PAST IN WAY OF PROGRESS
Cannon to be raised from Texas City Ship Channel
By HARVEY RICE
Nov. 18, 2009
A scuba diver emerges from the murky waters of Galveston Bay on Wednesday, a day of contending with strong currents and unexpected ship traffic. Divers will be searching for and retrieving artifacts from the USS Westfield, a Civil War gunship.
Somewhere on the dark floor of the Texas City Ship Channel lies a piece of history that's 146 years in the making.
Divers and archaeologists set course Wednesday to retrieve a Civil War-era relic, a 10,000-pound cannon from a Union gunboat blown up by its crew during the Battle of Galveston in 1863.
But the excitement of discovery was tempered by strong currents, bad weather and unexpected ship traffic, setting back efforts to raise the cannon.
Divers working in 47 feet of water with zero visibility and strong currents tested the system Wednesday for bringing up the largest of thousands of artifacts spread across a half-acre of ocean floor. Officials hope to make the first retrieval today, said James Jobling, project manager for Texas A&M's Conservation Research Lab.
“This is the first day of operations, and we've had a few problems and sorted them out,” Jobling said.
Archaeologists are retrieving the remains of the USS Westfield to allow the deepening of the Texas City Ship Channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The $71 million project will deepen 7 miles of channel from 40 feet to 45 feet.
The law requires the $3 million preservation effort before the deepening project can proceed, said Sharon Tirpak, Corps of Engineers project manager.
The Westfield was being used as a Staten Island ferry when the U.S. Navy purchased it from Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1861. She was outfitted with a 100-pound Parrot rifle, a 9-inch Dahlgren gun and six 8-inch Dahlgren guns and saw action during the siege of Vicksburg before joining in the blockade of Galveston.
The USS Westfield was the flagship for a Union squadron of eight ships led by Cmdr. William B. Renshaw on Jan. 1, 1863, as a Confederate land force attacked Union troops in Galveston. Two Confederate gunboats with cotton bales piled on their decks, giving them the name “cotton clads,” attacked the union fleet.
The Westfield ran aground during the battle, and Renshaw ordered charges set so it wouldn't fall into Confederate hands. The charge ignited just as Renshaw and a launch crewed by 14 sailors returned to check the fuse, killing them all.
Several weeks of work
Confederate salvagers recovered all of the guns except for the 9-inch Dahlgren, said Bob Neyland of the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Two cranes mounted on barges — a barge with water-tight containers to hold artifacts and a crewboat — are expected to be anchored over the wreckage site for several weeks near where the Texas City Channel joins the Houston Ship Channel.
Divers tethered to a barge by airhoses and communication lines will be walking blindly on the bottom, guided from the barge by operators using sonar maps, Jobling said.
The 9-inch Dahlgren gun and several cannon balls are among about 10 large items that will be brought up first by crane, said Janelle Stokes, Corps staff archaeologist.
Once removed, the large items will be shipped to the Conservation Research Lab in College Station. Then a large dredge will scoop up sections of the bottom and dump them into containers, said Donny Hamilton, head of the Texas A&M anthropology department. The containers will be taken to Freeport to be sifted and categorized before being shipped to the A&M lab, where special preservation techniques will be used to prepare the artifacts for display in museums. The preservation process will take several years to complete, Hamilton said.