Ghost Boats on the Mississippi: Discovering Our Working Past

By Thurman, Don Gray | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview
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Ghost Boats on the Mississippi: Discovering Our Working Past


Thurman, Don Gray, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Ghost Boats on the Mississippi: Discovering Our Working Past. Edited by Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy. (Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 2002. Pp. ix, 237. Preface, acknowledgments, maps, illustrations, appendices, references cited, index. $30.00.)

Ghost Boats on the Mississippi should be of considerable interest to Arkansas historians, especially those concerned with inland maritime development or who have a penchant for scientific archeological studies. It is a well written and thoroughly documented study of a boneyard-a submerged resting place for riverboats-on the bottom of the Mississippi River near West Memphis.

In the spring of 1988, record low water on the Mississippi exposed the wreckage of several wooden boats that had been submerged for nearly one hundred years. The low water allowed personnel from the Arkansas Archeology Survey of the University of Arkansas System to excavate the site. Approximately four acres of twisted metal and wooden debris that, according to the authors, "resembled a disaster area or a collapsed ghost town," the site provided an excellent opportunity for archeologists, maritime historians, and others to explore, inventory, and study a cross-section of boats that operated on the Mississippi (p. 2).

Since the Mississippi is unpredictable and prone to rise quickly, these scholars had to complete this study as quickly as possible. The authors considered the project to be "emergency or salvage archeology" and received the cooperation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Arkansas governor's office, the Arkansas Archeological Survey, and several volunteer organizations. By the time the professional archeologists were able to start work, many people had begun to loot the site, and arrangements had to be made to secure the area.

The book is written in the scientific style of professional archaeologists. This may be somewhat disconcerting to lay people. But, after a time, the text becomes less troublesome, as the reader becomes more familiar with the terminology employed by the authors of the individual chapters.

The first four chapters provide background helpful in understanding the excavation. Authors discuss the problems associated with excavating boneyards and the application of archeological methods to such sites. Chapter four offers a short history of the river from 1865 until 1940, the golden age of steamboating made famous by Mark Twain and others.

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