The archeology department from the Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division office shed a little more light on the history of a Mississippi River boat wreck that a Perry County couple stumbled upon during an afternoon stroll late last month along the river bank.
Corps representatives confirmed it is a steamboat thought to have sunk more than a century ago. The wreckage is located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, on the Missouri side, a little more than a quarter mile south of the bridge that spans from the Bois Brule Bottoms of Perry County to Chester, Ill.
During the height of steamboats’ use in the second half of the 19th Century, they were the considered the royalty of the rivers, with an estimated 15,000 vessels in operation moving people and goods from Minnesota to St. Louis to New Orleans.
It was also a time when an estimated 700-800 boats sank to the muddy bottoms of Ol’ Man River, their hulls torpedoed by fallen trees, camouflaged in the murky water, or meeting a fiery fate when their steam powered boilers exploded, often killing those aboard. For more than a century, many of those wrecks remained covered by water and silt deposits, but as the current drought stretches into the new year, the skeletal remains of these hulking giants are again seeing the light of day as the Mississippi River drops to historically low levels. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Historian Carl Camillo confirmed last week that the boat Donna Lintner and her fiancé found along the shores is the remains of a steam powered paddle boat that sank in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The bricks found with the skeletal remains of the boat were in fact not part of the cargo, but were instead part of the firebox that generated the steam power which moved the paddle boat up and down the water way.
“We don’t have a lot of information about the boat,” Camillo said. “No name of the vessel, or even who owned the ship, but what we do know is it was a stream driven, stern-wheeler paddle boat used as a push boat, meaning it was used to push bigger loads of barges up and down the river. It was 25 meters long, by 7.8 meters wide.”
Camillo said the vessel was the equivalent of a modern day tugboat, and was powered by burning coal, not wood, which helps narrow down the time it was in service.
“The wreckage is still well intact,” he said. “Portions of the firebox, lower deck, paddle wheel and the hull of the boat are visible.”
Based on the boat’s remains, Corps archeologists determined it sank because it caught fire.
“There is clear evidence of charring on the boards, indicating this boat burned,” Camillo said.
Interestingly enough, this wreckage isn’t the only one in the area. Camillo confirmed that on the east bank of the river, within walking distance of the steamboat, are the remains of two other vessels that sank.
“On the Chester side, there are two more vessels, not as intact as this one and mostly covered with sediment,” he said. “One is much larger, and also appears to have burned.”
Anything of value was salvaged from these crash sites years ago, and are now little more than an underwater memorial to a time gone by. The Corps has worked over the years to chart where they are located for navigational purposes.
“The last time the river underwent prolonged low water, Corps archeologists took helicopter rides traveling low along the course of the river, documenting the exact location of these wrecks,” Camillo said.
For sightseers, it is a race against Mother Nature to catch a glimpse of the wrecks before the skeletal wood and iron remains are again covered by the massive river, which swallowed them decades ago.
Perry County resident Yvonne Romann, who for years lived along the banks of the river, said the appearance of the boat wrecks are not news to the people of the bottoms.
“We’ve known about them for years,” Romann said. “Kind of like our secret. We were almost sad to see it in the paper.”
Romann brought her own research about the steamboat D.A. January to the newspaper office. Built in 1857, the vessel was piloted by Horace Bixby, and Missouri’s own Samuel L. Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) served as a deck hand for roughly a month that same year. The D.A. January met her fate a decade later when she was “snagged and lost” on Dec. 18, 1867 in Chester, Ill.
“There is all kinds of history down there,” Romann said.
The steamboat currently visible in Perry County is just one of many that have made an appearance along the Mississippi River this year, due to the low water levels.
The Southeast Missourian reported in September of the remains of a shipwreck found along the Cape Girardeau shores that “likely was a barge from around 1920 that may have been used in conjunction with paddle wheel boats.”
In St. Louis, a World War II minesweeper that served as a floating museum along the historic St. Louis Landing before being washed away by the historic flood-waters of 1993, has also been uncovered.
“It has been fun to beach comb way out on sandbars that have not been revealed for years,” Lintner said. “But not only do we like to beach comb, we also love a good mystery.”