a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Digging up clues about an early Monongahela River boatman

Jonathan Crise, 22, a California University of Pennsylvania senior from Perryopolis, Pa., sifts through soil looking for artifacts that might shed light on the social status of a riverboat captain who plied the Monongahela River in the 1800s. (Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter photo)

BROWNSVILLE, Pa. – Archaeologists sifting through the soil where a riverboat captain lived in the mid-1800s are looking for clues that might shed light on the class status of the first men who plied the Monongahela River.

They’re also helping Brownsville, Pa., scholar Marc Henshaw complete the research for his doctoral degree in a study of those who worked the river between the 1830s and early 1900s.

So far the volunteers have unearthed artifacts that mostly predate 1860, when Capt. James Gormley sold his house overlooking the river to a judge and relocated to Ohio.

That suggests the judge “just tore it down when he bought it,” said Henshaw, 35.

Another big find at the dig is a Sheffied folding knife handle made in England that leads Henshaw to conclude Gormley’s occupation made him a man of stature in the community.

“It is a pretty good indicator he was not just an average individual,” he said. Such a knife “would have been expensive to import.”

The house, though, must have been small with rooms just 12 feet wide, judging from the size of its foundation built right atop the ground with river rocks and without mortar.

“They didn’t build a builder’s trench,” Henshaw said. “It’s not a pretentious house. The location is pretentious because it’s downtown. He could walk to the wharf. It would have been expensive property. His boat’s more his home.”

Among the other artifacts found in the dig are glass and pottery shards. Henshaw boasted the other day on his Twitter feed workers had also unearthed an Indian bead at the site.

The Observer-Reporter carried a story about the project not long after it began in early May, and became delayed due to an especially wet spring.

Here is that story:

By Scott Beveridge, staff writer

BROWNSVILLE - Dee Dee Snook, shovel in hand, makes note of several tile shards unearthed by a small band of volunteer archaeologists at Brownsville property that once contained a riverboat captain's house in the mid-1800s.

The small white and faded-green sections of porcelain look similar to those that adorn any number of antique fireplaces in the Brownsville area, and were probably scattered here when the house next door was demolished, said Marc Henshaw, the leader of the dig.

"It's all hand excavation," said Snook, 36, a graduate student at nearby California University of Pennsylvania. "We're trying to find out a little more about Brownsville.

Led by the industrial archaeology research of Henshaw, the volunteers are working on a small overgrown lot once owned by Capt. James Gormley.

Not much is know about Gormley, other than he piloted the "Jesse R. Bell" and sold his two-story frame house in 1862 to a prominent judge before moving to Ohio, Henshaw, 35, said.

"The rest of that is a mystery," he said.

Those digging through the ground Gormley once owned have been looking for glass bottles, shards of china, marbles and any other artifacts the man's family might have discarded. The items should provide some clues as to how well men of that era who worked the rivers lived, compared to those in other occupations.

"It may tell us something about the social stratification," said Carl Maurer, 73, of Washington, a member of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. "Believe it or not, we'd like to find (evidence of) the outhouse because of the things people threw down in them."

The property on a steep hillside along Bank Street and overlooking the Monongahela River would not be considered a desirable location today. It's just beyond the near-vacant downtown, across the street from a dilapidated clapboard house once used as a set for the 1984 movie "Maria's Lovers," starring Nastassja Kinski, John Savage and Robert Mitchum.

But in the 1850s it was the perfect place for someone of Gormley's stature to live.

"Everybody walked and his work was just down the street," said Henshaw, who lives in Brownsville.

Men like Gormley who traveled the rivers "were almost like celebrities," but they did not make a lot of money," Henshaw said. The captain lived in a frontier economy where wealth was accomplished through traded goods, rather than the estimated $400 he earned a year.

Henshaw is undertaking this project to complete his doctoral dissertation at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

For the most part, archaeological projects in Southwestern Pennsylvania have taken place on ancient Indian settlements, he said.

"Historical archaeology is a real boom around here, but no one is thinking to ask what was here and use it as a research tool," he said.

The project is expected to last a month, and public participation is welcomed.

"When you finish, you go away with this stuff with more questions," Maurer said.

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