Mystery ship surfaces in the wake of Ike

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Debate ensues about whether it’s a remnant of the Civil War or an early 20th century lumber schooner

When Hurricane Ike carved its destructive path along the Gulf Coast last year, something unexpected was dredged up near the shores of Fort Morgan, Ala.

One theory is that the wreck Hurricane Ike unearthed is the 135-foot schooner Rachel, launched in 1919.

The storm uncovered the remains of a mystery ship about 135 feet in length and created a bit of a stir nationwide.

“We’ve been able to see parts of it sticking up from the sand, but this is the most that’s ever been uncovered,” says Sharon Swann, editor of the Orange Beach Community Web site that broke the story last year. “Ever since the news got out, it has been hugely popular.” (The ship has since been reburied in the sand to preserve it.)

It was first thought to be a Civil War ship, a theory that has been challenged by another — that it is the three-masted schooner Rachel. “I have been looking at the ship’s blueprints, and I am 90 percent sure it is the Rachel,” says Ken De Angelo, 62, a cost analyst for the Navy and amateur boatbuilder from nearby Grand Bay, Ala. He is also the great-grandson of Rachel’s builder, Frank De Angelo.

The wreck has since been covered in sand once more for protection.

“The Rachel was just folklore to us as kids,” says De Angelo. “Dad had mentioned it, but that’s all we knew about it until my grandfather’s cousin died, and we suddenly had all this memorabilia, which included a drawing and some payroll records.”

Built in 1919 in Moss Point, Miss., Rachel was a lumber schooner designed to transport yellow pine out of the port of Pascagoula. “The Rachel was built without any power tools except a donkey boiler with a jackshaft that ran a few tools, and a wooden gantry for lifting large sections of structure,” De Angelo says, adding his great-grandfather built several large vessels but specialized in simple barges. “As far as I know, it was the largest ship he ever built — probably the largest he could fit in the small shipyard.”

The ship was ordered built by Rachel McIntosh McInnis, the daughter of Capt. John Riley Bless McIntosh, a blockade runner of some fame. She used money he left to her to complete his dream of building his own sailing ship, according to De Angelo’s research.

Rachel sat tied to the shipyard dock for three years, awaiting cargo that never came. Rachel McInnis died in 1922, and the ship was sold for the docking fees and cost of services, De Angelo says.

Rachel was built at De Angelo Shipyard in Moss Point, Mass.

On her maiden voyage in 1923, a crew of seven delivering her to new owners in South America, Rachel ran aground at Griffin’s Point off Mississippi.

The ship was refloated, a damaged

rudder was repaired, and the ill-fated voyage resumed.

Rachel was sailed into the Gulf of Mexico — and into an October hurricane — grounding a second time, at the end of a peninsula east of Mobile Bay, about five miles east of Fort Morgan, as documented in a Montgomery newspaper. Salvage was repeatedly attempted and was eventually abandoned. Several years later, she caught fire and burned to the waterline.

De Angelo dismisses speculation that the wreck is a Civil War ship, noting its “modern” characteristics. He says that if it was a Confederate ship, it likely would have had wooden dowels rather than the hundreds of steel rods drawing the planks together.

“Also, the drawing I have shows a double-ribbed structure with a 6- to 8-inch space between the ribs, which is consistent with the wreck,” he says. “There are 12- by 14-inch timbers on there that are 57 feet long; this is consistent with the large yellow pine timber from the Gulf Coast at the turn of the century.”

De Angelo says the wood that isn’t charred is still in remarkable shape, and there is a chain that leads deep into the sand. “It would be great to be able to dig that up and see if there is an anchor at the end,” says De Angelo, who visited the uncovered wreck.

“To go there and stand in the middle of [the wreck] really gives you an appreciation of the scope of the ship,” he says.

After consulting with state archaeologist Stacye Hathorn, officials for Baldwin County, on the Fort Morgan Peninsula, decided late last year to cover the wreck with wet sand, since it would be too costly to extract and preserve.

“It would cost millions,” says Hathorn. “Metal and wood need to be conserved differently, and it would have to be taken apart to be taken out of the sand, and we don’t even have a facility for something that big.”

Hathorn says the wet sand will keep the wood from drying out, while protecting the wreck from vandalism. The location of the ship will not be marked, to keep people from trying to dig her up again, according to Blankenship.

Thus, Rachel will rest undisturbed — at least until the next storm.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.