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BRYAN, Texas — More than three centuries ago, a French explorer’s ship sank in the Gulf of Mexico, taking with it France’s hopes of colonizing a vast piece of the New World – modern-day Texas.
Like La Salle in 1685, researchers at Texas A&M University are in uncharted waters as they try to reconstruct his vessel with a gigantic freeze-dryer, the first undertaking of its size.
By placing the ship – La Belle – in a constant environment of up to 60 degrees below zero, more than 300 years of moisture will be safely removed from hundreds of European oak and pine timbers and planks. The freeze-dryer, located at the old Bryan Air Force base several miles northwest of College Station, is 40 feet long and 8 feet wide – the biggest such machine on the continent devoted to archaeology.
Researchers will then rebuild the 54 1/2-foot vessel, which will become the centerpiece of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
From a historical perspective, it’s “an icon of a small event that dramatically changed the course of Texas history,” said Jim Bruseth, who led the Texas Historical Commission effort to recover the remains.
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.
“When La Belle sank, that doomed La Salle’s colony and opened up the door for Spain to come in and occupy Texas,” Bruseth said. “People can see firsthand how history can turn on a dime.”
“It’s an important piece in ship architecture,” said Peter Fix, conservator at the school’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation. Researchers have determined that unlike earlier vessels, 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.
“This was the age of Enlightenment when math was coming into more play,” Fix said.