Blue Water Ships, Brown Water Bayou

My new feature article on Liberty ship construction in Houston during World War II will be hitting local newsstands shortly. I’m especially honored to have it included in the new issue of Houston History Magazine (right), dedicated to the centennial of the formal opening of the Houston Ship Channel. The full article won’t be online for some months yet, but you can read the opening grafs here. Houston has never had the reputation of a major shipbuilding center, but it accomplished remarkable things during the war. Two hundred eight Liberty ships were pushed off the ways into Buffalo Bayou between 1942 and 1945. For those of you familiar with Houston geography, if placed end-to-end those ships would stretch more than seventeen statute miles, from the San Jacinto Battleground to City Hall downtown.

There are some wonderful articles in this issue, many of them supplemented by the photography of Captain Lou Vest, a Houston pilot and one of the best maritime photographers working today. (Don’t miss Steve Nelson’s photos, either.) I’d like to give special thanks to the managing editor of Houston History, Debbie Harwell, for her enthusiasm and encouragement. She’s great to work with.

 

Deep Wreck Presentation, Houston, October 14

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On Tuesday, October 14 at 7 p.m., Amy Borgens and Fritz Hanselmann will discuss the recent deep-water shipwrecks expedition to investigate the wrecks of three sailing vessels, believed to have been overtaken by a catastrophic event with a presumed loss of all on board. These vessels were lost to history until 2011, when they were detected as three unknown sonar targets during a Shell Oil seafloor hazard and archaeological survey. A deep-water remotely operated vehicle investigation by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research unveiled a copperclad shipwreck with collections of small arms and six cannon lying at a depth of approximately 4300 ft. A team of underwater archaeologists from several federal and state organizations returned to the site in July 2013 and recovered a small collection of artifacts to help identify the shipwreck. An investigation of the two nearby Shell Oil targets confirmed these were indeed shipwrecks – one a merchant vessel transporting hides among its cargo and a third vessel of unknown purpose believed to be a three-masted ship. The archaeological team continues to research the video and photographic documentation of the sites and learn more about the artifact assemblage as conservation continues.

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Deep-Water Discoveries: The Monterrey Shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico
Tuesday, October 14
7:00-8:00 PM
Houston Maritime Museum, 2204 Dorrington
Houston, Texas 77030

Free to the Public

 

 

Talkin’ Blockade Runners and Wicked Ol’ Charles Morgan

In three weeks, I’ll be giving a couple of talks, one in Arlington, that I’ve mentioned before, and one in Houston, that I haven’t.

On Friday evening, October 10 at 7:30, I’ll be speaking on “Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast” at the University of Texas at Arlington Central Library, Sixth Floor. There will be a reception and a book-signing after. This event is open to the public and everyone’s invited. To RSVP, please call 817-272-1413 or email LibraryFriends@uta.edu. This will be my second trip to North Texas in the last few months, and it should be great fun.

Then, on Saturday the 11th, I’ll be participating in the Fourth Annual Houston History Conference. The conference will be held at the the Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library, 550 McKinney.The theme this year, in recognition of the centennial of the official opening of the Port of Houston. My presentation is “Charles Morgan and the Genesis of the Houston Ship Channel,” a wonderful little story of economic boosterism and Gilded-Age avarice. Space is limited so advance reservations are recommended, but not required. The cost of the conference is $50 per person before October 3; $40 for seniors, presenters and exhibitors; and $25 for teachers not covered by scholarships from their respected school systems. If space allows, on-site registration will be available. All tickets include lunch and admission for a full day of activities. For more information or to enroll in the conference, visit www.houstonhistoryassociation.org or email info@houstonhistoryassociation.org.

The full listing for the Houston History Conference follows below the jump. Hope to see y’all there!

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Fourth Annual Houston History Conference

“Houston: Born on the Bayou, Built on the Port”

Conference set for Saturday, October 11, 2014

WHAT: Entitled “Houston: Born on the Bayou, Built on the Port,” the fourth annual Houston History Conference will coincide with the citywide Centennial of the Ship Channel in Houston. Produced by the Houston History Association (HHA), the conference will be held on Saturday, October 11, 2014 from 8 a.m. – 3:45 p.m. in the Julia Ideson Building – Houston Public Library, 550 McKinney. The conference will provide information to create discussions and awareness among Houston leaders, scholars, academics and the public about the history, important assets and challenges of the port.

Throughout its history, whenever the Port of Houston has grown, Houston has grown, proving it to be a fiscal engine that produces jobs and monetary prosperity for the local and state economy. In 2012, ship-channel related businesses provided over one million jobs throughout Texas, generating $178.5 billion and $4.5 billion in state and local taxes. “Arguably, the Port of Houston ranks as one of Houston’s greatest historical and vital resources, and merits this in-depth examination and attention by HHA,” says Diana DuCroz, president of HHA.

Port of Houston Commissioners Theldon Branch and Dean Corgey and Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker will open the daylong event, followed by the morning presentation from (Ms.) Pat Jasper, director of the Folklife and Traditional Arts Program for the Houston Arts Alliance.

After a preview of the “100: Ship Channel History 1914 – 2014” documentary, attendees can then tour the library’s exhibit on “Stories of a Workforce: Celebrating the Centennial of the Houston Ship Channel.”

The Houston History Association also will present the “Betty Trapp Chapman Awards” to (Ms.) Miki Lusk Norton and Pam Young in recognition of and appreciation for their tireless work for HHA and Houston’s history community.

After lunch, a variety of speakers will give presentations on a wide range of topics in two breakout sessions, including:

  • David Falloure and Tom Tellepsen on outtakes from their book The Town that Built the Port that Built the City; and Mike Mitchell on The New Deal, Federal Writers’ Project & The Port of Houston
  • Mikaela Selley of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) on the Behind the Scenes Research and Making of the Centennial Documentary and Curriculum Guide; and Kim Lykins and Jim Bailey, co-founders of the Texas Foundation for the Arts, on their documentary 100: Ship Channel History 1914-2014.
  • Frances Trimble on The Houston Pilots: Silent Servants of Progress: Houston Ship Channel Pilots; Andy Hall on Charles Morgan and the Genesis of the Houston Ship Channel; and Ms. Sam Akkerman and Ginny Garret on Sport and the Port – An Historical Review of Recreational Boating and Commercial Shipping on Houston’s Shared Waterways
  • Tanya Debose moderating discussion with long-time residents of Pleasantville, Magnolia and Clinton Park neighborhoods about living in the shadow of the Ship Channel

Over 65 community history and preservation partners of HHA have been invited to present exhibits about their organizations and current work. Ample time will be allowed within the conference for attendees to network and learn about Houston History through the work of these organizations.

Space is limited so advance reservations are recommended, but not required. The cost of the conference is $50 per person before October 3; $40 for seniors, presenters and exhibitors; and $25 for teachers not covered by scholarships from their respected school systems. If space allows, on-site registration will be available. All tickets include lunch and admission for a full day of activities.

Houston ISD will offer CEUs and scholarships for its teachers.

The Lancaster Hotel is the official hotel partner for HHA; for special rates, visit http://thelancaster.com or call 800-231-0336.  Limited availability.

For more information or to enroll in the conference, visit www.houstonhistoryassociation.org or email info@houstonhistoryassociation.org.

WHEN:           Saturday, October 11, 2014, 8 a.m. – 3:45 p.m.

WHERE:        Julia Ideson Building – Houston Public Library, 550 McKinney

WHO:            The Houston History Association is an independent 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to promoting Houston area history and serving as a resource for existing historical, preservation and educational organizations and institutions.

Sponsored by: This program is made possible in part by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition, generous sponsorship has been received from the Port of Houston Authority and Texas Historical Foundation. Other partners include the University of Houston Center for Public History, The Strake Foundation, Miki and Ralph Norton, The Lancaster Hotel, Houston Academy of Medicine – Texas Medical Center Library (HAM-TMC), Texas State Historical Association, Houston Public Library, the City of Houston and Houston Independent School District.

Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast

My new book, Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast, will be released by the History Press on June 10. It’s available now for pre-order at the History Press, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. An e-book version should follow this summer. This short volume discusses blockade-running in the western Gulf of Mexico, with particular emphasis on the last year of the war, when Galveston became the last remaining port in Confederate hands in the region. Running the blockade under sail, life aboard the Union ships of the blockade, and the lure of prize money are also discussed. The book includes an epilogue that discusses some of the archaeological work done on runners over the last 40 years.

Blockade-running in this area has been an active interest of mine for nearly 20 years, and I’ve been privileged to contribute to the documentation of four different ships involved — the famous runners Denbigh and Will o’ the Wisp, as well as Union vessels U.S.S. Arkansas and U.S.S. Hatteras. Lots of folks have helped me along the way, and I’m grateful to all of them.

Monterrey Shipwrecks Talk — Galveston, Nov. 14

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My friend and colleague Amy Borgens of the Texas Historical Commission, and Fritz Hanselmann of Texas State University, are presenting a free public talk on the Monterrey Shipwrecks in Galveston at Moody Gardens on Galveston on November 14 at 7:00 pm. This presentation will discuss the three early nineteenth-century shipwrecks off the Texas-Louisiana coast that were investigated this past July. This ROV investigation and artifact recovery project was broadcast live on the internet. The public event was coordinated in response to all of the interest in the project from regional historical and archeological groups in the Galveston-Houston area. These and other participating groups have been invited to host respective educational tables from 6:30 — 7:00 pm in advance of the presentation.

In July 2013, a team of scientists investigated three early 19th-century shipwrecks 170 miles off the Texas-Louisiana coast at a depth of 4,500 feet. This unique expedition, the deepest of its kind in the United States, documented the shipwrecks and recovered a small collection of artifacts. Team members will present the initial findings that suggest these archeological sites may be a privateer and two prizes. Supporting groups such as the Houston Archeological Society and Galveston Historical Foundation will be present to provide insight and information on regional history and archeology.

 

Talkin’ Texas Navy

TexasNavySnottyThanks to the Sam Houston Squadron of the Texas Navy Association for hosting me at their first anniversary dinner Sunday evening, at which I spoke on the role of the little steamboat Laura in the coming of the Texas Revolution. It’s a great little story that deserves more attention than it gets. I’ll have to blog about it some one of these days.

With me on the program were Ed Cotham, who gave a short talk outlining events in Texas during the sesquicentennial year of 1863 — it was a good year for the Union generally, but a disastrous one for them in Texas — and Justin Parkoff and Jessica Stika, who gave an overview of the efforts to conserve and exhibit artifacts recovered from the wreck of U.S.S. Westfield.

In his presentation, Justin joked that he tends to be quiet and, because he didn’t speak up soon enough in a meeting where the NautArch students were selecting projects, he got stuck with “the junk.” (At this point he flashed an image of Westfield‘s machinery as it came off the site, in rusty, unrecognizable jumble of stuff.) In fact, Justin’s dived headlong into this subject with remarkable success, and has gone a long way toward not only reconstructing the gunboat’s machinery, but its overall construction and conversion from a New York ferryboat to a warship. Before he’s done, I think we will know more fine-grained detail about U.S.S. Westfield than any other ship of her type. It will be a delicious irony that such knowledge ultimately came about because her commander, 150 years ago, blasted her to smithereens rather than let her fall into enemy hands.

We’ll be hearing more about Westfield in the next few months — a lot more.

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Image: Wikimedia depiction of foul anchor and star insignia for the Texas Navy rank of Passed Midshipman, by user Glasshouse.

Aye Candy: Morgan Line Steamship Harlan, 1866

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New renders of the Morgan Line steamship Harlan (seen previously here), that ran a coastwise route between New Orleans, Galveston and Indianola, Texas in the late 1860s and 1870s. Harlan was the last of seven ships built to the same design by Harlan & Hollingsworth for the Morgan Line between 1861 and 1866. The first of these ships, St. Mary’s, was purchased new and converted into the Union warship U.S.S. Hatteras. In 1880, Harlan transported former President Grant and his party from Clinton, on Buffalo Bayou near Houston, to New Orleans.

Full-size images available on Flickr.

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U.S. Coast Survey Shipwreck Identified

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In 1852, W.A.K. Martin painted this picture of the Robert J. Walker. The painting, now at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., is scheduled for restoration. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)

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On Tuesday, the folks at NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program announced the identification of the wreck of the U.S. Coast Survey steamship Robert J. Walker, that was sunk in a collision with a sailing ship in June 1860 off the Jersey shore. From the announcement:

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More than 153 years after it was lost in a violent collision at sea, government and university maritime archaeologists have identified the wreck of the ship Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA.
 
The Walker, while now largely forgotten, served a vital role as a survey ship, charting the Gulf Coast – including Mobile Bay and the Florida Keys – in the decade before the Civil War. It also conducted early work plotting the movement of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast.
 
Twenty sailors died when the Walker sank in rough seas in the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, ten miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey coast. The crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when the Walker was hit by a commercial schooner off New Jersey. The side-wheel steamer, carrying 66 crewmembers, sank within 30 minutes. The sinking was the largest single loss of life in the history of the Coast Survey and its successor agency, NOAA.
In late June, 2013, the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, surveying in the area to chart post-Hurricane Sandy changes in coastal waters – an essential job to ensure safe navigation with a major part of the economy based on the movement of goods by water – transited the area where Robert J. Walker was known to have been lost and laid a memorial wreath on the water. Using the sophisticated sonar mapping technology of Thomas Jefferson, The Office of Coast Survey’s Vitad Pradith, working with East Carolina University graduate student and archaeologist Joyce Steinmetz and the crew of Thomas Jefferson did a survey of the area and focused on the previously charted wreck thought to be Walker.

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After a ceremony last month onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, Ensign Eileen Pye lays a wreath over the waters where USCS Robert J. Walker sank. (Credit: NOAA)Blank

You can read a detailed, contemporary news account of the disaster, from the June 23, 1860 issue of the New York Commercial Advertiser here.

Videos from the wreck site are online here. The visibility is pretty lousy, but the exposed part of the wreck is similar in many ways to that of U.S.S. Hatteras, that was the focus os a NOAA-led expedition last year. Some of the preservation on the Walker site is remarkable. There are even remnants of what are believed to be wool blankets, that have been preserved by being covered in mud, in an anaerobic environment, until recently. (Hurricane Sandy may have played a role in exposing these materials.)

In her career as a survey vessel, Robert J. Walker probably served off Galveston, as she spent considerable time operating in the Gulf of Mexico. As it happens, her commanding officer during much of that period was Benjamin Franklin Sands (right, 1811-1883), whose first-hand knowledge of the hydrography of the Texas coast would prove useful some years later, when he commanded the Union squadron on blockade duty off Galveston during the closing days of the Civil War. It was Captain Sands who formally accepted Galveston’s surrender in June 1865, an event that effectively ended the Union blockade of Southern ports. You can download a high-res copy of one of Sands’ charts, compiled during his tenure aboard Robert J. Walker, here.

Congrats to NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and all its partners in this endeavor.

 

Deep Gulf Shipwreck Live, July 18-25

UPDATE: Live broadcast available here:

http://www.nautiluslive.org/

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From the Underwater Archaeology Mailing List, SUB-ARCH:

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The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) www.Boem.gov homepage is featuring the 2013 expedition to document and explore the Monterrey Wreck in the Gulf of Mexico. July 18th-25th (weather depending) you can view the expedition live online.
 
Please share with students and colleagues so they can tune in! Go to www.boem.gov or use the direct link to the page which can be found at:
 
http://www.boem.gov/Gulf-of-Mexico-Expedition-Discovers-Amazing-Historic-Shipwreck/

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Note that the name, “Monterrey Wreck,” does not indicate the identity of the vessel, which is unknown. Deep water sites in the Gulf are commonly named for nearby pipelines or oil lease tracts. From the website:

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2011 – 2012 Discovery and Exploration
 
First identified as a side scan sonar target in 2011, the brief remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive made a truly exciting discovery that no one at the time knew would contribute significantly to our understanding of a turbulent period of American history.
 
In April 2012, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer conducted the first reconnaissance of the site. The shipwreck appears to be an undisturbed, early 19th century, wooden-hulled sailing vessel.
 
The sonar target first came to light when Shell Oil notified the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), agencies of the U.S. Department of Interior, that a side scan sonar target resembling a shipwreck had been found in their lease area. The sonar image revealed a sharp hull-formed outline measuring approximately 25 meters (84 feet) long by 7.9 meters (26 feet) wide in 1,330 meters (4,363 feet) of water. . . .
 
The Okeanos Explorer’s ROV dive on the shipwreck lasted just over two hours, collecting valuable high definition video. The remains of the relatively small vessel, about 84 feet long, are outlined by the copper sheathing tacked to the lower hull put there to protect the bottom from marine bio-fouling. While wood close to the copper sheathing has survived, the entire upper portion of the wooden ship has been consumed, allowing durable artifacts, such as those made from ceramic, glass and metal, to drop to the bottom. The area of the Gulf where the site is located receives very little sedimentation, so many of the artifacts lay uncovered, mostly inside the hull.
 
From the distribution of artifacts, we get a sense of how the vessel was organized. A large anchor in the bow was probably secured on the forward deck. Elements of the standing rigging along the length of the vessel indicate the location of the masts. A concretion of large metal objects located amidships contains an anchor, several cannon and smaller artifacts. Some or all of these items may have been stowed below deck during the voyage. A large rectangular metal stove resting on a lead sheet (to protect the wooden deck from catching fire) and food storage containers, denote the galley area where food was prepared. Further aft, near the stern, where the ship’s officers likely lived, are plates, bottles, glassware, firearms, medicine, and navigation instruments.
 
The baseline data collected by Okeanos Explorer’s brief visit led to considerable follow-on research by a group of archaeologists and historians. The artifacts and vessel remains suggest the site dates to the first half of the nineteenth century making it one of the more significant shipwrecks discovered in the Gulf of Mexico to date. The site, well preserved and remarkably undisturbed, is from a critical period in history when new nations were forming at the end of the Colonial era and the Gulf was opening to global trade.

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Grant Comes to Galveston

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In the spring of 1880, former President and Union General Ulysses S. Grant made a visit to Texas. Fanned by unprecedented press speculation and coverage, huge crowds and celebrities turned out to greet Grant everywhere he went. This was particularly true of the general’s visit to Galveston, at that time the largest and most prosperous city in Texas. Where did Grant go and what did he do? What did he say? And most importantly, what did he eat? Respected historian Ed Cotham answers these questions and more as he chronicles the extensive newspaper coverage of Grant’s historic visit to the island city in his newest presentation for the Menard Summer Lecture Series.

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Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m.
Menard Campus, 3302 Avenue O
Galveston, Texas

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Admission is $10 for Galveston Historical Foundation members, $12 for non-members.

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Image: Morgan Line steamship Harlan, that carried the Grants from Clinton, Texas to Galveston and on to New Orleans in 1880. Museum of Fines Arts Houston/Bayou Bend Collection.