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Secrets of the Heroine

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A few years ago, what looked like a pile of wood surfaced in the Red River near Fort Towson but was more than a pile of wood... a lot more. KTEN's Randy Garsee traveled to the remote location to see what attraction historians and archaeologists alike.

This is it: a pile of wood.

If you didn't look closely, you might think it was just another dead tree, like this one, dragged into the Red River by a flood.

But it's no tree.

John Davis says, "This is the only example of that type of craftsmanship that is known to have been archaeologically excavated."

John Davis is with the Oklahoma Historical Society at Fort Towson. He says these waterlogged remains attracted himself and archaeologists from Texas A&M.

"It's part of our history. It's one of the minute details of the part transportation played in the evolution of Oklahoma."

This is the wreck site of the steamboat, "Heroine," which is Oklahoma's only shipwreck project.

Believe it or not, the "Heroine" once looked like this painting of the steamboat "Ouishita."

In the mid-1800's, the steamboat was an important part of transportation. And like the "Heroine," some were two stories and nearly half the length of a football field.

"A hundred and forty foot boat is a pretty large boat.   And looking at the river today, you would never dream of a boat that large coming up here.   But even the 1900 river was totally different."

This is a model of the "Heroine's" deck and paddlewheels built by Texas A&M. The steamboat, "Heroine," actually sank in 1838.

Then, a massive flood came down the red river about four years later, and that buried the steamboat for more than a century.

It wasn't seen again, until 1999.

But how did it sink? Davis explains.

"The owners of the steamboat had a contract with the government to supply Fort Towson with a year's supply of goods."

"Due to low water, they were tied up only about a half-mile down river from us here at a town site called Jonesboro."

"The river came up some and eventually a keelboat captain talked the steamboat captain into letting him guide him up to the public landing. And they left Jonesboro and started steaming up stream and struck a snag and the boat sank here."

Davis says the Red River was once a center of transportation.

"This was a major artery..... It was easier to get up here in a boat it would have ever been to come on a wagon or by horse. These were the trucks of their time."

A 170-year-old boot.... a broken plate... a tool chest that looks like something a pirate would have left behind. These are just a few of the items recovered from the "Heroine."

The excavation is finished.

"Personally, it's preserving a window to our past."

But for Davis, it's only the beginning as he plans to tell others about the Red River wreck of the steam boat "Heroine."

"A lot of the programs that we do are education type programs, going and talking to school kids."

"If I can get one child interested in history, then it would've all been worth it."

The excavation of the steamboat "Heroine" started in 1999 as a joint venture between the Oklahoma Historical Society and Texas A&M University's Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

Randy Garsee, KTEN News