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Much of the cargo and machinery would likely have been salvaged, but part of the hull and other elements could have survived, buried in silt and gravel, preserved in the anaerobic environment under water.3 Thus, there are likely thousands of wrecks underwater, in the river bank, and under soybean fields and corn fields where river channels have changed, often as the result of those same sinkings, which blocked the flow of the river and forced it to move away from the wreckage.4 There are obstacles to the search for lost watercraft in inland waterways, not least that visibility underwater is usually almost nil due to silt loads and other factors. Due to an intriguing set-up, the water in navigable streams is actually the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and thus falls under national environmental protection, whereas the bottom of rivers and streams are the responsibility of the states.6 This can make resources difficult to manage, and site survey and documentary research become crucial.7 Federal and state agencies also play a role when assessing whether or not a wreck site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.8 There was an extraordinary opportunity to examine the wrecks of steamboats and other vessels during the drought summer of 1988, on the Arkansas shore of the Mississippi River opposite Memphis, Tennessee.
Ghost Boats at West Memphis LESLIE C. “SKIP” STEWART-ABERNATHY IN THE EARLY TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, nearly every item Americans buy comes from overseas packed in huge standardized metal containers that are stacked by the thousands in ships, from near their keels to ten to fifteen lay- ers above the deck.1 The technology may be new, but the importance of shipping by water is not. For millennia, water has provided the easiest way to transport goods and people over long distances. It has only been in about the last 150 years that there has been any real alternative—first in the form of railroads, then trucks and aircraft. In the center of North America, the archetypical watercraft was the glistening, magnificent white steamboats memorialized by such works as Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.2 But as vital as such vessels were to the nation’s commerce, we know little about them. Not one of the thou- sands of nineteenth-century wooden-hulled steamboats is still floating to- day. We know some historic vessels through photographs and old newspapers and other archival sources, but few are precisely described. Little actual literature from the nineteenth century, and few specifications or plans, survive. 1 Brian J. Cudahy, Box Boats: The Story of Container Ships (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006); Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). 2 Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1884; New York: Signet Classics, 1961). Leslie C. “Skip” Stewart Abernathy is an archaeologist with the Arkansas Archeology Survey at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, Petit Jean Mountain. A project of this scale of data recovery and analysis depends on the integrated efforts of many people, many of whom have been credited in the project report. The author wants to especially note the work of Allen Saltus, the Arkansas Archeological Society members, his colleagues in the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Mary Kwas for her work on this special issue, and, finally, Deborah Sabo, editor of the project report, who transformed archaeological gibberish into readable prose. THE ARKANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY VOL. LXVII, NO. 4, WINTER 2008 GHOST BOATS AT WEST MEMPHIS 399 This is where archaeology can make an immediate and
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