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Rollin' on a river
New Salem visitors welcome flatboat arrival's re-enactment

Published Tuesday, September 05, 2006

PETERSBURG - Six-year-old Marissa Pattie of Springfield stood Monday morning along the edge of the Sangamon River at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, skipping stones with her sisters and friends and waiting for her first glimpse of a flatboat.

The large, wooden vessel soon glided downriver, and swarms of people who'd gathered on the bank and a nearby bridge cheered as the seven-man crew guided the boat with long, maple oars to a makeshift dock.

The men - decked out in 1830s attire - were commemorating Abraham Lincoln's arrival at New Salem by flatboat 175 years ago.

"Are you taking on water?" Guy Sternberg of rural Petersburg called out.

According to historical records, Lincoln, his cousin, John Hanks, and stepbrother, John Johnston, constructed a flatboat in 1831 along the Sangamon River at Sangamo Town, which was about seven miles northwest of Springfield.

Laden with cargo and headed to New Orleans, the boat became stuck on the milldam at New Salem. Under Lincoln's leadership, the goods in the stern were unloaded until the weight shifted and the boat righted itself. Borrowing an auger from the local cooper shop, Lincoln then bored a hole into the bow to let the water out, and the boat was eased over the dam.

Offered a job at boat owner Denton Offutt's store in New Salem, Lincoln returned to the frontier village and lived and worked there for six years.

According to New Salem carpenter Terry Miller, the 30-foot-long by 12-foot-wide replica was built of tulip poplar timbers provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources from the Trail of Tears State Forest in southern Illinois.

Miller and volunteers Jerry Franklin, Gordon Koch and others referred during construction to drawings in an old magazine article about flatboats and research by archaeologists at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale who salvaged an 1800s flatboat from the Ohio River near Olmstead, not far from at Cairo.

Power tools were used during the building process, which began in mid-July.

"We'd still be working on it, if we didn't," Miller said as he lashed the boat with thick ropes to wooden posts embedded in the ground.

Nineteenth-century wood-joinery techniques were employed, however, with more than 600 wooden pegs used to hold together the joints. Nails were used only on the roof of the cabin, Miller said.

According to site manager David Hedrick, the barge-like vessels typically carried such goods as live hogs, barrels of salt pork and whiskey and sacks of corn downriver to New Orleans. The one-way trip took about six weeks, after which the boats were disassembled, and the lumber was sold. Some buildings made with the wood still are standing today, he said.

"It was quite an adventure," Hedrick said.

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Lincoln, New Salem volunteer Greg Bergschneider of Virginia stood atop the roof of the flatboat as sightseers snapped his picture. He said the hour-long excursion, which began near New Salem's Sangamon picnic area, was "fantastic."

"It's an honor and privilege of a lifetime to be able to experience life as Lincoln did," Bergschneider said.

"It gave me goose bumps," added Don Ferricks, who portrayed Offutt.

Don and Doris Hopwood of Lake Petersburg climbed aboard the replica with their grandchildren - Allison, Bradley and Carolyn Berg of Glenview. The children were headed home with their parents but decided to see the flatboat first.

"It's thrilling," remarked Don Hopwood. "There are more people here than I expected."

"It's cool," agreed grandson Bradley Berg, who's been to New Salem often.

Hedrick said his biggest concern wasn't whether the craft would float, but how the landing would go. There would have been problems if the flatboat drifted into the shallow, rocky water just past the dock.

"If they got it in there, I'm not sure how we'd ever get it back," he said.

The cost of the boat - less than $6,000 - was paid for with private donations. It will be stored in a barn this winter, but Hedrick hopes money can be raised to build a permanent display shelter.

"This has been a wonderful project," he said. "The river is a very important part of the Lincoln story, and this would be a great exhibit piece to talk about how the pioneers used the river."

Ann Gorman can be reached through the metro desk at 788-1519.

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