Last Saturday at 3 p.m., a small group of interested people convened in a banquet room at Calhoun's on the River, ostensibly to discuss the First Creek Tennessee River Shipwreck Project.
It takes some swagger to schedule anything on the last Saturday afternoon before Christmas, when friends and relatives are starting to blow through town and the stores are full of frantic shoppers. But Jim McNutt is a laid-back kind of guy. He's enjoying a pint of beer and the company of a small group of curious people: a rescue diver, a prominent attorney who happens to live nearby, and some friends and relatives. Billed as an "informal meeting," it was certainly that. McNutt gave no presentation, but on the occasions when one of the guests expressed curiosity about the shipwreck, he gestured toward a table. "It's all over there," he said. On the table was a plastic bag with a sawn-off piece of weathered wood with a rusty 10-inch spike in it and some rough sketches of what he was talking about.
What he's talking about is something many of us have noticed on the shore. Planted in the sandy beach between the Volunteer Princess excursion vessel and the mouth of First Creek, there are rectangles of symmetrical wooden beams, looking a little worse for wear, and usually underwater except in wintertime. Metro Pulse ran a column about it a couple of years ago, based on the assumption that it was all the foundation of buildings, wharves, or warehouses that had once stood there.
McNutt is convinced the wood is the remains of nautical vessels. He first encountered the ruins around 1977, when, before waterfront restaurants, few ever ventured to the riverbank. Now the proprietor of a business called Marine Geographic, McNutt has convincing experience. He says he has done salvage work in the Virgin Islands, Honduras, Aruba, and even Cuba, sometimes hunting for 18th-century Spanish and English wrecks. He's worked on old riverboat sites on Florida rivers. He wrote a book, Quest for Shipwrecks, about his adventures. (It's out of print, but he had a couple of copies on his table.) He's also recently worked on practical salvage operations in this area, like recovering a Caterpillar earth mover that fell into the water near the mouth of Third Creek.
"I do a lot of underwater work," says the gravelly voiced troubleshooter. "I love it."
"There are boats wrecked all the way up and down here," he says. He talks about one near Island Home, and another on the Holston, a marble boat that is clearly visible.
When McNutt looks at the rectangular array, he sees more there than the average dinnertime pedestrian might. "There's this 3-inch-thick antique heart pine, and this drift-bolt construction, these iron rods hold it together. ... And the damn siding is 3-inch-thick heart pine!" He makes a strong case that it's the remains of a boat rather than a building, which would have flooring on top of a frame. "The planking, the hull of the vessel's underneath the frame."
He perceives four vessels adjacent on the riverbank, three of which were small boats, maybe functional barges—drift boats, as he calls them, that may be little more than rafts. Some boats that ferried mining and agricultural products downstream were used only once, and abandoned. He talks with more interest about one "long boat," a 118-foot hull that may be the remains of a swift and slender paddlewheeler. "Long and narrow," he says, "like a cigar." He says he excavated a very similar one in the Suwannee River. Or, he says, it may have been a houseboat.
When he first saw it, as a young man looking for arrowheads in the riverbank, the wood looked more like a boat, with starboard and port sides. Another boat was nearby, then intact. "It was a nice little dory," he says, "a small, wooden dory. But it just fell apart."
McNutt admits that he's one of the reasons it's not quite what it used to be. In 1978, he removed a large piece of hardwood and made a table of it.
"That was before the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, fortunately," he says. By law, the federal government owns whatever remains of whatever this is. But last month, McNutt filed a suit in federal court, claiming salvage rights for purposes of education.
"I'd like to get TVA or UT to do something with the site," he says. So far he hasn't found any takers. "I would do it myself," he says. "But I'm not an archaeologist." But he's proceeding as if he were, accepting prospective volunteers on the assumption his lawsuit is successful. "We're gonna require everybody who works the wreck to get a tetanus shot, and hep A or B," he says. "Those spikes are razor-sharp."
He sees some urgency. "Ten or 15 years ago, there was a lot more of the hull," he says. "The site's washing away. If there's no money for archaeology, that'll just be gone."
McNutt admits the wrecked boat is not the big double-decker paddlewheeler with two smokestacks in the photocopies he presents in promotional fliers. "It could be just a common everyday work boat," he says, "like an old pickup truck or something." He says, "Maybe it doesn't matter whether there were 12 drift boats on the port side of that vessel, or 14."
"But I bet school kids would be fascinated." There's always the long shot it might turn up something surprising, "like the skeleton of James White's grandfather," he says.
But probably not.
"We're just trying to have some fun," he says.