Drought in Texas Reveals World War I Shipwreck

A local man happened upon the wreckage while jet skiing earlier this month

Piece of wooden shipwreck under slightly murky brown water
Bill Milner was jet skiing along the Neches River when he ran into something that turned out to be a World War I shipwreck. Bill Milner / icehousemuseum.org

Plagued by scorching temperatures and drought, the Neches River in southeast Texas has revealed the remains of a World War I shipwreck.

The man who stumbled upon it, Bill Milner, was jet skiing on the river when he ran into something. He looked down and saw the remains of what appeared to be a large wooden boat. Milner took 250 photos and videos, then got in touch with the experts at the Ice House Museum in Silsbee, Texas.

“I wanted to document to make sure I could share it with someone who may have more expertise than me,” says Milner, who grew up on the river, to Lupita Villarreal and Gloria Walker of KBMT, a local TV station. “I could tell it was a really large vessel.”

Experts have known about the wreck—which actually includes the ruins of several vessels—for years. But now that parts of it are visible, they’re worried about its safety.

Remains of shipwreck underwater from above
The recently discovered shipwreck is one of dozens of abandoned vessels built to ferry American troops and supplies to Europe during World War I. Bill Milner / icehousemuseum.org

“As long as [the wreck is] out of water, anybody could see it,” Susan Kilcrease, curator of the Ice House Museum, tells the Houston Chronicle’s Ryan Nickerson. “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 museum posted some of Milner’s photos on Facebook and contacted the Texas Historical Commission. Amy Borgens, a maritime archaeologist with the commission, was able to shed some light on the mysterious wreck.

The vessels were built in nearby Beaumont, Texas, during World War I, as she tells Michael Marks of the Texas Standard. “There were actually nine shipyards in Texas that were building these ships under government contracts, and five of these were in Beaumont.”

According to the Library of Congress, these ships were operated by the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), which was responsible for acquiring, maintaining and operating merchant ships to ferry American soldiers and supplies to France. Congress established the corporation shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917.

In addition to Beaumont, the Texas cities of Orange, Houston and Rockport served as shipbuilding centers during World War I, writes the Texas Historical Commission on Facebook.

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

All told, nearly 40 EFC vessels were abandoned in rivers in East Texas. The region is “one of the largest collections of World War I vessel abandonment sites in the United States,” per the Texas Historical Commission.

Measuring roughly 282 feet long, the vessels were designed as steamships and had large wooden hulls. They were of the “Ferris type,” a design that was developed by naval architect Theodore Ferris.

The Texas Historical Commission urged curious onlookers to “play it safe and leave it alone” if they encounter this or other shipwrecks in the state’s waterways.

“Many sites are protected under state and federal laws, which include penalties and fines for those who disturb these wrecks,” writes the commission. “Additionally, the wrecks can be dangerous for amateur visitors who lack proper equipment and training.”

Droughts are known to reveal historical sites and artifacts—and sometimes even ships. Last summer, for example, Italy’s Po River dropped low enough to reveal a World War II barge. And in Serbia, World War II-era German warships emerged from the waters of the Danube River.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.