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Steamboat Bertrand by Cathead - 1:87, wooden Missouri River sternwheeler - Finished

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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
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Sounds like an interesting build as well as a labor of love I think I will be looking in on your progress if you will have me.  Several years ago I bought the plans for the Beaver which was the Hudson Bay's trading vessel and will like to build her when I get the chance.  Go for it.

David B

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I built the FAR WEST about 10 years ago. It is here in my office at work and I gaze upon it as we speak. As part of doing research, I was amazed at where those things could go. While the Mississippi boats and Missouri boats has a lot in common, it was two different worlds.


The interior passenger areas were pretty luxurious (for their day) but with limits. Note the two "rest facilities" at the aft end of the upper deck, just forward of the paddlewheel. Two seats, no waiting!!!

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Steamboats played a significant role west of the Rockies, too


Oh, no question, all along the West Coast. I've explored the wrecks of several steamers along the banks of the Yukon, where the northern climate preserves them quite well. There are some great stories about early steamers on the Columbia running the rapids and proving the river was navigable farther than originally thought. But as far as I know, all those boats followed the basic designs first developed in the Mississippi basin, which is why I find these early steamers so fascinating: they're like watching evolution in progress. 


Note the two "rest facilities" at the aft end of the upper deck, just forward of the paddlewheel. Two seats, no waiting!!! 


Nothing like having the sternwheel right there to bury the evidence!

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The hulls of western river boats are quite different from those of ocean-going ships, and this presents the first challenge of this project. For example, the Bertrand has no keel, meaning I will have to work out a new way to lay out the hull’s framing without an external keel to anchor everything on.


There are good reasons for this oddity. While early river boats were built like regular ships, with projecting keeps and deep hulls, it was quickly determined that this didn’t work on the shallow, fast-flowing, curvaceous rivers of the region, for several reasons:


1)      Keels provide resistance against leeway. This was not only unnecessary for steam-powered boats, it was actually a detriment to the maneuverability needed to handle the sharp turns and shifting currents of the rivers. Riverboats were amazingly nimble, and large keels just got in the way.


2)      Keels strengthen the hull longitudinally. This, too, quickly proved to be a detriment under western river conditions. While the long, narrow hulls of steamboats were very prone to hogging, they also needed to be flexible for the inevitable need to scrape over sandbars or even rock shoals. It has been claimed that steamboat hulls needed to flex two feet vertically to handle the river conditions they were subjected to; an overly strong keel could break the back of a steamboat like a ship on a reef, rather than allowing it to slither over shoals. We’ll explore the steamboat designers’ flexible solution to hogging later in the project.


3)      Deep hulls provide stability and cargo capacity, but shallow channels made this impossible. Steamboats quickly evolved to barge-like hulls carrying all their machinery and most of their cargo on the deck; their long, flat-bottomed hulls provided all the buoyancy they needed. The Bertrand was only about 14 feet shorter than USS Constitution at the waterline, and almost as wide on deck, but with about 10% of the draft and displacement.  Bertrand would have lasted mere minutes in the open sea, but Old Ironsides couldn't have made it thousands of miles upriver to western Montana carrying tons of cargo.


 None of this would matter much for the model if I intended to simply plank the hull; in that case I would either cut bulkheads or shape a solid block, and just plank over everything. But I want to show off the unique internal framing of the craft, and so have to work out the best way to assemble it in place.




The Bertrand has something like 60-70 internal frames, including some cant frames in the stem. Above, you see examples of a typical midsection frame. These aren't curved the way a ship’s are, just a straight floor joined to two straight futtocks at an angle. There were  multiple ways to make this joint; on the Bertrand this was a cocked-hat chine in which the two pieces were simply butted together at the turn of the bilge and braced with a triangular timber.  I will need to make about 40 of these assemblies, plus 20-30 more that slowly change shape with the curve of the bow and stern.


You’ll notice that my frames are a bit thicker than the scale plans imply. This is intentional, as I feel that truly scale timbers would be extremely difficult to work with. They need to be strong enough to hold their shape against fairing and handling, and I don’t think would have enough surface area to hold glue joints properly in some of the unusual arrangements I’ll need to do. This is especially true as I intend to leave a large section unplanked, such that the frames need to hold their own. When the model is completed, I don’t think the slightly overscale timbers will be noticeable, but the model will be much stronger. 


I made these by first cutting an internal wooden pattern to the exact shape of the mid-hull, as taken from the plans. The pattern is from slightly thinner stock than the frames. I then cut and lay out the three pieces, with a small dab of wood glue in the two joints, with the pattern holding them to shape. When the glue is tacky, only a few minutes, I spread more on top of the joint and lay two broader pieces at an angle across the joint to create the “cocked hat” brace (this is why the pattern needs to be thinner, so it doesn’t get glued to the brace). When the assembly is dry, I use a sharp knife to carve away the excess, including the plank-width area at the outside turn of the bilge. One broad plank will be used here between the side planking and the bottom planking, as on the prototype. While it might seem that making 40+ of these would take forever, each one takes only a few minutes. I simply make one, set it aside, and work on something else. Doing this in the background means I’ll have them all done by the time I work out the rest of the hull plan.


As for how to assemble all these, my current plan is to make a building board with parallel grooves at the spacing & depth of the hull frames. I can then set all the frames into this pattern while attaching them as on the prototype, with a variety of internal stringers and a strong keelson. This, incidentally, is another reason to use my slightly over-sized stock: it’s the same width as my table saw’s dado, making this process very convenient.


In the next installment, I’ll explore the bow area, and how I plan to tackle the framing in that area. In the meantime, I’ll be making a lot of hull frames! In the meantime, any comments, questions, and suggestions are quite welcome. 

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Surely without an external keel these ships had some sort of internal keelson and stringers, which will solve your framing lay-out problems.



From the second-to-last paragraph: As for how to assemble all these, my current plan is to make a building board with parallel grooves at the spacing & depth of the hull frames. I can then set all the frames into this pattern while attaching them as on the prototype, with a variety of internal stringers and a strong keelson. This, incidentally, is another reason to use my slightly over-sized stock: it’s the same width as my table saw’s dado, making this process very convenient.


The trick is, using just internal stringers and keelsons, the hull has to be assembled right side up. I've only done upside-down hulls on a mold, where it's easier because you fix the keel in place and attach everything else to it. I haven't thought of a way to fix an internal keelson in place in the same way; am I missing something?

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As the floors are flat, I think I'd be inclined to line the frames up on a base board and hold them in place with small spacer blocks; then it would be simply a matter of fixing the internal framing to them.  You'd obviously need to be careful about the positioning of the frames, but once that was done, the rest should (hopefully) fall into place.



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Cathead, check out Gene Bodnar's build of USS Cairo, an ACW brown water ship, here: http://www.modelshipbuilder.com/e107_plugins/forum/forum_viewtopic.php?5406

Another almost flat bottom (well, it does have a keel) build of a War of 1812 row galley, with an interesting build gantry idea: http://www.modelshipbuilder.com/e107_plugins/forum/forum_viewtopic.php?4335

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I'm glad to see a Missouri riverboat being built.  I've been fascinated by the sternwheelers for years and prefer the workboats of the Missouri to the fancy boats of the Mississippi. The first ship model I built was a scratch build of the Shawnee, A pool boat at the Pittsburg locks.   She was built at the Howard ship yard ( the oldest continually operating shipyard in the country) in southern Indiana on the Ohio. I followed the drawing in the book by Alan Bates and I also added all the framing in the hull.  So I'll be following your build with much enjoyment.



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Those are great links, thanks. I'm intrigued by the rod-based building jig and may tinker with that. 


The Cairo link is particularly fun to find, as I visited that myself in Vicksburg a few years ago and have some nice photos. Also on the brown-water front, we visited Shiloh this spring and enjoyed standing on the river bluffs there imagining Grant's steamboat fleet filling the river and desperately shelling the shore to disrupt the Confederate advance. Have you been there?


Everyone else,


Thanks for your support and interest! I fully expect to rely on your expertise to help figure out some of the fiddly bits on this build. I'm still working through some of the implications of the plans and will likely have a few questions to group-source before I proceed much farther. For example, the plans show twice as many floors as futtocks, and I can't decide whether this is accurate or whether half the futtocks are left out for some reason. Some other riverboats (like the Cairo Ken linked to above) are framed so closely they're nearly solid. Yet if I do that here, you won't be able to see into the hull much to observe the interior framing. Will update more when I have a chance to take photos and lay out the design questions more visually, rather than in a text dump.

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Cathead, thanks. All my ACW in-person viewing has been in PA, MD, VA & NC. Need to check out the West.


I would think that since Cairo was built as an ironclad from the keel up and meant to be used occasionally as a ram, the hull was over braced, with all the extra frames. For a transport, I'd surmise the frames were much further apart.

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The drawing is correct.  The riverboats were built as light as possible ( 3/4 inch thick hull planks was the norm.) so they could carry more cargo and still float in the shallow water of the rivers.  It was the bottom of the boat that took all the abuse of the snags, rocks and groundings, so it was built stronger.  The sides did not require the extra strength.   Hopefully you also have plans showing the angled bracing in the hull both side to side and front to back.  This also helped to strengthen the box of the hull.



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The arrival of a long-awaited reference book through inter-library loan has helped to clarify some important design questions for this build, while forcing me to start over. The new book is Jerome Petsche’s  1974 “The Steamboat Bertrand: history, excavation, and architecture”, the official account and documentation of the National Park Service excavation of the wreck. I had expected this book to help me later on with obscure details, and so hadn’t worried about waiting for its arrival (having no idea when it would show up), as I trusted my purchased plans to be accurate enough for beginning basic hull construction. However, the more I’ve studied the plans, comparing them to other things I’ve read about the Bertrand and steamboat architecture in general, I’ve developed a few concerns. Petsche’s book has justified three of my concerns and shown me the proper way forward.


1)      Spacing of hull frames.  


The plans’ side view show twice as many horizontal floors as vertical futtocks (see above, left). This struck me as odd, because I’ve seen no other references to steamboats having this design, and the futtock spacing was twice as wide as dimensions listed as typical for steamboats of this era. My references say that frame assemblies generally varied between 13-15” apart, which is how the floors are drawn. And other examples of steamboat framing I’ve seen are very closely spaced.  Petsche’s more detailed architectural drawings (above, right), done directly from the wreck itself, clearly show floors AND futtocks always paired, and at a spacing just over 12”. Also see the overheard view, below. I don’t know why the plans omitted half the futtocks, but it appears that accuracy demands a full and closely spaced set of frames. I will have to think about what this means for a view into the completed hull.


2)      Shape of bow.


Riverboats of this era generally followed two bow designs: model and spoonbill. Model, the earlier version, came to a sharp point at the stem  much like a regular ship’s bow. Spoonbill, which became widely adopted in the 1970s, carried a much broader curve, which evolved with the need for upper river boats to slide up, over, and onto sandbars and river banks rather than slice through water. My plans show Bertrand with something much closer to a spoonbill bow (above, left), though she was built before their widespread adoption, and built originally for the Ohio River, where spoonbills wouldn’t have been necessary anyway. Sure enough, the Petsche plans clearly describe and show a much sharper model bow (above, right), with very different lines than my plans.


3)      Cant frames.


My plans don’t have an overhead view of the internal framing, but the side profile doesn’t show any cant frames in the bow, implying that the futtocks are perpendicular to the keelson all the way to the stem. This, too, struck me as odd, and the Petsche plans bear this out. They show cant frames beginning virtually at the beginning of the bow’s curve, with no beveled frames to be seen. This is an exciting discovery, because I think it will make the hull easier to build, and also gives me a more accurate frame of reference for getting started.


I suppose one moral to all this is, don’t get started until you’ve completed ALL your research. But I find that I learn by doing, and while I did quite a bit of pre-reading before starting this log, I also felt like getting started and figuring things out while underway. I use the same approach when building full-scale structures (I’ve built most of the outbuildings for my farm, including our dairy barn). When translating a 2-D plan into a 3-D model, there’s nothing like holding the actual timbers in your hands and seeing how your paper idea fits together in real life.


I’ve lost a bit of work that I will have to do over. But I’ve learned quite a bit, too, and don’t regret getting started. I didn’t expect my purchased plans to be so off in basic hull design, and had no idea when my deeper references would arrive. Getting started made me happy, gave me something to do and share, and produced an experience that I (and hopefully some of you) learned something from.


So no worries, and when next I can get back to the work bench, I’ll start anew on laying out the hull to my new, truly accurate plans’ design.


In the meantime, a question for the commentariat: 


Given the close spacing of the frames, and my stated desire to have the interior framing of the boat visible when completed, what's the best course of action? Do I leave out half the futtocks & floors on one side after all? Do I leave a big hole somewhere for viewing? Something else I haven't thought of yet? Ideas welcome.

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Cat, check out the recent modeler's meet here: http://modelshipworld.com/index.php/topic/9510-2015-33rd-annual-northeast-joint-clubs-model-show-and-conference/page-2  Look at post #26. It shows an exploded view with some decks and roofs raised to enhance viewing all the detailing.

Edited by Canute
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