American western river steamboats represent a unique form of shipbuilding. Designed and built on the American frontier during the core of the 19th century, such boats rapidly evolved to fit the specific needs of the great inland river systems that drained inland North America. In this build I will replicate a typical specimen of this design, the steamboat Bertrand, trying to accurately duplicate the features of these fascinating vessels. I hope you’ll follow along, both to enjoy the construction, and to learn about this obscure but fascinating (to me, at least) part of maritime transportation history. These boats are almost, but not entirely, unlike an ocean-going vessel of the same period, in large part due to the demands of their specific riverine habitat. Below, my updated workbench with Bertrand profile on the wall for inspiration.
The “western” in western river steamboat refers to the landscape between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. Over the course of the 19th century, this area went from the mostly unknown wilderness of Lewis & Clark’s 1804 expedition up the Missouri River, to a land mostly settled and integrated into the United States by the dawn of the 20th century. Most of this landscape centers on the Mississippi River basin, including its major tributaries such as the Ohio and Missouri Rivers. This system drains over 1 million square miles (almost 3 million square km), covering parts of 31 American states and 2 Canadian provinces. Almost all the rivers in the system were navigable in the 19th century for most of their lengths, creating a vast trade and transportation network across the continent’s interior long before railroads appeared on the scene, when roads were all but non-existent (map below from National Park Service).
The Bertand, built in 1864 and sunk in 1865, was a wholly typical and unremarkable western river steamer, except for its rediscovery beneath a US Wildlife Refuge along the Iowa/Nebraska border in 1968. The boat and its cargo were remarkably well-preserved, due to quick burial beneath river sediment by the quickly changing channel of the Missouri River, and the anoxic environment thus produced. The Bertrand’s mint-condition cargo is now on display at a fascinating museum at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, which also hosts a detailed large-scale model of the craft (shown below). The archeological excavation of the craft resulted in a plethora of information about period steamboat construction. In pairing with the later, but similar, discovery of the sunken steamboat Arabia along the Kansas/Missouri border and subsequent founding of a similar museum in Kansas City, the two wrecks represent a spectacular repository of historical and maritime knowledge and preservation. Below, the gorgeous large-scale model of Bertrand at DeSoto (FWS photo).
I live and farm near the Missouri River, and have long been fascinated by the history of its steamboats. My first-ever attempt at wooden ship modeling was a scratchbuilt version of the Far West, perhaps the most famous of its class, a sternwheeler which ascended the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers to extraordinary distances, and carried General Custer’s troops to and from the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn. The Bertrand is a similar craft to the Far West, which was built to ascent the shallow, treacherous river to Montana, while the Arabia was a sidewheeler more typical of the lower Missouri River below Omaha, Nebraska (and the Ohio and Mississippi). I had initially intended to build the Arabia next, but due to a lack of available plans, and my inability to make it to Kansas City to do research at her eponymous museum, I changed my focus to the Bertrand. Below, my model of the Far West for context:
I’ve had plans for the Bertrand for several years, having purchased them at the same time as my Far West plans, and consulted them on that project. Now, the goal is a similar boat but at much greater detail: I would like to build the Bertrand frame-by-frame, just as initially constructed in the riverside yards at Wheeling, West Virginia. I have a shelf of texts on western steamboat history and construction, and several more detailed references on the excavation of the Bertrand on order through inter-library loan. I intend to leave one side of the hull unplanked, and possibly the same side of the superstructure, to show full detail throughout. Below, longitudinal internal section of the Bertrand from the plans I'll be using.
I hope you’ll join me on this (likely) wordy trek through a relatively unknown period of American maritime history and design. Few other steamboats grace this site, so I'd like to fill the gap a little with this project. I’ll try to interweave build details with explanations and demonstrations of why the boat was designed and built the way it was, to give context to this project and help share my love of these steamboats and their (my) home. This project is a significant undertaking for me, a serious step up from my previous Bounty launch kit and various smaller and less-detailed scratchbuilding efforts. I hope to be open to suggestion and advice, and I hope readers will be patient with the slow progress I'll likely make as I juggle this project with the summertime demands on my time, as well as the budget necessary to do this with my uncertain income as a self-employed farmer and writer. Welcome aboard, and unlike most boats of this type, we'll hope this one doesn't sink or blow up on the journey!
UPDATE: Build completed and index available.
I finished this project in January 2016, and compiled an index of the general steps involved, with links to each one. You can review the build index here, in a post at the end of this log.
Edited by Cathead, 09 July 2016 - 01:35 PM.