Sunday, December 23, 2012

Low Water and History

I'm back in Michigan for the holidays, and it's hard to miss the fact that the water here (Lake Michigan) is very low - soon to be the lowest ever recorded. While this is an exceptionally troubling environment symptom and problem, it has also revealed a few interesting bits of history. In Grand Haven, Michigan, for instance, along the southern part of the Lake, low water in the Grand River revealed several historic shipwrecks, including that of the Aurora, a wooden steamer built in 1887 and which burned in 1932. You can read more and watch a video here.

The remains of the Aurora near the mouth of the Grand River in Michigan, from here.

The situation isn't unique to Michigan. Low levels in the Mississippi River near St. Louis recently revealed a prehistoric stone with a carved map of Indian village sites and a number of shipwrecks. The USS Inaugural, for instance, was a WWII minesweeper ship, then a floating museum, until it was swept into the river and sank during flooding in 1993. At the moment, it is entirely above water (and subject to graffiti), and you can read more here.

The USS Inaugural wreck exposed near St. Louis. Jim Salter, Associated Press, from here.

Low waters have revealed historic treasures elsewhere in the world as well. You might remember that I've written about artifacts from the Thames foreshore (the riverbank exposed at low tide) on this blog before, and you can read that post here. Thinking about such things reminded me of a story I read earlier this fall about artifacts recovered from Poland's River Vistula. In 1655, Swedish invaders looted Polish palaces of everything of value, including decorative stonework. A few of their ships sank in the river under the weight of the stone. Archaeologists had been aware of a few of these materials for some time, but low water levels allowed them to recover stunning examples for eventual museum display.

Stonework in the Vistula. Associated Press from here.

I can't help mentioning two other examples of similar archaeological treasures that I've been reading about recently, even though their discovery didn't involve low water. Two Missouri River wrecks that revealed amazing amounts of mid-nineteenth century material culture are the Arabia (sank 1856, recovered 1988) and the Bertrand (sank 1865, recovered 1968). Both wrecks were recovered in farm fields which had once been the bed of the Missouri. Take a few minutes to explore the Arabia here (or go see the museum if you're in Kansas City, Missouri) and read a bit about the Bertrand here. Ironically, the Bertrand collection is currently not on display, having been removed from the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge just ahead of a 2011 flood. Both collections are on my "bucket list" of artifacts I'd like to see some day.

It's hard to choose just one image to demonstrate the scope of the Arabia collection. Here's one showing hardware, from here.

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