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Archaeologists salvage 1800s-era flatboat

By Bonnie Marx

For more than a century travelers, immigrants, and farmers depended on flatboats to travel the nation's waterways. Anyone who could build a log cabin could construct the box-like boat made of planks.

Because flatboats couldn't navigate upriver, they were broken up and sold for lumber when they reached their destination. Consequently, none were preserved for posterity.

Until now.

Two years ago researchers at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale learned from local resident John Schwegman of the existence of a flatboat submerged in the Ohio River near the tiny town of Olmstead just a few miles before the Ohio and Mississippi rivers converge at Cairo.

More than a year elapsed while SIU-C researchers chased permits and permissions from agencies and landowners. This summer, when the river dropped to a low level and exposed the structure, SIU-C faculty and students finally got the chance to photograph and map the boat. Mark J. Wagner, an archaeologist with the university's Center for Archaeological Investigations, led the effort.

"We don't know why the flatboat wrecked because the front is missing," I Wagner said. "My feeling is that the I cargo aboard was salvaged because the artifacts we recovered were tools and personal items.They would have gotten the cargo off because that was worth money.

The flatboat era on the Ohio River began about 1780, Wagner said, and continued through aboul 1900 when the locks on the river forced the clumsy boats into I oblivion. The flatboats couldn't navigate through the locks. In the early 1800s. flatboats were the I transport of choice for taking crops to market. In those days, farmers would I walk all the way back from New Orleans, Wagner said. By the late 1800s, trains or steamboats could be used for the return. The discovery of the Ohio River flatboat is proving important in several ways.

Robert H. Swenson, SIU-C assistant professor of architectural studies who assisted in the project, said flatboats are historically important because the wood from many of the flatboats became the building material for many of the first land structures— the first architectural features in the region.

"Knowing this history is a guide for future regional planning and development," said Swenson, one of the developers of a proposed Land of the Rivers Research and Regional Planning Center at Cairo.

"There are only about a half-dozen first-hand accounts of how these boats were put together," Wagner said. "No one has ever seen one before to see how they were put together as opposed to how they said they did it. This was put together differently than any of the written accounts." About half of the bottom of the original boat remains, although one 45-foot-long gunwale (the upper edge of a boat's side) is intact. The boat was originally 45 feet long and 12 feet wide.The gunwales were split from the same tree. Made entirely of oak, the boat was fitted together with wooden pegs, not nails.

Southern Illinois University-Carbondale archaeologists excavate a 19th-century flatboat at Olmstead, near the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Wagner found himself in a race against the river as it began to rise and re-submerge the boat. It was important to fill the boat with something that would keep it intact until next year's low water levels. Wagner hopes that all or part of the boat could be removed to a museum at that time if grant money becomes available.

Meanwhile, Wagner worries that more damage will occur, sweeping parts downstream. "Driftwood rams into it," he said. "Every time a barge passes you can see the wave action come in."

Preserving the flatboat won't be easy. It will require submerging it in a vat for up to a year to replace the water with polyethylene glycol. If it were allowed to simply air out, the boards would warp and crack as they dried out, Wagner said.

This marks only the third archaeological investigation in Illinois involving boats, Wagner said. The others were the wreck of the Lady Elgin steamer in Lake Michigan and a canal boat on the Illinois-Michigan Canal. The next step for Wagner is a report to the Illinois Historic-Preservation Agency, which funded this year's effort.

"We're hoping to get some sort of museum display out of this. That's something we have to explore," Wagner said. Although there are few facilities large enough to display a 45-foot-long structure, Wagner is confident an appropriate venue will be found.

"Maybe we can do a traveling exhibition that could go down to Cairo—maybe the Customs House at Cairo could do it. That would be a way of giving it back to the community. "

Illinois Heritage | 25

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