Last shot at preserving Battleship Texas under way

November 28, 2010 4:51:35 AM PST
Retirement hasn't been kind to the Battleship Texas, the only remaining U.S. battleship to survive World Wars I and II.

Once touted as the most powerful weapon on the planet, the nearly century-old battlewagon has endured some 60 years as an historic relic moored in the brackish Houston Ship Channel, corrosion from water outside and inside munching at its steel and patchwork repairs.

"Our boat's been sitting in the water and rusting away, so we get it out of the water," says Andy Smith, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's manager of the battleship site east of Houston.

That's the goal as work finally is beginning to permanently remove the Texas from water by constructing a unique dry berth for the 573-foot-long, 34,000-ton vessel. It's the most complex project ever for the parks agency and isn't likely to be complete until late this decade.

Texas voters three years ago approved a bond package that included $25 million to save the ship moored since 1948 at the equally historic San Jacinto Battleground. The project also is being designed to not repeat the cycle of past repairs that cost millions of dollars but failed to ensure the long-term future of the ship launched in 1912.

"It's not going to be done again to this vessel," Neil Thomas, project manager for the agency's infrastructure division, says of the overhaul. "We've got one shot, and we've got to do it right."

The department signed a contract Oct. 26 with AECOM, a worldwide architectural and engineering firm, to design a dry berth for the Texas. Teams involved in the project met aboard the ship for the first time earlier this month.

Some topographic surveys and soil tests are under way and a preliminary design from the firm is expected by next spring. Public comment, compliance with environmental assessments and government agencies and regulations could take another two years. Construction bidding is expected by mid-2014 with project completion anticipated by summer of 2017.

Smith said a couple of vessels in England have been dry berthed but nothing like the magnitude of the Texas, commissioned in 1914 and the oldest of the eight remaining American battleships. It's the last the Dreadnought class, patterned after the British battleship that featured unprecedented speed and armaments at the turn of the 20th century.

In World War I, it served as U.S. flagship in the British Grand Fleet. In 1940, it was named flagship of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and participated in D-Day in 1944. It experienced casualties when hit by German artillery off France, then provided support for World War II battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Pacific, using its main battery of 10 14-inch guns to fire 1,500-pound shells up to 12 miles .

It was decommissioned in 1948 and came under care of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. A berth was carved out on what was known as Santa Anna Slough, a swamp that empties into the Houston Ship Channel. The muddy acreage is where Gen. Sam Houston and his army of Texans in 1836 defeated Mexican Gen. Santa Anna to win Texas' independence and it's across the channel from one of the world's largest petrochemical complexes.

"You have one of the most significant battlefields on the North American continent with one of the most significant naval ships in the world," Smith said. "You could argue that both definitely are one of a kind."

Dark blue paint, matching its look when in the Pacific at the end of World War II, masks some of the surface problems.

"You're dealing with a metal artifact sitting in a brackish environment in high humidity," Smith said. "How do you treat an artifact? Traditionally we put it in a climate controlled space where you control for temperature, humidity and light. You can't do that with an almost 600-foot-long ship."

The first long-overdue major repairs occurred in 1988 -- 40 years after it arrived. By then, it had become stuck in mud. Flooding inside had caused serious corrosion. It gingerly was towed to a Galveston shipyard and essentially given a new hull.

"But they didn't get into as much of the inner part," Smith said. "They had a limited budget ... And things didn't get done. It's no fault or no blame, just the reality of the situation."

The ship continued to deteriorate. There have been two serious incidents this year, including one where a pump failed, water poured in, the ship got lower and weak spots normally just above the water line began taking more water. By the time the leaks were plugged, 100,000 gallons needed removal.

"One of the things you have to understand about a ship like this is it was in a weird sort of way designed to leak," Smith said. "It was a battleship designed to take a lot of damage and inflict a lot of damage. The way it is set up is you can flood a lot of it and it's still OK.

"The problem we have is in combat, its normal life, you have almost 1,800 men working on it. We have about 18."

The dry berth permanently removes it from the water and hopefully eliminates the problem of water inside that causes "this downward spiral," as Smith calls it, of more corrosion and more holes.

Thomas described the task for project architects as "variations of a boat in the bathtub and getting the water out of the bathtub."

One early suggestion was putting the Texas on a floating barge. That was dismissed after considering the ship is 120 feet tall from top to keel and would damage the look of the battlefield it shares.

"One of the things we want to do is respect the context," Thomas said. "We have to be sensitive to the fact that the ship itself is the artifact, but it's actually sitting in a sea of artifacts. So that brings a whole other level of complexity and care we have to take because we're certainly not in the business of saving one artifact at the expense of the other."

There is also an environmental concern if the site -- a wetland -- is drained and turned into a dry area.

About 100,000 people a year visit the ship, which should be less costly to maintain when it's permanently out of the water.

Voters who approved the $25 million in bonds showed they wanted the Texas preserved, Smith said.

"We want to make sure that money is spent well, that we do the right thing that is permanent," he said. "We talk about how to preserve the ship for the next 100, 200 years. We're not talking 10, 15, 20, 50 years."


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