• Video: The Steamboat Bertrand Collection
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MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa — Waffle irons, bottles of ale, small cannon balls and thousands of other 19th century artifacts from the sunken steamboat Bertrand were rushed out of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in 2011, ahead of the Missouri River floods.
Now those artifacts are back and on display at the refuge's visitor center, but the center's staff has rethought how those items will tell the story of the Bertrand, which sank in 1865.
“We are much more familiar with what we have here and what has not been shown to the public,” said Dean Knudsen, curator of the Steamboat Bertrand Collection.
Those who want to see the collection will have to wait, because the wildlife refuge is now closed as part of the partial federal government shutdown.
But when the exhibit reopens, history aficionados will see items not previously on display — a pair of red and black striped socks, a clock, two wide-brimmed felt hats.
The newly built Bertrand was steaming up the Missouri River, bound for the Montana Territory, when it hit a snag north of Omaha and sank on April 1, 1865. No one died, but the ship and most of the cargo went under.
Over the years, the river shifted course. In the late 1960s, the Bertrand was unearthed under the mud of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. During the subsequent excavation, about 240 tons of cargo was removed, though the vessel was left behind.
Because the mud had largely preserved the Bertrand for all those years, most of the items were not broken or rusted.
About 60 percent of the salvaged cargo had been on display since the visitor center opened in the early 1980s. No major changes were made in the exhibit before 2011.
When floodwaters approached, a call for volunteers brought locals and other wildlife refuge workers from around the region to DeSoto. Collection staff showed the 120 or so workers how to pack the artifacts.
The items were kept in storage as flood-related repairs were made to the visitor center and the refuge.
The center's boiler room was submerged, and electrical power was lost for several months. Floodwaters damaged the heating and air conditioning, as well as security and fire-suppression systems. The repairs to the center and refuge cost about $1 million, said Ken Block, DeSoto's visitor services manager.
As the repairs were made, items in the collection were sorted, inventoried, photographed and repacked in a Bellevue warehouse.
Now that the artifacts are back at DeSoto, fewer items are on display, with 35 to 40 percent of the inventory to be shown at any one time. Much of the rest will be stored in cabinets set on casters, allowing for an easier getaway in case floodwaters ever approach again.
Items will be rotated on display, meaning that people who visit the center often will see different artifacts.
“If you come back once a year, you are probably going to see some new objects,” Block said.
Many of the items to be shown for the first time are articles of clothing, including boots and rubber rain jackets.
“Those are unique. No other collection in the world to our knowledge has examples of raincoats from that period,” Knudsen said.
Also, items will have better labels and be placed together by theme.
“Before, I think they were placed out just because they were interesting objects,” Knudsen said. “Now we are trying to organize them. We are trying to put all the bottles together. All the ceramics together. The personal items that belonged to passengers and crew.”
Knudsen plans to display some of the 1865 items recovered from the Bertrand alongside their modern counterparts. A shovel made by the Ames Shovel Co. of Pennsylvania recovered from the Bertrand already is on display next to a current Ames shovel. The old one is a bit battered, but otherwise the two look nearly the same.
“It also serves to humanize the collection. To give it a more modern framework,” he said. “The human condition hasn't fundamentally changed.”
The Steamboat Bertrand Collection video