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Photo courtesy Angela Foster/UTC / Students in Morgan Smith's Underwater Archaeology class use sonar to explore a shipwreck near the bank of the Tennessee River.

Last month, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students and their professor used sonar equipment to survey a sunken ship under the surface of the Tennessee River.

On April 14, Morgan Smith brought his underwater archaeology class of 18 students on a boat in small groups on the river to survey part of the river near downtown, where a likely shipwreck was located based on historic maps and local knowledge from the community, Smith said.

For the trip, Smith's class was given a side-scan sonar by ECHO81, a Hartwell, Georgia, company.

Casey Wallin, a junior anthropology major in Smith's class, told the Times Free Press that the class found barges in the river along with the sunken ship, which is located between the Tennessee Aquarium and Renaissance Park.

"We've talked about those types of equipment and different things that underwater archaeologists use to go out into the field and look for archaeological sites," Wallin said. "So we heard about it, but actually being able to use it and identify things underwater and see an actual ship or a barge or whatever it was we were getting to see underwater, that was super amazing."

Twenty-one years earlier, divers found similar wreckage in almost the exact same spot.

In 2000, divers John Scruggs and Chris Hogan identified the sunken ship as the Chattanooga, a commercial steamship built in 1857 and referred to as the Chicken Thief. It was captured by the Union Army in 1863 and continued as a cargo vessel until it sank in 1919, according to a 2000 Times Free Press story about the diving effort.

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Photo courtesy University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. / A sonar image shows a shipwreck in the Tennessee River.

The wreckage found by Scruggs and Hogan is likely the same as that explored recently by the students, since both were found in similar areas of the river and with similar dimensions: about 33 feet wide and 175 feet from bow to stern.

"It's pretty much how I found it 20 years ago," Scruggs told the Times Free Press this week.

Smith is also trying to determine whether the wreckage might be that of the U.S.S. Chattanooga, built in 1863 to transport supplies between Bridgeport, Alabama, and Kelley's Ferry on a Union supply line called the Cracker Line until mid-1865.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, several steamboats, including the U.S.S. Chattanooga, were auctioned off and left the city, according to the book "The Upper Tennessee" by T.J. Campbell. It is unclear whether the steamer may have returned to Chattanooga after the auction.

The final resting place of both the S.S. Chattanooga and the U.S.S. Chattanooga is murky.

At the Chattanooga Public Library, newspaper clippings about ships named the Chattanooga only detail one ship sinking. A steamer built in the early 1900s sank in 1918.

Another Chattanooga, built in 1903, was decommissioned in 1921 and scrapped in 1930.

Although definitive documentation is hard to find regarding which ship lies at the bottom of the river in Chattanooga, both Smith and Scruggs emphasized the need for careful preservation of the wreckage.

"Archaeology in the 21st century is largely focused on preserving things in place as opposed to disturbing them or doing anything that would damage them, so it's important to kind of go through the process slowly and methodically," Smith said.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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