Texas live oaks to breathe new life into whaling ship

GALVESTON—For a hundred years, mighty live oaks have lined the streets of this gulf coast community.

Their sturdy trunks and gen-tly sloping branches became fi xtures on the island; signs of hope and new life repeatedly re-emerging after devastation. Submerged in a salty storm surge brought ashore last fall by Hurricane Ike, many of the once-majestic trees now are bare. But Quentin Snediker is hoping the lost hardwoods will breathe new life into a 167-year-old whaling ship.

“We recognize this is a tre-mendous loss for the commu-nity,” said Snediker, preserva-tion shipyard director at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where the Charles W. Morgan — the last surviving wooden whaling ship — is being restored. “Our intent is to honor these trees. They had a cultural impact on the region. Incorporating them into the fabric of this ship is a way of honoring the commu-nity.”

During the last few weeks, thousands of trees nestled along the island streets have been marked for removal in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Ike. Texas Forest Service has been working with the City of Galveston since shortly after the storm, assessing trees and deter-mining those that are likely to survive and those that aren’t. Now, the state agency is work-ing with Mystic Seaport and the newly-formed Galveston Tree Conservancy, helping salvage wood from some of the dead and dying trees. “Our role was navigating the different possibilities here in Galveston and working with Mystic Seaport, providing sort of a bridge between city staff and the shipyard,” said Texas Forest Service Urban Forestry Partnership Coordinator Pete Smith, who has been coordi-nating the agency’s work on the island.

The bottom framing and planking on the Morgan, now a floating museum, are being replaced as part of a three-year restoration effort. And the Galveston live oaks — about 100-years-old, with trunks up to 24-inches around and 14-feet tall and branches that form gentle, sweeping curves — are ideal replacements. “In the age of wooden ships, live oaks were sort of the pre-mier wood,” Snediker, a former ship captain, said, noting that he hopes to collect between 80 and 160 tons of the wood. “They were strong, dense and durable and rot-resistant.”

Working with communi-ties in the aftermath of natural disasters isn’t new to Snediker or Mystic Seaport. The shipyard director said the non-profit organization often tries to make use of trees that have been killed by natural disasters. Galveston, he said, already was on his radar when he began receiving calls from folks on the island.

Texas Forest Service Bayou Region Urban Forester Mickey Merritt called Snediker, as did island resident Donna Leibbert, a member of the Gal-veston Island Tree Conservan-cy. Leibbert said she fi rst heard about Mystic Seaport while talking with city offi cials from Biloxi, where hurricane dam-aged trees had been carved into public art. She didn’t know at the time how many trees Mystic Seaport might want or exactly how they would be used. But any use, she said, would be better than a landfi ll.

“I think for me it’s the old pass it forward, keep it going. Don’t just landfill it, keep it doing something useful some-where. Mystic Seaport has such a great history of old boats and the restoration of old boats, I truly can’t think of a better use for some of our wood,” Leibbert said. “If it can’t stay here in Galveston, let’s get it to a place where it can live on in a differ-ent form; useful, helpful and beautiful.”

Galveston spokeswoman Alicia Cahill said she hopes residents — many of whom were devastated by the signifi cant loss of trees on the island — can take some solace in the partnership with Mystic Seaport and the knowledge that some trees will live on and “overcome Ike.” “Galveston’s majestic oaks have found a new place in his-tory,” Cahill said. “Their value and signifi cance wasn’t entirely lost in the storm. As timbers in the restored ship they will con-tinue to be an important part of our nation’s heritage.”

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