The Westfield was a Staten Island ferry converted into a Union navy gun boat during the American Civil War. The vessel last saw action in 1863 at the Second Battle of Galveston where it ran aground during a Confederate attack to retake the island. The charges of a purposely set explosion went off prematurely and killed a significant number of the crew. Due to the force of the explosion, and the Confederate salvage attempts that followed, the wreck site eventually became very disarticulated and scattered.
For nearly 150 years, Westfield's wreck site posed a navigation hazard to ship traffic until plans were initiated in 2009 to deepen and widen the channel to ensure the safety of commercial vessels. The remains of Westfield were recovered to ensure their preservation and 8000 artifacts from the vessel’s machinery were recovered. The artifacts are now undergoing conservation and further identification by the Conservation Research Laboratory (CRL) at Texas A&M University with help from the Automated Fabrication & Design Lab.
Ph.D. student, Justin Parkoff, of the Conservation Research Lab worked with student workers of the Automated Fabrication & Design lab to construct museum installation pieces for the Texas City Museum in order to document and display the history of the Westfield’s machinery—specifically the vessel’s boiler and bearing block. According to student worker Troy Hassmann, “conservation work was a new experience for us, but finding a solution to the CRL’s request was well within our normal line of fabrication work”.
The Boiler Student workers developed a design for the boiler reconstruction which displayed on one half the appearance of the boiler post-explosion, and on the other half the fully assembled boiler pre-explosion. The post-explosion side is composed of wire mesh with hundreds of recovered artifacts welded in place to depict the splintering explosion. The pre-explosion side is composed of wooden replications of boiler components, fabricated by the Design Lab and assembled by the CRL. This design allows the public to see a partial, theoretical reconstruction side by side with an actual reconstruction of artifacts with all the disarticulated, damaged pieces recovered from the shipwreck.
The Bearing Block Reconstruction of the bearing block presented another challenge for the Design Lab because they had to determine how to support the over one-thousand-pound artifact, which was now very corroded after its time spent underwater. Originally the bearing block would have been supported on wooden members, but its current weak state would not allow for such a reconstruction. Therefore, student workers designed a self-supporting steel A-frame with a custom support plate to stabilize the bearing block on display in the museum. The frame itself is not visible to the public eye because it is covered by faux beams in order to imitate and portray the original design.
The aim of these two projects is that the public will be able to observe what happened to the Westfield on that historic day in 1863, as well as learn and understand the mechanical makeup of nautical technology of the era. The student workers of the automated Fabrication & Design Lab are hopeful that visitors to the Texas City Museum will learn as much as they did from their own introduction to nautical archeology and this incredible Civil War vessel.