water levels provided an opportunity and obligation to examine the climax of the wooden-hulled age. The Mississippi fell to 10 feet below zero on the Memphis gauge and exposed four and a half acres of water craft remains, dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s, on the bottom of the Mississippi River at West Memphis, Arkansas. The State of Arkansas, the Arkansas Archeological Survey, and the Arkansas Archeological Society responded with a two month data recovery effort. The fieldwork received national media attention as good news in the middle of a drought.

Wreckage of a number of vessels was found, including a coal barge, a double-ended barge known as a "model barge", and the tangled debris of a stern wheel steamboat, complete with largely intact smokestacks. It was loudly asserted by some visitors that we had found the Sultana, a steamboat that blew up near Memphis in 1865, killing nearly 2000 Federal troops recently released from prisoner of war camps. However, recovery of a boiler steam gauge with a trademark of 1878 confirmed otherwise.

Pulleys...click to enlarge
Pulleys in situ..click to enlarge.

The project exploited dry-land field conditions, so we were able to conduct test excavations particularly in the steamboat area as though we were in a bean field instead of being on the bottom of one of the greatest rivers in North America. This produced remarkable results as well, including sets of enameled metal plates that spilled from the galley or crew quarters, and even a long bulkhead from the engine room. The bulkhead had been torn down and used as a staging area for salvage operations after the wreck, and various tools and fittings were piled on this impromptu "floor", including the steam gauge.

"Ghost Boats on the Mississippi"

The crew...click to enlarge
The crew at work on the steamboat wreckage. Click image to enlarge.

An extended popular report is being published by the Arkansas Archeological Survey. The report originated in a symposium at the Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting in Tucson, AZ, in 1991. Titled "Ghost Boats on the Mississippi: Discovering Our Working Past", chapters and illustrations in this report discuss project history, finds, construction and heritage of water craft encountered, the application of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 within months of its signing, the crucial role of the largely volunteer crew, and the necessary larger context of resource management in the Lower Mississippi River.

Table of Contents

Boiler steam gaugeAcknowledgments
Preface: Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
List of Figures
Chapter 1. Introduction: Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Chapter 2. To the Rescue: Hester A. Davis, Mary Ann Goodman, and Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Chapter 3. "Old Al's Going to Get It", for Awhile--Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Chapter 4. Historical Background: Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Chapter 5. The Steamboat and Its Debris Field: Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Chapter 6. The Model Barge, and Other Vessels: Allen R. Saltus, Jr., and Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy
Chapter 7. Why These Wrecks, Here: Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy and Allen R. Saltus, Jr.
Chapter 8. The Wider View: Lower Mississippi River Heritage and Resource Management: Charles E. Pearson
Chapter 9. Conclusion: Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy and Allen R. Saltus, Jr.
Appendices
A. Catalogue of Major Wreck Pieces
B. Crew Members
C. Glossary of River Boat Terms
D. Compilations of Memphis vicinity wrecks, 1878-1940
E. Summary Description of Memphis vicinity wrecks, 1878-1940
F. Sources for Illustrations of Model Barges
G. The Arkansas Archeological Society

Bibliography

Archaeology
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Bates, Alan
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Bragg, Marion
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Capers, Gerald Mortimer, Jr.
1939 The Biography of a River Town: Memphis, Its Heroic Age. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

Clay, Floyd M.
1976 A Century on the Mississippi: A History of the Memphis District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1876-1976. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District, Memphis, TN.

Crawford, Charles W.
1976 Yesterday's Memphis. E.A. Seemann Publishing, Inc., Miami, FL.

Fagan, Brian
1989 "Timelines: Ghosts of the Big Muddy". Archaeology 42(2, March/April):16, 18-19, 21.

Fair, James R.
1998 "Hopefield, Arkansas: Important River-Rail Terminal". Arkansas Historical Quarterly 57(2, Summer):191-204.

Gandy, Joan W. and Thomas H. Gandy
1987 The Mississippi Steamboat Era in Historic Photographs: Natchez to New Orleans 1870-1920. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY.

Garvey, Stan
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Gladfelter, Herbert S.
1952 Fifty Five Years of Dredges and Dredging on the Mississippi River in the Memphis District. Typescript on file, three volumes, Memphis District Corps of Engineers, Memphis, TN.

Hahn, Thurston, H.G. III, Allen R. Saltus, Jr., and Stephen R. James, Jr.
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Havighurst, Walter
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Lawler, Nan
1988 "Thomas E. Tappan, Jr., Steamboat Collection, Manuscript Collection 416". Guide prepared for Special Collections Department, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, AR.

Morrison, Bill
1988 "Historic Lows Uncover Boats". The Waterways Journal 102(14, 4 July): 7, 16.

National Geographic Society
1988 "Drought Helps Uncover Life on the Mississippi". National Geographic Magazine 174(5,November): unpaged, in Geographica section.

Newsweek
1988 "Ghost Boats on the Mississippi". July 18, page 35.

Pearson, Charles E., George J. Castille, Donald Davis, Thomas E. Redard, and Allen R. Saltus, Jr.
1989 A History of Waterborne Commerce and Transportation within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District and an Inventory of Known Underwater Cultural Resources. Coastal Environments, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA. Submitted to the New Orleans District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans, LA.

Potter, Jerry O.
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Robinson, Michael C.
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Saltus, Allen R., Jr., George J. Castille, III, and Charles E. Pearson
1995 Natchez Under the Hill: Historical and Archaeological Investigations of Watercraft Along the Mississippi River, Adams County, Mississippi. Report prepared for Vicksburg District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, by Coastal Environments, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA.

Samuel, Ray, Leonard V. Huber, and Warren C. Ogden
1955 Tales of the Missississippi. Reprinted 1981 by Pelican Publishing Co., Gretna, LA.

Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C.
1988 "Arkansas Boatwrecks Research". Society for Historical Archaeology Newsletter 21(Dec., 4):16-17.

1990 "Ghost Boats on the Mississippi: Opportunity, Obligation, and Watercraft at West Memphis, Arkansas, in the Drought Summer of 1988", Organizer and Chair, symposium presented at the January annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Tucson, AZ.

Time
1988 "The Mississippi: The River Gives Up its Secrets". August 22, p.36.

Twain, Mark
1960 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Signet Classics, NAL Penguin, Inc., New York, NY. First published 1883.

1961 Life on the Mississippi. Signet Classics, NAL Penguin, Inc., New York, NY. First published 1884.

Wayman, Norbury L.
1969 Life on the River: A Pictorial History of the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Western River System. Bonanza Books, New York, NY.

Williams, Bobby Joe
1986 "Into the Second Century, Memphis Engineer District, 1976-1981", A Century on the Mississippi: A History of the Memphis District U.S.Army Corps of Engineers 1876-1981. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District, Memphis, TN.

Young, J.P., editor
1912 Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee. H.W. Crew & Co., Knoxville, TN. reprinted in facsimile 1974 by West Tennessee Historical Society, Memphis, TN, by Unigraphic, Inc., Evansville, IN.

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