Read Clive Cussler; Craig Dirgo Online

Authors: The Sea Hunters II

Tags: #General, #Social Science, #Shipwrecks, #Transportation, #Ships & Shipbuilding, #Underwater Archaeology, #History, #Archaeology, #Military, #Naval

Clive Cussler; Craig Dirgo (10 page)

BOOK: Clive Cussler; Craig Dirgo
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A yes and a kiss sealed the deal.

The first marriage on a steamboat turned out to be brief.

A few days later, the first cargo of cotton was loaded aboard New
Once the bales were secured on deck and the wood for the boiler secured in the hold, there was little else to do. They left for New Orleans on the seventh day of January 1812.


DAWN CAME LIKE a lamb on January 12, 1812. A clear sky greeted Nicholas Roosevelt as he sat alone on top of the aft cabin. The air was dry, with only occasional small gusts of wind that rippled the placid surface of the river. After all that had transpired, it seemed odd that New Orleans would arrive so calmly in the city for which she was named. Nicholas stared to the west. A flock of pelicans, three dozen in all, flew overhead from west to east. The flock was headed for Lake Pontchartrain, some three miles distant. The city of New Orleans was only two miles farther.

“What are you- thinking?” Lydia said, as she climbed up onto the roof.

Nicholas smiled and sat quietly for a moment before answering.

“I was wondering what will happen to this old girl in the future,” he added.

Orleans has faced down the devil,” Lydia said. “She’ll be on this river long after we’re gone, dear.”

“I hope so,” Roosevelt said.

“After all she’s been through,” Lydia said, “it would really take a lot to hurt her.”

Just then Andrew Jack shouted, “New Orleans!”

But Lydia Roosevelt would be proved wrong. New Orleans sank thirty months later. After numerous weekly profitable journeys between Natchez and New Orleans and her brief service transporting men and supplies downriver for Andrew Jackson’s army during the Battle of New Orleans, the evening of July 14, 1814, found her on the west side of the Mississippi across from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a place called Clay’s Landing.

John Clay had the wood cut, stacked, and waiting as usual. Ten cords in total; ten dollars would be his payment. Clay waited out of the rain under a nearby tree as New Orleans pulled close to the dock leading from shore. He watched as a deckhand tossed a line over one of the poles set deep in the Mississippi River mud. Then he waited until he saw the captain poke his head out of the pilothouse.

“John,” the captain shouted. “Got my wood?”

“All cut and stacked.” Clay started from under the tree just as a bolt of lightning struck another tree thirty yards upstream. His hair shot out from his scalp at the static electricity, and he huddled back under the tree.

The captain nodded to the deckhands milling around on the deck. “We still have three hours of daylight left. Let’s get the wood loaded on board.” Then he turned to Clay.

“Come into my cabin,” the captain said, “and I’ll pay for the wood.”

Clay followed the captain to his cabin and waited as he counted out the French gold dauphins. After placing the coins in a leather pouch, John pulled the drawstring tight, then slid the rawhide rope around his head.

“Want a drink?” the captain asked.

“I’m a little chilled,” Clay admitted.

So they had a drink and waited together while the wood was loaded.

A short time later, Clay stepped onto the dock and the captain, who followed, stared up at the sky.

“We get your wood on board tonight, we can get an early start in the morning.”

“Makes sense,” Clay said, as he started up the dock. “The river will be choked with debris from the big rain.”

“Good night,” the captain shouted after the retreating woodsman.

“Watch for the falling water,” Clay shouted back.

But the captain was already inside, and he never heard the warning.

Before the Mississippi River was controlled by dikes and spillways, the water level could quickly drop by feet following a big rain. As the rain-swollen tributaries spilled into the river and the highest point of depth was reached, the water would then race downstream, actually sucking the level lower. After a half-day or so, the level would usually return to normal. The next morning, at first light, the captain ordered New Orleans put into reverse to back away from the dock—but she was hung fast on a sunken stump. A few back-and-forth motions and the bottom of her hull was holed.

A passenger on board wrote of the sad event in the
Louisiana Gazette
of July 26, 1814:


On Sunday 10th July, left New Orleans. On Wednesday the 13th, arrived at Baton Rouge—landed some cargo. And in the evening departed and arrived at Mr. Clay’s Landing, two miles above on the opposite shore, the usual place of taking in wood. The night being dark and rainy, the Capt. considered it most prudent to secure the boat for the night... Early in the morning, preparations were made for departing, and at daylight the engine was put in motion, but the vessel could only swing around, and could not be forced forward by steam. The water had fallen during the night 16 to 18 inches—the Capt. then concluded she had lodged on a stump, and endeavored to push her off with spars against the bank, but without effect. He immediately satisfied himself it was a stump, and found it by feeling with an oar 15 or 20 feet abaft the wheel on the larboard side. He then ordered the wood thrown overboard, and got an anchor off the starboard quarter, and with the steam capstan hover her off, when she immediately sprung a leak, which increased so rapidly that time was only allowed to make fast again to shore, the passengers to escape with their baggage, and the crew with assistance from the shore, saved a great part of the cargo, when she sank alongside the bank.


So ended the saga of the first steamboat on the western rivers.


Where Did It Go?

I CAN’T RECALL WHEN I READ MY FIRST BOOK ABOUT steamboats on the Mississippi River, though I suspect it was when I had to give a book report on Tom Sawyer in the fifth grade. When my parents went to town on Saturday night, they always parked me at the old Alhambra Public Library. It was there my imagination took hold and I dreamed about floating down the great river with Tom, Huck Finn, and their pals.

For reasons unknown to me, I have always felt a deep attraction to the South. It must sound strange for someone who has no relatives, ancestors, or roots south of the Mason-Dixon line. I arrived in the world in Aurora, Illinois, and grew up in Southern California. My father came from Germany, and my mother’s grandfathers were farmers in Iowa who fought in the Union army.

Still, I have to have chicory in my coffee. I insist on grits, redeye gravy, and biscuits for breakfast, and pecan pie for dessert. Maybe we as a people are as much about who we were or who we want to be. It’s food for thought, anyway.

There is no more visible symbol of the South than a paddle-wheel steamboat, tooting its whistle as it comes round the bend. Except for a few excursion boats, the image of steamboats belching black smoke, paddle wheels churning the muddy water, and the decks piled high with cotton bales is but a dim memory of the past, like steam locomotives, rumble seats, and running boards.

There are many famous steamboats in American history. One can’t help but know about the classic race between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee. Then there was Robert Fulton’s Clermont, the first steamboat in America to go into passenger service on the Hudson River. Another was the
the first steamboat to journey far up the Missouri River before heading down the Mississippi to the Gulf, where it evacuated the new president of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston, and his Congress ahead of the advancing armies of Santa Anna. The first session in the new republic’s history was actually held on the
The boat then went on to transport a wounded Sam Houston from the battle of San Jacinto to New Orleans for medical care.

I have tried very hard to dig out the final chapter of the Yellowstone, but with no success. She was heard of passing through the locks on the Ohio River in 1838. From there she was most likely sold and her name changed, and she may have ended up a derelict tied to a tree along the riverbank, her incredible history ignored and forgotten.

But there was one steamboat whose history no fiction writer could have matched. The saga of the New
voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers past the rapids and through the New Madrid earthquake, her escape from hostile Indians, the baby born on board, the comet that streaked above her, all seemed too unbelievable to be true. Yet it was chronicled and her final end described in detail.

During the summer of 1986, unable to resist hunting for such a fabulous boat (any vessel that sails the inland waterways is always called a boat, never a ship), I began researching into a newspaper account of her loss. A passenger on board the morning she hung up on a snag and sank reported the event for a local newspaper. What is most important is that he mentioned almost the exact spot where she came to grief:

Clay’s Landing on the west bank of the Mississippi, a short distance above Baton Rouge.

With optimism beating in my heart—my brain too used to failure to be confident—I launched a search for Clay’s Landing.

That proved to be tougher than it sounded.

In the meantime, I came across a delightful book by Mary Helen Samoset titled New
I quickly began correspondence with Mrs. Samoset and found her to be a wealth of information about the vessel.

I learned that the owners of the boat salvaged her engines and most of her hardware. Engines were expensive and complicated pieces of machinery for their time. Boilers, however, were seldom salvaged, since prolonged use generally wore them beyond the value of the costly repairs that were usually needed. Any piece of equipment, such as an anchor, a steering mechanism, a helm, or hardware, was removed. These were placed in a new vessel, also called New Orleans.

This removal of equipment would not leave much for our magnetometer to detect, but we thought there still might be enough iron to detect, and there was always hope that part of the hull might still be visible above the mud and could be picked up on our sidescan sonar.

I began to wonder why no one had ever looked for such a historic ship before.

Fortunately, I was contacted by Keith Sliman, who at the time worked for Seven Seas Dive Shop in Baton Rouge. Keith generously volunteered his time to probe the real-estate records in the Louisiana state capital in Baton Rouge and find the missing part of the puzzle. It wasn’t easy. Though ownership of the shore on both sides of the river was reasonably well documented, most records didn’t go back to 1814. Until now, no one had found a document recording Clay’s Landing. At first it looked as though that part of the west riverbank had been owned by a Dr. Doussan and was now called Anchorage Landing. This item of information did not look encouraging until Keith dug up a deed of transfer of the property from John Clay to Dr. Doussan, which included an 1820 plat map of the site.

Thanks to Keith, we thought we were rounding third and heading for home. Craig Dirgo and I flew down to Louisiana to examine the shoreline and try to get an exact fix on Clay’s Landing. Baton Rouge, though a fine capital city, is like the surface of Mars, thanks to the humidity in August. Why is it every time I head south it’s August? I never seem to get it through my head to go in the spring, before the bugs and heat are bad.

I am often asked how NUMA schedules shipwreck searches. We use a scientific formula that consists of who is available to go, when necessary permits are in hand, and what the tide and weather conditions are. The main factor, however, centers around whether I have the time to go between writing books.

After landing at the Baton Rouge airport, renting a car, and checking into our motel, we drove to the site above West Baton Rouge across from the state capital on the west side of the Mississippi.

It was not an auspicious beginning.

On what was once the site of Clay’s Landing, where the famed New
had snagged and sank, was a huge tank facility owned by the Placid Oil Company. On one side of the levee stood the tanks and pumping houses. On the other side, along the bank and out into the water, were the oil-loading platforms, pipelines, and tank barges, all built of steel. With more metal scattered about than what is found in a hundred-acre scrap yard, distinguishing what remained of New Orleans with our trusty Schoenstedt gradiometer would be next to impossible.

Though we hadn’t planned on conducting an extensive survey on this first exploratory peek at the area, Craig and I decided to give it a try.

That afternoon and most of the next day, we walked a systematic grid across the property we defined as having been Clay’s Landing. Other than a few buried pipelines, which are fairly easy to identify because of the narrow readings that stretch in a straight line, we found little of interest. By inspecting the ground in minute detail, we got a pretty good idea of the scope of our task in locating any remains of the steamboat.

Since Sheriff Bergeron and his West Baton Rouge sheriff’s department had been so generous with their assistance back in 1981, when Walt Schob and I found the site of the Confederate ironclad Arkansas, we asked for their help once again. And they came through again, lending us their aluminum river search boat, which had been beautifully crafted and welded by a trustee who was in jail for murder. A deputy came along as pilot.

We began soon after sunrise. Once Clay’s Landing was established from the riverside, we began sweeping back and forth. By nine that morning, it was already hot. The Mississippi was as flat as a mirror, and the only wind we enjoyed came from the movement of the boat. For the next few hours we swept, beginning two hundred yards out and working toward the shore. We received no readings of more than a few gamma, certainly no more than what a hammer lying in the mud would record. Closer to shore, we received a strangely consistent mag reading that made no sense to us at the time.

While I ran the gradiometer, Craig killed time perusing the boat’s logbook. It made interesting reading, since the little craft was primarily used for retrieving bodies from the river. There wasn’t any finesse to it. A large grappling hook on a line was tossed from the stem, and the deputies trolled until they snagged something.

“How do you know if you have a body or a big fish on the line?” Craig asked the deputy.

“A waterlogged body creates a lot of drag,” the deputy replied. “It slows down the outboard motor real good.”

Craig held the stainless-steel hook in his hands and examined it. “What do most of the bodies look like when you find them?”

“They can be real ripe,” the deputy answered casually. “The skin can slide off like a tangerine.”

Craig’s face wrinkled as he quickly replaced the hook in its holder and wiped his hands with a rag.

“Sometimes they’re gassy and explode like a flesh bomb when they reach the surface,” the deputy continued matter-of-factly. “But mostly they’ve been chewed up by fish and turtles. Sometimes boats go over them, outboard props ripping them up. Once I just hooked a head and part of the shoulders and chest. I ain’t got no idea where the rest of the body went.”

Craig stared at the grappling hook he’d been handling.

I couldn’t resist.

“Lunchtime,” I announced. “Want a raw beef and gooey cheese or tainted tuna sandwich?”

Craig shook his head. “Maybe later,” he said, finally taking his eyes off the hook.

It was four o’clock when we called it quits. We could not mag close to shore because the steel barges blew the gradiometer off scale. We had gotten no magnetic signature that indicated we had found
New Orleans.
On top of that, we had run out of water two hours earlier.

As we began to cruise back to the boat ramp where the deputy had left the trailer, Craig turned to me and asked, “You sweating?”

I checked and found my skin dry. Strange, I thought, since the atmosphere was like a steam bath. “No,” I answered.

“I noticed I’d stopped a half hour ago. I don’t think that’s good.”

“We’re dehydrated.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

By the time we reached the ramp and had helped the deputy load the boat on the trailer, the inside of our mouths felt as if they had been filled with talcum powder. Our faces were sunburned, and our eyes had the vacant look of men dying of thirst in the desert. Climbing into the superheated car that had been left in the sun only made things worse. We were about to stop at a house to ask the owner if we could drink from a garden hose when I gasped and pointed to a Circle K convenience store on the next corner.


Craig hurtled the car into the parking lot. We jumped out and ran inside almost before it stopped moving. This being 1989, there was no such thing as cold bottled water as there is today. The only water for sale then was distilled in plastic gallon jugs. We snatched the biggest cups we could find and filled them to the rim at the soda fountain. Downing them in seconds, we again held them under the spigots for seconds. We had become almost completely dehydrated.

“Hey,” the clerk yelled at us, “you can’t do that.”

Craig, a reasonably large man, scowled at him. “When we’re done, charge what you will. We’re dying here.”

The clerk nodded and backed off. He’d probably assumed, judging by our bedraggled appearance, that we couldn’t pay. When we’d finished at last, Craig handed him a ten-dollar bill. “Keep the change, and buy the next thirsty travelers a drink.”

After a cool shower in our air-conditioned rooms, we met for dinner and discussed the day. Nature and man had thrown every obstacle in our path. We hadn’t really expected to find New
the first time out. That rarely happens. But we had not expected such a tough project in searching for a ship we knew we could pinpoint within a rectangle the size of a football field.

It was time to head for the old corral and do some homework.


WE NOW WENT back to the basics and overlaid old charts with new ones. The shoreline since the building of the levee seemed vague. From what we could conclude, the bank had receded over the years. But how far?

Then, a few months later, we received a report from the Army Corps of Engineers that came within a hair of halting the search in its tracks. In 1971, during a project to strengthen the levee, they’d laid an articulated concrete mattress along the bottom of the levee just below the waterline. The mattress contained iron rebar inside and hinges made of steel. This is what had given us our continuous mag reading near the west bank. It appeared that the mattress had been laid directly over what was once Clay’s Landing.

This dilemma, combined with the steel barges, docks, and pipelines along the shore, made it impossible to detect any remains of New Orleans. With a sinking heart, I put the search data in the file marked “Improbable” and turned my thoughts to other lost ships.


THREE YEARS LATER, I was at a cocktail party when I was introduced to a fan of my books. I hate myself for not remembering his name, but we never made contact again. He was an older gentleman with a bald head rimmed with white hair, and deep-blue eyes behind rimless spectacles.

During the course of the conversation, he mentioned that he lived in West Baton Rouge parish. I mentioned our work there on the Arkansas and New
and we talked a bit about the history of the Mississippi. He had been diving in the river off and on for many years, a feat most divers from Louisiana or Mississippi don’t care to experience. He regaled me with stories of being dragged more than a mile underwater by the four-knot current and of suddenly meeting up with an eight-foot-long, five-hundred-pound catfish in the murky water. He also talked about a strange phenomenon: once you reach a depth of eighty feet, the water visibility suddenly turns from two feet to a hundred feet.

BOOK: Clive Cussler; Craig Dirgo
2.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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