Beneath Tennessee River, Steamboat Wreckage Presents Mystery

Once the driving force of the southeast Tennessee city’s economic growth, Chattanooga’s riverfront is home to just the 10th shipwreck recorded in state history – a boat whose story time forgot.

Somewhere beneath the surface of this section of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tenn., rests the remains of a steamboat that researchers believe may have historical significance. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — It’s one of the last places you’d expect a maritime mystery to rest: in the midst of an inland southern city, along the waterfront that has defined the city for decades.

Somewhere between two bridges spanning the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, the wrecked ship rests at the bottom of the river. For decades, the murky, brown-green water has flowed over her timbers, rusted the iron and steel and concealed her from joggers and walkers in the park on the bank above.

Her name and adventures through the Tennessee Valley have seemingly been lost to time. There have been stories, and someone out fishing sometimes gets a glimpse of the ghostly ship on their fish finder. But an anthropology professor and his class are aiming to figure out more.

At the end of a year disrupted by the pandemic, Morgan Smith, assistant anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, wanted to take his students out into the field and show them how to work the tools of the modern-day underwater anthropologist.

In mid-April, Smith and the students in his underwater archeology class rented a pontoon boat to scan the river with sonar equipment in the place they believed the ship rested.

Sonar cuts through the murk of water, Smith said.

“You can see all these features down there that are normally just, to the untrained eye, it’s just a river. But to the person with sonar, it’s so much more than that,” he said.

Smith has focused his work on underwater prehistoric archeology, such as the trash heaps and other remains of prehistoric people who lived on the land before the sea levels rose and helped preserve the sites.

A sonar scan of a steamboat at the bottom of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tenn, gathered April 14, 2021. (Photo courtesy of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga)

He said underwater archeology is in demand because the construction of offshore rigging and windfarms requires archeological surveys. Because sonar equipment is integral to the field, Smith wanted to give his students a hands-on demonstration.

On April 10, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology granted Smith and his students a permit to examine the site.

It was the first time that the site had been recorded. It is only the 10th shipwreck in Tennessee waters known and recorded by the Division of Archeology. For comparison, Massachusetts, whose waters includes Cape Cod — an infamous shipwreck graveyard — has about 3,500 known shipwrecks.

Smith believes that the ship he saw on the sonar was a boat named the Chattanooga.

But the question is which Chattanooga is it, and the challenge is to pick it out from other features on the river bed, such as sunken barges.

“We did a really, really easy part, which is dragging the sonar instrument and using it to image stuff for us,” Smith said.

The next step is taking the map the sonar made and meticulously comparing the boat to the historical record, he said.

The most historically significant steamboat named the USS Chattanooga was the one the Union Army built in 1963 to ferry supplies to a starving Union Army. The Confederate Army, which had destroyed rail bridges and sat perched on Lookout Mountain, was strangulating the supplies flowing into Chattanooga, said Jim Ogden, historian at the National Park Service’s Chickamauga and Chattanooga Military Park.

Built by the Union Quartermaster Department in 1863, the USS Chattanooga brought supplies to starving Union troops in Chattanooga, Tenn., allowing the army to remain in the city. (Image courtesy of Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

So the Union quartermasters began building steamboats in Bridgeport, Alabama, to bring supplies to Chattanooga. Under the cover of darkness one October night in 1863, the first of those boats, the USS Chattanooga, pulled two barges worth of food to the Union army in Chattanooga, opening the cracker line.

After the war, the military sold the boat in May 1866 and its private owners were operating it away from its namesake city, according to a list of historical steamboats called Way’s Packet Directory.

Another list, Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States by William Lytle and Forrest Holdcamper, records the USS Chattanooga as being abandoned in 1868.

According to Ogden, the lifespan of a steamboat in the era before a robust U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Tennessee Valley Authority corralled the river was typically short – about five years — before they, say, caught on a submerged log and their hulls tore apart.

Regardless of what boat is resting in the bed of the downtown riverfront of the Scenic City, Ogden wrote in an email that “locating and documenting of that wreckage is still worthwhile because that Chattanooga is part of Chattanooga’s, and the Tennessee River’s, history too.”

According to the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections, which collected images of historical steamboats and digitized the collection, there were four or five boats throughout the era of the river-based steamboat named the Chattanooga.

There are records of at least one sinking in its namesake city.

An article published in the Chattanooga Times on Dec. 17, 1921, noted a score of workers had begun to salvage a boat named the Chattanooga after it “sank at her moorings on the north shore of the Tennessee River” during the night earlier that week. Inspectors had condemned her hull months before.

Before slipping beneath the waters, that Chattanooga cut for herself a history that would not be out of place in a Mark Twain novel.

Before it was rebuilt and renamed the Chattanooga, the boat was named the Megiddo. The missionary ship housed a church congregation as the three-story boat with detailed trim steamed up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, according to University of Wisconsin records.

Before it was rebuilt and renamed as the Chattanooga in 1904, the Megiddo served as a floating church up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. (Image courtesy of Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Built in 1901 for the Megiddo Mission church, it housed about 90 congregants and included a meeting room. The whole boat was painted red, white and blue, according to a history of the church compiled as part of a project by a professor at the University of Rochester, the city where the church ended up.  

By 1904, the boat became the Chattanooga and began making regular trips to and from the city.

Currently, it is unclear exactly who owns the remains of the boat at the bottom of the Tennessee. If it is the USS Chattanooga, says Kim Schofinski, a spokesperson at Tennessee Division of Archeology, then the U.S. military owns the vessel. If the vessel was sold or otherwise not in military control when it was abandoned, then it falls under the state’s control, she said.

Tennessee state law, Schofinski added, prohibits destruction, defacement or disturbance of archeological sites. Additional laws kick into play if the site contains human remains.

In 2019, for instance, Alabama made an admiralty claim for the former slave schooner Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved people from Africa at a time when it was illegal to do so. The state said it was doing so to recover any potential artifacts taken from the wreck.

Finding a ship in the middle of a city is somewhat unusual: “unexpected discoveries do occur throughout the state and are more likely to occur on private property in newly developing areas,” Schofinski wrote in an email.

Humans have long settled in Chattanooga along the river. Before the railroad, the city served as a river port, which led to its economic boom.

Diver John Scruggs tells people if they want to learn the city’s history, look to the bottom of its river.

Though people spend hundreds of dollars to dive in the turquoise waters of Florida’s panhandle, Scruggs said he once tried diving the river and found it a “wild and woolly” body of water. He has dived in it for decades since.

The current runs at a good clip and divers can only see about a foot and a half to 3 feet in front of them because of the algae in the water, Scruggs said, making it difficult to keep track of a dive buddy. Plus, there are typically snags and unseen hazards.

Barges still make their way up and down the river and recreational boaters often don’t recognize dive flags on the Tennessee, Scruggs said.

Scruggs, a history buff who dove to the Civil War-era ironclad USS Monitor as a research diver for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has also collected information about the remains of the steamboat.

Besides the boat, there are other things in the river that tell other stories about the area, Scruggs said: the foundations of the bridge the Union army built across the river, the glass bottles used by a brewer who, when prohibition took hold, switched to nonalcoholic beer.

“They disposed of their waste there — y’know garbage — out of sight, out of mind back then. … There’s a lot of historical stuff there,” Scruggs said.

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