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.
“If people think about steamboats and riverboat gamblers, this was before that. And it was a very different thing,” Provo said. “The rivers were wild places. The sandbars would shift, logs would move, snags would pop up. So it was a very dangerous environment. In fact, most boats didn't make it six years. A boat that was six years old as the Heroine was — it was built in 1832 — we have a journal description that talked about it being ‘a tired old boat.'”
Actual items recovered from the steamboat — from corn cobs and water pipes to medicine bottles and boots — are displayed alongside drawings and models detailing the ship before and after the wreck.
“Right now it's a facade … but our intention in the future is to create upstairs an upper-deck cabin where you have a common eating area, a men's cabin, a women's cabin, and start to tell some of the more personal day-to-day lives and stories of some of the people that were and would've been on the boat,” Provo said.
“Nothing takes the place of seeing the real stuff. And here's a chance for people to see it up close: They see the size, the scale, what it means, how it fits together, how it all works.”
Matt Reed, the history center's curator of military history and American Indian collections, also incorporated flour barrels and other items recovered from the Heroine into the revamped adjacent exhibit “A Sense of Duty: Oklahomans Defending Their Country,” which explores the state's military history.
“I wanted to give people more of an insight into what it was like to try to find food in the Army on the frontier,” he said. “They supplemented their diet with flour, pork, vinegar, beans — and that's kind of what was coming on the steamboat in addition to candles and soap — but one of the things … Congress thought was a cost-saving measure was to ship these books called ‘The New American Gardener' with packets of seeds out the posts and then soldiers were going to plant gardens and they would grow their own food. So that's a lot of what you saw when you went to Fort Gibson or Fort Towson.”
The changes to the second-floor gallery — along with the new “Steamboat Heroine” and revamped military history exhibit, it boasts an updated display on the state's African-American history and a new exhibit dedicated to oil and natural gas — are part of the history center's ongoing mission to keep its offerings fresh.
“We've been open for eight years, and we've been changing exhibits … that whole time. But with this one, we wanted to tell a couple of different stories on a larger scale,” Provo said.