The hunt for the famous Union ironclad river gunboat, Carondelet in the Ohio River. May 1982.
The Carondelet’s history makes for fascinating reading. She had the distinction of fighting in more engagements than any navy ship until World War II. Except for her pounding by the Confederate ironclad Arkansas, she was a tough and winning ship.
After the war, the Carondelet, along with her sister ships, was sold at auction. Her fate for the next few years is hazy, but by 1870 she wound up as a wharfboat at Gallipolis, Ohio. Just before she was to be demolished for the iron in her hull, the Carondelet was swept from her moorings by a flood in the spring of 1873. Her now desolate hulk was carried 130 miles down river where she grounded at the head of Manchester Island, two miles from the town of Manchester. That was the last record of the Carondelet.
Walt Schob and I landed in Cincinnati, went through the familiar routine of renting a car and picking up the Schonstedt gradiometer from an air freight shipping company. We headed east along the Ohio River toward Manchester, admiring the beautiful wooded, rolling hills and marveling at actually watching a man paint a mail Pouch Tobacco sign on the side of a barn, a sight I thought had vanished at least forty years before.
At Manchester the fire chief kindly loaned us the use of a nice twenty-two foot, inboard fireboat. There was an intriguing hitch, though. In return, Walt and I had to search for a woman who disappeared along with her car. The sheriff thought she had suffered a heart attack and drove down the hill in front of her house, smashing a brick post beside her driveway, and ending up in the river.
We spent half a day dragging the gradiometer up and down the shoreline and channel. We found two heavy targets that suggested cars and marked the locations. We had already conducted our search for the shipwreck, however, and left before county divers could investigate our targets. We heard later the car and body were found at one of our sites.
We also found the Carondelet. Using overlays of old and new charts, I determined that Manchester Island had receded about two hundred yards down stream. With a solid ballpark location marked on my trusty chart, we set off on what Walt and I thought would be an easy discovery.
As it turned out, we were right on the money.
We were also two days too late.
As our boat rounded the eastern tip of the island, there sat the biggest god damned dredge boat we’d ever seen in our lives. The thing was four stories high-and she had recently dredged her way directly over the grave of the Carondelet.
We didn’t even bother dropping the gradiometer, but headed straight for the dredge where we tied up and talked to the superintendent. He showed us some old wood and rusty hardware his crew had retrieved out of the dredge buckets. They thought they had simply dug over an old barge. They were stunned when I told them they had demolished one of the most famous Civil war ships that ever sailed a river.
He pointed out the site where they struck the wreck, which matched out projections. Walt and I then checked the bottom, dragging the gradiometer sensor right across the mud of the riverbed, obtaining a large number of small readings.
Fortunately, the lower part of the ironclad hull was sunk about two feet deeper than the level the dredge was excavating. So, there are still some fragments of the old girl remaining at a depth of eighteen feet if anyone ever cares to bring them up.
God, can you imagine? After the Carondelet had rested undisturbed in the mud for a hundred and nine years, Cussler had to show up two days too late to save her.
What little remains of her lower hull lies about two hundred and fifty yards east and slightly north off the eastern tip of Manchester Island in the Ohio River. And a hundred and twenty yards off the Ohio shore.