This was published in the months before Katrina hit. Does anyone have new information on the remains of the USS Chickasaw?
A collapsed riverbank exposes a host of sunken vessels -- and reveals a slice of history
Sunday, March 13, 2005
By Mark Schleifstein
A section of the Mississippi riverbank near Audubon Park collapsed about a year and a half ago, with astonishing results.
No, muddy water did not inundate Uptown New Orleans. Riverbank repairs are a routine task that the Army Corps of Engineers performs adeptly. What made this job special was the historical treasure trove it turned up: 19 sunken ships, including the remains of a Civil War ironclad that played a major role in the 1864 battle of Mobile Bay.
Research conducted for the corps provides a rich and unusual view of the ties between a sliver of Uptown -- the area just upriver from the Audubon Park Butterfly -- and the economic and cultural heritage of the city and the nation. This was the place where renowned African-American singer Mahalia Jackson grew up; where ferries transported horse-drawn carriages, automobiles, and railroad cars and engines across the Mississippi; and where many of the work ships servicing the Port of New Orleans, the river and ocean-going shipping were based.
The sunken ships, scattered along about a mile of sloping underwater riverbank that's 30 to 150 feet deep, are mostly the derelict remains of vessels used by various Bisso family businesses that have operated in the area since at least 1853. And it was Bisso workers who first spotted the collapsing riverbank about 18 months ago.
"We lost about 50 feet of land," remembered W.A. "Cappy" Bisso III, chairman of Bisso Marine, one of the Bisso companies along the river at the repair site. "It was there when everybody went home that night and wasn't there the next morning."
When it became clear that at least two of the shipwrecks had historical value and should be protected, the corps quickly jettisoned its normal riverbank repair process, which uses huge revetment mats made of concrete panels to armor failing banks. Instead, the riverbank is being repaired with more than 140,000 tons of rock at a cost of $2.1 million to ensure that the Mississippi's current doesn't undercut that portion of the levee protecting the Carrollton-Riverbend area of New Orleans.
"The idea is to preserve them in place as best we can," said Don Rawson, a corps civil engineer directing the repair, said of the submerged hulls. "We're not placing rocks around the two most critical vessels."
The sunken ships were spotted by corps researchers using sidescan sonar and multibeam bathymetry to survey the underwater portion of the east bank of the river. Projecting multiple sound beams along the river's floor provided a three-dimensional image of the outlines of individual ships, and even of pilings driven through one of the ships.
The vessels lie along the east bank of the river from Audubon Park to Lowerline Street.
Using sophisticated sonar tools and old-fashioned hard-hat divers, archaeologists working for the corps used a variety of public and private business records and the reminiscences of Bisso officials to identify many of the ships and explain their roles in the port's history.
Among the discoveries documented in a two-volume report prepared for the corps by R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates are the remains of a tall-sailed schooner, several river or ocean-going tugs, a number of work and derrick barges, and at least two ferries that once traveled between Algiers and the Walnut Street wharf.
The area is marked on river charts as Greenville Bend, a reference to the adjacent Faubourg Greenville, a pie-shaped piece of land stretching toward Lake Pontchartrain from the river that was sandwiched between New Orleans and the village of Carrollton, until both were annexed by the city in the late 1800s.
Much of the land once had been used to raise indigo and sugarcane before it was subdivided for homes and businesses. During the Civil War, part of the land was used as a Union garrison, and nearby stables were used after the war by an African-American cavalry detachment that was the forerunner of the famed Buffalo Soldiers.
Beginnings of Bisso
William Bisso, a Civil War veteran of the U.S. Navy, settled along the river at Walnut Street about five years after the war, first taking rafts of logs downriver to a timber company, then beginning his own timber business. By the 1890s, his family was running a three-boat ferry service to the West Bank from their private Walnut Street wharf, along with a towboat business and coal-importing company. By the 1930s, the Bisso Ferry Co. ran ferries from Jackson Street to Gretna and Louisiana Avenue to the West Bank, and they ran the original Walnut Street ferry.
Today, various branches of the family own three businesses that operate at the foot of Walnut Street: E.N. Bisso and Son Inc., Bisso Marine Co. and Bisso Towboat Co. Over the years, a number of the companies' ships have sunk along the riverbank.
The submerged riverbank today is a "catchment for submerged watercraft lost at or in transit to our nation's busiest port, on America's premier commercial waterway," the Goodwin report said.
"Due to a variety of circumstances, including at least one notorious collision on the river, the loss of vessels from the various Bisso fleets contributed to the creation of a virtual shipwreck graveyard at this location," the report said. "The river is swift, turbid and deep, and at several locales within the project area, sunken watercraft are stacked like random cordwood on the river bottom, sometimes four to six vessels deep, where they are admixed with debris and mechanical equipment lost during accidents and hurricanes."
Cappy Bisso said most of the ships sank in an era before environmental rules that might have required their raising.
"As long as they were not a hazard to navigation, nobody cared," he said. "Today, you'd pretty much have to have a pretty good reason for them to stay underwater."
History of an ironclad
The most important find doesn't look so important in the underwater sonar views, but the shadowlike image that looks like a square picket fence emerging from the river bottom is the remains of the USS Chickasaw, an ironclad built in St. Louis in 1864 by James B. Eads.
Eads is better known in New Orleans as the designer of twin jetties that allowed the Mississippi River's South Pass to scour itself clean, keeping the river free for the passage of ocean-going cargo with much less dredging. That's a project on which today's modern river channel is based.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Eads had recommended to President Lincoln that the Navy be equipped with ironclad ships that could take on anything the Confederate States could come up with.
By 1864, he had been given the go-ahead to build a variety of such ships, including four based loosely on the design of the USS Monitor, which won the first ironclad battle against the CSS Virginia in 1862 at Hampton Roads, Va.
The Chickasaw was one of the Eads ships, a low-slung vessel with two round, rotating turrets, each equipped with two 11-inch smooth-bore guns.
The interior of the ship was so hot during the summer that removable wooden awning supports were attached to the deck, so sailors could spend much of their day underneath a canvas awning.
The ship was designed with four individually controlled propellers, which gave it unusual maneuverability that would prove its worth in Mobile Bay. Remains of the propulsion system are one of the reasons the ship is considered historically significant today.
First assigned as part of a squadron of ships patrolling the Mississippi, the Chickasaw soon was transferred to New Orleans to participate in a coastwide blockade under the command of Rear Adm. David Farragut.
Battle in Mobile Bay
The Chickasaw and three other Monitor-styled ironclads, two of which were single-turret vessels built on the East Coast, were ordered into Mobile Bay on the morning of Aug. 5, 1864, to screen Farragut's other ships from fire from both the land-based Fort Morgan and any ships in the harbor.
First in was the USS Tecumseh, which soon struck a torpedo -- actually an underwater mine -- and sank, killing most of its crew.
"Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" Farragut was quoted as saying when hearing of the loss.
Blocking the assault were the Confederate ironclad ram CSS Tennessee and three Confederate gunboats.
The Tennessee proved too slow to ram any of the Union ships, but the accompanying gunboats successfully fired on the USS Hartford, Farragut's flagship, until one was captured and two others were chased to safe water beneath the fort's guns.
The Chickasaw's stack was blown away during the initial action, and cannonballs damaged its starboard side.
The Tennessee, meanwhile, again tried to approach the Union fleet, and Farragut ordered his ships to fire on it and ram it.
Broadsides from several of the remaining Union ships seemed to bounce off the Tennessee's sides, until the Chickasaw maneuvered to fire into the Confederate ship's stern.
"Shot away the enemy's flagstaff and smokestack and soon afterwards her steering gear, which forced the enemy to stop," wrote Chickasaw's commander, Capt. George Perkins in an after-action report. "We opened our shot into the stern of the enemy, nearly all of which took effect, when she hoisted the white flag at 10:40.
". . . .In the engagement with the ram Tennessee, 52 solid shot were fired in a short time and with great accuracy, the distance being from 50 to 10 yards," Perkins wrote.
The Chickasaw also bombarded several forts in the bay in the following months and, at the end of the war, assisted in accepting the surrender of a variety of Confederate vessels.
Towed to New Orleans after the war ended, it was laid up in Algiers for nine years before being sold to the New Orleans Pacific Railroad and converted to a coal barge under the name Samson.
The railroad converted it to a rail ferry in 1880, renaming it the Gouldsboro and adding a sidewheel propulsion system. The Gouldsboro ferried rail cars and engines across the Mississippi until the rail company began using the Huey P. Long Bridge in the late 1930s.
In the 1940s, the ship was sold to New Orleans Coal & Bisso Towboat Co., which converted it into a work barge. Information about its sinking, sometime in the 1950s, was unavailable.
A second shipwreck at the site considered historically significant is the A.M. Halliday, a steel-hulled catamaran ferry built in 1903 in Jeffersonville, Ind., and brought to New Orleans two years later. The ship's lifetime spanned the movement from horse-drawn carriages to motorized vehicles, and no real changes had to be made to its deck or equipment to accommodate the advances in technology.
By 1908, the coal-fired Halliday was owned by Southern Transportation Co. & Ferryboat and operated between the foot of Canal Street and Algiers, and later between Napoleon Avenue and Marrero. Much later, it was bought by one of the Bisso companies.
Goodwin researchers were unable to find a record of the Halliday's sinking, but it must have been after 1970, when a photograph of the ship on the river was taken.
"Ferries, such as the A.M. Halliday and the Algiers (a similar catamaran that also operated from Canal Street in the early 1900s), became the anchor between residential and commercial communities throughout the city of New Orleans," the Goodwin report said. "Thus, the work of the A.M. Halliday was directly associated with the growth of Carrollton and Westwego."
Remote sensing of the river bottom, however, indicates the ship is upside down, badly damaged and eroded. Still, it could be valuable to future research into the construction and use of similar catamaran ferries and should be protected, the report concluded.
A number of tugs and barges found on the underwater riverbank were stricken by hurricanes or sank after collisions, the report said.
The most infamous incident was the July 28, 1977, collision of the S.S. Sitala, a French-flagged tanker loaded with 19 million gallons of crude oil that was traveling upriver to the Marathon Oil refinery in Garyville. As the ship approached Greenville Bend at 13 mph, it lost steering and, despite immediately dropping anchor, slammed into the Bisso mooring area, sinking four ships and damaging several others.
One of the ships was raised, but the other three, the derrick barge Boaz, ENB Barge 535 and an unnamed tank barge, are among those on the bottom.
Archaeologist Christopher Goodwin said there's not much chance any of the shipwrecks will be raised because the cost would outweigh the ships' historical value.
"Because of the history of refits of the Chickasaw, it's really the history of the vessel that's important, and that history already is fairly well-documented," he said. "The only reason to bring it up would be if the repair project would have a direct adverse effect on it and any historical data would be lost, and even then, only if something good could be done with it.
"It would cost millions to stabilize and restore, and at the end of the day, you'd have a vessel that's been cut up, chopped up and has lost its integrity above the hull," Goodwin said.
The Chickasaw is not the only Civil War-era ship caught in such limbo in the state, he said. "The CSS Louisiana is in Plaquemines Parish underneath a levee and a lot of water," and another ironclad is in the Red River at Bossier City.
Cappy Bisso said his company also has no interest in raising the Chickasaw, even though it specializes in raising sunken ships. "Only if somebody wanted to pay for it," he said.
In 1964, the company helped federal officials recover the USS Cairo, another ironclad now on display at Vicksburg National Historical Park. The sunken Boaz was one of the crane barges used in that effort.
Famous singer's roots
While researchers found little more than a few old broken bottles, some china shards and pieces of Indian pottery in digs along the shoreline during their study of the area, their research also included a review of the history of the Bisso operations and surrounding area.
Among those working for the Bisso companies at the turn of the century, according to the Goodwin report, was Johnny Jackson Jr., a wharf laborer who was the father of renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, for whom the city's center for performing arts in Armstrong Park is named.
Born in 1911, Mahalia Jackson and her family lived in one of a handful of ramshackle homes between the levee and the Public Belt Line railroad tracks, a couple of blocks upriver from Bisso's Walnut Street wharf.
"Mahalia said there was song everywhere in the Walnut Street neighborhood: singing dice chants, work songs from the wharf, the street vendors crying their wares, Baptist and Spiritualist shouts from nearby churches, even ragtime bands playing a new type of music called 'jass' or 'jazz' along Magazine Street and in Audubon Park," the Goodwin report said.
Jackson honed her music at the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church on Hillary Street and later at the Mount Moriah and Broadway Missionary Baptist churches.