Sunday, 17 November 2013

Catchup Part Six – Goin’ to Kansas City

Unlike us lazy Europeans, who can have from three weeks to up to five weeks annual leave, most US citizens only have a couple of weeks holiday (vacation) and so once back from our Washington trip, the Son (TS) and the Daughter in Law (TDIL) had to return to work almost as soon as we arrived back and we returned to grandson sitting duties for that week. The next week end on the Saturday, we went to Kansas City to visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

This is a fascinating place owned and run by a family of treasure hunters who managed to find a horde of lost treasure - two hundred tons of it as it happens.

In the early days of pioneering America, before the railroads were built, major rivers like the Ohio, Mississippi and the Missouri were the trunk roads of the land. 
The old paddle steamers carrying huge cargoes of goods needed by the settlers and pioneers were plying the rivers. Over the years, these have been romanticised by Hollywood as floating gambling dens, populated by suave neatly dressed men, with black hats and armed with tiny but deadly derringers and high scoring cards for poker secreted about their person. In reality, these vessels were cargo carrying work boats, plying a dangerous trade in treacherous waters.
The steamboat Arabia, typically loaded almost to the waterline

Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain wrote a lot of fictional and factual works about them, having worked on steamboats on the Mississippi, where his descriptions of conditions are more realistic than Hollywood.

It is well known that Clemens took his nom de plume Mark Twain, from the cry of the man sounding the depth of the river to test when the water became dangerously shallow. The term 'mark twain' was called when the sounding line showed two marks on the rope and it meant the river was still deep enough, but only just.  It sounds like a proper name, but in some circles at that time it was an insult, since a Mark Twain was a shallow person.  It is possible that Clemens was gently taking the rise from his own writings by adopting the name.   It happens, maybe you should look up the meaning of my Blog's name.

Apart from the dangers of boiler explosions, which were commonplace, the rivers themselves produced their own dangers.   The Missouri River was one of the more dangerous since it is shallow and changes course daily, leaving sandbanks at random all along its course and most dangerously of all, the erosion of the banks sweep trees into the river to produce what are known as ‘snags’. A snag is a partially submerged tree trunk which will easily knock a hole in the hull of a wooden steamer if not spotted and avoided.
This is actually the Kansas River, which joins the Missouri at Kansas City. It looks peaceful enough here, but it has much the same nature
A few yards downstream there are some snags marked with orange buoys, so it is still just as dangerous today.

Over the ten years between 1850 and 1860, it has been estimated that between 290 to 400 riverboats were sunk in the Missouri alone. No one knows the true figure, but even at its lowest, that is a lot of wrecks in just ten years. Since most were sunk with cargo, there have been a lot of treasure hunters looking for them. However, the Missouri has a few tricks up its sleeve yet and over the years has changed its course by more than a mile in some places and much of its old course is now under farmland. As a result, if you want to find a steamboat, you may need to look in a cornfield.
Apart from the historic interest and the antiques to be found, one of the attractions to treasure hunters is the tale of cargoes of gold, silver coins and whiskey, any of which are a strong incentive to search for certain steamboats. Many wrecks were either known about precisely or have been found, but not all of them could be excavated for a variety of reasons. One of the known wrecks was the steamboat Arabia known to be buried in a farmer’s field in Kansas, where it had sunk when the Missouri River ran across that part of what is now Kansas.  The state border is the river, so the states of Kansas and Missouri change position now and then as the river changes course and the Arabia sank in the state of Missouri, but is now buried in Kansas.

Changes in the course of the river and the present position of the Arabia

The Arabia was rumoured to contain a cargo of Kentucky whiskey, which by now would be well matured and attempts to excavate the site failed consistently due to it being deep below the water table and in wet sand. If you have ever made sandcastles on a beach, then you will know that any water will make sand collapse and flow, which will rapidly fill in any excavations, but in 1988, the Hawley family were able to devise a means of excavating this vessel and have since extracted most of its cargo.
This aerial picture shows the scale of the job they had, from the size of the trucks and tractors compared to the outline of the sunken vessel.
Unfortunately the whiskey was not found, even if it did exist, it would have been washed away during the wreck, since it would have been stacked on the upper decks. What they did find was quite sufficient to stock the present museum with an impressive collection, which includes the engine and some of the ship’s hull. The Arabia sank in 1856 and so had on board a number of pre American Civil war artefacts, some of which had never been seen before in the present day. In the UK, 1856 does not sound so ancient, since we live in what is rapidly becoming a giant museum with preserved buildings, structures and artefacts dating back several thousand years, but to Americans the Civil War was a watershed in their history where much was destroyed and lost forever. So the treasures from the Arabia are in many cases very scarce and, in one case, completely unknown to exist at that time. A number of vulcanised rubber buggy whips and shoe soles were found made by Goodyear. This was a surprise because the accepted wisdom was that the method of vulcanising rubber did not start until after the Civil War and even the manufacturers themselves were unaware their company had introduced the process so early.

The snag that sunk her was still imbedded in the bow
The items on display in the Steamboat Museum range from the exotic to the mundane, but come from an almost inaccessible past. There were several kinds of bottled and pickled foodstuffs which are still preserved. The largest quantity of the finds consist of boots, clothes, hats, weapons, buggy whips, cutlery, jewels, buttons, toys, barrels of nails, timber tools, pots, pans and so many things it would be very boring of me to list them all.  Amongst these well preserved items was a considerable amount of Wegwood china, imported from England.  Wedgwood of that vintaage is much sought after and very few people in the world will have such a large collection.

Some of the china and pots and pans
Much of the cargo was heading for frontier general stores and so there are entire inventories for stocking up all the day to day items you would expect to need when creating a home from scratch and the sheer quantity is mind blowing.
Frontier hardware.  The curved things at the top are weighing scales, in case you are wondering
All these things have been carefully and painstakingly restored and presented, sometimes en mass, in the museum. The overall effect is stunning and the work that must have been put in to both the excavation and the restoration, which is still on-going is legendary. Really it is a most memorable place to visit and I would recommend it to anyone.
Apologies to the museum for making use of some of your pictures, but I did buy your book, Treasure in a Cornfield, and I hope this has generated some interest and readers of my blog, who will maybe  follow the link to...  The museum website.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

An Interlude in real time - Autumn

Well autumn is here at last, I have kicked my first pile of leaves, had my first frost encrusted windscreen and now that the leaves are falling the road signs are becoming visible once more.

During the Second World War, the government took down all the signposts, so that spies and invading armies would soon get lost and maybe the hope was that they would become so frustrated, they would give up and go home. Should a war occur again and the threat of invasion once more rear its ugly head, we will have to hope that the enemy invade in summer time, when all the signposts across the country are hidden by the trees and bushes that have been allowed grow across them.

A typical secret modern signpost - confusion to our enemies and tourists alike
On holiday recently we had some problems with sign posts. What about Satnav I hear you cry, but whilst a satnav will more often than not take you to your destination, they have been known to guide you via an inappropriate route, but one must also allow for the possibility that one may have left the darn thing behind in a senior moment. When this happens the map is used, because us wrinklies whilst suffering the odd senior moment do know how to read a map. (and how to fold it up again) However, the map is not much good if the signposts are hidden behind dense foliage and you either have to put up with some irate hooting whilst you slow to a crawl in the hopes you will eventually see all of the sign as you creep past, or turn around and have another go at deciphering the little you can see. We did manage to navigate eventually, but there were a few occasions where we had to double back. Perhaps next year I will bring a pair of shears, or maybe just remember the satnav.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Catchup part five - Leaving Washington

On Friday morning we started out for home and left our Crystal City hotel about eight thirty.

So that we could take in a few different sights on the way home, we did not return via our outward route and instead headed west on route 66 for a while before taking the i81 south.

Our route took us down the Shenandoah Valley between the Appalachians and the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

The Blue Ridge Mountians of Virginia, I still could not get that song out of my head.
We drove past Harrisonburg, named after Thomas Harrison and early settler c1737, and Lexington.  Lexington has a museum in the house that once belonged to Stonewall Jackson, who is buried in the city, Robert E. Lee is also buried there.  We passed Staunton, which also has a long history.  Founded in 1747, it was once the capital of the British territories of that part of America and was named after the British Governor's wife, Lady Rebecca Staunton. 

Driving through Virginia

We took a Subway lunch stop at Roanoke that was founded in 1852. This city was originally known as 'Big Lick' because of a large natural salt lick that attracted wildlife to the area. Later it was renamed Roanoke, which is said to be the Native American name for shell money, a currency used by some of the local tribes in the area. Roanoke is one of the larger cities in Virginia and has a population approaching one hundred thousand. Notable for being the birthplace of Mark Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon. Its major role in the USA is commerce and transport.

Roanoke c 1920s.  How is that for a high street crossroads

It has some museums worth a visit, but we were on a tight schedule and the weather was closing in again and we did not stop after eating.

We travelled on along the i81 for another 140 miles or so, passing Bristol and on into Tennessee.  Bristol, named after the city of Bristol in the UK, has a curious geography in as much as driving one way down State Street, you are in Virginia, but driving in the opposite direction you are in Tennessee, since the state line passes down the centre of the street.

From there we continued on the i81 for another hundred and thirteen miles or so to our stop for the night at Knoxville.  On the way we passed by the turn off to Morristown, a name that has meaning to me. (My name is not really Snafu)  That route heads northwards to Kentucky and passes through the Cumberland Gap, a place name made famous to us wrinklies, who may recall it from a popular song from our younger days.

In Knoxville there is still a remnant of the 1982 World Fair, looking for all the world like a giant Van de Graff generator.  It is the Sunsphere, a tower topped by a golden ball.  It serves no practical propose but is a great landmark.

Knoxville has a violent history. First the Anglo French war fought across this area, followed by the War of Independence and finally the American Civil War. The Knoxville area was largely Cherokee territory and when settlers started to arrive, it took a while for peace to be negotiated between them. During the American Civil War Knoxville was occupied by both sides at different times and suffered a lot of damage. Oblivious to all of this, we arrived at our hotel there and after checking in, went for a meal at the nearest Cracker Barrel.

Cracker Barrel restaurants are always worth visiting if you are looking for something to eat in that part of the world. They seem to be found only in the Southern States and the food is well worth travelling out of your way to find one. They are built along the lines of a traditional nineteenth century general store, which you have to go through to get into the restaurant. It is a real store, but does not stock all the things you will see in a John Wayne type of movie, but nowadays has candy and souvenirs.

The next day we headed off along the i40 to Nashville. Nashville is the Tennessee state capitol and has a population of over a million. It is known for its music industry, but what we (TBH and I) did not know was that the city had a full sized accurate reconstruction of the Parthenon. It is used as an art gallery and contains a full sized reproduction of the statue of the goddess Athena.

The reproduction Parthenon

The huge statue of Athena more than thirty foot high

Her shield is a work of art all by itself.
The rear of the shield

All this because Nashville describes itself as the Athens of the South. We had a short stop and walked around the Parthenon, visited the gallery and then continued on towards Jackson.

As I mentioned earlier, the weather was deteriorating fast as another wave of storms swept across from the West. As we approached the Tennessee River the heavens opened when we hit the edge of the band of storms heading East. The rain was so heavy we were forced to stop and sat in a small car park until reasonable visibility returned.
Heavy rain and near zero visibility
Checking the weather on the iphone.  The green band is the belt of storms we have to drive through. Fortunately it did not include tornados that day.
The rain lasted until Jackson where we stopped for the night. Jackson was founded around 1820 and originally named Alexandria, but had its name changed to Jackson in honour of President Andrew Jackson, a local hero of the War of independence and later President of the USA.
 In Jackson is the grave of the engine driver Casey Jones, who was born there.  He achieved fame by staying on his train to operate the brakes and was able to reduce the speed of a crash and so save all the other lives aboard except his own. This heroic action turned him into an American legend and songs and movies and even TV shows have been made about him or characters based on him reinforcing the legend.   Born Jonathan Luther Jones, he became known as 'Casey' Jones because he lived in Cayce Tennessee most of his childhood and there is a monument to him there.

The next morning it was sunny and we drove on through Memphis.  Memphis is named after the capital of ancient Egypt and is famous for producing many big music stars, such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.  Smaller than Nashville, it is probably more famous as a result.  Memphis has a very modern sports arena that we passed on the way through and seems to stick with the ancient Egyptian theme.

There was still plenty of standing water and we saw a lot of floods around the Mississippi
 At Memphis, we crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas.

The Mississippi River
It has long puzzled me as to why Kansas is pronounced Kan-zas but ArKansas is pronounced Ark-en-saw, when it should be Ark-Kan-zas, but there you go, Towcester in the UK is pronounced Toast-er and the river Thames is pronounced Temms, not Thame-es; people are crazy.
In Arkansas, we headed north west for Jonesboro, passing through very flat countryside, with alternately flooded fields from the heavy rain the day before and what turned out to be rice paddies. Apparently that area produces about forty per cent of all of America’s rice production. Something I always associated with the far East, not the USA.
A flooded field, or maybe a rice paddy, probably both.  There had been a lot of rain.
Jonesboro, founded around 1819, was named after the senator William A. Jones and was originally spelled Jonesborough.  Whilst being a fairly large city in Arkansas, it seems to have avoided much of the turmoil of the more eastern cities and has very little history.
This was the last day of the journey home and we crossed back into Missouri on route 63 and through West Plains heading north west and passing the Mark Twain National Forest.  An area that was created to conserve American woodland and named after one of Missouri's most famous inhabitants.
Roadkill around here was either turtles or armadillo, not hedgehogs like we get at home. I have come across this before in Texas, but of course the armadillos were larger there.

Not a sign you see much in Wiltshire. There was an Amish community near here.
We stopped for lunch at Mountain Grove and then headed for yet another Springfield. Springfield Missouri is on the old Route 66 highway and claims to be its birthplace. In 1926, the president of the US Highway 66 Association came from Springfield MO and this group planned for, and succeeded in making route 66 the first completely paved highway from end to end. Another claim to fame for this Springfield is that it is where Wild Bill Hickok had his first quick draw shootout with the unfortunate Davis Tutt, launching Wild Bill’s reputation as a gunfighter. From Springfield we returned to Kansas City and so the final leg back to TS’s home and the end of our Washington DC trip.