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Mystery Shipwreck found near Fort Morgan

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Mystery Shipwreck found near Fort Morgan

 

On December 6, 2013, Maegan Bratton and her daughter drove from Gulf Shores, Alabama to Mobile Bay to hunt seashells. As it turns out they found something totally unexpected. Near Fort Morgan (Civil War photo shown above), they found a large section of a shipwreck that had washed ashore or eroded out of the beach.

Maegan later said “We didn’t find any shells but we found this amazing boat. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I took so many pictures because I didn’t know how long it would be there and I wanted people to see it and find out what, where and why about the boat. It is the best treasure I have found EVER.”

Large piece of moss covered wooden wreckage at waterline of beach.

Unidentified shipwreck that washed ashore one mile from Fort Morgan in December of 2013.
Photo by Meagan Bratton

It turns out the wreckage had actually been discovered before. According to Justin Stickler, speaking on behalf of the Alabama Historical Commission, this wreckage was first discovered and recorded by archaeologist David Cremer in the fall of 2012, while Cremer was employed by the National Parks Service during the BP MC252 Oil Spill Response. Stickler says that very little was then exposed and that their initial assessment was that it looked like it might be part of a barge. In part because of the publicity about the wreck brought on by Meagan Bratton and others, Stickler returned to the site on January 8, 2014  and says it now “looks completely different,”  but he is convinced it is the same wreckage. He gave the position of the wreckage as N. 30°13’28.5” W. 88°00’38.7”.

Stickler asked me to remind people that it is not only an officially recorded archaeological site (#1BA669),  it is on federal land (Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge) and disturbing it or damaging it would be a federal offense and could result in criminal prosecution. In other words, you can look but don’t carve your initials in it or try to take part of it home with you.

I think its a great discovery. The wreckage appears to be part of an iron-fastened, triple decked ship from the 1800s. The shipwreck’s identity remains a mystery.

As an underwater archaeologist, I have looked carefully at quite a few of the images that have been published about this extremely interesting wreck.

I suspect that the row of beveled holes were air vents. A couple of larger diameter holes seen in several of the photos appear to have been ports (openings) for light, but I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence that they were fitted with any sort of covering or glass.

In one of the photos there appears to be one side of an opening for a loading port or doorway through the hull. I suspect the opening was an alteration made after the vessel was built, as the edge of the opening cuts through the middle of an “air vent.” An iron plate on the board at the foot of the opening could have been a tread or reinforcing to protect the board beneath it from damage when using a heavy removable ramp or gangway from the boat to an adjacent dock.

Although I can’t identify a particular decade for the wreck, nothing that I have seen contradicts local historian/author Harry Davis’ theory that the wreckage is that of a schooner or brig from the Civil War. In fact, I think the wreckage could easily date from that time period.

Because of the heavy wooden deck knees (90° wooden braces, used to support the decks where they joined the inside of the ship’s hull) and the distances between them, I am convinced that the wreckage is from a large, multi-decked cargo vessel, but I have seen nothing that tells me anything as to the vessel’s rig (whether rigged as a schooner, ship, brig, bark or other).

As mentioned previously, at least one government archaeologist or historian thought the wreck dated from around 1900 and described it as a barge. After hearing that it might be a barge, some people might assume that means it is unimportant. But that is not necessarily correct. The term “barge” just means the vessel was flat bottomed, and says nothing about whether it was self-powered, rigged or unrigged. As to the time period being circa 1900, I have no way to really comment on it. Perhaps he has seen something that I haven’t. In any case, I am not sure that he is correct that it is a barge. All of the wreckage that I have seen (in photos and video) seems to be from one side of the vessel rather than part of the bottom, so I have no way of knowing whether it was truly flat bottomed or not. Even if it was flat bottomed, that wouldn’t rule it out as a schooner, as many barges were schooner rigged, and they certainly made multi-decked “barges.”

What one person has described as a keelson, which would be part of the ship’s bottom, looks to me more like a longitudinal support for a removable deck above the vessel’s lower cargo hold, as it is braced by heavy knees only on one side.

Although it could be from almost any time period, there were a number of vessels (some steam powered, others sail powered) that were scuttled as obstructions, lost by accident or sunk through enemy action in this general area during the Civil War. Of course, this wreckage could have drifted for a considerable distance from its original location. 

Sun sinking over horizon behind beached wreckage of a wooden ship.

Sunset over Fort Morgan shipwreck. Photo by Michele Stancil

I hope that an effort will be made to locate more of the wreckage and any cargo the vessel may have carried. IMPORTANT: A further discussion of what it could be can be found after the slideshows.

For related articles and more photos, please see:
Gulf Coast News: Author identifies Fort Morgan shipwreck as Civil War schooner
WKRG: Shipwreck uncovered near Fort Morgan
Photo Gallery: Fort Morgan Shipwreck, 12/20/20113
Local15TV: Shipwreck at Fort Morgan

Two slideshows follow:

This slideshow consists of pictures of the wreckage taken by Maegan Bratton of Gulf Shores, Alabama.

The following slideshow is made up of photos by Jeff Jacobs, who’s hometown is Mobile, Alabama but who I understand now lives in Rockwell, Texas. Jeff reports the location of the wreckage as on the beach near the 1 mile marker (Highway 180) at the entrance of Ft. Morgan State Park. He says the approximate GPS coordinates are: 30.224473 -88.011410.

Further Discussion

Although I am convinced that the wreckage is the remains of a quite sizable vessel (with at least two and possibly three decks above the cargo hold), I have yet to see anything that gives me a specific time period for its construction. Overall it appears to me to be fairly typical 19th century construction. If it was 20th century, I would have expected iron bracing and/or composite construction (wood hull over iron frames), but, since some shipyards were still building older style, wooden framed vessels well into the 20th century, the lack of steel braces and frames doesn’t rule out 20th century construction.

A reader identifying himself as Jolly Mon wrote The Islander that the “wreckage may be that of a seaplane barge sunk east of Mobile Bay entrance sometime prior to 1920. This wreck is listed in the current NOAA “wrecks and obstructions” database as well as the Notice to Mariners of 1920. It is listed as being sunk 292 degrees 4.8 miles from Mobile Beacon Light.” Although I don’t believe it is a seaplane barge for the reasons stated below, Jolly Mon’s suggestion is definitely interesting and should be explored further. And because there were quite a few ships that were scuttled, run aground or otherwise wrecked in this immediate area during the Civil War, Harry Davis theory that it is wreck from that time period should also be considered, as should other theories. The important thing is to keep an open mind.

Based on measurements of the vessel’s deck heights as furnished to me by Harry Davis, the maximum clearance between decks would have been about 6′. Because of the limited clearance between decks, it seems unlikely to me that this vessel could have been used to house seaplanes. However, I again want to stress we only have part of the vessel and WWI seaplane tenders were sometimes simply converted merchant vessels.

I am not that familiar with Mobile Bay and approaches. Can someone please tell me how far the seaplane barge’s reported location is from where this wreckage washed up? It sounds like they are miles apart, making it the source of the wreckage even less likely.

While I am asking questions, can anyone tell me whether the mossy growth visible in the photos of the beached wreckage is typical of growth for the local Gulf waters? I am not a marine biologist, but, if I saw the same mossy looking growth (algae) on wreckage on a barrier island here in the Carolinas, I would suspect that the wreckage had just recently drifted out of a river or estuary (where there was brackish water). I am also puzzled by the seeming lack of other marine organisms that I would expect on exposed portions of a wreck in high salinity water as would be found in the Gulf. I know that a covering with sand and mud can prevents the attachment and growth of such organisms, but then how is the extensive Algae explained? Can anyone with the appropriate knowledge shed some light on this? Since I first wrote this I have been told by Dr. Ruth Carmichael at the Department of Marines Sciences, University of South Alabama, that “the green algae looks like an Enteromorpha (a form of sea lettuce)… Now probably classified as an Ulva sp. Extremely common, fast growing, abundant due to its ability to rapidly take up forms of DIN (disolved inorganic nitrogen) and out compete other spp (Latin abbreviation for multiple species). This attribute, however, also means it will be hard to use this badboy to link the wreck to a particular location or time.” What that tells me is that the algae could have easily formed since the wreck was first observed in 2012. I have also learned that the reason such algae is more often seen in estuaries is they frequently have higher concentrations of nitrogen from fertilizer runoff than gulf or ocean waters.

For articles relating to another wreck (believed to be the Rachel sunk in 1923) near Fort Morgan, see: 
Wreck of sailing ship reappears at Fort Morgan beach after Hurricane Isaac (photo gallery)
ABC video & article: Mystery of Shipwreck Uncovered by Hurricane Isaac Solved
The Blaze video & article: See the Disappearing Wreck that Four Different Hurricanes Have Uncovered
YouTube Video: Shipwreck Fort Morgan, Alabama
Schooner Man: Schooner Rachel

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