Labor Day weekend may be the last time for a long time that the USS Texas is open to visitors.
The historic battleship is docked near the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site in La Porte. But it won’t be there for too much longer.
The Texas needs major repairs, so sometime next year, the ship’s caretakers plan to have it hauled out of its current resting place and into a shipyard in Galveston. There, it’s scheduled to have much of its hull replaced.
It is a lot of work, but also necessary if the ship is to be saved.
First commissioned in 1914, the Texas is the last remaining U.S. battleship to sail in both World Wars, and the first to be named a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It supported Allied troops in both theaters during World War II.
It is also leaky, almost impossible to move and in need of a new home.
On average, 80,000 people visit the ship every year. But that’s not enough to make ends meet. The Texas needs to attract about 250,000 people a year to pay for its own maintenance and operation costs. That’s why its nonprofit manager, the Battleship Texas Foundation, is looking for a new permanent place to dock the ship after it’s repaired.
Right now, there are three contenders: Baytown, a small industrial community east of Houston; Beaumont, which is only in the early stages of formulating a proposal for the ship; and Galveston, which has two locations under consideration.
According to the foundation’s president and CEO, Tony Gregory, the rubric for evaluating these communities is pretty straightforward.
“We have to figure out which one is the best deal and gives us the best shot at enough revenue so that the ship pays for itself,” Gregory said.
The state of Texas still owns the ship; Gregory’s foundation manages it. For years, the Texas Legislature doled out a few million dollars here and there to pay for what were effectively Band-Aids on the ship’s hull
The Texas can take on a lot of water. Last summer, its pumps expelled over 2,000 gallons per minute. It needed a permanent fix.
So, in 2019, the Legislature gave the Battleship Texas Foundation $35 million to get it repaired once and for all – with the understanding that that was the last check the state would write.
That’s a lot of money, but it would have cost almost as much money to scrap the ship. But the repairs that money is meant for haven’t started yet.
“It’s had a number of challenges,” said Gregory.
The biggest holdup has been finding a facility that can handle a ship as big as the Texas. It’s 573 feet long, weighs over 26,000 tons, and – somehow – needs to be lifted out of the water into a dry dock so that its exterior can be replaced. There aren’t many shipyards nearby that can do that work.
“The only dry docks that could handle the ship on the Gulf Coast would be at Mobile [, Alabama] and Tampa [Bay, Florida],” Gregory said.
Towing a 109-year-old vessel across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico seemed like a bad idea. So the foundation found a shipyard in Galveston that would do the work if they could get their hands on a big enough dry dock.
Fortunately, they found one that was close enough.
“We identified a dry dock for sale in the Bahamas that had been dry-docking large cruise liners, and it had got damaged when they tried to lift too much,” Gregory said.
Provided that the dry dock can be repaired, the plan is to fix it in the Bahamas and then haul it to Galveston in the first quarter of 2022. That is, if Gregory’s contractors can take a look at it first. They haven’t been able to get to the Bahamas because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions.
Once it’s repaired and watertight again, the Texas will be hauled from the Galveston shipyard to its new home, Wwherever that ends up being. Jay Eshbach thinks it should be Baytown.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and probably the best thing to happen to Baytown in the last hundred years,” said Eshbach, who chairs the Bring the Battleship to Baytown committee.
If the foundation awarded Baytown the battleship, the plan is to dock it on Bayland Island – a city-owned piece of property that’s visible from the Fred Hartman Bridge, which is the main artery in or out of city.
“All those coming into Baytown will automatically see the battleship right there on the right-hand side as they come in,” said Eshbach.
The city’s going to build a convention center on the island, too, to go with a forthcoming Hyatt Regency Hotel.
It will cost $30 million to bring the ship to Baytown, according to city estimates. That price includes additional dredging near the island and underwater welding to cap old oil wells that would be in the ship’s footprint. But the potential tourism dollars would be worth it, Eschbach argues.
“We can’t project the economic impact, but if you’ve got 250,000 visitors coming in, that’d be phenomenal,” he said.
The other contenders have costs to consider, too, though. For Beaumont, the costs are still unknown. The city is just now starting to consider a bid for the Texas, and hasn’t evaluated the potential costs and complications.
Two proposals have been submitted from Galveston, neither of which is a perfect fit.
“The location situation with the Texas – the devil is in the details here,” said Craig Brown, Galveston’s mayor.
One of the proposed spots in Galveston is Seawolf Park – an island green space where there are already a couple of World War II-era ships on display.
Putting the Texas there would be more straightforward in terms of logistics, but foundation members are concerned that not enough people would come, since the park is off the beaten path. Its preference is to dock the ship closer to Galveston’s historic downtown. There’s more foot traffic there – but also much less parking, and less room in the harbor.
“If they really feel that that’s the site and the only site for them here in Galveston, the city, and I know the port, would really entertain their input on how they propose the parking would be handled and some of the other logistic concerns that are going on,” said Brown.
Since the Battleship Texas Foundation doesn’t particularly want to put the ship in Seawolf Park, and logistical issues are a big problem at the other location, talks between the foundation and Galveston have cooled.
It could still go there, though. When it comes to what’s next for the Texas, there’s little that’s truly certain.