Archives For Riverine

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CC Courtesy of Harold Meerveld on Flickr

Engineers and archaeologists have successfully raised a 600 year old sailing cog from the depths of the Ijssel River in the Netherlands. The 55 ton vessel, along with a barge and punt, had been deliberately sunk to alter the flow of the river to make it more navigable and easier for ships to dock on the Ijssel’s banks. Then, as now, maritime trade was essential to the Dutch economy and any impediments to riverine traffic directly affected the economic well-being of the area’s inhabitants. As such, medieval maritime engineers devised a plan to divert the flow of silt from the river’s banks making docking along the bank easier. The engineers strategically sank the cog, barge and punt to achieve their goal. The river quickly silted up over the vessels which created the anaerobic environment essential to the state of preservation they are currently in.

The vessels were rediscovered in 2012 and a lifting platform was built to raise the vessel from the seabed. As is the case with many scuttled vessels, the cog had been stripped of all items of value, however, archaeologists hope to study the techniques in the construction of the vessel. Now begins the lengthy preservation process which involves slowly removing salt from the vessel’s timbers and eventually drying it out. If successful, then the vessel would be a smaller version of England’s Mary Rose or Sweden’s Vasa.

HMS Wellesley

As bombs rained down on London, Liverpool and other British cities during the dark days of the Blitz, one bomb not only made waves, but also revealed that truth is often stranger than fiction. Floating on the River Thames on the night of September 23, 1940 was the training ship Cornwall, a former British wooden hulled ship of the line converted to training duties for youngsters. During that night’s Luftwaffe raid, though, the ship was severely damaged and eventually sank to be refloated and broken up for scrap in 1948. In sinking, the ship became the last Royal Navy ship of the line to be lost to enemy action as well as the only one to be sunk in an air raid.

Although the Cornwall met a rather ignominious end at the bottom of the Thames, the ship was once a jewel in the British fleet. Laid down in 1812 and commissioned in 1815 as HMS Wellesley, the ship was built out of teak which made her incredibly resistant to rot. The ship spent much of her time in active service in the Indian Ocean and Far East. In 1839, the Wellesley led the successful attack on and capture of Karachi and was subsequently heavily involved in the First Opium War. By 1854 the ship was retired to guard duty and was opened on May 5, 1859 as a reformatory ship for 260 boys under the School Ship Society. The next 80 years saw her continue in this role as she bounced between ports in the UK. Sadly, the ship was the subject of some scandal when, in 1903, seven boys contracted typhoid from cheap blankets that had been sold to the ship unwashed and infected by army hospitals.

luftwaffe sinks british ship

TS Cornwall Bombed Out By Luftwaffe

paraguay navy
In the midst of the 1864-1870 Paraguayan War, the Paraguayan Navy launched a bold assault on the larger Brazilian Navy while it lay at anchor on the Riachuelo River. On the morning of June 11, 1865 a Paraguayan force of nine ships and seven armed barges approached the slumbering Brazilian fleet. The original plan was to board the Brazilian vessels while their crews were still ashore asleep, however, at the last minute the Paraguayan commander deviated from the plan and opened fire on the Brazilian ships from a distance. This proved to be a devastating mistake as the Brazilians were able to quickly rally, board their vessels and bring their superior firepower to bear on the smaller Paraguayan force.

The Paraguayan fleet positioned itself so as to trap the Brazilian fleet in the river. The move proved pointless, though, as the superior Brazilian fleet audaciously steamed at the Paraguayans and rammed and sank several of the Paraguay vessels. By the time the smoke cleared, the Brazilians had lost only a single vessel while sinking four of the nine Paraguayan ships and all seven of their armed barges. The victory helped the Brazilians and their allies turn the tide of the war as Paraguay had enjoyed multiple victories early in the war. In all, nearly 1,000 souls perished in the early morning battle.

Amethyst Incident

Sunset on the Yangtze River
CC Image Courtesy of Dan Nelson on Flickr

On April 20, 1949, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Amethyst was cruising up China’s mighty Yangtze River as hundreds of western gunboats had done over the previous century. The Amethyst had been ordered to relieve HMS Consort which was guarding the British Embassy and British interests at the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing. Around 9:30am, without warning, a People’s Liberation Army artillery battery opened fire on the vessel. The PLA battery rained a deadly barrage of shells on the ship, quickly disabling her and mortally wounding her captain, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner. The vessel quickly found herself aground and unable to return fire due to the geometry of her grounding and damage sustained in the initial barrage to her fire control mechanisms. Non-essential personnel were ordered to evacuate the frigate, but the PLA began targeting the small boats with artillery and snipers. By the time the firing ceased at 11am, 22 Royal Navy sailors and officers lay dead with another 31 wounded.

HMS Consort arrived at 11am to lend her support and quickly suppressed the PLA fire. Unable to take the Amethyst in tow, the Consort concentrated on lashing out at the gathering horde of PLA soldiers. Another ten sailors were killed and three wounded during the Consort’s efforts. Not until later that night was Amethyst refloated, however, she was unable to escape and thus began a tense ten week siege during which the PLA refused to allow supplies to reach the vessel.

Finally, on the night of July 30th, the Amethyst slipped her chains and snuck down the Yangtze behind a passenger ship. Sadly the PLA, in their efforts to sink the Amethyst, sank the passenger ship with heavy civilian casualties. After a short sail of two days under escort from another Royal Navy vessel, the Amethyst arrived in the British colony of Hong Kong. The Amethyst had been trapped 101 days and upon her arrival famously signaled “Have rejoined the Fleet south of Woo Sung. No damage or casualties. God Save the King.”

For those to whom the British Empire represented, despite its flaws, a force for the rule of law and economic development, the Amethyst Incident represented the beginning of the sunset on Her Majesty’s Government’s influence in China. For those who viewed the expulsion of foreigners as the beginning of a great socialist experiment, the incident instilled pride which, unless one were a party elite, was crushed in the years following “Liberation” as Frank Dikotter has so eloquently elucidated in his latest book The Tragedy of Liberation.

Mississippi

The Mississippi River is the fourth longest river in the world with a watershed encompassing all or parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces – 1.2 million square miles worth. 1,200,000 square miles is a lot of territory to cover and yet in his latest book, Old Man River, Paul Schneider provides readers with a sweeping overview of the river from its geological origins to the taming of the river by the modern US Army Corps of Engineers. Schneider serves up a veritable feast with an appetizer of geology, a second course of pre-historic and Indian tales, a main course of 19th and 20th century stories spiced with liberal helpings of Mike Fink, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain and finished off with a dessert of modern events.

Interspersed throughout historical tales of floods, Indian raids and keelboats, Schneider weaves in his own odyssey on the Mississippi and her tributaries. From kayaking the Ohio alone to drifting down the Mississippi with his son, Schneider brings to life the various locales he visits. For those who have spent any amount of time living on the River, Schneider’s book will especially resonate as he perfectly captures the feelings and color of the River’s varying culture. Although a couple passages inadvertently come across as elitist and preachy, overall Old Man River is a beautiful ode to one of America’s defining geographic landmarks. For those looking to lazily drift from the breadbasket plains states past Mark Twain’s Hannibal, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium, the antebellum homes of Natchez, the bluffs of Vicksburg where the blood of men in blue and gray flowed and down to the Cajun culture of the Delta, Old Man River is a highly recommended read.

civil war steamboat

Sultana Ablaze
Photo: Library of Congress

In the waning weeks of the Civil War, the riverboat Sultana departed New Orleans with a load of livestock and passengers bound for St. Louis. Having developed a leak in one of its boilers, the ship stopped in at Vicksburg, Mississippi for some makeshift repairs to replace the leaking boiler plates. Following this stopover, the ship proceeded upriver against the strong spring currents of the Mississippi. Aboard the ship were hundreds of recently released Yankee POWs making their way home from Confederate prison camps. On the evening of April 27, 1865, as the ship’s crew piled on steam to overcome the Mississippi’s currents, a massive explosion ripped through the wooden bowels of the ship and set the entire vessel aflame.

Ablaze and adrift, the Sultana ran aground on the west bank of the Mississippi near present-day Marion, Arkansas. Despite the efforts of several rescue ships, hundreds perished in the frigid waters of the Mississippi from hypothermia or drowning. Dozens more were killed by the initial explosion and subsequent fire. Most of the survivors were taken ~9 miles downriver to Memphis where another ~300 died from their burns. The official death tolleventually reached 1,547, however, estimates have ranged as high as 1,900. Regardless of which figure is correct, the sinking is to this day the deadliest maritime disaster in US history. Despite its high body count, the Sultana’s sinking, both in 1865 and in a historical context, has often been overshadowed by President Lincoln’s assassination and the conclusion of the Civil War.

City of Medicine Hat
 
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
CC Image Courtesy of Space Ritual on Flickr

UPDATE 3/12/13 – The Star Phoenix released a story yesterday concerning recent archaeological work performed on the SS City of Medicine Hat which sank under mysterious circumstances on June 7, 1908. The lead archaeologist on the project, Butch Amundson, now believes that the steamer was wrecked on purpose. This is due to a surprising lack of personal effects on the wreck and the removal of expensive items such as its 6-foot tall brass music box just prior to the ship’s sinking.

PREVIOUS POSTThe Star Phoenix reported earlier last week that more than 1,000 artifacts have been recovered from what is believed to the wreck of the SS City of Medicine Hat. Designed and built by the wealthy and eccentric Scottish nobleman Horatio Hamilton Ross, the ship was intended to operate as an inland steamer in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada.The ship sank on her maiden voyage from Medicine Hat, Alberta to Winnipeg, Manitoba on June 7, 1908. City of Medicine Hat’s rudder was rendered inoperable when it snagged an underwater obstacle and the vessel drifted against a bridge abutment where it capsized under the swift river currents of the South Saskatchewan River.

There were no casualties in the sinking and the ship sank into both metaphysical and physical obscurity. This August, though, a crew working to replace a bridge across the South Saskatchewan River recovered more than 1,000 artifacts from approximately 25 feet below the surface. Archaeologists working with the project believe with substantial certainty that the artifacts belong to the City of Medicine Hat. Miscellaneous artifacts such as an anchor were previously recovered in 2006 and 2008, but this is the first comprehensive recovery of items since initial salvage efforts concluded on the vessel in 1908. While the final disposition of the artifacts is still in question, they most certainly will assist historians in painting a more complete picture of turn of the century riverine life in central Canada.