Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Island restaurant owners offer storage space for shipwreck

By Russ Henderson
March 08, 2006

DAUPHIN ISLAND -- A pair of local business owners have revived failing efforts to preserve a possibly historic ship fragment found buried under a west end house by offering the ruins of their storm-damaged restaurant as a place to store the 40-foot, 7-ton artifact.

"We want to provide a public service by saving it and hopefully make a tourist draw for the restaurant when we can display it," said Doug Ford, who, with his mother, owns the neighboring buildings that before Hurricane Katrina were Rita's Sunset Grill and Hurricanes.

Maritime archaeologist Glenn Forest, who found the fragment, had said Friday that he was giving up on his effort to save the wreckage because the Department of Marine Resources had denied his request to store it on a concrete slab at the agency's property.

Then Ford called Forest on Monday, and the two came up with a hasty plan to begin changing the ship fragment from endangered artifact to tourist attraction.

On Tuesday, Ford had a contractor, Pete Young, at the wreck site to size up the job of moving it the two miles to Rita's, then somehow getting the massive object inside the building. Young said he hoped to get the flatbed truck, trackhoes and other equipment necessary for the job by week's end.

"Preserving it in a restaurant seems kind of kooky, but it works," Forest said. "I don't care where it's preserved, I just want it preserved."

The massive artifact would first be stored inside the Sunset Grill while the other restaurant was elevated and restored, then the wreck fragment would be moved next door to the new restaurant.

The Sunset Grill structure, built on a concrete slab just a few feet above sea level, was so damaged by Katrina's pounding waves that the town of Dauphin Island condemned it, marking it for destruction, town officials said.

So when Forest said it would be necessary to fill the Sunset Grill with a couple feet of sand, which would be constantly irrigated by water hoses, Ford said that would be fine with him.

"It's not going to hurt anything," Ford said Tuesday, walking through the Grill's smelly dining room, still strewn with bits of garbage, piles of dried mud, brooms and pieces of the bar, smashed up by vandals after the storm.

The 2 feet of sand will protect the wood-and-iron hull fragment, while the fresh water will leach away sea salt, slowing down deterioration, Forest said. The desalination process will take about eight months, Forest said.

Meanwhile, Ford said, he will have the restaurant next door, formerly Hurricanes, elevated and restored. He hopes to have a new tenant in the building this summer.

"There will be more than 500 condos walking distance away inside the next few years, so we're hoping to get a first-class operation in here," Ford said, referring to three seven-story condominium projects planned for the last 14 acres of undeveloped beachfront on the barrier island.

Construction has begun on one of the three, and all are planned to be finished within three years.

If all goes as planned, the restaurant's next tenant, after about a year of operation, will have to contend with workers moving the massive ship fragment from the Sunset Grill to an as-yet unspecified location in the restaurant.

"We don't know where we're going to put it, yet. I haven't even told our architect, yet. I'm sure he's going to enjoy me throwing this into the works," Ford said with a smile.

It wasn't clear Tuesday whether the town's zoning ordinances would be violated by storing the shipwreck fragment at the damaged restaurant. Joyce Allen, the town's building inspector, said the building is zoned resort commercial, and the viability of such a use is "debatable." Ford may have to seek a temporary use permit from the town Planning Commission, she said.

Last month, Glenn Forest stopped a construction crew from breaking up and removing what he said could be a portion of a 19th century shipwreck from beneath a Bienville Boulevard house.

Forest attended graduate schools in marine archaeology at East Carolina University and Texas A&M University, but did not receive a graduate degree at either, 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.


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