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Notes From the Field

Dry Cell

Summer 1997 | Volume 13 |  Issue 1

MATAGORDA BAY, TEX. : In 1995 a team of archeologists found the wreck of the French ship Belle off Texas’s Gulf Coast, where she had lain since running aground in 1686. The ship had been part of an ill-fated expedition led by the French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who was exploring the area in the mistaken belief that it was near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The discovery of the wreck culminated more than two decades of work—first archival research, then painstakingly combing the floor of Matagorda Bay with metal detectors and divers. Having finally found the Belle ’s remains, archeologists from the Texas Historical Commission (THC) faced another problem: how to get them to the surface. Visibility would be less than a foot on the bay’s muddy bottom, decreasing to effectively zero when the mud was stirred up. Factor in the awkwardness of maneuvering underwater and the need for special training and equipment, and the task looked even more daunting. To avoid these problems, the THC decided to build a cofferdam around the site and pump the water out.


Cofferdams have often been used for bridge and tunnel construction in rivers and harbors, but the THC was proposing to build one in ocean water. Nothing like it had been done before, but that’s never stopped a Texan. In little more than a year, the cofferdam was finished and archeologists were excavating the Belle from dry land.

The Texas cofferdam was built in the shape of an elongated octagon. It had two walls made of corrugated steel 3/8 of an inch thick with a 33-foot gap in between. The inner chamber, where the excavation took place, was 82 feet long and 52 feet wide. The area between the inner and outer walls was filled with sand and covered with planks. A crane riding on the plank roadway lifted artifacts from the work chamber onto a barge. The cofferdam also had an observation deck, allowing the marine equivalent of “sidewalk superintendents” to dock their boats and watch the excavation.

The cofferdam was built by driving steel sheets 60 feet long into the floor of Matagorda Bay. They were sunk to a depth of 41 feet to keep water from seeping in. (Even so, mud filled the work area, which was “dry” in name only.) The water at the excavation site was 12 feet deep, giving the wall about 7 feet of clearance above water level. High tides could raise the water almost even with the top of the wall, and fish occasionally washed up on the planks. The cofferdam was open to the air, though a roof covered the work chamber to keep the weather out. If a hurricane threatened, the archeologists could slowly flood the chamber to provide a water cushion, then pump it out again when the weather cleared.

With the excavation complete, the cofferdam will be dismantled and its components sold, in a sort of cofferdammerung. At the same time, archeologists will catalogue and preserve the fragile remains of the Belle itself (about 20 percent of the hull was recovered) and its contents, including weapons, crockery, glass beads for trading, and navigational instruments. Although the recovered artifacts survived three centuries of being buried in mud, bringing them to the surface exposes them to new dangers from light and air. Without prompt action from trained workers, the ship’s remnants could simply disintegrate.

Members of La Salle’s expedition built a fort about fifteen miles inland, but by 1689 the entire garrison had perished, though the French continued to send missionaries for decades and maintained a questionable claim on the region until 1762. Today, of course, the two main strains in Texas’s culture are Anglo and Hispanic. But archeologists hope that excavation of the Belle will illuminate a previously obscure episode in Texas history and bring attention to the least understood of the six flags that have waved over the Lone Star State.

A 1686 shipwreck lay under twelve feet of muddy water off Texas. Since archeologists could not bring the ship to dry land, they brought dry land to the ship instead.

BUFFALO, N.Y. : A hundred years have passed since hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls first reached Buffalo. Thanks to alternatingcurrent technology from Nikola Tesla and William Stanley, the electricity could be transmitted twentytwo miles with virtually no loss—a miracle in its day. Buffalo has changed a lot in the last hundred years, as has everything else. But one remnant of Tesla’s day is immediately evident on entering the E. & B. Holmes Machinery Company: Overhead lights in the work area have a noticeable flicker from the twenty-five-cycle current that powers them. Dave Krafchak, who runs the company these days, explains that the local utility is legally obligated to provide twenty-five-cycle current or pay to convert his machinery to modern sixty-cycle. The flicker is more than just quaint; it makes bulbs burn out faster, since the filaments have longer to cool off in between peaks.

Besides working as a general-purpose machine shop, E. & B. Holmes produces equipment for making tight barrels, the kind that hold liquids. You might think that wooden barrels went out with gaslights and buggy whips, but the recent boom in small wineries and microbreweries has given new life to America’s tight-barrel machinery industry, of which E. & B. Holmes is the sole member. The company has dusted off its old designs for such exotica as hoop drivers and bung borers, sometimes updating them by replacing rack-and-pinion drive with hydraulic or pneumatic power.

The E. & B. Holmes shop, at 59 Chicago Street, is housed in an all-brick building that dates from 1856. Inside it are a profusion of pigeonhole desks, cabinets, and file drawers filled with oilskin drawings and glass-plate negatives. An old map, with paved streets in yellow and unpaved ones in beige, shows that when the building was erected, to house a hammer works, there was a basin nearby to facilitate water transportation. The nineteenth-century aura is so pervasive at E. & B. Holmes that when you come upon a 1950s adding machine, it looks like something out of “The Jetsons.”

The top floor holds thousands of numbered wooden casting patterns, though nowadays the company fabricates almost all its parts, casting only the most complicated ones. Below it are several floors jammed with an overwhelming variety of machinery, some of which still runs on belt power. Krafchak demonstrated a device for changing the belt’s speed: a shaft that ends with cylinders of decreasing size stacked atop one another, like a miniature Stanley Cup (western New York is hockey country). The belt can be moved from one cylinder to another to make it go faster or slower. As he shows a group of visitors around, Krafchak’s love for his old machinery is palpable. He seems perfectly suited for a job that requires him to be a shop foreman and a museum curator at the same time.

Another holdover from the old Buffalo is Ed Rudnicki, whose license plate proclaims his profession: BLKSMITH . If you ever meet Rudnicki or a fellow member of his dwindling breed, whatever you do, don’t ask if he makes horseshoes. A true blacksmith, he says, considers farriers to be an inferior species. Instead, Rudnicki sharpens points and chisels for jackhammers, repairs chains, reproduces almost anything made of iron, and makes some ornamental items.

On a recent visit the dirt floor of Rudnicki’s shop—a block away from the shiny new Marine Midland Arena—was the site of a large rectangular hole, from which Canisius College archeology students had excavated such treasures as the remains of a privy, a pig’s tooth, petrified biscuits, and a Civil War sword and belt buckle. The rest of the shop is a virtual archeological dig in itself. There’s an old forge with hand bellows, a forging hammer built from Model T parts, an 1860s coffin delivery cart, and tools that date back as far as 1837. Anywhere else these things would be antiques, but in a blacksmith shop they’re simply clutter.

Rudnicki remembers a time in the early 1970s when an ore carrier docked at Buffalo and sent him a rush order to repair some chains. Not long after, he heard that the very same boat—the Edmund Fitzgerald —had sunk in Lake Superior. Rudnicki fretted that his work might have contributed to the sinking until investigation showed that an unusually large wave had probably been the cause.

The seventy-eight-year-old Rudnicki plans to keep forging links with the past as long as his strength holds out. Judging from the animation with which he discusses his craft, that should be quite a while.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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