What a low river does is to let you see history.

Down a gravel road partially overgrown with grass, obscured by a line of trees and across from a sandy bank, another ship wreck has emerged from the low waters of the Mississippi River this fall. Unlike the Brookhill ferry that sank in 1915 in Baton Rouge or the previously unknown Aaron’s Shipwreck, now named after the 11-year-old who recently found it, this rediscovery in Donaldsonville hasn’t inspired moments of curiosity and wonder for everyone. It has brought back memories many in town would rather have left forgotten under the Big Muddy’s waters — l’affaire Le Pelican. Le Pelican, the modern-day replica of a 17th century, three-masted wooden sailing battleship once captained by French explorer Sieur d’Iberville, sank over an hour between 11 a.m. and noon on March 20, 2004, along the city’s riverbank. The loss of the ship also sank plans to turn the vessel into a $2 million per year tourist attraction and the centerpiece of a riverfront redevelopment around Donaldsonville’s historic downtown. The sinking, the cause of which remains unclear, was the second time the 165-foot tall, steel-hulled ship had gone under since the city agreed to buy it from the Fort Butler Historical Foundation for $55,000 in mid-2002.

The ship was bought and moved to nearer to the town and promptly sunk again.

City officials spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard-fought insurance proceeds and 11 months to raise the ship from its first sinking location downriver near the Sunshine Bridge — only to see Le Pelican sink again at its new mooring spot closer to the city. Recriminations followed for years afterward about the ship’s snake-bit fortunes, the wisdom of the financially risky concept, and the costly efforts to keep the Le Pelican going after it sank the first time. “Whoever heard of a ship sinking twice?” the now deceased Margaret “Teapot” Bonadona, then a member of the Donaldsonville’s commission council, said in the weeks after the second sinking. “We are not the smartest council in the world, but I can tell you we have the worst freaking luck. I was in love with the project then, and I’m in love with it now, but we are not going to put any more taxpayer money into that ship.” Even before it sank, the replica Le Pelican required a significant investment of taxpayer money. And it had not previously proven to be a lucrative draw for visitors in other locations, earning the moniker of “L’Albatross” from one of the ship’s pre-Donaldsonville handlers.

The ship was a long way from home as her original port was Quebec City.

Originally moored along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec in the early 1990s, Le Pelican attracted visitors but didn’t make it financially due to high maintenance costs in harsh Canadian winters. Later, the vessel, which cost a reported $15 million to build in the 1980s, was sent to Louisiana but couldn’t get off ground in the New Orleans area. It was parked for several years in the Harvey and Industrial canals and restored. Le Pelican was eventually towed to Donaldsonville in 2002. Though Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville was the founder of France’s Louisiana colony and named Donaldsonville’s Bayou Lafourche, the ship itself also had no historic connection to the city. The original Le Pelican was known for a sea battle on Hudson Bay, Canada; it sank in a storm shortly afterwards. Brent Landry, a current city councilman and onetime backer of the plan, said the idea was to use the ship as a way to tell the story of Sieur d’Iberville and draw attention to nearby Civl War-era Fort Butler and the city’s other history.

The Mayor is on the hot seat to explain the sinking.

Since the Le Pelican went under the second time, it’s been left to Mayor Sullivan to answer questions. As a councilman, Sullivan had been opposed to the idea initially, he said, but voted to buy the ship after he became convinced grants and other outside funding could make the project work. The day before Le Pelican sank the second time in 2004, he had been inaugurated into his first term as mayor. The responsibilities of office came quickly. A councilman at the time had called him on that Saturday morning and asked him, “‘What you are going to do with your boat,'” Sullivan recalled. Out of town in Baton Rouge, Sullivan learned then that Le Pelican had sunk again. The councilman told him it was up to the mayor to face the inevitable questions from the media in town. “‘You’re the mayor. You gotta talk to them,'” Sullivan recalled he was told. “So, I was like alright, less than 24 hours in office.”

The insurance money had already been spent so where to get some money to raise her.

With insurance proceeds spent lifting Le Pelican the first time, that money wasn’t available to do it again, Sullivan said. So, contractors anchored it closer to shore and out of maritime traffic. A few years later, a navigational buoy was installed to mark the shoreline wreck. The sailing masts that once rose above the water came down in a failed attempt to sell them for scrap. Sediment filled the ship’s hull. Le Pelican receded fully under the water and from memory. Then the river levels fell, and the curving wooden sides of the ship became visible again.  Town officials suggest the ill-fated voyage of the Le Pelican isn’t the end of the story for Donaldsonville, however. The downtown revitalization plan that Le Pelican was supposed to anchor has gone on without the ship. Crescent Park has been renovated and a levee-top walking trail was built less than a quarter mile from the wreck site. And the city has restored several of its historic buildings, including the recently finished Lemann Building. There’s talk of major new industrial projects at CF Industries and at a new industrial zone north of town that could bring new jobs.

The new development is helping the businesses.

Michaelyn “Mikey” Sotile, 44, manager of Chef’s restaurant and catering operation in Donaldsonville, said her family’s business, which has been in operation 50 years, already caters to plant workers and may have to open another kitchen if these big projects happen. But Sotile also is sad the Le Pelican didn’t come together because she sees the draw it could have been. Since the ship has emerged from the water, her restaurant has had out-of-town Le Pelican sightseers stop in to eat over the past two months. “So if it would have been here, I mean how many people would have come to see it,” she asked. “Just like the Houmas House or Nottoway (Plantation) or something like that. Great tourist attractions. Great things to see.”

They could raise her but the cost to make her an attraction would be high.

A low river is turning up sunken ships
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