Red River Project/Steamboat Heroine
Oklahoma, USA

Dr. Kevin Crisman, INA Vice-President and Nautical Archaeology Program Associate Professor, Texas A&M University

Since 2002 INA, the Oklahoma Historical Society, and Texas A&M University have been engaged in a joint study of the western steamboat Heroine (1832-1838), sunk in the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma. Excavation of the wreck’s interior between 2003 and 2006 yielded details of the hull’s construction and a collection of tools, cargo, machinery, and personal items. The 2006 work concluded with the disassembly of the drive mechanism (the port paddle wheel, and the fly wheels and main shafts) and its recovery by helicopter.

One last item of business remained to be finished. In 2006 we located the shaft and outboard flange of Heroine’s starboard paddle wheel and rigged it for removal. Unfortunately, the assembly was reburied by a rise in the river a few days before the helicopter operation and not recovered at that time. A short field project to re-excavate and lift this last piece of machinery was scheduled for 2007, but a rainy summer and very high river levels intervened, forcing postponement of the work until 2008.

After all of the delays, it is with a great relief that we report the return of an INA-TAMU-OHS team to the Red River in September, 2008 and the successful retrieval of the second paddle wheel. Nature cooperated with low water and good weather, although Hurricane Ike sideswiped Oklahoma during the project, bringing two days of clouds, rain, and concern. Over the course of two weeks we were able to relocate and then uncover the elusive machinery using excavation dredges. We didn’t have a helicopter on this trip, so lifting the wheel’s 1600 pounds (725.75 kilograms) of cast iron was done the old-fashioned way by reconfiguring our dive rafts into lift barges and hauling away with chain hoists, cable pulls, slings--and a moderate amount of crude language. 

The 2008 effort also included the recovery of two port side shaft bearings, blocks of iron cast in a half-circle shape to support the weight of the paddle shafts. The two bearings still on the wreck were beneath the shafts we lifted in 2006, and thus inaccessible at that time. After the ordeal of getting the starboard paddle wheel assembly hauled out of the river, we found the 2008 bearing recovery to be a minor operation. It involved a small amount of digging and work with sledge hammers and wedges to lift the pieces above their support timbers, and after cutting four steel bolts with hacksaws they were ready to come out of the water. 

Over our six years of work on the Red River Wreck we learned to always budget extra time for any operation. Because the machinery recovery in 2008 went so smoothly, we had a few extra days for “fun,” which in this case meant opening a test excavation on the port side of the wreck, outside the hull and outboard of the area where the boilers were once mounted. During our earlier excavations inside the hull we found no boilers and only fragments of their cast iron mounts and sheet-metal covering, but thought it would be worthwhile to check outside the wreck in case any boiler elements fetched up in this location.

We had to dig through six feet (1.82 meters) of river bottom sand to reach hull structure, which in this case consisted of the guard timber (that outboard extension of the deck that was a distinctive feature of western steamboats). Despite repeated sweeps with a hand-held metal detector, we found no pieces of the boiler assembly, but the new structure we uncovered more than made up for our disappointment. The beams, stanchions, and cap plank on the guard revealed a myriad of clues to the steamboat’s appearance, clues that will be very useful as the graphic reconstruction of the hull moves forward.

Our last day of diving on the Heroine was enlivened by two visitors from northern Oklahoma, Taylor Brooks and her dad, singer Garth Brooks. Although still finishing high school, Taylor is looking ahead to a potential career in nautical archaeology. She impressed us all with her confidence and skills as a diver (after a short tour of the wreck, she volunteered on one of our dredges and spent two hours moving sand). We were also able to dragoon her father into assisting with the lifting of the heavier of the two cast iron bearing blocks. Their visit adds new meaning to Garth’s popular song “Friends in Low Places.” In Oklahoma, it doesn’t get much lower than the bottom of the Red River.

The clean up of the wreck site on the final two days of the 2008 project was an occasion for relief, but also for sadness. The field work has always been exciting and a challenge, and the discoveries interesting. Heroine has proved far more complete and significant than we dared hope in 2002, and the experience of laboring on and under the river with students, volunteers, and especially with the people of the Oklahoma Historical Society has been terrific. The diving is done, but the discoveries will continue as the conservation, analysis, and writing move forward.

 

Lifting the wheel’s 1600 pounds (725.75 kilograms) of cast iron