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Katrina trees will get new life on historic ship

Downed live oaks will live on at Mystic Seaport

By Marsha Walton

A live oak tree uprooted by Hurricane Katrina will be cut up and used to restore an historic wooden ship.




-- Built by Jethro and Zachariah Hillman in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

-- Gross tonnage: 351

-- Length: 106 feet 5 inches

-- Average crew: 35 including captain

-- Launched: July 21, 1841

-- First voyage: September 6, 1841

-- Most voyages lasted between one and five years.

-- 37 voyages in 80 years. Port calls included Central America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

-- An onboard "store" sold boots, jackets, hats, tobacco and other supplies.

-- Some of the food supplies onboard: beef, bacon, ham, flour, beef tongue.

-- Charles W. Morgan managed 10 whaling ships, a candleworks, and invested in textile and paper mills, ironworks, coal mines, railroads, banks, and insurance companies.

Source: Mystic Seaport

start quoteJournal of the voyage to the Pacific Ocean in the ship Charles W. Morgan, Thomas Master, September 16th, 1841. May kind Neptune protect us with pleasant gales, and may we be successful in catching sperm whales.end quote
-- From an entry in the ship's first log book


Ship building

MYSTIC, Connecticut (CNN) -- Live oak trees, many more than 100 years old, are connecting residents of storm-ravaged Mississippi and experts at Mystic Seaport, a Connecticut maritime museum.

Hurricane Katrina uprooted hundreds of live oaks, but the trees will not go to waste. They'll be used in the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, one of the last wooden whaling ships in the world. The Morgan was built in 1841 and made 37 voyages before retiring in 1921.

Jim and Peggy Romain are donating trees uprooted from their Long Beach, Mississippi, property. They lost everything in the hurricane.

"The trees they are taking to Mystic have to be at least 200 years old, huge, and just beautiful. They all have that character. Now they're going to Mystic, which I'm really happy about," Peggy Romain said.

"I was in tears, just thrilled that such a beautiful living thing was going to have a second life," Jim Romain said.

Four generations of Jim and Laura Currie's family enjoyed the live oaks on their property in Pass Christian, Mississippi. (Watch as live oaks are cut up and used to restore the Charles W. Morgan -- 4:56)

Jim Currie's grandfather built a house under the live oaks in 1923.

"There was always a rope swing hanging off it. It was a great place to put a hammock in the summertime, and lie around in the shade," Jim Currie said.

"It was wonderful to hear that something good was going to be done with the trees, instead of just having them rot on the ground," Laura Currie said.

A friend told the Curries about Mystic Seaport's efforts to collect hundreds of tons of the stately trees.

"Live oak in the age of wooden ships was the best available ship timber; it is strong and dense and more importantly it grows in gentle curves that are almost analogous to the frames in a ship's structure. So it's really excellent material for shipbuilding," said Quentin Snediker, shipyard director at Mystic Seaport.

"The fact that we are able to salvage the material from the storm brings a little bit of good in light of the terrible human tragedy," he said.

During the past three months, Snediker has personally supervised the retrieval of many of the trees in Biloxi, Long Beach, and Pass Christian, Mississippi. He and arborist Brian Capo checked the health of the downed trees, to make sure there was no major rot or termite damage. More than 30 truckloads have made it to a storage area on the Mystic Seaport property.

"It's a small compensation, but many of the landowners feel some reward in the fact that the trees that are so beloved and so much a part of the cultural heritage of the region will find new life in our ships," he said.

Some of the salvaged trees spent nearly 200 years shading Beauvoir, the Biloxi home and now the museum of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

While many of Davis' historical papers were moved to safety before the hurricane, several buildings on the Beauvoir property, built in 1852, sustained serious damage. In spite of their own reconstruction needs, the museum was quick to offer its downed trees when they learned of the Mystic Seaport project.

"Non-profit entities are always looking for ways to assist one another with their special projects," said Patrick Hotard, director of Beauvoir.

"This is just a wonderful use of wood from the Jeff Davis property to help preserve the old sailing vessels that are part of our national heritage," he said.

Snediker had collected live oaks damaged by earlier hurricanes. Wood from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was used to build a re-creation of the schooner Amistad. Damaged trees from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 were collected for the Morgan project.

But with the vast loss of life and human suffering from Katrina, Snediker was reluctant to ask about the trees, because so many people in the region had suffered so much.

Fortunately, the people came to him.

Several weeks after the storm, on the same day, two individuals, one from Long Beach, Mississippi, and one from Mobile, Alabama, contacted Mystic Seaport to offer trees uprooted on their property. Snediker said he knew then that the tree owners, who felt so helpless about so many aspects of the hurricane rebuilding effort, felt a "new life" for their beloved live oaks brought something positive out of the tragedy.

On his first trip to the Gulf coast after the storm, four women stopped to talk as he was spraying the word "SAVE" in orange paint on some downed live oaks.

The women all agreed to give the trees from their own demolished properties.

"Despite the fact that they had lost all of their worldly possessions, their automobiles, they were just really almost giddy at the fact that we were preserving the trees that had ... defined their experience living down there for so long," Snediker said.

The restoration of the Morgan will begin in the fall of 2007, and is expected to take about three years. This wood will be used to rebuild parts of the frame, and the stern and stem posts.

Workers at Mystic Seaport milled the first of about 200 Katrina live oaks on February 16, using the facility's still robust 1927 sawmill. The density of this type of tree can take a toll on equipment, so preparatory work has begun well ahead of time. Live oak weighs about 75 pounds a cubic foot.

The restoration process is a painstaking one for shipwrights and other skilled workers. It is expected to cost about $3.5 million.

"It takes a lot longer to do preservation work than to build a new ship, and that accounts for the fact that our project will take 30 months to complete when it only took eight months to build the ship originally," Snediker said.

Visitors to the 75-year-old seaport museum will be able to watch the restoration process as it unfolds. And Snediker says that scraps of the trees too small to be used in the restoration will likely be turned into small mementos honoring the donations from Gulf Coast residents.

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