New details emerge about shipwreck near Boonville

Accompanying text by Teagan King

For the Columbia Missourian

With the sun shining brightly overhead and strong wind whistling through the sides of two boats on the Missouri River, a crew of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researchers sped down the river to revisit a recently discovered shipwreck site near Boonville, Missouri in the early morning on Oct. 14, 2022.

U.S. Geological Survey technician Christopher Green looks out towards a research vessel on Oct. 13, 2022, on the Missouri River near Boonville, Mo. Green, whose normal job has him using underwater sonar to record fish nests, was brought onto the a research project to help collect data about a sunken steamboat from the 1890s.

Ty Helmuth drives the research boat as Phillip Alig and Carrie Elliott prepare their equipment for gathering sonar data on Oct. 13, 2022, on the Missouri River, near Boonville, Mo. Elliott and Helmuth were conducting research for the Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project when they detected the sunken steamboat with their sonar in June.

Geologist Carrie Elliott and biologist Ty Helmuth made the accidental discovery in June when they were on the river to image the river bottom as part of the USGS Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project. They used sidescan sonar equipment on the boat to get the original black-and-white images of the wreck, though there was still much to learn about the site. The team’s high resolution multi beam sonar was in Denmark for repairs, so they could not study the site in more detail until the equipment was returned.

Thursday morning, Elliott and Helmuth, alongside archaeologist Phillip Alig from the Army Corps of Engineers, headed out on a tiny USGS boat with the newly repaired high resolution sonar. Ross Burlbaw and Christopher Green, a biologist and technician respectively with the Sturgeon Research Project, were aboard the other boat to act as backup, following Elliott and Helmuth with the simpler sidescan sonar.

Elliott lowered the multi beam sonar into the water, resting slightly below the surface. The tool, attached to the front of the boat, feeds data to the computers inside the boat to produce an image of the bottom of the river based on the sonar return time. It also creates a backscatter image, based on the densities of different materials on the bottom of the river.

The images appeared as the boat traveled along the river, revealing waves of sand and the occasional tree. But once they passed over the site of the shipwreck, abnormal shapes began to appear, catching the team’s attention. Any time a protruding shape or unusually straight line appeared on the images, Elliott, Helmuth and Alig gathered around the desktop to get a better look.

Carrie Elliott, left, and Phillip Alig watch the skeleton of the sunken steamboat appear on their computer monitors mapping the riverbed on Oct. 13, 2022. “I’ve never seen a steamboat like this before, and I’ve been doing this for 10 years!” Alig said.

Carrie Elliott points to the 3D rendering of the riverbed where ridges in the graph indicate where the steamboat lies mostly submerged in the sand on Oct. 13, 2022, near Boonville, Mo. “We were actually able to see more of [the wreckage] this time,” Elliott said. “We were worried we wouldn’t see anything at all with how dynamic the river is. It changes, sediment moves.”

A large challenge was determining the full extent and borders of the site, because the sandy river bottom is dynamic and shifts over time. The more times the sonar passes over the site, the denser the data will be, which can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the wreck’s dimensions.

“I think the edges are hard to determine,” Elliott said. “And it may have gotten more buried or more exhumed.”

After almost two hours on the river, the team had produced more detailed data on the steamboat location. Elliott said they originally estimated the ship to be nine feet wide and 80-90 feet long, though the new scans presented previously unseen elements that revealed the site to be larger than expected.

Now, Elliott said the shipwreck appears to be closer to 100 feet long, but it is important to consider how sand may cover portions of the wreck.

The team of U.S. Geological Survey workers use underwater sonar to gather data on a recently-discovered, shipwrecked steamboat buried in the Missouri River on Oct. 13, 2022. 

Biologist Ty Helmuth, through a reflective pair of sunglasses, watches coworker and geologist Carrie Elliott gesture to data popping up on their computer monitors on Oct. 13, 2022, near Boonville, Mo. The pair joked about how many of the river bends on the Missouri River are named after ships that they sunk.

Though the USGS team has gained more clarity about the shipwreck site, some elements still remain a mystery that will require further exploration to get answers.

Alig said he and the Army Corps of Engineers have data from previous shipwreck sites that they will use as clues to narrow down which boat it may be. There are a handful of steamboat wrecks that were reported in the area but never found, including the H.C. Coleman from 1872 and Martha Stephens from 1874, which are the possibilities most likely for this site.

“I think it’s more likely it’ll be something reported upstream than downstream, as it can move down,” Alig said.

Elliott and Helmuth also hope to use the steamboat wreck as an educational tool at some point. Elliott said the team works with Missouri River Relief, and she hopes to create images for the organization’s immersive science classes for fourth graders.

Biologist Ty Helmuth launches a research boat into the Missouri River on Oct. 13, 2022, near Boonville, Mo. Helmuth and his colleagues described passing over the underwater wreckage like “finding a needle in a haystack.”