Spring has sprung and summer is on its way! During the next several months, thousands of visitors will be coming and going to and from the Island.
There are three ways to get to and exit Galveston Island: San Luis Pass Bridge, the Causeway, and the iconic Bolivar Ferry. No matter which path is utilized, visitors coming and going are sure to see some beautiful coastal vistas, complete with pelicans flying in formation, salt marshes and coastlines dotted with colorful waterfowl, as well as lazy sailboats, shrimp boats dragging their nets to get Gulf Gold and flocks of gulls hovering around the trawls, waiting for scrap or a free meal.
Just about anyone arriving or leaving on the ferry has seen the S.S. Selma, the infamous “cement ship” sitting calmly in the bay. Just off Pelican Island is an area known as Pelican Flats, and on March 9, 1922, a dredged 25-foot deep and 1500-foot-long trench along the bay floor became the permanent resting spot for the Selma.
Folks passing by the rush to the side of the ferry revealing the eerie structure, weathered and old, sticking its tattered head above the water, as if still trying to breathe. On any given sunny day, dolphins can be seen surfacing around the protruding hull, and various sea birds congregate and live in the above surface remains. The Selma is home to a large population of American oystercatchers and is often frequented by cormorants and fishing pelicans, which can be observed perched on the cement features.
So what is so great about a sunken ship in Galveston Bay?
It turns out that Selma has an interesting history and one that has landed it on the National Registry of Historic Places, as well as its own State historical marker telling the story.
With iron and steel being a scarce commodity during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson gave approval for the construction of 24 ships to be made of cement. Only twelve of the vessels were completed; the Selma, weighing 7500 tons was the largest. Built-in Mobile, Alabama by the F.F. Ley Co., and launched on June 28, 1919, the ship was quite a newsworthy and spectacular event. Named after the city of Selma, Alabama due to their tremendous wartime loan drive efforts, the vessel was a source of great pride and launched with high hopes of aiding in the war effort.
On that same day, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, and WWI came to an end. The S.S. Selma never saw wartime action and was destined to become an oil tanker operating in the Gulf of Mexico. Sadly, on May 31, 1920, the Selma struck a jetty in Tampico Bay, Mexico, rendering her unusable. The collision resulted in a 60-foot gash in the huge vessel. The Selma was towed to Galveston where attempts were made to patch the damaged wall of the hull. Lacking the knowledge and ability to work with cement patching under such conditions, the S.S. Selma was scuttled and towed to her prepared resting spot in the bay.
Over the years there has been a huge fascination with the resting vessel, especially for maritime researchers and history buffs. In the 1950s, a hermit took up residence on the structure and raised goats and chickens along the deck. The man and his animals were woven into the tales and lore of Galveston Island.
There have even been stories of strange lights and possible ghosts lingering about the ruins. Many boaters and fishermen come alongside the ruins for the sports fish that inhabit the “reef” of a wreck. It is not uncommon to observe small boats tied to the walls of the vessel and people enjoying a picnic on the weather-beaten deck. Curiosity seekers (some with spray paint!) find their way to the oddity, hoping to climb around and explore the “ghost ship.”
In 1992, A. Pat Daniels, retired editor of the Houston Chronicle and the Galveston Daily News, purchased the S.S. Selma in hopes of preserving the wreck and possibly developing a fishing pier, pleasure resort, or even an oyster farm. Through his efforts, the Selma gained more attention and eventually national recognition.
She may not have made a name for herself in WWI, but the Selma remains a fascinating piece of American history and sits just south of Houston, resting in Galveston Bay. The next time you are riding the ferry, take a few minutes to look, remember and honor this true piece of history.