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 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.