“Western Empire” Shipwreck

THE WRECK PREVIOUSLY KNOWN AS THE “WESTERN EMPIRE” BOEMRE VESSEL ID NO. 359 (2003)

In the early 1980s, during a geohazard survey, an oil company survey vessel came across an anomaly on the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico during a routine pipeline survey. Thinking that this might be a shipwreck, The company informed the Minerals Management Service (MMS). The “wreck” was added to the shipwreck database, created and utilized by the MMS for cultural heritage management purposes. That anomaly was inspected by the MMS in 1999 and an analysis of the video footage was compared to known shipwrecks in the area. Based on the historical search conducted at the time, the “Western Empire”, a Canadian ship built in 1862 and abandoned during a hurricane in September 18, 1875, was the only known wreck in the area, thus this site was identified as such. Historically-known length of the “Western Empire” matched the length of the archaeological find as determined by the sonar record.

In 2003, with the generous support of Deep Marine Technology, Inc. (Houston), TAMU/ProMare surveyed the wreck using an ROV and a manned submersible. The wreck is 1350ft (411.5m) deep, making its detailed documentation a technically challenging and costly project. Survey results revealed that the ship had double frames with minimal space between each frame set.

Preliminary research conducted by Josh Levin based on the video footage raised questions about the identification of the vessel as the “Western Empire.” Heavy style of construction is more often seen in wooden warships where hull strength was a necessary for both supporting the weight of cannon and providing protection from enemy attack. Another incongruity with the record of “Western Empire” in Lloyd’s Register is that the ship was registered as having last been sheathed in 1870 (LR 1874), but neither planking nor sheathing could be seen in the video. Finally, the absence of any visible cargo contradicted the identification of the site as the “Western Empire” that had a cargo of timber at the time it was abandoned.

In 2009, additional research conducted by Dr. Chris Horrell, from the MMA, discovered an additional document: in October 1875 a newspaper from Galveston, Texas, reported that a schooner captain saw the Western Empire in the Gulf: “mizzen mast standing, signal flag flying in mizzen rigging, fore and main masts lying alongside, both anchors hanging under her bow.” Following this thread, Dr Horrell was able to locate another newspaper from Pensacola, Florida, that reported (November 1875) that “the abandoned ship has been found, after making a voyage of more than five hundred miles without a hand at her helm…. caught in the reflux current… the masterless ship drifted with the influence of the gulf stream . . . swept through the straits of Florida and on toward the Atlantic until she was discovered 30 miles north of Jupiter inlet, swinging to an anchor.” Other documents located by Dr. Horrell established that the ship was salvaged in 1875 by Benjamin Baker, a wrecker near Key Largo, Florida.

Thus, while it certainly is not the Western Empire, the shipwreck studied in detail by Josh Levin is possibly a naval ship that may have been used as a merchant vessel at the time of its wrecking. The double framing is consistent with the mid-19th century construction techniques, and the wreck remains to be identified possibly after further data can be collected from the site. This wreck is now referred to as the BOEMRE Vessel ID No. 359, until further work is conducted for its identification. Bibliography below provides detailed information about the present state of research about this shipwreck.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON THE “WESTERN EMPIRE”

1. [Article based on Chris Horrell’s paper “The British Merchant Ship Western Empire: A Lesson from the Archives,” presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in York, England, in 2005, and under peer review for publication in Historic Archaeology.]
Christopher Horrell, “The Hunt for the Real Western Empire,” in MMS Ocean Science, Volume 6 Issue 1 (January/February/March 2009) pp. 12-15.

2. Joshua Aaron Levin, “Western empire: The Deep Water Wreck of a Mid-Nineteenth Century Wooden Sailing Ship,” MA Thesis submitted to TAMU Nautical Archaeology Program. 2006.