The Hardware Store Under the River

While working in Omaha, Nebraska, last week I took a couple hours to visit an exhibit of thousands of tools and household implements from the mid-19th century that had been preserved in the mud of the Missouri River.

The objects – more than 250,000 – were recovered in 1968-69 from the wreck of the Bertrand, a sternwheel steamboat that was hauling goods from St. Louis to the Montana Territory in 1865. During its maiden journey, the steamboat hit a log and sank. No one on board was killed, but most of the cargo was lost to the mud of the river.

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A modern painting of the Bertrand.

The oxygen-deprived atmosphere preserved most of the cargo. And when the ship was found in 1968 by a couple of treasure-seekers looking for mercury, they unlocked a time capsule of material culture in the United States from the mid-19th century.

The permanent exhibit is at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, a serene river setting that encompasses land in both Iowa and Nebraska. Walking through the exhibit is like visiting a Main Street in 1865 America. There’s stuff from the General Store – pickles (still green), canned food, honey, sauces and household implements. The Hardware Store – tools for woodworking, farming, mining and homesteading. The Gun Shop. The Haberdashery. The Shoe Shop. And the Liquor Store – so much liquor (especially champagne). Oh, and nuts. Peanuts still in their shells.

A mandrel for a circular saw.

The front part of the exhibit shows samples from the collection, nicely displayed. But what is shocking are the racks and racks and racks behind the displays that are filled with even more of these objects.

The ones on display have been cleaned, and it is remarkable to see how some of them still look brand new (especially the sharpening stones). 

Brand-new sharpening stones from 1865.
The rusted-together nails from the Bertrand.

My favorite part (and I’m not alone) were the nail kegs. The square nails had rusted into one big keg-shaped mass, and then the barrel had rotted away.

There are also lots of fascinating details about the collection. The matches they found amongst the cargo were still so potent that they kept accidentally igniting – setting one of the researcher’s pants on fire.

If you are ever in the Omaha area, it’s worth a visit. Now I just need to get to the similar exhibit in Kansas City – the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

— Christopher Schwarz

Another cool detail from the exhibit. Many of the items were packed in sawdust and wood chips, which is why delicate things survived. The wood swelled up when it got wet and immobilized everything for its journey to the next century.


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