SERGEANT BLUFF, Iowa (AP) - For about 40 years, Pete King tramped through fields, searching for the final resting sites of riverboats that had sunk in the Missouri River.
Each wreck he found was a puzzle piece, leading him to the next and his ultimate goal of finding one that could be excavated.
The first 30 King found could not be dug up. They were located on Indian ground or remained partially in the river channel. Or the landowner had no interest in losing what was often fertile farmland to excavators digging down 40, 50 feet or more to uncover a busted-up old boat.
But now, King said, that puzzle picture is almost complete.
For the past five or six years, he’s been discussing with others the excavation of the Nugget, a steamboat that sank near Decatur, Neb., in 1866. King located the boat’s remains beneath a field about 300 feet west of the current river channel in 2005.
It was the latest find for this “steamboat hunter,” who grew up near the river in Kansas City, Kan., and has had an interest in archaeology since he was a boy.
In 1969, he read a National Geographic article on the discovery of the steamboat Bertrand near Blair, Neb. The article mentioned that some 400 steamboats sunk on the river, known for its treacherous snags and shifting current that claimed boats piloted by even the most skilled captains.
“When I read that article in 1969, that intrigued me because the Missouri River was in my backyard, so to speak,” King said.
So King began his hunt. He, too, dreamed of finding a riverboat that could be excavated, revealing the goods and possible treasure it was carrying when it wrecked.
With no archaeological training, he read books and pored over historical records, old newspapers and aerial photos to zero in on the sites where steamboats went down. Most now lie under ground, the meandering Missouri having shifted away from the wreckage over time before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the channel in the 1930s to make it safer for navigation.
King used instinct and logic to find irregularities in the land that might reveal the resting spot of a sunken steamboat.
“I’m not a scientist. I’m not anything. I simply was taught as a kid to back up and think,” he said.
About 30 years ago, he found his first steamboat near Kansas City. Then two or three more, eventually hitting 30 before finding the Nugget.
“It’s always been intriguing to me, the finding, that thrill of discovery,” he said. “It’s easy to find them. It’s the work that goes in afterward.”
There’s been a lot of work near Decatur since he used his homemade magnetometer to find the Nugget. Drilling at the site pulled up charcoal that was 42 feet deep. Another drill bit broke after hitting something, likely iron, 27 feet down.
When it sunk, the Nugget was a floating Wal-Mart, King said, heading for Montana with all the food, weapons, clothes and household supplies people living on the frontier would need. The ship also has historical significance, he said, because Gen. Ulysses S. Grant used it as a supply ship during the Civil War.
King said many experts are interested in excavating the site, and the landowner is on board. That type of excavation is a complicated and costly process, one King said will soon relegate him to the role of interested bystander.
“It’s to the point where it’s almost beyond me,” he said.
He’s fine with sitting back and watching, because he’s done what he set out to do.
His goal was to find a boat wreck that can be excavated.
With that task completed, he’s ready to move on.
The years of hunting are over.
The final puzzle piece is nearly fitted into place.
Information from: Sioux City Journal, https://www.siouxcityjournal.com
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