GULF SHORES, Ala. – The pounding surf and currents from Hurricane Isaac on a remote spit of Alabama shoreline has again revealed the wreckage of a schooner that ran aground in 1923, delighting curious tourists and locals.
The schooner Rachel and her eight-man crew ran aground near historic Fort Morgan on Oct. 17, 1923, during a tropical storm. The men were headed to Mobile after a stop in Cuba. While the men aboard the Rachel survived, others on nearby schooners weren't so lucky.
"A tropical storm much like Tropical Storm Isaac that we just went through was hitting the Gulf Coast and a large number of these schooners were out in the Gulf. One was sunk just off Perdido Key and the crew was lost," said Michael Bailey, historian for the Fort Morgan Historical society.
Because the Rachel was so far onshore, its owners could not salvage her, Bailey said. The owners tried selling the wreck with no luck. Later, the Rachel was burned. Bailey isn't sure who burned the ship or ship or why.
Shifting sands and tides eventually buried the Rachel until Hurricane Camille struck the Gulf Coast in 1969 and part of the ship was exposed before she was recovered.
Bailey glimpsed The Rachel for the first time when she was unearthed by Hurricane Frederick in 1979. He began to seriously delve into her history in 2004 after she was unearthed by Hurricane Ivan.
"I saw 20th-century features and thought it could have been from early 1900s," he said. "I found a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shipwreck study that had a description of The Rachel and learned it was built in Mosspoint, Miss., at the De Angelo Shipyard," he said. Bailey found a relative of the ship's builder who gave him copies of the ship's plans and photographs of the ship.
Although The Rachel was a common ship for her time, the wreck provides a unique look at what life was like along the Gulf Coast almost 90 years ago, Bailey said. He likened schooners of that era to the semi-trucks that fill interstate highways today. The schooners supplied many of the region's industrial and commercial needs. Bailey believes The Rachel had a load of lumber of when she ran aground.
According to local lore, she might also have had alcohol on board with the hope of making a little extra money from the voyage.
"That's not impossible," Bailey said. "She was coming from Cuba and it was during Prohibition."
Hurricane Isaac uncovered more of The Rachel than has been seen in a long time. On a recent afternoon, beachgoers crawled through her charred remains and posed for photographs.
The Rachel might be intentionally recovered with sand because of the danger from scrapes, cuts and bruises her rusted iron skelton and splintered wood poses to tourists, Bailey said. In the meantime, people like John Lamb of Richmond, Ky., are making the most of her reappearance.
Lamb, who was vacationing in the area, took pictures of his young son by the wreck as he thoughtfully explored every inch of The Rachel.
"I think the most interesting thing is that, being from Kentucky, we don't ever see anything like this. We thought we'd come check it out," he said.
Jim Fletcher of Fort Worth, Texas, has a vacation home on the beach and has seen The Rachel after previous storms. Fletcher was excited to find more of the ship exposed after Isaac. He tugged at a orange-tinged and barnacle-encrusted rope to pull more of it from underneath sand before taking picture.
"History is a very fleeting thing and I think you should take advantage of it when you have the opportunity before it is gone forever," he said. "Who knows how long this will be here, maybe it will be covered again and we might not see it in this state for another 100 years."