For most people, steamboats likely conjure up romantic images of rakish gamblers floating in luxury down the Mississippi River to St. Louis or New Orleans.
Oklahoma probably doesn't come to mind as a stop for a big paddle-powered ship, nor does the Red River seem a likely spot for archaeologists to excavate a shipwrecked steamer.
But the Oklahoma History Center's new “Steamboat Heroine” exhibit in the center's revamped 8,200-square-foot second-floor Kerr McGee Gallery recreates a portion of the lower and upper decks of one such boat, which struck a log and sank on May 6, 1838, while traveling up the Red River to deliver provisions to Fort Towson near Hugo. The Heroine is the oldest Western river steamboat ever excavated by archaeologists, said Dan Provo, director of the Oklahoma History Center.
“We think this will surprise people. They don't expect it,” he said of the new exhibit, officially opening Wednesday. “I think people are going to have a lot of fun with it.”
Unlike the later stern-wheel paddleboats familiar from movies and commemorative cruises, the 140-foot-long Heroine was a side-wheel paddleboat, with one paddle wheel each side. The exhibition is built around a reproduction of the starboard paddle wheel, and visitors can even put their hands on part of the almost 200-year-old cast iron assembly recovered from the Red River.
“With the paddle wheel and then the axle and flywheel inside, all the metal here is original. The wood is reproduction. We recovered some of the wood — and that's being conserved — but it's not the kind of thing that you could put back into a metal assembly like this,” Provo said. “But it's all exactly to scale … so this is what it really looked like.”
The Heroine exhibit has been more than a decade in the making. In 1999, a flood uncovered the wreckage — an 1843 flood shifted the river channel and buried it — and the Oklahoma Historical Society partnered with the Institute for Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University to excavate, study and conserve the boat.
“There were divers floating on a barge, anchored right by the wreck, and they would go down and retrieve portions of it, map it, photograph it,” Provo said. “It adds parts of the story that no one has ever seen before.”
Because of the murkiness that earned the Red River its name, rescuing the Heroine was a painstaking process. Of course, traveling the river in the steamboat's day was hazardous business, and researchers have learned that the Heroine was tough enough to survive at least one boiler explosion and one snag on river debris before hitting the log that sank it.