COLLEGE STATION, Dec. 10, 2009 – A long-sunken 11-foot-long cannon weighing almost 10,000 pounds made its public debut Thursday at the Texas A&M University Conservation Research Lab, part of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.
The cannon was raised at sundown Nov. 22 from the USS Westfield, which was lifted from its watery resting place in the Texas City Channel, where it had been submerged for 146 years. The recovery is part of a $71 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to deepen the Texas City Channel along the Texas coast to keep waterways open for navigation.
The Civil War Union gunboat ship USS Westfield, originally built as a Staten Island ferry, was intentionally destroyed by Union forces to prevent capture after it grounded in the channel during the 1863 Battle of Galveston.
The centerpiece of the artifacts recovered and brought to College Station is the Dahlgren cannon, which fired IX-inch shells when it was active.
The cannon will be kept at the Conservation Research Lab on the Riverside campus, one of the largest and the longest continuous working labs of its kind in the country.
At a news conference in College Station Thursday morning, blankets were pulled back to reveal the cannon. Later, five cannon balls that had been excavated from the site also were displayed and described. Throughout the discussions water was poured over the items to keep them moist.
Jim Jobling, project manager at the Conservation Research Laboratory Projects Facility, demonstrated how his team will carefully clear away the cannon’s crusty outer shell. Care is taken to preserve any smaller artifacts hidden in that layer, Jobling said.
It contracts to conserve artifacts from a range of underwater and terrestrial sites for federal, state and private organizations that do not have their own conservation facilities.
“When it is uncovered is when the cannon comes alive,” he said. “You can see this cast iron is beautiful, but wait until we’re done with it.”
Jobling said of the 1,201 such cannons made during the Civil War, this was the 50th IX-inch Dahlgren to be recovered.
Once the cannon is completely “de-creted” over the next several days, it will be moved into an electrolysis bath for up to two years to remove the remaining chlorides and preserve the metal, explained Donny Hamilton, head and professor of anthropology at Texas A&M.
The lead archaeologist on the project is Bob Gearhart of the Austin office of engineering and environmental firm PBS&J. He said the remaining artifacts on the USS Westfield – items including belt buckles, ceramics and glass items -- are expected to be recovered within the next few days. All of the recovered artifacts will be sent to the Texas A&M lab for conservation.
Gearhart said his office considers itself part of the “Aggie family” by virtue of employing three Texas A&M Nautical Archaeology Program graduates – Amy Borgens, Sara Laurence and Vince Vincenti.
Another Aggie, Alexis Catsambis, is one of three underwater archaeologists from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command for the U.S. Navy, which is responsible for all Civil War ships.
“These are very visual and exciting finds, and we want to share them with the public,” Catsambis said, describing requirements such as an indoor space with a reinforced floor to accommodate the cannon. “We have had interest from four or five museums, all in this region. We hope the first displays take place either late next year or early in 2011.”