Vessel Made of Concrete: SS Selma

SS Selma

Just east of Pelican Island in Galveston’s waters, the unique SS Selma is slowly sinking to the ocean’s floor. What makes the SS Selma so unusual is that she is one of twelve ships constructed from concrete toward the end of World War I. Her construction was part of a war effort experiment to utilize concrete vessels as a result of steel shortages. Working off the principle that a ship with a concrete hull floats as long as the weight of the water it displaces is greater than its own weight, inventive thinkers believed concrete vessels would be cheaper to build and maintain while at the same time were fireproof and immune to corrosion. Then-President Woodrow Wilson green-lighted a project for the construction of 24 ships. Only twelve were completed, and the SS Selma was the largest of the concrete fleet.

But the SS Selma did not serve in the war. She launched (via a sideways maneuver that was a first for a ship of her size in the Gulf) from Mobile, Alabama, in 1919, on the same day of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Thus, the Selma was destined for a very different future than her builders expected. The 7500 ton reinforced concrete tanker was placed into service as oil tanker. She delivered cargoes to several ports in the Gulf of Mexico, but her voyages were soon cut short in May 1920 when the vessel hit a jetty in Tampico, Mexico. The impact ripped a 60-foot hole in her hull. She was towed to Galveston for repairs, but the landside crew, lacking experience and knowledge of concrete hull repair, did not meet with success. Neither were attempts to sell the rare vessel.

Officials opted to scuttle the ship in 1922. Since sinking the ship in the shallow waters of Galveston Bay would have proved a hazard to marine traffic, a channel 1500 feet in length and 24 feet deep was dredged just off Pelican Island to provide the SS Selma a final resting place. The spot is near the “marine battleground”, the nautical site of the Battle of Galveston during the Civil War.

Although damaged and immobile, the Selma would still serve her country in a surprising way. Atlas Obscura, a website that features unusual travel trips and related stories, vividly describes her role in a Prohibition era raid:

“At that time Galveston was plagued by two groups of bootleggers who were suspected to be key members of a smuggling ring that held the market on the forbidden booze throughout the western Gulf Coast. When Federal agents managed to seize their liquor cargoes, they used the steamer of the retired ship to destroy the contraband. In just one bust, over 11,000 bottles of liquor with a street value of $91,000 were taken to the wreck and smashed in the hold of the vessel. In all, nearly $1,000,000 worth of booze was shattered in those concrete walls.”

The SS Selma has captured the imagination of residents and visitors, prompted a goodly share of local lore – what dangerous sea life lurked in its sunken holds and holes? — and roused much affection over the years. Somewhere around 1946, the Selma became home to a hermit, Clesmey N. LeBlanc, aka “Frenchy” to the locals. Check the Galveston Monthly Magazine Facebook page to read more about the quirky LeBlanc.

Speculative plans to use it as a fishing pier or an oyster farm never panned out. Scientists studying the properties of concrete construction found it useful. It is easily spotted by passengers on the Boliver Ferry, making for some extra site-seeing during the ride and a fun photo opp for artifact enthusiasts.

In 1992, A. Pat Daniels, former city editor of the Galveston Daily News and retired copy editor of the Houston Chronicle, purchased the Selma. Richard W Steiger, in his “Reviving Memories” article published on the Crystal Beach website (www.crystalbeach.com/selma.htm), describes Daniels dedication to the old concrete tanker: “He has exhibited an uncommon love for the old girl, so much that he throws a birthday party for her every year with much fanfare, inviting many of the local Texas luminaries and a few outsiders, myself included.”

Steiger attributes the Selma’s status as a State Archeological Landmark by the Texas Antiquities Committee, her designation as the Official Flagship of the Texas “Army”, and her listing on National Register of Historic Places to Daniels unflagging efforts to preserve her history.

Ownership of the Selma resides in the hands a shell corporation formed by the late A. Pat Daniels and the late William “Bill” Cox. The corporation is currently headed by Bill’s son, Ken, who serves as its president.

  • Date July 9, 2019
  • Tags 2019 June