Shipwreck On The Neches
All photos and videos taken by Bill Milner
A major drought was impacting water levels on the Neches River In July-August of 2023. The Icehouse Museum began a Facebook discussion on what individuals were seeing in the river as a result. With the river being at an historic low, our River people have been out in force searching for steamboats and the like. Numerous seasoned men who had intimate knowledge of the Neches River reported back with fascinating finds. On August 16, reader Bill Milner, a life-long area resident and river expert made a startling discovery. He found FIVE wrecks of very old wooden ships of a length of over 100 feet. They appeared to have a hefty double hull, with an outside wall connected to an inside wall with cast iron spikes, that are from 2 to 3 feet long and about 1 to 2 inches thick. These boats were found in a range of between knee deep water extending to depths where they could not be seen. The boats were partially visible to the naked eye from the surface in the extreme low condition of the river, and some pieces were above water. It was only by accident he found them--he was on his jet ski in an area too low for a boat when he hit something. He then spent the next three hours investigating and taking 250 detailed photos and videos and brought the photos to the Ice House Museum. The museumI contacted the Marine Archaeologist from The Texas Historical Commission and spoke with the top state shipwreck expert, Amy Borgens.
The amazing story of these shipwrecks began in WWI, when German submarines were making more than a little headway sinking US merchant ships in the Atlantic. There was a grave concern that the loss of these merchant ships would seriously impede their ability to get materials for the war, as well as food and other commodities needed by the American people. So, in 1917, Congress, with a "blank check" mentality of war, set aside $50 million dollars to "build a ship bridge to Europe" by building 2500 wooden ships-- almost a Billion dollars today! (878,422,414)
The price tag of this project caused an outrage among taxpayers, and as a result they finally settled on building 1000 ships. All of the shipyards in the country were at capacity building ships of war--20th century steel ships with internal combustion engines. It was decided by the powers that be that old-school wooden ships of the last century with steam-driven engines could be built at older, smaller shipyards. So plans were taken out of mothballs on wooden ships built as early as 1840 to become these new merchant ships. A ship designer (Ferris) was brought in who made his fame designing steamboats in the not-so-recent-past. Of course building wooden steamboats was not without controversy, but as we know, war time is often a time of poor decisions.
There were shipyards all over the US to build these EFC (Emergency Fleet Corporation) wooden ships, but a full 10% of the nation's EFC ships, or 100 ships were assigned to Beaumont with many more to Orange and Port Arthur.
Wooden ships need lumber. SE Texas was in its Timber Bonanza days when John Henry Kirby was putting out millions of board feet of lumber a day, along with other sawmills. (we will be scouring the 1000 pages of John Henry Kirby’s documents in our archives for evidence of these ships) SE Texas lumber business was in high gear and was already sending its lumber in that direction anyway. We had the seemingly unlimited stands of timber, the lumber trains, the ports, the workers--clearly Beaumont was a clear choice to build these wooden giants. Our area was flush with cash from ridiculously lucrative contracts, and the machine that was SE Texas went to work making wooden ships. And it was GREAT! For 17 months.
November 11, 1918 the war ended. Amidst the cheering and pride and ticker tape parades, they noticed a problem. What about the ships?
There were contracts and plans for 1000 ships but only 589 were complete, or partially built. The government cancelled the contracts and wished them well. The lumber was cut, the trains were loaded, the trees were being brought in, the shipbuilders’ employees were accustomed to paychecks. What could be done? After all this was wartime. The people of SE Texas knew all about the sacrifices and patriotism of wartime—they had looked at posters pasted on buildings everywhere about building EFC Wooden ships for the nation. It made them look like heros, doing their part for the war effort. So they assumed their old lives and moved forward, but Beaumont and SE Texas was seriously hurt economically.
But what about those ships? I’m sure they were pretty for awhile sitting there in The Port of Beaumont, illustrating the strength of America and her people. After the ships had been sitting in the water for a couple of years, they seemed to remind everyone of wasted taxpayer money, plus they were really in the way.
The government tried to sell them, at first for $75,000 each, not including upgrading the motors to the 20th century. Even at this price, the government was wasting millions in taxpayer money! However no one was willing to pay that for a ship that was absolutely obsolete—essentially this was a fleet of ships of the 19th century idly rotting away.
A few more years went by while the ships sat in the Port of Beaumont. By 1921 they were selling these ships for whatever they could get! Finally in 1921, a shipbuilder from New Yok offered $21,000 for the remaining 26 ships that had cost the government $10 million. At least they would not be in Beaumont anymore, reminding people of things they had rather forget.
However, 2 more years went by and they were still there. A number of things happened after that, but the bottom line was that Beaumont was stuck with these ships, taking up space in the Port of Beaumont. They decided to spread the ships out by putting some of them north of Beaumont in the Neches River and let salvagers get what they could from the iron and timber. Can you imagine 7 of these foot-ball field length ships lined up together as you boated up the Neches? It happened!
In 1925, something amazing began to happen. All over the USA, these ships began to catch fire! Oh there were explanations, torches and such as that, but it is a bit strange on such a large scale. On December 1, 1924, as reported in the Beaumont Enterprise, 6 ships caught fire north of Beaumont on the Neches and burned to the waterline. Nature eventually claimed them to the river bottom. It is possible that the 5 ships found by Bill Milner and reported to the museum could be them. Then three months later, on February 22, 1925 the Beaumont Enterprise reported another 7 ships on fire north of Beaumont that also burned to the waterline.
Later that year, on November 25, 1925 three more of these wooden ships caught fire just north of what is now the Interstate 10 Bridge in Beaumont. The newspaper reported this fire as a “spectacular crimson sky, with silhouettes of Cypress trees in front of it”. One of the ships broke free, and the 260 foot, 3 story fire slowly flowed with the current toward the brand new wooden bridge just as it started getting dark. They stopped the Model T’s and trucks at the edge of the wooden bridge while the Fire Department furiously pumped gallons of water on the ship that had wedged on a piling. It saved the bridge, but not without damage. Money was promised to repair the bridge and do something about the burned ship. But promised money often doesn’t come, and the repairs were not made. Eventually the ship sank next to the bridge. Recently it was found by Mark Underhill which started a discussion that still drifts through cyber-space. https://www.linkedin.com/.../my-drone-visits-world-war-i...
Taken one piece at a time, the stories of the individual ships is interesting. But to consider them as a group of 26 shipwrecks out there is something I don’t believe the average citizen knows—especially with their intriguing background story. So the truth of the story is, that the wrecks Bill Milner found are a part of a much bigger story, one that has been largely forgotten—possibly on purpose to forget a bad time in the lives of Beaumonters of the teens and twenties. But today, we preserve our history, when Beaumont, the Neches River, and lumber camps of SE Texas get to see that we had a big, important job to do in WW1.
Occasionally, very rarely, for just a day (the ships are underwater again) the river gets low enough to see the outlines and timbers of what was essentially a fleet of 1800’s ships built in 1917.