Friday, February 24, 2006


Possibly historic shipwreck discovered

By Russ Henderson
February 23, 2006

DAUPHIN ISLAND -- With a short black shovel, Glenn Forest crouched Wednesday in the sand under one of the hundreds of Hurricane Katrina-wrecked homes on this island's west end.

He uncovered a section of wooden hull here, a length of iron-ringed mast there -- indications, he said, of a possibly historic 45-foot ship fragment.

Hours before, he had stopped a repair crew at the house from breaking up the structure.

"They were going to cut it up and haul it to the dump. This could be an important piece of Alabama history," said Forest, a marine archaeologist from Mobile. "We can't let that happen."

Forest said he hopes volunteers will come forward today to help him unearth what he thinks could be a portion of the 19th century clipper cargo ship Robert H. Dixey, which sank near the mouth of Mobile Bay after striking the nearby sand bar now known as Dixey Bar during a hurricane in 1860.

The 165-foot clipper ship was built in Boston in 1855 and was used to haul merchandise (mainly cotton) from Mobile to Eastern Europe.

As Katrina's tidal surge submerged the island's west end on Aug. 29, it picked up the massive ship fragment and smashed into a nearby house. On Sept. 24, Hurricane Rita slung it under another house, letting it come to rest after it snapped one of the house's pilings in two.

On Wednesday morning, the rental house's manager was getting ready to start cutting the ship fragment up, pulling the pieces out with a backhoe, then taking them to a county landfill.

Forest happened to be nearby. He was actually looking for the ship fragment as part of his now yearlong research to find the identity of another ship fragment on display in the parking lot of Fort Gaines on the island's east end. Forest initially thought the Fort Gaines fragment belonged to the British warship H.M.S. Hermes but said he now suspects both fragments are pieces of the Dixey.

After looking in the spot where the fragment beached itself after Katrina, Forest happened to meet Randy Fletcher, the property manager of a nearby rental home. Fletcher told Forest that the ship fragment was under his boss's house and said he was getting ready to start removing it today.

Forest asked Fletcher not to do that. He would try to organize a crew to remove it and preserve it, he said.

Forest said he didn't know exactly where he will be able to keep the piece of wreckage once it's excavated and that he hopes local governments and organizations will step forward to help.

The hull of the fragment is more than a foot and a half thick, with decomposing iron nails that have managed to hold it together for decades. Forest said it's likely made of white pine -- the favored wood of the Northern shipbuilders at the time. The segment probably weighs thousands of pounds, he said.
The ship fragment has been migrating from place to place on the island for decades, periodically unearthed by tropical storms and hurricanes, said Greg Spies, a Coden land surveyor and archaeologist.

Spies said that since he isn't a marine archaeologist, he isn't qualified to judge whether the artifact is significant. But he agreed with Forest that the fragment could be important, and some attempt should be made to preserve it.

While the wreckage is on the Alabama Historical Commission's records, the commission doesn't regard it as being archaeologically significant, commission officials said.

Contacted Wednesday about the ship fragment, Elizabeth Brown, the commission's interim director, said that anyone seeking to remove it would first need a coastal zone permit from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

They would not need a permit from the Historical Commission, she said. Attempts to contact ADEM's coastal office were unsuccessful Wednesday afternoon.

Anyone wishing to help Forest remove the shipwreck should call him at 786-0666.


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