Monday, February 27, 2006

 

Volunteers help uncover shipwreck

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Mobile Register
By Russ Henderson
February 25, 2006


DAUPHIN ISLAND -- A group of 10 men and women worked with brooms, buckets of water and a backhoe Friday, slowly digging away sand to reveal a 35-foot section of what could be a 19th century shipwreck buried underneath a storm-damaged west end house.
Exactly where the crew was going to put the ship fragment once they finished excavating it from the spot where Hurricane Rita had deposited it five months ago was still an open question Friday.

"What these people have accomplished in this short a time is incredible," said Glenn Forest, a marine archaeologist who earlier this week stopped a repair crew at the house from breaking up the structure. "What we're concentrating on at the moment is getting it out of harm's way."
Thursday and Friday, two dozen people from along the Gulf Coast responded to Forest's call for volunteers to help him excavate what he thinks could be a portion of the 19th century clipper cargo ship Robert H. Dixey.

The Dixey sank near the mouth of Mobile Bay after striking the sand bar now known as Dixey Bar during a hurricane in 1860. The 165-foot clipper ship was built in Boston in 1855.
"It just seemed like the right thing to do," said Robert Varner, a retired bail bondsman from Semmes who on Thursday brought his backhoe to help Forest.

As he sat at the backhoe's controls, Varner said he's had an interest in maritime history since he was a U.S. Navy submariner in the late 1960s.

Another volunteer, Hugh Bodden of Pascagoula, said it was a fascination with his own family history that had him brushing sand from the ship fragment with a broom Friday.

"My great-grandfather was a sailing ship captain from Grand Cayman who ended up in Pascagoula," said Bodden, a construction consultant. "

Forest said the crew will likely have the fragment removed from under the house by today or Sunday. He hoped to store it on a concrete slab behind the island's Marine Resources Division office.
Vernon Minton, Marine Resources Division director, said he needs more information first. He wants to get the Alabama Historical Commission's opinion of the fragment's value, plus an estimate from Forest of how long the shipwreck's stay would be.

The shipwreck fragment may have been tossed around the island by storms for at least 45 years. Mobile Register articles dating back to 1960 refer to a similarly described fragment.

In one of those articles, representatives of the Alabama Historical Commission state that wreckage appears to have no historic significance.
Forest asserted, however, that the piece he is working on now should be treated as a potentially important find.

Forest attended graduate schools in marine archaeology at East Carolina University and Texas A&M University, university officials said. One of his instructors, Donny Hamilton, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, has said Forest has the expertise to identify such shipwreck fragments.

After a fragment -- possibly the same as the one battered by Katrina and Rita -- was exposed by Hurricane Georges in 1998, an Alabama Historical Commission crew re-covered it with sand, saying the chance of excavating items of historical value from it was low and the chance of losing the fragment to deterioration under the sun's rays was high.

Elizabeth Brown, the commission's interim director, said this week that anyone trying to remove the fragment would not need a Historical Commission permit since it was on private property.

As Katrina submerged the island's west end on Aug. 29, it picked up the fragment and smashed into a nearby house. On Sept. 24, Hurricane Rita slung it under another house, where it came to rest.


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