Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Real First Dragon Boat

After only a few years the MR340 race has developed into both a traditional competition and hotbed for less than traditional approaches. Canoes verses kayaks, young verses old and carbon fiber verses recycled barrels have all contended. And as often as not the results are different than one would expect.
And so it has become a pageant of firsts.
This year we'll see a dragon boat competing for the first time. A forty foot behemoth of a canoe with a crew of twenty or so paddlers. And if one were to look at a cross section of previous competitors and put together an all star team, then it might look just like this dragon boat crew.
If they are successful, we will see the longest competitive run by far of a boat of this type. And to the best of my knowledge it will be the first time a dragon boat has raced on the Missouri river.
But it will not be the first dragon boat on the river.
In 1819, you see, a sternwheeler named the Western Engineer was built in Pittsburg, PA and brought to Missouri as part of a military expedition under the command of Major Stephen Long. As a military vessel the pilot house was built to be bullit proof and the paddle wheel was enclosed.
In an attempt to intimidate the native Indian population, a large serpent or dragon's head was built on the bow of the ship. The smoke from the firebox as well as steam from the boiler and engine exhaust were routed through the mouth and nostrils of this head. At 75 feet long and 50 tons displacement and with steam and glowing cinders exhaled from the beast's head it was thought the boat would strike terror in the Indians and command their respect.
It seems that most whites who witnessed the vessel simply thought it odd. As for the indians, it did apparently arouse their interest, and though they found it curious, they seem to have just chalked it up to more of the white man's unussual ways. Nowhere in the records of the expedition does it mention any fear occasioned by the dragon boat.
The Western Engineer did successfully ascend the river all the way to the site of today's Council Bluffs, Iowa, however its boiler became clogged and required cleaning so often that it made little better time than Lewis and Clark's previous ascent in manually powered vessels.
So, even though the dragon boat in this year's MR340 won't be the first the Missouri river has ever seen, it may still turn out to be the fastest.

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