Islander scours the depths in search of fabled Texas shipwrecks
Andy Hall has such a love of maritime history it has become a 30-year fascination that has inspired him to volunteer on the hunt for shipwrecks locally and around Texas.
Hall, a faculty associate at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and director of the Department of Anesthesiology Editorial Office, lives on the island. Outside of the office, his love for maritime history has helped him find success as a blogger and author. In 2001, he was one of an inaugural group of volunteer marine archaeological stewards appointed by the Texas Historical Commission to help document historic shipwrecks in state waters.
Volunteering on shipwreck projects has been an honor working alongside marine archaeologists and other experts who are the best at what they do, said Hall, who is the author of “The Galveston-Houston Packet: Steamboats on Buffalo Bayou” and “Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast.”
“It is an incredible opportunity to put my hands on the things I write about,” Hall said. “It helps make it tangible and is a hell of a lot of fun.”
One of the most notable projects he volunteered with was 20 years ago when the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University spent four years finding, excavating, documenting and preserving the wreck of a paddle steamer known as the Denbigh, which ran aground on a sand shoal just off the Bolivar Peninsula shore.
“The Denbigh is a Civil War blockade runner named for a town in Wales,” Hall said. “As a blockade runner, it would have delivered guns and ammunition, but also what we would know as office supplies, iron pen tips and paper, cloth for sewing and then also small items that would be easy to ship and would make a profit.”
A breakthrough moment in the search was the discovery of a wreck marker on a marine chart from the 1870s. This same hazard was on other more recent charts but was unnamed.
“People knew the wreck was there for years, they just didn’t know what it was called,” Hall said.
The wreck had settled in the mud and an expert team set about excavating it and documenting its findings. Hall was even able to dive the wreck a couple of times as part of the project.
“The front and back holds were empty but, in the bilge, there was a preserved stem of an unusual type of rose, a doll’s leg, and some sealed wine bottles,” Hall said. “They were sent to a lab, but unfortunately salt water had infiltrated the bottles, destroying whatever was inside.”
Another shipwreck search Hall has been associated with is the hunt for a Texas Navy ship known as the Invincible. The Invincible was one of a handful of warships active when Texas still was a republic.
Again, the sleuthing project involved working out the last known whereabouts of the ship, looking at old charts and working out how the coastline had changed.
“The point of interest turned out to be under the sand at East Beach because, of course, Galveston Island has been built out a lot in the 180 years since Invincible was lost off the coast.”
A project team obtained the necessary permits and raised funds for a magnetometer survey of an area of the beach. This type of survey is used to find shipwrecks because wrecks leave behind iron and steel and this debris interferes with the Earth’s magnetic field.
“Spoiler alert — we didn’t find it,” Hall said. “The original results were in line with the scattered remains of a shipwreck, but future surveys were inconclusive. Many people have looked for the Invincible, and not found it, so we sometimes joke it should be called the Invisible.”
Although the results were inconclusive, Hall holds out hope the ship could be under East Beach, just deeper than originally thought.
Hall’s most recent project involves identifying the wreck of a paddle steamer on private land near the Trinity River. The river has shifted course over the years and hardware from the steamer now is visible — a sight Hall has waited almost 20 years to see. The site was first studied by the Texas Historical Commission in 2002.
Finding shipwrecks and preserving their history is a task that fills not only Hall’s lifetime but many others as there are thought to be more than 2,500 shipwrecks in Texas.
For Hall, it’s an endlessly fascinating passion.
“Maritime history is really the history of human endeavor and Galveston is a prime example of this,” Hall said. “The city wouldn’t exist if it didn’t have a good natural harbor. Many people see the cruise ships at the end of 23rd Street and think that is the extent of Galveston’s marine endeavors, but there is so much more. Maritime history is the story of Galveston.”