The Gulf is lined with wooden shipwrecks, American-Indian shell midden mounds [cheniers], World War II casualties, pirate colonies, historic hotels and old fishing villages. Researchers now fear this treasure seeker's dream is threatened by BP PLC's deepwater well blowout.
Thus begins this article from the Associated Press, available online as of July 5th. Though the well has been successfully capped (as of this writing), there is far more damage ahead than behind. And it's not just to the ecosystem and wildlife that make the American Gulf coast so special.
The overarching theme of the distressing article is that the combination of settling oil in the Gulf and cleanup on the shore will either completely destroy or make dangerous to research historical sites from Pensacola to Galveston. Read the article for an outline of some of the interesting pieces of history that are jeopardized. Here are just a few that your humble hostess holds dear:
The Mardi Gras wreck: found in 2002 by oil workers at a depth of 4,000 feet and a little over 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The wreck, named for the pipeline where it was found, has been called by researches from Texas A & M University a "gun runner" from the War of 1812. She's a two masted brig of under 150 tons. Only one group of ships was running the British blockades down there during that war. Given these two facts, my guess is she's a Baratarian.
Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi: also known as the "Plymouth Rock of the Gulf", the island welcomed Europeans to the area beginning three hundred years ago and was the only deep draft harbor west of Mobile before a ship arrived at the river. The island was also the Civil War base of Union naval hero Admiral David Farragut.
Grande Terre and Grand Isle Islands, Barataria Bay, LA: archaeologists have only scratched the surface of the sandy ground on Grande Terre. They were beginning to uncover the remains of Jean and Pierre Laffite's famous privateer haven on this and her sister island when Deepwater Horizon exploded. Now, the broken crockery and charred remains of structures may be lost to the very thing that is so urgently needed: cleanup.
The article ends with the comments of John Rawls, a marine archaeologist whose firm, Earth Search, Inc., was involved in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. He points out that cleanup workers, under-trained, underpaid, in a hurry and sometimes looking for a souvenir or a quick buck, disturbed sites in and around Valdez.
He gives the example of the Chugachmiut cave, a prehistoric burial site found by cleanup workers who removed artifacts and bones before calling a supervisor. Local authorities then scooped the remains into trash bags and hauled them off. No one was able to document the site as it was found. To quote Rawls: "The site was pretty much trashed."
Bulldozers, settling oil and ignorance. A lethal combination for a history that is already sorely forgotten. Let us hope that the lessons learned elsewhere are applied on the Gulf. And pray for a break this hurricane season.
Header photograph of pelicans over Barataria Bay by C.C. Lockwood.