A&M Group Brings New Life to Historic Ship

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas Lost at sea for nearly 150 years, what's left of the USS Westfield will soon be on display.

The steam ferryboat turned Civil War Gun Boat for the Union, sank on New Year's Day 1863.

The boat ran aground during the Battle of Galveston. Instead of losing the ship to the Confederates, the ship's commander, Fleet Commander William B. Renshaw, decided to blow the ship up.

He and a small crew placed charges on the boat.

"Something went wrong," said Justin Parkoff, the Project Manager for the USS Westfield restoration project. "Either the charges went off prematurely, or the charges didn't go off, and the captain went back."

The ship blew up, killing Commander Renshaw and his boat crew.

The ship eventually sank to the bottom of what is now the Texas City Ship Channel. In 2009, the Army Corps of Engineers excavated what was left of the boat.

The largest piece recovered was the boat's main cannon. At 12 feet long and weighing more than two tons, the cannon could fire projectiles more than a mile and a half.

Since then, Parkoff and his team of preservation experts at the Texas A&M University Riverside Campus have been painstakingly putting the ship back together, using original and replicated parts.

The cannon is nearing completion. It will be the first of a two-part display at the Texas City Museum. The second part will be the boat's massive boiler, put together with both original and replicated parts.

Not all of the pieces pulled from the gulf could be restored. In those cases, Parkoff's team make lifelike replicas of the originals. The replicas look so much like the original, it's difficult, if not impossible to tell the difference.

Jessica Stika is the assistant project manager, and Parkoff's right-hand woman for the project.

"You see these artifacts that have been under water for 150 years, and you get to work with them and find things out about a completely different life than the one that you lead," said Stika.

Stika said every day is a challenge with the Westfield. Dozens of little pieces, all of them with a story to tell.

"It's kind of like reading a biography with bits and pieces of a sentence," said Stika. "And you kind of have to build up the story based on the historical documents and the artifacts themselves."

Parkoff said it took time, but he eventually fell in love with the project.

"I never liked puzzles, but then I got this project," said Parkoff. "I was completely overwhelmed, but then it became a challenge, and then it became fun."

Parkoff said it will be hard to say goodbye to the Westfield, but there's always hope for the future.

"After this, there's always another project," said Westfield.

Parts of the Westfield are on display now until May 3 at the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History.

Parkoff and Stika will make a free presentation on the Westfield and the reconstruction process at the museum on February 25.