Saturday, December 03, 2005

 

Researchers may have found historic shipwreck

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The Victoria Advocate
November 27, 2005

State Marine Archaeologist Steve Hoyt and members of the Texas Archaeological Stewardship Network have been surveying shipwrecks at the historic old port of Indianola and may have located the Perseverance.

One of 19th Century shipping magnate Charles Morgan's steamships, the Perseverance caught fire while docked at an Indianola wharf on Oct. 3, 1856, after having discharged her New Orleans freight, according to the Galveston Weekly News. On board was a return cargo of 134 bales of cotton and 179 hides - "none of which was saved."

While an unofficial account indicates the wife of Capt. Henry Sheppard was giving a dinner party at the time, the New Orleans' Daily Picayune quoted the captain as saying smoke was seen coming out of the after hold at about 4 p.m. while the crew was loading a cargo of cotton and hides.

As every effort was being made to put the fire out, Sheppard said the ship was shoved away from the Morgan wharf and anchored, but that the fire spread so rapidly it was impossible to save anything. It was abandoned with "flames driving the men over the bows."

"At 12 at midnight the ship had burned to the water's edge," he further noted.

In the November issue of "Current Archaeology in Texas," a publication of the Texas Historical Commission, Hoyt discusses efforts being made to locate the Perseverance and other shipwrecks from when Indianola was a thriving port on the western shores of Matagorda Bay.

Part of the Southern Steamship Company's fleet, also known as the Morgan Line, the Perseverance was one of several ships on a regular schedule between New Orleans, Galveston and Indianola. Under various names, Morgan and his companies owned 109 steamships between 1833 and 1855, Hoyt notes, with at least five being wrecked in Texas, others being the Louisiana, Palmetto, Mary and the Portland. Like the Perseverance, the Portland rests somewhere below the bay waters at Indianola.

Sheppard was also in command of the Louisiana eight months later when it caught fire with the loss of 30 lives while inbound for Galveston, although he was highly praised for doing all he could to save the lives of his passengers before being the last to leave the ship. He was rescued while "clinging to some life preserving chairs, nearly exhausted."

The captain died in 1879 and is buried in Hillside Cemetery at Cuero where the Morgan Company erected a large obelisk with inscriptions praising his heroic efforts, fidelity and efficiency in their service for over a quarter of a century.

While the sinking of Sheppard's fire ravaged Perseverance is often mentioned in historical accounts, it was a well-known bird's-eye view of Indianola in a Helmuth Holtz lithograph from 1860 that whetted Hoyt's interest in locating the wreckage. The artist had made sketches of the wharves and buildings along the shore while perched in the upper riggings of the sailing vessel Texana.

"Holtz drew a series of small objects protruding from the water near the end of one of the wharves," Hoyt notes. "Close examination led researchers to believe that Holtz was representing the remains of a shipwreck at that location."

Using computer overlays of historical and modern maps, along with aerial photographs, an approximate location was determined. A private firm offered to conduct a remote-sensing survey and marine archaeologists from PBS&J, a private engineering and consulting firm, surveyed the designated locations of two possible shipwrecks using both magnetometer and side-scan sonar in water depths averaging nine feet.

Hoyt says significant magnetic anomalies were recorded at both locations.

Last June, Hoyt was assisted in further investigation of the site by five members of the Texas Archaeological Steward Network, including Andy Hall, Don Hyett, Gary McKee, Doug Nowell and Russell Potocki. Part-time Indianola residents Thea and David King donated their vacation house as a staging area and David provided a boat as surface support for the divers.

A probe found one site to be buried under about five feet of sand and it was reserved for later investigation, the researchers turning their attention to the site from the 1860 lithograph, which they determined to be a steam boiler from a shipwreck Hoyt returned to the site in August with marine stewards Nowell and Craig Hlavinka. With a boat provided by part-time Port O'Connor resident Jack Jackson, they found a large area of well-preserved deck planks at one end of the boilers, likely the remains of a lower deck.

While the findings are insufficient at this time to determine if the vessel is indeed the Perseverance, Hoyt says the position is consistent with what is known about the sinking of the vessel. The ship was propeller-driven and the wreckage does not appear to have been a side-wheeler like the Portland, nor does the location match that of the Portland or of another ship known to have been lost at Indianola, the Belvidere, a side-wheel river steamer.

Funding is now being sought to pursue a major program of investigation in the Indianola area to identify additional wrecks, including sailing ships lost during the hurricanes of 1875 and 1886 and other evidence of Indianola's history that lies submerged beneath the bay.

In the meantime, research continues to determine if the Perseverance has been found.


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