La Belle is one of the most renowned ships in history. It pertained to Robert de La Salle, a French explorer who explored the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mississippi River. La Belle was used when he explored the Gulf of Mexico in 1685. The explorer wanted to start a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River. However, he did not have any lock, as La Belle was wrecked in present-day Matagorda Bay the following year.
For over three centuries, La Belle remained mired in mud on the bottom of the ocean. However, it was never forgotten, as archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission (THC) never stopped searching for the wrecked ship. After years of unsuccessful searching, a group of archaeologists finally found the long lost ship in 1996. The crew discovered one of the ship’s cannons, an elaborately inscribed gun that confirmed the identity and age of the wreck.
The team of archaeologists spent months diving on the wreckage, documenting its extent and condition, and recovering several artifacts. However, the historical significance of the wreck was too high for it to be left there. Also, the dark waters of the bay made it hard for divers to dive back and forth, since they had limited visibility. That is when the THC made the decision of constructing a cofferdam around the wreck site.
A cofferdam is a type of watertight construction designed to facilitate construction projects in areas which are normally submerged, such as bridges and piers. Such a construction is typically installed in the work area and water is pumped out in order to expose the bed of the body of the water, so that workers can construct structural supports, enact repairs, or perform other types of work in a dry environment.
The cofferdam built around La Belle was one of the most extraordinary engineering feats ever associated with an archaeological excavation in the state of Texas or anywhere else in the world for that matter. The double-walled cofferdam was built in 1996, the project reaching a total cost of about $2 million. The cofferdam was a double-walled steel structure, with compacted sand between the two walls, surrounding the entire wreck.
The construction of the cofferdam was completed in September 1996 and it allowed archaeologists to pump out the water in order to expose the ship to air for the first time in centuries. The construction of this cofferdam also allowed them to excavate the ship almost as if they were on dry land. The 9-month excavation led to some astonishing results. In fact, this is considered to be an unprecedented excavation, one of the most significant maritime archaeological excavations in history.
The excavation revealed over a million artifacts that were later conserved and cataloged, such as wooden boxes jammed with trade goods, muskets and munitions, dishes, tools to support a variety of trades, cannons, yards of rope, and many more. And it’s all because of an exceptionally built cofferdam. Most of these artifacts were found in a remarkably good condition and are now put on display in Texas museums, most of them being housed by the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
Regarding its ownership, many negotiations were made with the French, which claimed the ownership of la Belle. After several years, the official title to the wreck was given to the Musee national de la Marine in Paris, following a 2003 agreement.