Drought Unveils World War I Shipwreck in Texas River

The Neches River in southeast Texas has been hit by a severe drought that has exposed the remains of a World War I shipwreck. A local man, Bill Milner, discovered the wooden vessel while jet skiing on the river earlier this month.

A Historic Find

Milner, who grew up on the river, was curious about what he saw and took 250 photos and videos of the wreck. He then contacted the Ice House Museum in Silsbee, Texas, to share his findings. The museum posted some of his images on Facebook and alerted the Texas Historical Commission.

Drought Unveils World War I Shipwreck in Texas River
Drought Unveils World War I Shipwreck in Texas River

“I wanted to document to make sure I could share it with someone who may have more expertise than me,” Milner told KBMT, a local TV station. “I could tell it was a really large vessel.”

The commission’s state marine archaeologist, Amy Borgens, was able to identify the wreck as one of the emergency merchant vessels built by the United States during World War I. The ships were part of a massive effort to replace a diminished fleet and transport troops and supplies to Europe.

“There were actually nine shipyards in Texas that were building these ships under government contracts, and five of these were in Beaumont,” Borgens told the Texas Standard.

A Forgotten Fleet

According to the Library of Congress, the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) was established by Congress in April 1917, shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany. The EFC was responsible for acquiring, maintaining and operating merchant ships for the war effort.

In addition to Beaumont, the Texas cities of Orange, Houston and Rockport served as shipbuilding centers during World War I. The commission said on Facebook that more than 300 ships were built in Texas during that period.

However, when the war ended, many EFC vessels remained unfinished and were either sold for scrap material or turned into barges. In Texas, some were simply abandoned in the Neches River near Beaumont and the Sabine River near Orange. The commission knows of at least a dozen such wrecks that remain on the bottom of the Neches River in the region.

A Threatened Heritage

The wreck that Milner found is not always visible, as it depends on the water level of the river. The Neches River, which flows southeast from Van Zandt County to meet the Sabine River at Sabine Lake near Port Arthur, is currently experiencing an exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“It’s down a lot,” Michael Banks, co-chairman of Friends of the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge, an advocacy group, told the Austin American-Statesman. “We usually get 50 inches of rain a year. There’s still water in the river, and it’s still flowing. But a lot lower than usual. And of course, in a few months it should be overflowing again.”

The low water level has revealed not only Milner’s discovery, but also other sunken ships in the area. The commission conducted a sonar survey of five miles of the Neches River in 2019 and documented several wrecks.

The experts are concerned about the preservation and protection of these historic vessels, as they are vulnerable to vandalism and looting when exposed.

“As long as [the wreck is] out of water, anybody could see it,” Susan Kilcrease, curator of the Ice House Museum, told the Houston Chronicle. “We were scared to death they were going to be destroyed or looted. People were making comments about how parts of it would make a great fireplace mantel.”

The commission is working with local authorities and landowners to monitor and safeguard the wrecks. They are also encouraging the public to report any sightings or disturbances of these sites.

“These vessels are important reminders of Texas’ contribution to U.S. maritime history and should be respected as historic properties,” Borgens said in a press release.

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