Drought reveals shipwreck graveyard in Texas river, photos show. How’d they get there?

A man riding a Jet Ski along a drought-stricken Texas river recently stumbled across a graveyard of shipwrecks, photos show.

Normally hidden under the Neches River’s murky water, the hulking wooden remnants of the forgotten ships can be seen from the surface, photos shared on Aug. 19 to Facebook by the Ice House Museum show.

Parts of the wreckage came to rest in water that’s now only knee-deep, while much more is sunken deeper, still out of sight despite the ongoing drought, the Silsbee-based museum said in a post.

A local man, Bill Milner, made the discovery on an undisclosed stretch of the Neches River in Jasper County, the post said.

“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,” the museum said.

The ships appeared to be of sturdy construction, measuring at least 100 feet long, according to the museum, and there were several of them clustered near each other.

The mysterious shipwrecks quickly caught attention, and many offered their own theories of what they could have been and where they came from.

Perhaps an old Spanish vessel, one commenter suggested. Or a long lost pirate ship, said another.

“It could possibly could be a steamboat, but it is definitely a very large, very old wooden vessel, and there are FIVE of these vessels,” a post read. “They are … stuck in the river bottom and silted over and extend into the bank.”

The museum reached out to the Texas Historical Commission for its expertise.

A view of two abandoned WWI vessels in the Neches River captured by sonar in 2019.
A view of two abandoned WWI vessels in the Neches River captured by sonar in 2019.

The ships were constructed over 100 years ago as part of an emergency effort during World War I, the commission said in an Aug. 24 news release. But when the war ended, the ships were largely abandoned, then forgotten.

“Altogether nearly 40 wooden-hulled vessels, formerly operated by the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), are in east Texas rivers, comprising one of the largest collections of WWI vessel abandonment sites in the United States,” the commission said.

While many in the area may have forgotten about the ships, the commission re-discovered them during surveys in the early 2000s, the post said.

“The large wooden hulls, designed as steamships, were of the Ferris type and nearly 282 ft. long when constructed,” according to the commission. “The unutilized vessels were eventually abandoned in the Neches River and in Sabine River near Orange in the 1920s.”

The ships never saw action and were outdated, even by the standards of the 1910s and 20s, the Ice House Museum said. As such, the government could find little use for them and struggled to sell them, even at fire sale prices.

“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,” the museum said. “It is possible that the 5 ships found by Bill Milner and reported to the museum could be them.”

Officials discourage the public from seeking out wreckages, as they can be dangerous, and disturbing them may break federal and state laws.

“If you encounter these wrecks or other unknown underwater wreckage, play it safe and leave it alone,” the Texas Historical Commission said.

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