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SIU's Dr. Mark Wagner Unveils Ohio River Archaeological Finds in New Book

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SIU Press
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Flatboats were the most prevalent form of transportation on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers through the late 1700's and early 1800's. While the harsh, active river currents and salvaging settlers have left little to explore of these boats, the remains of one vessel have been found in the muddy banks of the Ohio. Kate Lochte welcomes SIU Carbondale Center for Archaeological Investigations Director Dr. Mark Wagner to Sounds Good to discuss his new book "The Wreck of the America in Southern Illinois: A Flatboat on the Ohio River."

Dr. Wagner describes flatboats as square, rectangular vessels that look like "floating shoe boxes." They were made using the same simple technology used to build log cabins, which is why they were such a prevalent form of transportation.

While they were simple to construct, navigating such large, flat vessels down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers proved difficult. Ships wrecked all the time or succumbed to pirate and indian attacks, strong storms, icy waters or floating debris. 

The America, the vessel discovered along the banks of the Ohio River in 2000, remains the only one of its boat type found to date. Dr. Wagner attributes this to swift currents and local settlers who dismantled abandoned boats for building materials. 

The location of the boat remains to be a problem, however. When the boat was found, it was not removed for a number of reasons.

For one, it would have taken a large amount of money to preserve the structure. Once removed from the riverbank, the wood would start warping as it dried unless placed in a vat of chemicals to slow down the drying process to three to four years. 

Another issue waiting to be solved concerns where to place the boat when it is ready to exhibit. Locals want the flatboat displayed in their county, though they have no place to display it. Illinois doesn't want it to be displayed in Kentucky, and few museums have enough exhibit space to commit to displaying an artifact of this size. 

So, the America remains tucked away in the banks of the Ohio. While the water level is high, the boat is safe under dozens of feet of water. However, Dr. Wagner worries about lowering water levels that would expose the flatboat to swift currents and large waves from barges which could further deteriorate the remains.  

"At some point, as the only example of one of these boats ever found, it needs to be removed from that riverbank," Dr. Wagner said.

His book, published this month 15 years after the wreck's discovery, is available for sale here.  

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