After languishing for more than 300 years in murky waters off the Texas coast, French explorer Sieur de la Salle’s ship, La Belle, has been preserved at Texas A&M University to some of its glory and set sail –via an 18-wheeler – on its final journey. Destination: the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, where it will be on exhibit in a unique fashion, with the remains of the vessel being meticulously reassembled over a period of months in public view.
The keel and other parts of the once-proud frigate underwent extensive 17-year preservation at the Center for Maritime and Archaeology and Conservation and the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M with major support provided by the Texas Historical Commission, which also conducted the ship’s multi-million-dollar excavation.
The fruits of the work were trucked Thursday (July 17) from Texas A&M’s Riverside Campus to the Bullock Museum, where the emphasis now shifts to reassembling the hundreds of preserved pieces of the ship, including its 700-pound keel and 800-pound keelson. The exhibit opens Oct. 25.
Titled “La Belle, The Ship That Changed History,” the exhibit will be on display in the gallery of the Bullock Museum. In setting the stage for the exhibit, museum officials put it in the following historical perspective: “One of the most important shipwreck discoveries in North America, La Belle has risen after 300 years to tell a captivating story filled with piracy, murder and miscalculation that doomed the 17th century voyage and changed the course of history in Texas forever.”
In related material published by the Texas Historical Commission, titled the “La Salle Odyssey,” an account was given of the historical significance of the ship going down in Matagorda Bay: “With the ship went a famous explorer’s dreams and a king’s ambition to expand his empire in the New World.” That would be French King Louis XIV, who had hoped to establish a colony in Texas with, among others, the estimated 40 people thought to be aboard the ship when it went down about midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Peter Fix, assistant director of the Texas A&M’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation that is world renowned for its nautical restoration work, served as conservator for the preservation project and will now oversee a team that will reassemble the hull and other parts of the ship inside the museum.
“This is an exciting period point in the project,” noted Fix, who will temporarily move to Austin to oversee the reassembly endeavor. “The work of so many people will finally be brought to its conclusion.”
He said approximately 150 people worked on the project at some point during the Texas A&M phase of it.
After initially utilizing traditional techniques to preserve the various part of the wooden vessel, Fix and his associates placed part of the hull in a huge freeze drier that was specifically constructed for the project. Fix said the drier was designed to drop the temperature inside it to 60 degrees below zero to remove all the moisture from the timbers for maximum preservation.
In addition to the Bullock Museum, the Texas Historical Commission and Texas A&M, partners in the project include the Musée National de la Marine, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the Texas State History Museum Foundation and the State of Texas.
Thursday’s activities culminated a “labor of love” on the part of John and Judy Clegg of Vernon. Their firm, Clegg Industries, Inc., includes a trucking operation, and they used one of their 18-wheelers to personally transport the La Belle remains to Texas A&M 17 years ago. They were back Thursday, again donating their services for the trek to Austin, with him at the wheel of the immaculate 18-wheeler and her riding shotgun.
A book on the La Belle is available from the Texas A&M University Press here.
Media contact: Lane Stephenson, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4662