Excavation May Locate Texas’ Only Steam Warship
Employees with HRA Gray & Pape excavate a trench near the cruise port as they try to locate the wreckage of the Zavala, a Texas Navy streamship that was run aground and forgotten 174 years ago, shown Monday, Aug. 31, 2015, in Galveston. Port leaders must make sure the cruise port expansion plans won’t disturb the historic wreck. Photo by Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle.
As part of a Port of Galveston expansion to accommodate more and larger cruise ships, excavations are being done this week to ensure that the project doesn’t impinge on the wreck of one of the more unusual vessels of the Republic of Texas Navy of the 1840s, the steamship Zavala:
In 1986, novelist and adventurer Clive Cussler set out to discover the remains of the Republic of Texas’ armada. Cussler determined that the Zavala was the only Texas Navy wreck left that he had a chance of discovering. He dug into what was then a parking lot and found what he believed were the Zavala‘s remains, then reburied them; the expedition lacked the money to excavate the wreckage.
Thirty years later they have become a headache for the Port of Galveston, which has hired archaeologists who began digging again Monday to make sure that cruise port expansion plans won’t disturb the historic wreck.
Port leaders want to expand the wharf at Cruise Terminal 2 by 95 feet and install two mooring bollards, posts sunk into the ground deep enough to secure the 138,279-ton Navigator of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Port Director Michael Mierzwa said. After receiving the plans from his engineer, Mierzwa realized that the posts would be placed in the area where Cussler had dug for the Zavala. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which permits maritime construction, told Mierzwa he would need a permit from the Texas Historical Commission as well.
Cussler’s account of where he found the wreckage is imprecise, so without excavation there is no way to know whether the bollards would be sunk into a historical artifact.
“I’ve seen drawings that had it one in part and in about two or three other locations,” Mierzwa said.
Adding to Mierzwa’s difficulty is the possibility that more wrecks are in the area. Although Cussler’s findings strongly suggested that he had found the Zavala, he never found an artifact that proved it, said Jim Hughey, regional manager for HRA Gray & Pape LLC’s Houston office. The company is supplying the archaeologists for the port.
Michael Tuttle, marine archaeologist and historian for HRA Gray & Pape, said the Confederate Neptune [No. 2], sunk in the 1864 Battle of Galveston, also went down in the area. He said the historical commission believes several other ships of lesser renown also may be nearby.
Cussler is certain that he found the Zavala.
“I don’t know what the hell else it would be,” Cussler said, noting that the head of the Texas Antiquities Committee was present and agreed that it was the Zavala. Cussler said he believes the Neptune sank farther out, and there were no other wrecks close enough to the dig site to be confused with the Zavala.
Well, no; the very document that showed Cussler where to look for Zavala also shows Neptune No. 2 very close by, where she settled in shallow water after the Battle of Galveston. The wreck was subsequently salvaged in place. So the presence of the old cottonclad nearby is highly likely.
The cottonclad Neptune No. 2 lies sunk in shallow water after the Battle of Galveston, New Years Day, 1863. The dark, cylindrical object near the boat’s stern (arrow) is identified on the original drawing (bottom right) as the wreck of the Texas Navy steamship Zavala. It’s definitely close. Image via Rosenberg Library, Galveston.
To be fair, I think it’s more likely that the adventure author located Zavala thirty years ago, rather than Neptune No. 2, given that his coring included what appeared to be copper sheathing, which the converted riverboat almost certainly wouldn’t have had. Still, I’m glad they’re back looking again.