UNCOVERING THE GULF OF MEXICO'S SEA OF LOST SHIPS

Marsha Malloy
Sea Classics

Oct 31, 2007 20:00 EDT

Long known as the breeding ground of vicious hurricanes and deadly storms, the Gulf of Mexico harbors more than its share of the wrecks of its victims. While many of these lost ships have laid undetected for decades, and even centuries, the marvels of modern sea search technology and the unceasing explorations of the Gulfs bottom by the petroleum industry have combined to reveal the presence and exact location of many long-lost ships. Within the last few years alone, several new wreck sites have been discovered in what is regarded as the Gulfs deeper waters (more than a 1000-ft). Among these wrecks is a mysterious copper-sheathed vessel at 2650-ft and a WWII wreck deeper than 5000-ft.

Attempting to protect these wreck sites as more than 50 Gulf of Mexico oil rigs work day and night at record depths of nearly 10,000-ft is the Department of the Interior Mineral Managment Services Bureau (MMS) which attempts to ensure that significant archaeological sites are not adversely affected by oil and gas exploration and development. This responsibility often includes the protection of historic shipwrecks.

Historical research indicates that over 450 ships dating from 1625 to 2006 have sunk in Gulf waters shallow and deep. Thousands more have sunk closer to shore in State waters during the same period. Only a handful of these sites have been scientifically excavated by archaeologists for the benefit of generations to come. In several cases, the MMS has partnered with state and Federal agencies conducting this research. The work conducted by the MMS and other scientists in the Gulf of Mexico contributes to our understanding of how we as a nation developed by studying the very technology that fostered the United States' spectacular growth.

For several millennia, ships were the most sophisticated machines on earth. They shaped history by expanding trade and waging war, spreading ideas (and sometimes plague), and discovering and colonizing new lands. At the same time, the crews of these ships lived in closed societies, with traditions, beliefs, vocabularies, and hierarchies that set them apart from those on shore. When one of these ships met with disaster at sea or sank as a result of war, its remains literally became a time capsule, preserving clues to the story of our past. When archaeologists scientifically excavate a shipwreck under water, they read these clues to form a mosaic of what it was like to live on a ship that sank hundreds of years ago. In that sense, shipwrecks are special archaeological sites because, unlike sites on land, everything on board was in use during a single moment in time. Because of this, the study of shipwreck sites has contributed to the understanding of broader issues of human history, and helps us to understand better who we are by telling us where we have been.

The MMS has taken part in the study of some of the most-historically significant shipwrecks in the Gulf. WWII Shipwrecks Federal law defines an historic site as being at least 50-years-old. As a result, wrecks associated with WWII now meet that criterion. Nearly all the shipwrecks in the Gulf from that period relate to one cause - attack by the German submarines known as "U-boats." U-boat comes from the German word Unterseeboot.

During the years 1942 and 1943, a fleet of over 20 German U-boats cruised the Gulf, seeking to disrupt the vital flow of oil carried by tankers from ports in Texas and Louisiana. They succeeded in sending 56 vessels to the bottom; 39 of these are now believed to be in State or Federal waters off Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. After their initial, devastating success, U-boat attacks in the Gulf became rare by the end of 1943 after merchant vessels began cruising in armed convoys. The opening of the "Big Inch" pipeline from Texas to New Jersey also contributed to freeing the war effort from relying on ships to transport crude oil.

As a result of remote-sensing surveys required of the oil and gas industry by the MMS, several U-boat casualties have been located on the sea floor. These include the Heredia, a United Fruit Company freighter; the oil tanker Sheherezade; the Gulfpenn, which carried 90,000 barrels of fuel oil; and the Robert E. Lee, a passenger freighter sunk by the U-166.

The U-166 was the only German U-boat sunk in the Gulf. The U-166 was discovered in May 2001 during a routine pipeline survey conducted by C&C Technologies for BP and Shell. The submarine lies in 5000-ft of water within a mile of her last victim, the SS Robert E. Lee.

Popular belief has long held that the U-166 had been sunk by a torpedo dropped from a US Coast Guard amphibian utility J4F aircraft over 100-mi away from its actual location on 1 August 1942. It is now believed that the sub was sunk two days earlier by depth charges from the Robert E. Lee's Naval escort, the US Navy sub-chaser PC-566. Another German submarine, the U-1 71, which was operating in the Gulf at the same time, may actually have been the vessel spotted by the J4F aircraft.

19th CENTURY STEAMSHIPS

The 19th-century saw many advances in ship building technology including steam power and iron hulls. Along the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, some of the first merchant steamships were introduced in the 1830s by Charles Morgan, a New York businessman. Of the 117 steamships owned by Morgan or his corporate enterprises between 1833 and 1885, the wrecks of four have been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico or contiguous waters. One of these, the Mary, was recorded by archaeologists off Aransas Pass, Texas, in 1995. The other three, the New York, the Josephine, and the Hatteras, were documented by MMS marine archaeologists.

Taken together, these vessels represent the. span of steamships employed by the Morgan Line and document the changing technology of steam navigation in the United States. A summary of three of these unique vessels begins with the New York, a steam packet constructed in 1837 which primarily operated along the New Orleans-to-Galveston route from 1839 until its demise in 1846.

THE NEW YORK

Unlike most of Morgan's vessels, the New York was wooden-hulled. The vessel was registered at 365-tons, 160.5-ft long by 22.5-ft wide, with a 10.5-ft depth of hold. Chartered to transport troops to the US Army depot at Brazos St. Iago in south Texas on 29 April 1846, New York completed several other military charters before her life ended in a Gulf hurricane on 7 September 1846. Seventeen of her passengers and crew, including five children, drowned.

After a five-year search, the wreck of the New York was located by a south Louisiana oilfield worker and amateur diver. Hoping to find gold and silver, which had been reported lost on the vessel, a Louisiana salvage company was contracted to remove the sand from the hull. Fortunately, the wreck's discoverer had an appreciation of the historical importance of the wreck and resisted the recommendation of his salvage contractor to clamshell the site.

Ultimately, a large area of the hull was exposed, but almost no artifacts were recovered, no doubt due to the violence of the wreck event. What few items were recovered, however, helped to secure the date of the wreck: A mortising machine patented in 1836, an 1827 King George TV gold sovereign, plus two 1843 US half-dollars.

In 1997, the discovery of the wreck of the New York came to the attention of MMS marine archaeologists. During the summers of 1997 and 1998, the MMS scientific dive team made a brief reconnaissance of the site. In addition to diving, the MMS conducted a magnetometer survey of the area to determine site size and limits in order to preserve the wreck from any possible disturbance from oil and gas activities. The MMS investigation was intended to confirm the identification of the vessel and to assess the size of the wreck's debris and scatter.

The MMS takes an active role in encouraging salvers to preserve and record the historical and archaeological data contained in wrecks on the Federal OCS. In this way, both the interests of the salvers and the American people can be protected.

THE WRECK OF THE PADDLE STEAMER MARY

Located along the channel entrance near the town of Port Aransas, Texas, the remains of the iron-hull steamship Mary were first identified by marine archaeologists in 1989. As part of a channel improvement project, permitted by the US Army Corps of Engineers, data recovery was conducted on the vessel in 1993. The Mary was completed in 1866 by the Harlan and Hollingsworth Company of Wilmington, Delaware, and operated along the Gulf coast from 1866 to 1876. On 30 November 1876, the Mary ran aground at Aransas Pass. Her passengers and crew survived, but the vessel and her cargo were a total loss, estimated at over $100,000.

WHERE LIES THE JOSEPHINE?

During the summers of 1997 and 1999, divers conducted non-destructive surveys of the remains of a sidewheel steamship that lies about 6-mi off the Barrier Islands of Mississippi. Data collected from the site, and subsequent research, identified the vessel as the remains of the 19th-century merchant steamship Josephine. The vessel was part of a fleet of ships owned and operated by Charles Morgan's Louisiana and Texas Railroad and Steamship Company. Research on this vessel has led to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and has also resulted in the development of an student's instructional packet geared toward the junior high level.

Construction of the Josephine was completed in 1867. Shortly thereafter, the vessel was brought to New Orleans and began operation along the New Orleans-to-Galveston route for the Morgan Steamship Company. The vessel made regular passage along this route twice weekly. In January 1881, she was transferred to the New Orleans-to-Cuba route. On her initial return voyage from Cuba, her iron-hull sprung a leak which eventually caused the ship to founder. Of the three Morgan line vessels discussed here, the Josephine is the most intact and provides the best opportunity for further research on these unique sidewheel steamships.

EARLY SHIPS OF EXPLORATION

The most well-known shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico come from a more recent time period, but ships have sailed these waters since the 16th century. Many of these early vessels foundered or ran aground. Though documentation of their exact location is rarely accurate, several of these wrecks, ranging in date from the 16th through the 18th centuries, have been identified throughout the Gulf.

EMANUEL POINT SHIPWRECK

One of the earliest shipwrecks discovered in the Gulf of Mexico was located in Pensacola Bay, Florida, in 1992. The site was identified during a remote sensing survey by archaeologists with the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research. Over the last nine years, researchers from the University of West Florida have conducted underwater excavations of the vessel. They hypothesize that the wreck is the lower hull of a Spanish vessel that dates to the Tristan de Luna expedition of 1559. Analysis of the magnetic signature of this early shipwreck has provided the MMS with valuable comparative data for the review and analysis of shallow hazard and archaeological survey reports.

LASALLE SHIPWRECK PROJECT

One of the most significant underwater archaeological finds in North America was made by a team from the Texas Historical Commission (THC) in 1995 in 12-ft of water in Matagorda Bay, Texas.

After the team recovered a distinctive bronze cannon bearing the crest of Louis XTV, they hypothesized that the vessel was the French ship Belle. The Belle was the smallest of four ships sailed by French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de La Salle on his ill-fated search for the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1684. The vessel's mission included the establishment of a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi and trade with the Indians.

During the summer of 1996 through the spring of 1997, the vessel was carefully excavated in its entirety and is still undergoing conservation at the Texas A&M University Conservation Lab. The Belle is the oldest French colonial shipwreck found in the New World, and represents a transition period in Naval architecture. MMS archaeologists participated in this important project during the discovery and excavation phases and gained insight into how wrecks of a similar age might appear in Federal waters.

In May 1989, an 18th-century site was identified off the Chandeleur Islands, east of the Mississippi River delta. The site was investigated by Texas A&M University. A pile of pottery shards, a lead patch, a lead bilge pump tube, and six iron cannon were recorded during the investigation. No hull remains were found at the site and researchers concluded that the site represented the location of an accidental grounding and discard of unnecessary ballast and ordnance to lighten the ship. This hypothesis was supported by the fact that all six cannons were damaged in some way and, while useless as ordnance, could have functioned as ballast. Interestingly, three of the cannon were of Swedish manufacture and were cast between 1771 and 1784

The Civil War in the Gulf is defined by the Northern strategy of the blockade of Southern ports and the daring attempts by Confederate vessels to run this blockade. A number of important Civil War vessels have been located in State waters, such as the Confederate ironclads CSS Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, and the Huntsville and Tuscaloosa in the Mobile River. The remains of the Union ironclad Tecumseh, whose sinking by a Confederate mine prompted Farragut's famous order, "Damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead!" are well-known off Fort Morgan, Alabama. Only one US warship, however, was sunk at sea in the Gulf. This important shipwreck, the USS Hatteras, has been the subject of repeated investigations by the MMS, the Texas Historical Commission, and Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Constructed in 1861 by the Harlan and Hollingsworth Company of Wilmington, Delaware, for the Charles Morgan line of Gulf coast steamships, the vessel was originally known as the Si. Mary. An iron-hulled steamer of 1450-tons, the side-wheel steamer was purchased by the US Navy in September 1861 and converted into a gun boat during the same year. The vessel was armed with four 32-pounder cannons (a 20-pounder rifled cannon was added later) and renamed Hatteras. After distinguished service in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, the vessel was transferred to the Gulf Blockading Squadron on 26 January 1862. In less than a year, the Hatteras captured seven Confederate blockade runners off Vermilion Bay, Louisiana. Early in 1863, she was ordered to join the squadron under R/Adm. David Farragut, who was attempting to retake the key Texas port of Galveston.

As the blockading squadron lay off the coast on the afternoon of 11 January 1863, a set of sails was sighted just over the horizon and the Hatteras was ordered to give pursuit. She chased the intruder for 4-hrs, closer and closer into shore, and farther and farther from her supporting fleet. Finally, as dusk was falling, the Hatteras came within hailing distance of the square-rigged, blackhulled vessel. Commander Homer C. Blake demanded to know the identity of the ship. "Her Britannic Majesty's Ship Vixen," came the reply. Blake ordered one of Hatteras' boats launched to inspect the Britisher. Almost as soon as the boat was piped away, a new reply came from the mystery ship: "We are the CSS Alabamar A broadside from the Alabama 's guns punctuated the reply. Within 13-mins, the Hatteras, sinking rapidly, surrendered.

The Hatteras today rests in 58-ft of water about 20-mi off Galveston. Her 210-ft-long iron hull is completely buried under about 3-ft of sand. Only the remains of her 500-hp walking beam steam engine and ber two iron paddle wheels remain exposed above the sea floor. Since the site's discovery in the 1970s, MMS has engaged in periodic monitoring of the wreck to ensure that it is not damaged by surrounding oil and gas lease development. Although the wreck remains the property of the US Navy, MMS has joined forces with the THC and Texas A&M at Galveston to preserve this important archaeological treasure for posterity.

The wreck of the LiS Hatteras is an integral part of the story of the Civil War on the Texas coast, the defense of which is regarded as one of the greatest military feats of the Confederacy. The ship's dramatic history, along with the fact that the remains of the vessel are virtually intact, make it one of the most important underwater archaeological sites in the United States.

With oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico slated to continue indefinitely it is anticipated that other long-lost wrecks will eventually be found, identified and explored. Only in this way will the Gulf go on revealing the whereabouts of unfortunate vessels who not only succumbed to its violent weather but the wraths of other forms of marine tragedies. Until then, the Gulf of Mexico will covetously persist in concealing the ghostly remains of its hapless victims.

© 2007 Challenge Publications Inc. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Source: Sea Classics