Readers of my steampunk supernatural suspense novel Fire on Iron know that most of the novel is set aboard a fictional City-class ironclad river gunboat, the USS James B. Eads. What some readers may not be aware of is that one of the James B. Eads‘ “sister ships,” the USS Cairo, is on display at the Vicksburg National Historical Park, located in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Cairo was sunk on December 12, 1862 by a submerged Confederate “torpedo,” or what we would call today a mine. Almost a hundred years later, in 1956, historian Edwin C. Bearss, employed by the Vicksburg National Historical Park, located the wreck, buried in the mud of the Mississippi River.
In 1960, Bearss succeeded in raising various pieces of the wreck, including the Cairo’s armor-plated pilothouse. Four years later, he had succeeded in securing additional funding from the State of Mississippi, and an attempt was made to raise the entire wreck in one piece. However, the three-inch thick cables which were being used to raise the wreck sliced through the ironclad’s wooden hull (Cairo was built of wood and partially plated with 2.5″ thick railroad iron and sections of boiler plate). So the decision was made to allow the cables to slice the gunboat into three sections, each of which was raised separately.
In 1965, the various sections and chunks of the wreck were placed on barges and first towed to Vicksburg, then towed again to a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where the engines were disassembled, cleaned of rust and mud, and reassembled, and the various other parts of the ironclad were put together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The wooden parts were continuously sprayed with water to keep them from cracking. It took many years for Congress to raise the necessary funds, but in 1977 the wreck, now partially restored, was towed back to the Vicksburg National Historical Park and put on display on a concrete base, next to a small museum, which displayed small artifacts recovered from the wreck (personal belongings of the ironclad’s sailors), and a gift ship which sold Cairo-related books and models. Since then, the old ironclad has been more fully restored and now rests under a protective awning.
I first visited the Cairo back in 1994, when I was writing my first draft of Fire on Iron. While I still lived in New Orleans, I made several pilgrimages to the Vicksburg National Historical Park to visit the only surviving US Navy river gunboat of the Civil War period.
I hope you enjoy the slideshow below of the Cairo in her original glory, being salvaged from the bottom of the Yazoo River, and how she looks today on display.