Search for the first steamboat on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the New Orleans. April, 1989.
The story of the New Orleans is a fascinating as well as historical story. Built in 1811 for Nicholas Roosevelt by Robert Fulton, the maiden voyage of the newly built ship down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was an adventure epic by itself.
Reaching the Mississippi just in time to experience the worst earthquake in American history, the New Madrid upheaval, its crew, including Roosevelt’s wife who gave birth to a descendent of Teddy and Franklin during the trip, was forced to steam over forested land after the river changed course, narrowly avoiding disaster from thousands of uprooted and drifting trees.
Finally reaching New Orleans, the ship went into service between that city and Natchez. In 1814 it transported men of Andrew Jackson’s army to fight in the famous battle against the invading British at Chalmette.
She hung on a snag in 1814 above Baton Rouge and sank at a place called Clay’s Landing according to the report describing the end of her short but brilliant trailblazing career on the river. Considering the legend of this famous ship, we again found it strange that no one had ever searched for her burial place.
Marshaling NUMA’s research team, we tackled the problem, using the able Bob Fleming’s initial research, the book on the New Orleans by Mary Helen Samsot, and Keith Sliman of Baton Rouge who worked at the Seven Seas Dive Shop and probed the records of the Louisiana state capitol archives.
Sliman, going on the report of the sinking, found the answer to the mystery that had defied all efforts for nearly four years. He pinpointed the land along the river frontage that had been owned by John Clay from 1813 to 1818. The land parcel, now owned by an oil company, has the exact same dimensions as it did when Clay supplied firewood to the New Orleans. Fortunately, the river bank boundary has never measured more than a 100 yards. Now, we had a real ballpark location.
In cooperation with the Army Corp of Engineers and the Louisiana State Archaeology Office, Craig Dirgo and I came to Baton Rouge and began a mag survey of the land between the levee and the present shore line. We turned up nothing that suggested any heavy metal, well aware that the copper boilers on the ship would not read on the Schonstedt gradiometer and the engines had been removed and installed in a later ship, but hoping for scattered iron contacts.
The Army Corp of Engineers research came through at this point, mostly with bad news. Their projections put the 1814 river bank about 100 feet farther into the water. Then the agonizing blow. In 1971 the Corp had laid a steel and concrete revetment mattress along the bank to halt erosion, which now lies on top of any remains of the New Orleans.
Sad to say, when the river is low during a drought, you can almost walk on top of the famous old ship, but cannot touch or pinpoint her exact site with metal detection gear because of the revetment and the steel cables that hold it together.
In the distant future, perhaps, the revetment might be pulled up for some reason and a survey will discover the bones of the first steamship on western waters. But until then, the New Orleans will have to remain at rest in the mud.