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Centuries-old ship makes final voyage

By Elena Watts
July 17, 2014 at 2:17 a.m.
Updated July 18, 2014 at 2:18 a.m.

A forefoot sits in the foreground as Texas A&M University researchers prepare the remains of the 300-year-old ship La Belle for transport Thursday in Bryan. The remains are being transferred from a gigantic preservation-aiding freeze dryer at Texas A&M University to the state museum in Austin for reassembly. Looking for the Mississippi River in 1685, French explorer La Salle and his ship ended up in the Gulf of Mexico where La Belle sank in a storm off the coast of Texas. She was found in 1995 under 12 feet of water.

The largest portions of a centuries-old ship found on the floor of Matagorda Bay sailed into Austin on a gooseneck trailer Thursday.

The La Belle was one of four ships that embarked on a 1684 French expedition led by Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle that ended badly in 1686. The ship, which missed the mouth of the Mississippi River where crew members were to establish a colony, was wrecked by a violent storm.

From the bottom of the bay along the Texas Gulf Coast, the waterlogged vessel, which was discovered in 1995, has found new life in the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

John and Judy Clegg, of Victoria, volunteered to transport the 53-foot, 800-pound keel, the 1,100-pound keelson and assorted hull timbers from Texas A&M University's Conservation Research Laboratory to the museum with two trucks belonging to Clegg Industries.

"When I was young, I had no idea how much Texas history was in Victoria County," he said.

The Cleggs' involvement in archeological enterprises began when the third site of the Mission Espiritu Santo De Zuniga was excavated on their Guadalupe River-front ranch. They have been interested bystanders in the process of excavating the ship since the project's inception.

"I was an observer - learning, watching, enjoying," said John Clegg.

The Cleggs watched as a steel cofferdam was constructed around the old shipwreck site to create an enormous dry cavern. They tied their boat to the exterior dock to enjoy a bird's-eye view of the excavation as it was underway.

The organic material that was submersed for more than 300 years had to remain wet to protect its integrity during the conservation process, said Peter Fix, assistant director at the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University.

Lifted by crane, almost 400 principal timbers were submersed in giant vats before they were transported - first by barge and then by truck - to the research lab at the university. The number of artifacts - ranging from a 2-by-2-foot piece to a 28-foot plank - multiplied as damage occurred during the excavation and conservation.

"That's the nature of the business," Fix said.

The timber remained underwater for the majority of the conservation process.

The original plan was to preserve the ship using the saturation method. The team of about 65 conservation scientists and graduate students began the tedious process of documenting each timber with written descriptions, photographs and drawings. Hard materials that had accumulated on the surfaces of the artifacts were gently vibrated loose with brushes, dental picks and chisels. The ship was eventually reassembled underwater in a 60-by-20-foot vat.

However, the conservation plan changed when oil prices skyrocketed in 2008, Fix said.

The exorbitant price of hydrocarbon-based polyethylene glycol, which was used during the saturation process, made the freeze-drying technique more economical and efficient, Fix said. The new technique required less chemical displacement of the water under which the timbers were immersed.

The purchase of a giant 40-by-8-foot freeze dryer, which could be used again for other projects, proved more economical, he said.

The team of conservationists displaced about 35 percent of the water with polyethylene glycol before they freeze-dried the timbers. The five-year process was achieved in two-month to six-month increments depending on the sizes of the artifacts.

Two shipments of timber were made to the museum in Austin before the delivery was made Thursday, Fix said.

"The delivery of the keel and the larger timbers were symbolic that we're getting close," Fix said.

More than 1 million artifacts were found during the nine-month, multi-million-dollar excavation of the La Belle, according to a news release. The Bullock Museum exhibit, which will include timbers, select artifacts, photographs and maps, will open Oct. 25. As part of the exhibit, Fix and a team of conservators will reassemble the hull in front of visitors in the gallery.

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