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Excavating The Twilight

Three years after the Twilight's sinking, 40 area men from a wrecking firm worked futilely for 20 days and nights to bring up the sunken craft. In 1874, two local farmers used sounding rods to find the hull. They allegedly extracted two barrels of whiskey, but their quest was over when their fragile digging apparatus collapsed. A more formal ten-month disinterment effort in 1895 by the Kansas City Wrecking Co. located the Twilight in 23 feet of muck and sand about 100 yards from the river. The "wrecking camp" near Napoleon drew hundreds of onlookers—some peddled to the site on bicycles, others via a Missouri Pacific Railroad branch line into Lexington. Perhaps half of the original cargo—only a fraction of the five to six trainloads of freight aboard, others speculated—was removed. Left in the hold in full view of disappointed workmen were hundreds of cases of alcohol that couldn't be retrieved due to heavy rains that stopped the recovery in December, 1895. Brought up were two cases of gin; a case of Manhattan cocktails; three cases of clocks; and cases containing knives, dog collars, whiskey flasks, and rifles, shotguns, revolvers, ramrods, gunlocks, gunsmith tools and supplies. Left below for another 106 years were the hull, other major structural components and all the whiskey and gin except for several bottles of gin carried ashore and drunk by various connoisseurs.

Workmen in 1895 who recovered the then 30-year-old peaches opened the cans and ate the peaches for lunch. Those who unearthed the canned oysters weren't so fortunate. "The oysters drove the men off the sand bar," a reporter wrote. "They (the oysters) were hurled, can by can, into the far reaches of the Missouri." O'Neil wrote that workers who had used a watertight cofferdam to help reach the whiskey got so drunk that they became distracted, allowing rising waters to fill the hold and terminate the excavation.

In 1986, the Twilight was located again, this time under ten yards of sediment and much farther from the ever-shifting river. A group spent years meticulously planning the excavation. Finally, in a three-and-a-half month period in 2001, excavators brought up the complete hull (described as the only steamboat hull ever recovered); an entire 15,000-pound side paddlewheel; both ten-ton steam engines; both boilers; the water pump; the center hull's bottom timber called a "bulkhead" (it had no keel); anchor; rudder; Pitman arms; capstan, and even the fatal sycamore snags.

The cargo has been described as "a general store down there." A partial 2001 list of recovered freight includes tools; foodstuffs; kitchen implements; cases of Old London Club Gin and Hellman's and Catawba bitters; wrenches; stoves; portable mining steam engine; tobacco; lamps; toiletries; hardware, and individual items such as a woman's ring and hairpin and a brass money clip.

No other buried, packet steamboat (than the Twilight) has been recovered in its entirety. Earlier two other steamboats, the Arabia and the Bertrand, were unearthed. The three vessels are the only interred packet steamers recovered in American history. In the final Twilight excavation, nearly 30,000 gallons of water were pumped per minute by diesel engines into the Missouri River before the boat's major components were completely removed. Workers labored inside a crater 50 feet deep and as large as a football field. They salvaged everything that turned up, usually caked in the mud." Nearly 90,000 cubic yards of soil was moved to bring up the Twilight; about 4,000 man hours were involved.

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