Ship recovery team bring history alive

July 20, 1999, 05:35 p.m.
By BARBARA KARKABI Copyright 1999
Houston Chronicle

There's no one who loves a good sea tale better than Barto Arnold -- especially when the story involves a swift blockade runner, the Civil War and a shipwreck. Instead of a line of tankers and cargo ships in the Gulf of Mexico, Arnold conjures up a different scene.

Skip Pickering Photo right: Mike Moore, left, Skip Pickering and Barto Arnold double check the location of the Denbeigh, a Confederate ship sunk off the Bolivar Peninsula

In his mind's eye, Arnold sees a row of Union ships blockading Galveston in 1865. "Imagine, if you will, a moonless night in May 1865," said Arnold, a nautical archaeologist and director of Texas Operations for the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. "It's a perfect night for a blockade runner to slip through the ring of federal ships. On the night of May 23, the Denbigh, a well-known Confederate blockade runner, tried its luck, as it had so many times before."

But this is not just idle reverie. This is real. And on that night, more than 130 years ago, something went wrong. The Denbigh ran aground on a sandbar off the coast of the Bolivar Peninsula and was later attacked by a federal ship. Union soldiers set the Confederate ship on fire, leaving it to sink, swallowed by the sea and by history. There the ship remained until 1994, when the Denbigh Project was launched. Arnold and several colleagues, with the help of an Army Corps of Engineers map, discovered the approximate location of the sunken ship, launching an exhilarating trip into the past. "This is one of the most important shipwrecks in Texas history," said Arnold. "I think of it as bringing history alive." Arnold and his crew have found interesting artifacts from the sunken ship -- including a lead weight, a potsherd with English origins and a piece of thick glass that probably came from a skylight in the ship's cabin -- and the more he delves into the past, the more he thinks about it, daydreams about it.

On that moonless night in the summer of 1865, the 182-foot steamer, filled with goods from Havana, snuck carefully past the blockading ships -- the crew must have thought they were about to complete their 27th successful blockade run. Suddenly the Denbigh scraped to a halt, running aground on Bird Key, a sandbar off the Bolivar Peninsula. The Denbigh had struck land before and had managed to get off, but this time it was different. At daybreak, a lookout on one of the blockading ships spotted the stranded Confederate ship and gunboats were ordered to open fire. At the same time, smaller boats were lowered and sent to board and destroy the Denbigh, according to historical accounts. When the crew of the Denbigh saw the boats approaching, they fled and managed to make it to shore at Bolivar Peninsula; no one knows what happened to the ship's cargo, which could have been anything from rifles to cobblers' tools. Union sailors from the Seminole boarded the stranded blockade runner, seized the ship's papers and set the vessel on fire. Only one person was killed, a seaman from the Seminole who shot himself when his rifle accidentally discharged. It was over by 7 a.m. The burning ship slowly sank into the Gulf of Mexico, and its location disappeared from history -- until now.

"We always knew it was out there somewhere; we just didn't know where," said Arnold. The vessel was actually known as a hazard to local fishermen, but no one knew the identity of the wreck or its Civil War role. The Denbigh Project was initiated in 1994, when a well-known South Carolina researcher of blockade runners inquired about the wreck's position. The Denbigh was the second most successful blockade runner in Civil War history, running first between Mobile, Ala., and Cuba and then, after the fall of Mobile, between Galveston and Cuba. So reliable was the "bold rascal," as the Denbigh was labeled by Union sailors, that it was nicknamed "the Packet" by the people of Mobile. Arnold and his team were able to find the approximate location of the ship with the help of an Army Corps of Engineer map from 1880. It pinpointed the Denbigh's location to a 3 1/2 mile area about a quarter-mile off the Bolivar coast.

In December 1997, Arnold and fellow nautical archaeologist Tom Oertling took a boat out to where they thought the shipwreck might be located. "It was a scouting expedition with no expectation of finding anything," Arnold said. "We even wondered if we might need electronic equipment to find the wreck." But it was low tide that day as they motored to the spot off the Bolivar coast, in sight of the Bolivar Lighthouse. When they saw a bit of wreckage sticking out of the water, Arnold was astonished. "I said, This couldn't be so easy,' " he recalled. "The next day Tom and I went back and snorkeled around. We found the top of the paddle wheel. ... Then we swam to the other side and found the other paddle wheel. We measured, and it was the same size as the steamship." "Wow, this is it!" Arnold remembers exclaiming. "It was the easiest find I have ever had," he said. "People spend years looking for ships." Because the iron-hulled steamer had sunk slowly into the mud, it was preserved from the ravages of winds and waves. But the mud also made it challenging for the nautical archaeologists to excavate.

Arnold told his story again Friday to a special group that included Skip Pickering, the great-great grandson of the Denbigh's co-owner, C. W. Pickering, and the great-grandson of C.W.H. Pickering, the young man who may have been acting as captain the night the ship ran aground. [ed.: C.W.H. Pickering was part owner of the ship, C.W., his first son was probably the captain.]

While Arnold was searching for the shipwrecked Denbigh, Pickering, a rancher in his 50s who lives in Manhattan, Kan., was trying to confirm family rumors and stories of aromantic blockade runner. As he prepared to take Pickering out to view the excavation site, Arnold said, "This is a perfect example of what can happen when history and archaeology come together."

A born storyteller, Pickering says that as long as he can remember there have been family rumors of pirates, blockade runners and sea captains. But he was unable to prove anything until last week, when his Internet research brought him to the Denbigh Project's Web site. "As a little kid growing up, it intrigued me," Pickering said. "But it wasn't until this past year that I was able to research and see if it was true." Even though he knew the names of his great-grandfather and his great-great grandfather, Pickering still had to put the puzzle together. He knew that his great-great-grandfather was from England but had married in Iowa after the Civil War and had bought a ranch in Kansas. [ed.: his great-great-grandfather, C.W.H. Pickering was born and died in England in 1815-1881. Skip's great grandfather, C.W. Pickering was born in England and died in Kansas 1841-1928]

His research showed that he [C.W. Pickering] had 10 children and kept his family in Kansas while pursuing a sailing career out of San Francisco. "That was during the Gold Rush years," Pickering said. "He really loved adventure." Further research showed that his great-great grandfather was a wealthy businessman who owned cotton mills and the Bank of Pickering & Schroeder in Liverpool and Manchester. He even located his obituary. Interesting information, but it didn't bring him any closer to confirming the family rumors. Feeling frustrated, he decided to look for information on Civil War blockades on the Internet. "There were about 20 to 30 sites, and I narrowed it down," Pickering said. "When I got to the part where they said the Denbigh's co-owner was Schroeder & Co. of Manchester, bells went off because he was a partner in the Pickering bank. It was so exciting. All that time I had been looking for Pickering, instead of his ship." Pickering immediately e-mailed the Denbigh Project with his information, and Arnold replied with an invitation to visit the excavation site. He wasted no time in scheduling his visit. On Friday, Pickering visited the spot, marked by buoys, accompanied by two small boats carrying staff and diving archaeologists investigating the area. "Isn't this something," Pickering said. "It's great to find people who are as excited as I am about the find. There's not a lot of interest in blockade runners in Kansas."

His presence was just as exciting for Arnold, since it adds to the historical information they are trying to pin down. Because blockade running was illegal, no crew list was kept, but one is being reconstructed with several names, including that of Robert Horlock, the captain's boy, who went on to become a prominent Navasota businessman. Several weeks ago, two of his descendants, John Erskine and his son, visited the site and dived down to see it. The elder Pickering was a co-owner, Arnold said, and the custom of the time called for the son of an investor to be on board to keep an eye on what was a very profitable investment. After the port of Mobile fell, the first captain quit and no one knows who the second captain was, but it was probably the junior Pickering, Arnold speculates. Arnold said excavating underwater along the Texas coast is very challenging. "Because of the mud, the best visibility is 3 to 4 feet, and the average is 6 inches," Arnold said. "It can be scary down there in the dark, but I remember when I stood on the bottom of the ship I felt such a sense of history to be there. It was awesome."

This is the second summer the Institute of Nautical Archaeology crew has been excavating the Denbigh, in a project they hope will last six years, depending on funding. Last summer, they mapped the shipwreck and found several artifacts. Arnold hopes to recover hundreds of artifacts of all sizes, including one of the ship's engines, and have them preserved in a museum exhibit. This fall a decision will be made about whether to go on with the project. A large part of the decision rests on whether they can raise more funds to continue excavating, Arnold said. To date, the project has cost $325,000, which has been funded by local foundations and individuals. He anticipates needing $200,000 each year for the next four years. "We know the site is worth it because of its extreme historical significance," Arnold said. "The Denbigh was a fast ship; it was built in 1860 and was an example of cutting-edge technology of its time." To find out more about the Denbigh, pull up its Web site at

For more information» The Denbigh Project