Treasure hunter finds a bit of history along the Mississippi River
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Along the banks of the Mississippi River, among the ropes and tangles of driftwood, you’ll find Patrick Ford.
“I like to just come walking by the river to see what’s happening,” he said, “or just look for fun little treasure.”
The Mississippi River is at its lowest level since 1992. That has treasure hunters like Ford scouring the lower levee looking for trinkets washed downriver. What he found last month was a treasure too big for a treasure chest.
Ford was walking along a hard-packed mud flat when he saw it. “I had no idea what I was walking over,” he said. A couple of broken posts jutted up from the mud. They were joined by a short plank. “I thought it was maybe -- perhaps an old retaining wall,” he said.
Ford said he didn’t think much of it and continued searching the levee for something he could show off to his friends. When he returned to the spot last week, that one plank had grown into a bit of river lore. “I think ‘wow’ would be a good word for it.” he said,” I passed it by, looked back and I saw this part of the ship, where it comes to that point, and thought maybe it was something a little bit more special than a wall.”
What Ford found was a shipwreck from the early 20th century.
Louisiana State Archaeologist Chip McGimsey thinks Ford stumbled onto the wreck of an early Baton Rouge ferry boat, the S.S. Brookhill. “If this is the boat we think it is,” McGimsey said, “she sank on September 29, 1915.”
The Brookhill was a bootjack ferry. Two wooden pontoons supported a deck, boiler, and paddlewheel that carried wagons, livestock, and people back and forth between Port Allen and Baton Rouge’s business district.
There are few records from the sinking of the Brookhill. McGimsey said it sank in a storm when logs floating downriver crashed into her side. She sank, still moored to the dock at the foot of North St. in downtown Baton Rouge.
The deck, paddlewheel, and left pontoon were probably washed away by the river. The left pontoon settled in the mud of the Mississippi. Archaeologists last saw what remains of the Brookhill back in 1992, the last time the river was this low.
At that time, McGimsey said only about 10 percent of what we see today was visible then. This time, the river has scoured away most of the mud from the front portion of the flat-bottomed pontoon, exposing the keelson (the centerline timber that serves as the backbone of the vessel.) and many of the ship’s ribs.
Next week, a team from the state will visit the site to take measurements and make drawings of what’s left of the Brookhill. They hope to learn more about the way she was built. McGimsey said that in the late 1800s most ships were built without blueprints. They were built more from a vision the boatbuilder had in his mind.
McGimsey said the boat’s condition and lack of historical significance make it a poor candidate for preservation.
Ford is just happy he stumbled onto it. “I find it so interesting that this ship was built so long ago, and it had a little ship life, and it sank.” he said “And it’s still here all these years later.”
So much of our history is just words on a page: stale and dead. Ford’s find gives us a glimpse of our past that we can touch and feel -- a treasure that is real -- at least until the Mississippi claims her once again.
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