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British steamer runs aground off Delray Beach, nine drown

For decades, it was known only as “the Delray wreck.”

Nestled in silt just 200 yards from resort hotels and open-air restaurants, the wreck is known mostly by local divers. They’ve seen the rusting skeleton scattered across several hundred feet; visible when the ocean floor allowed, buried and out of sight when the currents banish it. But they didn’t know its name.

It was a ghost ship.

Now, a century after a hurricane sent it to the bottom, a historic marker, a new book, and a ceremony scheduled this week tell the story of the Inchulva, and the nine men who perished on it.

In 1903, six years before Palm Beach County was born, before the railroad came through, and before hurricanes were named and tracked by forecasters, a powerful storm struck the region on Sept. 11 and 12. At the time, the 386-foot masted Inchulva was steaming off the coast, headed for Norfolk, Va., then on to Hamburg, Germany.

The ship had acquired mariners’ bad luck: it had changed its name. Christened the Alberta in 1892, it was sold six years later and got its new moniker.

Owned by a shipping outfit in the British port of Liverpool, it had sailed from Barry, Wales on July 26. It docked at Galveston for three weeks, loading 7,000 tons of wheat, 150 tons of lumber, 180 bales of cotton, 963 sacks of grain, 1,840 sacks of cottonseed and 150 bales of istle, a plant used to make paper. When the ship left the Texas port city on Sept. 6, it was light 10 crew members who had deserted.

Shortly after rounding the tip of Florida, the ship came abreast of the Delray Beach coastline on the evening of Sept. 11. The storm was on it.

“By noon the hurricane was fearful and the ship not steering,” Capt. G.W. Davis would write later. The storm by then was a minimal hurricane, with sustained winds of about 85 mph.

Davis ordered the crew to set both anchors about 5 p.m. But before the anchors could take hold, the ship struck the ocean bottom and the hull split.

The captain and 11 men crouched near the bow as the storm raged on. A large wave collapsed the stern and nine sailors were lost – including the chief engineer, 47-year-old William Smith. The crew did not know how far offshore they were.

The captain presumed the ship had stuck on a shoal 10 to 15 miles from land. By dawn of Sept. 12 they saw they were only 200 yards from shore.

The sailors staggered ashore at Delray Beach, then a settlement of only about 150 people. They were taken to the Chapman House hotel, where they stayed for about a week. One man whose body was carried by current north to Boynton Beach was buried in the local cemetery. Eight others were buried in a mass grave on the ridge near what is now State Road A1A and Casuarina Road. The surviving crew members were paid and sent home.

On Sept. 19, at the British Vice Consulate in Jacksonville, a Naval Court of Inquiry concluded unanimously “that the loss of the ship was unavoidable and that everything was done by the Captain and crew to save the vessel before she struck and to save the cargo afterwards and exonerate the Captain from all blame.”

The ship had broken into five distinct pieces that now rest 25 feet below the surface. Because of constantly shifting sand, different parts are exposed at different times.

Linda Reeves had become curious about the wreck after she and her then-husband, Nelson, moved from New Orleans in the late 1970s. The Natchez, Miss., native is a freelance writer and photographer, specializing in underwater work, and has written three diving guidebooks. She’s now an editorial assistant at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s Delray Beach office.

The couple spent 10 years digging in libraries and maritime museums. Linda Reeves found the captain’s log in an English museum. She has written a book and the ship and its last voyage.

On Sept. 11, 1990, the 87th anniversary of the wreck, about 75 people, including officials from the British Consulate in Miami, presided over the dedication of the marker. Reeves had gotten approval from city, state and federal agencies, and helped raise about $2,500 in donations for the marker.

Across the ocean, Keith H. Jackson of Barrow-in-Furness, England, the grandson of William Smith, the Inchulva’s chief engineer, knew little about his grandfather. That was until 2001, when his sister found some old letters in a trunk in the attic of the home of Jackson’s dead grandmother.

Until then, Jackson knew only that his grandfather died at sea near the Bahamas. The last of the letters to Smith’s wife, Margaret, had been posted in Galveston, three weeks before the loss of the Inchulva. She and their two children, 10 and 8, were to meet Smith at Hamburg. Smith’s widow never remarried. Jackson, now in his 80s, researched the story with Reeves.

On Thursday, people will gather at the historic marker on State Road A1A to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Inchulva and to honor the memory of Smith and eight others who died far from their homes.


Artist’s rendering of the Inchulva (Palm Beach Post file photo courtesy of Stillwell Associates). Though a popular dive site for years, most never knew the ship’s name or history. See the Stillwell Delray Wreck website for more renderings and maps showing the locations of the pieces of the wreck.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg and Flashback blog September 10, 2003 at 12:30 pm.

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