For years, she would emerge with hurricanes or November gales and haunt the beach at Fort Morgan, causing a sensation each time she did. The sea would eventually reclaim her skeleton and folks would forget about her.
These days the Rachel is up on dry beach but who knows how long she will remain on the shifting landscape of the Gulf of Mexico’s shoreline. Because of her close proximity to the mouth of Mobile Bay and its storied Civil War history, many who see her assume the wreck belongs to a blockade runner from that conflict.
But the Rachel’s history is much more mundane. Mike Bailey, historic site director for Fort Morgan, became a de facto Rachel expert even though the wrecked ship has nothing to do with his job documenting the fort’s history. He called the Rachel a “utilitarian” ship.
“She was a lumber schooner,” Bailey said. “They were like the tractor trailers of today.”
Bailey first encountered the Rachel during the 1990s after a hurricane exposed it. The wreck had been buried beneath the sand for years and largely forgotten. But newspaper accounts indicate it had been unearthed during the 1960s and 1970s, only to gradually be covered up again.
Bailey was called in to determine if it had a Civil War pedigree. He knows of at least three Civil War blockade runners running aground within six miles of Fort Morgan, about where the Rachel is located.
But upon examining the wreck, he quickly surmised the fittings and equipment looked too modern.
“There were things on it that you wouldn’t find on a Civil War ship,” Bailey said
He might have walked away from the wreck but its 1990s appearance made such a sensation that reporters from major news networks like CNN and Fox News came calling. People wanted to know about the Rachel so he learned what he could.
It’s not surprising people would have mistaken it for a blockade runner because few people realize how recently sailing vessels still carried cargo on the Gulf. The Rachel was built in the sunset of the days of sail in 1918 and ran aground during a storm in 1923, Bailey said.
The northern Gulf Coast, which was home to vast forests of longleaf pine, experienced a lumber boom between 1880 and 1920. But the area was largely wild and didn’t have much of a transportation network. Lumber companies needed a way to get their products out of the Panhandle wilds and to a market. Sailing vessels like the Rachel did the job until as recently as the 1930s.
After he appeared on CNN, Bailey got a call from an acquaintance. She told him he would soon hear from Ken De Angelo. De Angelo’s family had owned the shipyard that built the Rachel in Moss Point, Mississippi. The website Schooner Man lists its length at 138 feet from stem to stern.
“It was one of the bigger Biloxi schooners,” Bailey said.
De Angelo had seen Bailey on TV and called to let him know he had the ship’s plans. They got together and studied the blueprints, which revealed details that proved conclusively to Bailey the shipwreck on Fort Morgan was the Rachel.
In addition, Bailey talked to an eyewitness at the time who confirmed he had seen the Rachel run aground, and the Rachel was the wreck.
Apparently the Rachel had a crew of nine men, too few to optimally handle the ship. When the ship ran into a storm, the crew couldn’t control it. They dropped anchor in hopes of riding out the storm.
While the crew survived, the anchor didn’t hold and the storm surge pushed the schooner aground near the beach. When Bailey first saw the wreck, the ship’s anchor chain could still be seen trailing off into the Gulf.
Running aground wasn’t always fatal for ships, particularly on the soft sands of a Gulf of Mexico beach, Bailey said. They could often be refloated and any damage repaired. But if a storm surge pushed it too far into the shallows, nothing could be done.
“It was too heavy and too far in,” Bailey said. “They couldn’t get it afloat again with the equipment they had in that day.”
The owners had heavily insured the ship, perhaps for more that it was actually worth. They were glad to claim the insurance. The insurance company tried to sell it in place for salvage but had little luck. It stationed security guards on the ship for a while but at some point, the Rachel burned all the way down to the waterline.
Prohibition was the law of the land at the time. The small crew and the high insurance coverage have raised questions about exactly what the Rachel might have been carrying in her hold. Bailey said it’s fun to speculate but there’s no evidence she was a rum runner.
The Rachel’s career as a wreck has lasted much longer than its brief stint hauling cargo. Its appearance in the 1990s created such a stir that the crowds it attracted became a nuisance to the owners of the private property where she rests. Sightseers looted many of the ship’s remaining artifacts.
The county made an effort at preserving the Rachel by covering her up with sand. But today, the wreck is exposed again on private property, her plank bottom, keel and the rusting iron bolts that held her together a silent testimony to the waning days of wooden sailing vessels on the Gulf.