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Historic Shipwreck to be Freeze-Dried & Rebuilt

By The Maritime Executive 2012-11-20 10:41:00

Over 300 years ago, the ship of a French explorer sank in the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately destroying France’s hopes of inhabiting what is now Texas.

Texas A&M University researchers are now in the same uncharted waters as they are attempting to rebuild La Salle the explorer’s ship by using an enormous freeze-dryer. This is the first project of its size.

The ship, La Belle, will be placed in a continuous 60 degrees-below-zero climate; this should successfully remove all the moisture from the European oak and pine timbers and planks. The freeze-dryer is located at the old Bryan Air Force base, near College Station, and is 40 feet long and 8 feet wide — the biggest machine of its kind in North America devoted to archaeology. After this step is complete, the almost 55-foot vessel can be rebuilt.

The excavated hull remains of La Belle

The supply ship was built in 1684 and sank two years later in a storm on Matagorda Bay, about midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi, reports the Washington Post. Researchers and others involved in the project believe that this is an imperative piece of Texas and American history, as well as a great piece for the study of ship architecture.

It has been determined that the frames on La Belle were marked specifically by the French craftsmen so the wood comprising the hull could follow the complex curve of the ship, exhibiting lessons of The Enlightenment.

Caption: The cofferdam built around La Belle

Marine archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission discovered the wreck in 1995 under 12 feet of water, ending a decade-long search. A dam was then built around the site as the recovery process was launched. As divers explored the well-preserved La Belle in the Gulf of Mexico, they uncovered items that included swords, cannons, goods for trade, and even a skeleton.

After being transferred to Texas A&M, the wood has been since kept in a chemical solution to keep it firm. The freeze-dry process was decided on after oil and chemical prices increased; it is more economical and would cut the preservation timeframe. So, the hull was disassembled and the wood was categorized and digitally scanned so that they could make molds of its original shape, the Washington Post describes.

The La Belle rebuilding will begin in late 2013 at the Bullock Museum, where it will remain as the centerpiece.

Caption: The first of three bronze 4-pounder cannons discovered in the hold of La Belle, recovered in July 1995.

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Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle was the first European to travel the Mississippi River south to the Gulf, claiming all the land along the Mississippi and its tributaries for France in 1682. In 1685, he sailed from France with more than 300 colonists aboard four ships, La Belle among them, to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi. Maps of the time show he believed the river was closer to Mexico, and his expedition missed the Mississippi by hundreds of miles. After moving inland, the explorer never made it out of Texas; he was murdered by his own men.