Museum Exhibit Gives Insight to Life as a River Diver

Photo of a diver suit from the exhibit.

The exhibit includes a newly acquired river diving outfit which was donated by the Golden Eagle River Museum.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.,

Oct. 17, 2007 – When Southeast Missouri State University’s new Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Southeast Missouri Regional Museum opens the doors to its new crossroads theme at River Campus this weekend, a recent endowment from the former Golden Eagle River Museum will create a dramatic display detailing the history of a little-known part of the region’s riverboat era.

The exhibit, which will include a newly acquired river diving outfit, will compliment the Crisp Museum’s existing display of a Morse river diver’s air pump, brass diving shoes and a steamboat wheel, which also were donated by the Golden Eagle River Museum. The exhibit, which will tell the story of the life of a river salvage diver during the riverboat era, will be a permanent part of the museum’s crossroads theme, specifically the crossroads of transportation theme.

“The exhibit will help people in our region better understand this aspect of our region’s history,” said Dr. Stanley Grand, director of the Museum. “Many people don’t realize how many boat wrecks took place – steam engines blew up and fires broke out, or boats hit sandbars or snags in the river. There was a tremendous salvage business to save boilers and various parts of the boat. Salvage was a key part of the river’s story, but one that’s not always told.”

 “Salvage divers were a staple in the industry,” added Jim Phillips, curator of collections and exhibitions for the Museum. “The machined metals that made the boiler and engine were not easy to come by, and these packet boats, as they were called, had relatively short lives. Salvage divers were used to get as much goods and cargo out as quickly as possible. It was a hazardous job, but earned a good wage.

“Recycling is not a new concept,” Phillips added. “It has been done on the river for hundreds of years.”

The complete diving suit will make a much more dramatic and striking display than the Museum previously had, according to Grand.

A faux partial interior of a steamboat will create the backdrop for the “diver,” his air pump, the large pilot’s wheel and other salvaged artifacts, Phillips said.

The river diving outfit will include a diver’s suit and helmet, weights, boots, gloves, and 20 feet of hose. The diving suit and weights are originals dating to the early 20th century. Morse Diving, the same company that originally made the air pump, manufactured the helmet to original specifications from the late 1800s.

“Old helmets are astronomically expensive,” said Phillips. “Most old helmets are found in ship wrecks and usually require a fair amount of effort to restore,” he added.

The helmet is a three-light commercial helmet, meaning it has three holes to allow light in. The helmet weighs a substantial 60 pounds.

Phillips said museum patrons are better able to understand the past when they see the physical artifacts that go with the historical facts. 

 “People benefit from seeing period pieces and the story that goes with them,” Phillips said. “They learn from seeing how things were done differently, before the age of computers. Seeing equipment of the past puts a human touch on it and it makes more sense to them. Physical items provide the connection that can’t be given through books and storytelling. Material items give people a newfound appreciation for the past,” he said.

“For instance, people typically picture scuba diving when they think of diving, but most people’s first impression will probably be of the diving suits from Scooby Doo when they see the river diving suit,” Phillips laughed. “Every kid who has seen our pilot’s wheel asks why it’s so big, and then we explain that they didn’t have power steering,” he added. “It puts things into a more historical context.”