Thursday, August 11, 2005

 

'City of Waco' beckons divers, sea historians

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Waco Tribune-Herald
By Beth Aaron
August 06, 2005

A recently rediscovered shipwreck marking what historians believe is the deadliest maritime disaster in Texas waters is bringing the city of Waco some unexpected attention.

So far, though, the sunken wreckage is mostly attracting the interest of seagoing archaeologists, state historians and intrepid divers.

The Mallory Lines steamship, which traveled regularly between New York City and the then-booming city of Galveston, caught fire on Nov. 8, 1875, and sank during a raging storm that night a few miles off Galveston. Fifty-six people on board died.

The name of the ill-fated ship: the City of Waco.

Now state historical officials are betting they've found the lost wreckage.

Confidence notwithstanding after sonar imaging and preliminary dives into murky waters, state marine archaeologist Steve Hoyt acknowledges the ship's painted name is long gone. That means researchers must look for other evidence to firmly identify it.

“The first thing we need to do is absolutely demonstrate that it is the City of Waco,” he said.

Back in the city of Waco, more than a few hours from the sea, reaction to the news has ranged somewhere between surprise and bafflement.

“My curiosity is piqued by the little bit I've read about it,” said Pam Crow, director of the Historic Waco Foundation. “I'd like to know more about it.”

According to the Southwest Underwater Archeological Society Web site, the City of Waco was built at the John Roach & Sons shipyard in Chester, Penn., and entered service in 1873. It made 20 round voyages between Galveston and New York before tragedy struck.

The ship was anchored off Galveston when it burst into flames, possibly because of a lightning strike igniting the steamer's cargo of highly combustible lamp oil. According to news accounts, the only survivor was a Labrador retriever.

The City of Waco was likely named after the Central Texas city because in the 19th century Waco was a major railroad hub with tracks bound for Galveston, said Jeanne Wiloz-Egnor, director of collections management at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va.

“Waco was a big railroad town so that must be the connection there,” Wiloz-Egnor said, reading from a report researched by the museum's 92-year-old volunteer researcher, David Dick.

C.H. Mallory was a major shipping line that ran between Galveston and New York City, Wiloz-Egnor said, and the line had many ships named after cities, including the City of Austin and City of San Antonio.

Hoyt said he doesn't have any documentation specifying how the City of Waco got its name.

“There were a number of ships named after cities,” he said. “It was very popular at that time.”
And the explosion of Nov. 8, 1875? The exact cause, Hoyt said, remains unknown.

Learning what happened may prove difficult, too, even after further dives on the wreck because, according to historical accounts, the ship burned to the water line before it sank.

To compound matters, the wreckage – long noted on maps of the gulf so other ships could steer clear of it – was later blasted free of the waterway's entrance. Archaeologists wonder how much damage was done to it.

The wreckage was rediscovered two years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which promptly mistook it for another sunken vessel – this one named for the city of Galveston – before further inquiry revealed it to be otherwise.

While many secrets of the ship are now 40 feet deep in somewhat unpredictable waters, artists have left paintings of many steamers, including the City of Waco. The Mariner's Museum has housed an oil painting of the City of Waco since August 1965.

The painting was done by 25-year-old Antonio Jacobson, a Dutch-American artist, in 1875 in Hoboken, N.J. Jacobson was frequently commissioned by ship captains to paint vessels and became one of the era's best-known painters of seascapes.

April Allen, who oversees tourism for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said further exposure of the long-ago wreck may remind Texans of Waco's size and influence in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Most people don't realize it,” she said, “but at one point Waco was the same size as Dallas.”

No one's predicting the city of Waco will reap any positive publicity from mounting interest in the wreckage off Galveston, which, after all, marks a tragedy. Even so, Allen has ideas about how Wacoans can become involved.

The city is home to a large freshwater diving community, she said, and it's possible members of local diving groups might be interested in helping the Texas Historical Commission's upcoming dives on the City of Waco.

Crow says she's excited about the wreckage, especially if it proves to be that ship named for Waco.

“I think it's just fantastic they found it,” she said.


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