Northwest NEWS

August 23, 1999

Features

Eric Van Velzen

Bothell man helps history come alive

by Deborah Stone, features writer

   On a moonlit night in late May of 1865, one of the Confederacy's most successful blockade-runners in Civil War history, the Denbigh, entered a shallow channel near Galveston Bay on the Texas Coast.

   The elusive vessel, a wonder of speed and efficiency, tried to sneak past the ships of the Union Navy and bring military supplies to the last outpost of the Confederate South, but she ran aground and became stuck on a sand bar.

   When the sun rose the next morning, the helpless ship, known for the previous two years as "that bold rascal," was boarded by raiding parties and then burned, sinking slowly into the sand and mud.

   The Denbigh was never really lost, but over the years, it became just another anonymous wreck until the fall of 1994, when an historian came looking for clues of the ship's whereabouts.

   Using Civil War-era charts of the entrance to Galveston Bay and an 1880 Corps of Engineers map, investigators from the Institute of Nautical Archeology, based at Texas A&M University, located and confirmed the wreck's identity three years later.

   The Denbigh's new existence as an underwater archaeological site under scientific investigation began. The Denbigh Project is an effort by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) to identify, document, and preserve the wreck of the Denbigh.

   Staff anticipates that completion of the project will take several years, as the size of the wreck necessitates the use of diving archaeologists to excavate its remains. The project, headed by Barto Arnold, INA's director of Texas operations, is in its second year of operation.

   This summer's excavation team included a former Bothell resident, Eric Van Velzen, a 1988 graduate of Bothell High School. Following his graduation, Van Velzen spent seven years with the U.S. Marines and then joined the Combined Caesarea Expeditions in Israel, where he worked for three summers on excavating a harbor built by King Herod.

   "I really enjoyed my experiences in Israel, so when I received an e-mail about this Civil War project, I jumped at the chance to apply for a position on the team," says Van Velzen. He was accepted and has just finished his two month stint as the Denbigh Project's Diving Officer.

   "Working underwater adds a whole new dimension to the excavation," comments Van Velzen. "The ocean is a really dynamic environment in which to work, and the conditions are constantly changing. There was very low visibility in the Galveston harbor and it added to the difficulty of excavating underwater."

   Van Velzen found the work interesting, even though the diving conditions were poor. He says, "I knew nothing about iron ship construction, and now I have learned so much more about this specialized area. Also, I was fortunate to be on site when several of the descendents of the ship's crew came to visit. Having living connections to the history of the Denbigh was a big plus."

   Jeff Erskine, great-great-grandson of Robert Horlock, a fourteen-year-old captain's boy on the Denbigh in 1864 and 1865, came to view the excavation site, as did Skip Pickering, the great-great grandson of the Denbigh's co-owner, C.W. Pickering. C.W. Pickering may have been acting as captain the night the ship ran aground.

   Van Velzen has been accepted to Texas A&M University in Galveston this fall where he will be majoring in maritime studies, concentrating on underwater archaeology. He is interested in this type of archaeology because it combines his passion for diving and his fascination with history.

   "You never know what you will find when you start looking," explains Van Velzen. "You go in with a whole series of hypotheses to prove, and sometimes they work out and sometimes not, but either way, you begin to get answers to questions about history."

   Excavations of the Denbigh have revealed that the iron structures of the ship's hull and deck supports are almost entirely intact. The INA team is digging through over nine feet of mud and clay to reach the bottom of the hull in an area just aft of the engine room. A layer containing artifacts is expected just above the bottom of the hull.

   Project director Arnold hopes to recover hundreds of artifacts of all sizes, including one of the ship's engines, and have them preserved in museum exhibit.

   "This is a particularly good example of how nautical archaeology combines with history to produce new insights," says Arnold. "The Denbigh is a tremendous resource for heritage, education, and tourism. The South may not rise again, but the Denbigh will, in spirit, at least."

   Extensive information on the Denbigh Project and the ship herself are available at the INA website at http://nautarch.tamu.edu/PROJECTS/denbigh/denbigh.html.