Underwater Archaeology on the Illinois River

by Josie Mumm
Above: Andy Kinoshita, in the water, and John Schnibben of the Central Illinois Mudwater Archaeology Society during the survey to discover the location of the hull of the Columbia steamship

A new organization was formed to explore the Illinois River and expand public knowledge about the history of U.S. riverways.

In 2016, after years of diving in the Illinois River with the Peoria Fire Department, Andy Kinoshita and John Schnibben formed the Central Illinois Mudwater Archaeology Society. It seems history has a way of finding its way to the surface (quite literally, in the case of underwater archaeology).

During training dives in the river, the two men would discover old cars, guns, cellphones, extremely old bottles and strange bits of discarded household items, among other oddities. With their newfound curiosity, Kinoshita and Schnibben did some research with the local microfilm collections at the library and found articles on shipwrecks from the 19th century, pioneer wagons that were lost when crossing the frozen river, and even buildings that collapsed and disappeared into the river.

Even more exciting, studies have shown that low-oxygenated and heavily-silted fresh water—the type of water within the Illinois River—is the best preservative for a wide range of materials and archaeological artifacts. The incredible buildup of silt over the decades protected and hid these forgotten pieces of history. But it was also the catalyst for continuous dredging (both privately and by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), which was destroying many of these sites.

Mudwater Comes Together
The Central Illinois Mudwater Archaeology Society was formed with the idea of exploring the Illinois River and expanding public knowledge about the history of U.S. riverways. Archaeologist Dave Thompson heard about the organization and was interested in becoming a partner. With his assistance, Mudwater became an international partner with the Nautical Archaeological Society of Great Britain (NAS), the world’s leading advocate for maritime archaeology. Their resources, training, educators and credibility are invaluable to any fledgling public archaeology program attempting to perform community work involving federal and state authorities. By being a part of NAS, Mudwater is able to train community members in underwater archaeology techniques—in addition to gaining access to archaeologists and other interested scholars around the world.


On July 5, 1918, the Columbia steamboat collapsed and sank in the middle of the Illinois River. Of the nearly 500 passengers on board, 87 lost their lives in the disaster—the worst maritime accident in the river’s history.

Mudwater’s inaugural project was a survey and site dive to discover the location of the hull of the Columbia steamship, which sank a century ago on July 5, 1918, in a deep, fast-moving and nearly silt-free section of the Illinois River. The Columbia, a 125-foot, flat-bottom sternwheel steamer, was converted to an excursion ship in 1905. Ironically, at the time of its sinking, it was known as “the safest ship in the West.” On its final voyage, the Columbia was carrying 497 people—87 of whom died when the ship struck an unknown, submerged object in the river. It remains the worst disaster in the history of the Illinois River.

With Thompson’s help, Mudwater was able to come up with an archaeological data recovery plan and community training program. A permit was granted by Joe Phillippe, staff archaeologist from the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office, and Brant Vollman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a non-invasive survey of the site.

Sonar Discoveries
Dave Thompson became the lead archaeologist on the project, and Andy Kinoshita and John Schnibben were the principal divers. Though he lives eight hours away in Michigan, Thompson made multiple trips to Peoria to lead the project. Much of the time spent on the fieldwork portion of the survey involved the use of side-scan sonar, searching for possible sites to dive on.

After scanning the river for days, the group had discovered a few anomalies to dive on. One was a submerged tree, and just outside the search area was a car. Other anomalies were too dangerous to dive on due to the nature of the river; there was simply too much barge traffic for the divers to be safe.

When scanning, every day is different. Some days, water conditions will show nothing on the monitor; on others, a target could be seen as clear as day. Once a site was chosen, Thompson had the group perform a bathymetry survey of the target area, which measures the depth of the water and maps the features of the river floor. This gives you a better understanding of what is beneath the surface.

Although a promising target was discovered via sonar, dockworkers in the area explained quite definitively that the Columbia was gone. A private company had dredged out the entire east bank of the river where the Columbia's hull lay for so many decades in order to provide docking for barges and towboats—a common story on U.S. rivers. This is likely why the remains of the Columbia’s submerged structural hull was ultimately destroyed. Kinoshita and Schnibben decided to dive on the target anyway, and found a metal structure incompatible with a late-1800s flat-bottom steamboat hull. It was very disappointing, but as Thompson explained, that's archaeology.

Unsolved Mysteries on the River
Unfortunately, very little is known about the archaeological history of the inland riverways of the United States. In fact, many naval Civil War grave sites on the Mississippi have been dredged up due to a lack of knowledge about where these historic sites lie. There is definitely a need for more archaeological work on these inland riverways in order to preserve this cultural history for future generations. For decades, archaeologists have been discovering shipwrecks and submerged cultural heritage sites in clear lakes and seas all over the world, but no one is attempting to look beneath the pitch-black silt of inland riverways.

More often than not, you don’t find what you are looking for—but that doesn’t make the search any less exciting. Most people see archaeology as searching in the dirt (or under the water) and digging for artifacts, but it actually requires a lot of research. Many more hours are spent in libraries sifting through archives than are spent on an actual dig site. The Central Illinois Mudwater Archaeology Society has some very exciting targets for future projects. The Rodecker pioneer wagon, which fell through the ice while attempting to cross the Illinois River in 1843, is one. After extensive research of the incident, Mudwater hopes to do the same type of survey work that was done on the Columbia to identify and locate the pioneer wagon’s remains. Another possible project is to locate the remains of a small steam launch carrying two local men that disappeared in the Upper Peoria Lake region in 1863.

Both of these projects hold significant value for central Illinois history, with the possibility of recoverable artifacts. The allure of history for most people is the mystery. The Mudwater Archaeology Society hopes to solve some of those mysteries here in the Peoria area. iBi

To follow Mudwater’s journey, find them on Facebook at facebook.com/mudwaterpeoria or visit mudwater.org. If you are interested in joining the group or participating in upcoming research and survey work, visit mudwater.org/membership.html or email mudwaterpeoria@gmail.com.

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