Sunday, June 19, 2011

Evacuating the Bertrand's cargo

Here's a view of Bertrand artifacts as displayed at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge visitor center from Wikimedia Commons (visitor photographs are forbidden).

It seems a little shallow, considering the human toll Missouri River flooding is taking along Iowa’s western shore --- but I’ve been concerned about the steamboat Bertrand’s cargo.

If you’ve visited the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Missouri Valley --- right along the Missouri River --- you’ll know what I’m talking about --- more than 500,000 items in a remarkable degree of preservation that filled the Bertrand’s holds when it went down in the Missouri about 20 miles north of Omaha on April 1, 1865, after hitting a submerged log.

A model of the Bertrand, also inside the Desoto visitor center and also from Wikimedia Commons.
The boat was heavily loaded with supplies for the Montana goldfields as it steamed north. No lives were lost, the cargo was insured and as the years passed the river changed its course and the Bertrand and its contents settled beneath the sand, landlocked.

Archaeologists discovered the wreck on refuge grounds during 1968 and excavated and recovered roughly half the cargo (the remains of the boat itself were reburied). Under provisions of the Antiquities Act of 1906, artifacts were handed over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which developed display and storage areas in a new DeSoto Refuge visitor center.

This is reportedly the largest cache of Civil War-era artifacts in the United States and I’ve spent hours on a couple of occasions just looking. Because of the fragility of the cargo, much of what’s on view is kept behind glass in climate- and light-controlled cases.

Nearly all the cargo consisted of consumer goods --- clothing, fabric, tools, food, household goods, barrels of whiskey, anything and everything average Americans would have been willing to buy at the time. The biggest consignment was headed for the Vivian and Spencer retail outfit in Virginia City. Burial in moist sand did a good job of preserving items, including in some cases fabric and food. It’s a fascinating display.

I liked this sculpture of an eagle outside the DeSoto visitor center, a 2003 work by Richard Hart.

The visitor center itself, with broad views out across the refuge designed for bird-watchers and others, is a fairly spectacular place on its own.

Anyhow, an article in the Omaha World Herald last week filled us in on what was happening at the visitor center, where the immediate threat was not so much from flooding as it was from disruption of the power supply needed to run climate control operations.

Officials and volunteers have packed and hauled away nearly everything to federal warehouses in a variety of places and at least one private storage center. Food items went to a National Park Service center in Kansas City.

And here's the Missouri in happier times, flowing within its banks alongside the refuge grounds.

I’m glad to know the collection is safe and, hopefully, everything will come home once the Missouri’s back within its banks. I’m ready to drive over and take another look.


In one of the odder political developments in Des Moines last week, The Des Moines Register discovered that Gov. Terry Branstad had lied about having plan to deal with the funding crisis that might develop if the fiscal year ends June 30 without a budget agreement in the Legislature.

Branstad had said such a plan existed, but declined to release it. The Register filed an open-records-law petition in order to lay hands on plan details, which forced the governor’s office to acknowledge such a plan didn’t exist.

Chet Culver, a Democrat, actually developed such a plan during his administration --- and also declined to release it. Branstad, it seems, took all the effort out of the process by just saying such a plan existed without actually working to produce one.

It’s no so much the lack of a plan --- since some sort of budget compromise is likely --- but the lies that are a little worrying. This is, of course, Branstad (one of whose campaign watchwords was “transparency”), so not especially surprising.


Also peculiar was the performance of State Rep. Shawn Hamerlinck (left), Republican of Dixon and a community college instructor, who scolded like naughty children student leaders from Iowa’s Regent universities who had come to the Capitol to express concerns about university budget cuts and tuition increases.

“I do not like it when students actually come here and lobby me for funds,” Hamerlinck told the student leaders. He thanked them, sort of, for coming to Des Moines, but “actually spending your time worrying about what we’re doing up here, I don’t want you to do that. Go back home. Thanks guys,” he said.

Hamerlinck is kind of young himself, and you’d think he’d know better. But then a young Republican is sort of like a 70-year-old, anticipating dentures, who tells his buddies how much he’s looking forward to having his teeth pulled because of all those quarters the tooth fairy will leave under his pillow.

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