In 1859, a steamboat for the first time traveled up the northern waters of the Missouri River all the way to the Montana Territory, establishing a long-distance supply route to the river’s far reaches.
Six years later, a heavily loaded steamboat, the Bertrand, began the trek and confidently headed past Omaha on its way northward.
But on April 1, 1865, at a time when eight days still remained in the Civil War, the Bertrand hit a snag at the DeSoto Bend about 25 miles north of Omaha and sank into the brown waters, one of the more than 400 vessels to suffer that fate on the river in the 19th century.
It was a loss, to be sure, though fortunately no lives were lost. But from that loss has come a gain.
Beneath the waters, the mud layered a protective coating around the ship, preserving the Bertrand’s remarkable assortment of cargo as neatly as a prehistoric beetle encased in amber.
And with an excavation in the 1960s that yielded more than 250,000 artifacts, the display of the Bertrand Collection at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge provides, in the words of curator Dean Knudsen, “a unique window into the material culture of the 19th century.”
Wash basins and window glass, ale bottles and honey jars, dishes, cups, hats, plows, waffle irons, cannon balls — the list goes on and on. Relocated temporarily in the wake of the Great Flood of 2011 that swept across the wildlife refuge, the collection is back and ready for public viewing.
At this point, there’s one complication. The partial federal shutdown means the DeSoto refuge is temporarily closed.
Once it reopens, Midlanders would do well to visit and enjoy the refuge’s amenities — the nature trails, the oxbow lake and, not least of all, the remarkable window the Bertrand exhibit provides into our past.