Ike Wreckage Removal Ends

The Texas General Land Office recently announced that efforts to clean up debris left over from Hurricane Ike a year ago have ended.

Texas spent nearly $25 million to clear the beaches and bays. The state had estimated the price tag would be about $30 million, Land Office spokesman Jim Suydam said.

“That’s millions less than the initial estimates,” Patterson noted.

Sonar was used in the bays to identify more than 8,000 items of debris, including refrigerators, ambulances and yachts.

Crews working for the state agency recovered 124 boats, ranging from skiffs to 70-footers, the Galveston County Daily News reported Tuesday.

Seven sunken vessels were too large or too stuck to be hauled up whole and were demolished in place. An additional 116 recovered vessels were removed and sent to a landfill. Eight boat owners got their vessels back.

And one historic shipwreck was located, too.

Four Rescued from South Jetty Wreck

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Lucky Peter, stranded on the South Jetty Sunday afternoon.

The Houston Chronicle reports that four men were rescued from the fishing vessel Lucky Peter early Sunday morning. A witness called the Coast Guard at 3:13 a.m. after seeing a flare sent from the vessel. Coast Guard watchstanders also received a call from a relative of one of a crewmembers, confirming that the boat was taking on water.

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Coast Guard Cutter Heron, based at Sabine Pass.

An Air Station Houston MH-65C rescue helicopter crew and the Coast Guard Cutter Heron were dispatched, as well as a 47-foot rescue boat crew from Coast Guard Station Galveston. Heron rescued all four people from the fishing vessel and transferred the men to the 47-foot boat, which delivered the men to emergency workers. The owner of the has hired a salvage crew to safely remove the fishing vessel from the South Jetty.

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U.S. Coast Guard MH-65C helicopter. USCG photo.

It sounds like the Lucky Peter crew called a family member on his cell phone, rather than using the marine radio. You’d be surprised how often that happens.

– Andy Hall

Mardi Gras Wreck: U.S. Privateer Rapid?

A news story from KTRK, the ABC news affiliate in Houston, highlights artifacts from the Mardi Gras Wreck and quotes Jack Irion of the Minerals Management Service as saying that they have a strong lead on the identification of the vessel (sorry, no embed link):

[Irion] We just got a lead this morning, and it came from e-mail, from a researcher in Oklahoma, who happened to be studying privateering in the Gulf.

[Announcer] More investigation is needed, but that researcher indicated the ship may be Rapid, an American privateer sank [sic.] in November 1813, as she tried to outrun a British warship in the War of 1812.

[Irion] This little vessel came out to sea, was spotted by a British warship, the warship gave chase, the little vessel fled, got into heavy seas, and rolled over and sank when she was hit by a rouge wave.

Rapid would be the privateer Rapid of Charleston, which took at least three prizes on that voyage. Her loss is described in George Coggeshall’s History of the American Privateers, and Letters-of-marque: During Our War with England in the Years 1812, ’13, and ’14. Interspersed with Several Naval Battles Between American and British Ships-of-war, p. 159:

The Privateer Rapid, of Charleston, being chased off the Mississippi, by the British sloop-of-war Herald, was unfortunately upset. Her crew, however, were soon picked up, and saved by the boats of the enemy. They were kindly treated as prisoners of war.

I hope no civilized nation would have acted otherwise under similar circumstances.

H.M. Sloop-of-War Herald was a 20-gun “sixth rate,” ship-rigged, similar in form to a small frigate. (The French called such vessels corvettes, which term later gained general usage.) She would have overwhelmed a little schooner like Rapid in a conventional fight, so the commander of Rapid had little choice but to try to run. Herald had been built in 1806 at Littlehampton, on the Channel coast east of Portsmouth, and served initially in the Mediterranean. She was part of the Royal Navy’s Leeward Islands Station early in the War of 1812, but in May of 1813, under the command of Captain Clement Milward, transferred to the Halifax Station in Nova Scotia. During the War of 1812, it appears, Herald took at least seven prizes (not including Rapid, which foundered), including the French vessel Vengeance, loaded with wine and silks.

Milward entered the Royal Navy in 1793, at the outbreak of war with France. He received his commission as lieutenant in 1800, and commander in 1809. He became captain — or “post-captain,” as the term was at the time — when he was “made post” by being given command of Herald in 1813. It seems likely that command of Herald made Captain Milward a relatively wealthy man; as captain, he stood to claim a one-eighth share of the value of all the prizes Herald took. Herald was broken up in 1817. It appears that the Milwards were English gentry in County Wexford, on the southeast coast of Ireland, and that Captain Milward lived long enough to reach the flag rank, in retirement, as a rear admiral in 1846.

Neat story, Channel 13, but fix your damned headline — Jack et al. aren’t “treasure hunters,” ‘kay?

“Highway robbery?” Puh-leeze. . . .

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I wasn’t going to waste a lot of extra time hammering on Nathan Smith, the National Treasure-inspired California musician who’s suing in federal court to dig up what he believes is a $3B shipwreck near Copano Bay. After all, there are a lot of folks who have dreams of finding buried treasure. Everybody likes a good treasure story, and many, many people get sucked into such tales in a big way. There’s something incredibly appealing about the notion of discovering a hidden clue, figuring out an obscure reference, the final piece of the puzzle, that leads one to a fantastic treasure that’s been lying around under everyone else’s nose for generations. If Mr. Smith carries his particular version of this daydream a little farther than most, then that’s his prerogative.

But this whinery is silly:

The Texas Historical Commission this week filed notice that it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to let it into a lawsuit over who has legal claim to what might be a shipwreck buried 160 miles southwest of Houston, near the Mission River in Refugio County.

“It’s like highway robbery,” Internet treasure hunter Nathan Smith complained Wednesday of the state trying to take away his possible $3 billion claim two years after he filed the lawsuit.

“Highway robbery?” No, this is highway robbery. This is a matter of law, and in this case, it’s one that’s been on the books in Texas since the late 1960s, most recently amended in 1997, and backed by the federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, that transfers title of abandoned wrecks to the states in whose waters they lie.

Of course, Mr. Smith is now playing the victim, making himself look like the little guy being hounded by the big, bad, oppressive state, when in fact, it was Smith himself who was on the wrong side of the law to begin with. I appreciate that, to the casual observer, the state’s entering the case at this point looks bad, but regardless of the timing, both state and federal law are clearly behind the Historical Commission. As I argued almost three months ago, Smith has no actionable claim to anything that may be there. The THC is right; he’s wrong.

Does anyone remember what actually happened to the historic shipwreck in National Treasure?

But regardless, Mr. Smith is still good for a quote:

“I’m into this Google thing. I want to try to bring one in. Let’s finish the story,” said Smith, who said he sometimes uses Google Earth to make sure no one else is digging on his spot.

Pssst.! You do know that Google Earth’s not real-time, right?

– Andy Hall

P.S.: I note that I’m not the only one who finds Mr. Smith’s methodology dubious. “Google-eyed adventure, avarice, and advocacy?” Ouch.

The Power of Ike

I hadn’t planned to add anything else about the tanker SKS Satilla strinking a submerged drilling platform, but this graphic, courtesy of the Houston Chronicle, caught my eye:
Ensco 74 rig and SKS Satilla

Wow. One hundred fifteen statute miles — one hundred nautical miles — is roughly the distance from D.C. to Philadelphia, or from Rome to Naples. Damn.
– Andy Hall

Ike Uncovers Historic Shipwreck

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The Beaumont Enterprise carried an interesting piece Monday on a wreck located in the wake of Hurricane Ike:

The post-Ike sonar operation is likely the most extensive ever undertaken in the Galveston Bay area.

In the past, smaller areas have been surveyed for different projects, such as pipelines, to ensure that the work won’t disturb any significant sites, Hoyt said.

“This is the first time I know there’s been such widespread coverage,” he added.

When the Texas Historic Commission finds out about a “new” historic ship wreck site, personnel begin to comb through a database of thousands of shipwrecks known to have occurred in the region.

“Most wrecks in the database, we don’t know where they are – we only know of them through historic records,” he said.

Hoyt wouldn’t say what ships he thought the sonar scanners’ find might be.

“We’re looking at several,” he said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate to say till we have a better idea.”

– Andy Hall (h/t to Maritime Texas contributor Ed Cotham)

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

Thanks So Much, Nicholas Cage

A California musician apparently caught the treasure-hunting bug from the National Treasure films, and claims to have used Google Earth to locate a treasure ship in south Texas, in Refugio County:

Trying to bankroll his art by becoming a treasure hunter like Cage’s movie character also led Smith to the witness stand Monday in Houston’s federal courthouse, where he testified in his quest to get U.S. District Judge David Hittner to order that he has title to a shipwreck he says is buried under muck near the Mission River. . . .

“I’ve been seeking the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine, the Franklin Mountains treasure, Jesse James’ buried treasure, Belle Starr’s iron door, the Lost Peg Leg gold and numerous others,” testified Smith. He said his three years of treasure hunting have not yielded any treasure. “Most of these are in very secluded places and very dangerous,” he said.

Smith, who testified that he’s played with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and Mick Fleetwood, said he thinks he’s found the James loot in Oklahoma. But he said he also thinks there is a death trap in the form of a teetering rock half the size of the courtroom just outside the entrance. . . .

“Where we walked, your honor, there was gold, there was silver. When you step off that area, you got nothing,” said Smith about the metal detector results. He estimates the treasure to be worth $3 billion.

Not much to say about the merits of the plaintiff’s case (well, nothing that’s not hopelessly snarky), but this part of the story is just wrong:

If it’s navigable waters, the first person to find abandoned booty can ask the federal courts and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permission to retrieve it.

Um, no. This is presumably what the plaintiff’s arguing, but it’s wrong. The Corps of Engineers has little or no authority over this (alleged) shipwreck. It’s clearly outside of any maintained commercial waterway. The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 transfers title of abandoned wrecks to the states in whose waters they lie. While there’s some contention whether this particular site is in the creek or under privately-owned land, if it’s in the water, it’s the responsibility of the state. And under Texas law, it’s a protected archaeological site. So either it belongs to the private landowners, or to the state. In either case, the answer is “no.”

It’s not mentioned in the story, but the late Marie O’Connor Sorenson, on whose property this alleged wreck may lie, was a major supporter of historical projects in the Coastal Bend, and a big donor to the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport. So it’s not as if there’s no appreciation of maritime history on that side of the case.

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Tuesday afternoon update: X marks the spot:

Treasure hunter Nathan Smith testified today that he not only used Google to spot a buried treasure in South Texas but he also checks updated satellite images to monitor whether anyone else is snooping around the possible loot. . . .

The spot Smith found on Google looks something like a shoe print. He has testified there is an actual “X” visible there which he thinks is part of the ship’s capstan — a part used for weighing anchor or raising sails.

The judge in the case, David Hittner, is expected to make his ruling at a later date.

– Andy Hall

This Guy Knew All About the Caney Creek Wreck

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Pilot’s license issued to Martin Reynolds, December 11, 1876 (3.8MB).

South of Bay City in Matagorda County, in Caney Creek, there’s a sunken sternwheel steamboat. It’s a remarkably well-preserved site, with all the boat’s machinery intact. (That’s quite rare in riverboat wrecks.) But despite 15+ years of (admittedly intermittent) study, the identity of the Caney Creek Wreck remains elusive. Everyone in the county knows it’s there — everyone in the area, it seems, has a not-too-bright brother-in-law who’s hit it with his bass boat — but the name of the steamboat and how it came to be there has been lost in the collective memory of the community.

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Divers working at Caney Creek Wreck site in 2005. The water tastes as bad as it looks.

Several of Maritime Texas‘ contributors have spent considerable effort over the years recording, analyzing and researching this wreck, most notably Layne Hedrick, who wrote his masters thesis at Texas A&M on the subject.

Which brings us to Martin Reynolds. Years ago, my old friend Randy Jones gave me this pilot’s license (top), issued at Galveston, to Captain Reynolds. This license is a copy (Issue No. 2), issued in December 1876 for operations “on the waters of Pass Cavallo Bar and Matagorda Bay,” to the “head of navigation of the tributaries of Matagorda Bay.” This latter clause included Caney Creek, which at the time was connected to Matagorda Bay by a short canal. If, as seems likely, the Caney Creek Wreck dates from the years before 1875, then Captain Reynolds must have been intimately familiar with this wreck, which likely was the de facto “head of navigation” on the creek — at least for large commercial vessels.

Pilot’s licenses were fundamentally different from masters’ licenses (i.e., to command a seagoing vessel); while the latter required a thorough knowledge of seamanship generally, a pilot’s license required very specific and detailed local knowledge. A pilot had to not only be a good seaman, but also had to demonstrate a complete knowledge of the intricacies of navigating a specific set of waters. The pilot’s license only covered a limited geographic area. He — or she, in a few cases — had to know which shoals were exposed when the wind blew in a certain direction, how the tide would set around an island in the bay, and where were hidden obstructions that, although invisible to the casual eye, could impale and sink a wooden-hulled boat in minutes. All this knowledge was learned by experience; as Mark Twain described in his classic Life on the Mississippi, it was a demanding and intensive apprenticeship. Captain Reynolds would, inevitably, not only have known the navigational hazard created by the Caney Creek Wreck, but undoubtedly as well knew many people in the area with first-hand knowledge of the boat and the circumstances that left it at the bottom of the creek, miles inland from Matagorda Bay.

I don’t know much else about Captain Reynolds; his name doesn’t turn up in published works. It’s entirely possible that Captain Reynolds only worked actively for a short time in the area. Inland steam navigation was settling into a long, slow decline in the 1870s, as railroads expanded rapidly, siphoning off the passenger- and express cargo trade and (notably on the Brazos) setting up actual physical barriers to steamboats in the form of rail trestles. On Matagorda Bay, in particular, the main seaport of Indianola had been devastated by a hurricane the previous year, in 1875. (It would be leveled again, this time for good, in 1886.) The prospects for a licensed steamboat pilot on Matagorda Bay in late 1876 were not especially bright, and getting dimmer. Did Captain Reynolds decide to move on to learn the banks, sandbars and currents of some other area? Perhaps he died soon after, or retired for some other reason. Or is there a trove of historical information on Captain Reynolds still out there, waiting  to be found?

Sure would like to know. But even more, I’d like to sit down with Captain Reynolds for a few minutes and ask, “so what’s the deal with that wreck up on Caney Creek?”

– Andy Hall