Bottoms Up! SS Selma and Prohibition

Galveston’s most notable marine “eyesore”, the ferro-concrete tanker Selma, has resided in the bay for almost 90 years. During this time the derelict steamer has had many uses, including the disposal of confiscated prohibition liquor.

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Photos by Amy Borgens, 2007.

The massive 431-ft long tanker was launched from Mobile on June 29, 1919 and at the time was considered one of the two largest concrete ships in the world. Selma was manufactured during the waning years of WWI at a time when steel was in short supply and oil cargo-carrying vessels were desperately needed. Selma was one of twelve vessels ordered by the US Shipping Board to fill this deficit. The construction of Selma was estimated to cost $3,000,000 and required 2,660 cubic yards of concrete and 1,550 tons of smooth steel bars. In May 1920 Selma was damaged when she ran aground on the South Jetty at Tampico, Mexico. The tanker was towed to Galveston and would inevitably be moved from pier to pier until she was eventually deemed irreparable and deliberately “sunk” at her current location on the east side of Pelican Island in 1922.

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The tanker had an “illustrious” second career serving as, among other things, a storage for explosives in 1926 and also as a work staging area by Oil Exploration Company in 1928 (local residents complained Selma was an eyesore and suggested using the dynamite on the vessel). A most interesting side note on Selma was the use of the steamer for the disposal of bootleg liquor confiscated by U.S. Customs Inspectors during the Prohibition. Galveston’s strategic location made it ideal as a major entry point for smuggled liquor. Two groups of bootleggers emerged at Galveston during this period that Federal agents concluded formed the major smuggling ring on the Western Gulf Coast. On four occasions Selma was used for the destruction of seized liquor cargoes, the last two “parties” occurred in the fall of 1926. On September 29 over 11,000 bottles of liquor, estimated to value $91,000 (street value), were taken from the appraiser’s store to pier 22 where they were transported by barge to Selma and broken up in the vessel’s hold. The following week, the contraband cargos of the vessels Island Home and Rosalie M. were also transferred to Selma for destruction. The combined cargos from the two vessels amounted to approximately 2000 cases of liquor worth almost $120,000. The total street value of all the liquor destroyed on Selma was nearly $1,000,000 and excluded all the liquor returned to Havana.

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– Amy Borgens

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